Let’s say you had the chance to name a city, what would you call it? Would you name it after yourself? Name it something quirky and original? In Guatemala, though a land of many myths and legends, cities seemed to be named via a more literal route. From the current capital – Guatemala City – you can take a quick bus to the former capital city – La Antigua (literally: the old one). Nowadays, the city is mainly referred to as Antigua Guatemala.
Though the matter-of-fact naming style is at odds with the mystique of Guatemala, we promise the country’s most famous destination lives up to its name. The historic city centre with its gorgeous churches and the captivating surrounding nature will charm you.
Read on to find out how this former capital got its name and why a visit here might just be the highlight of your Central America trip…
The history of “Old Guatemala“
You might still be wondering about the city’s name Antigua Guatemala. But why exactly is there a city in Guatemala called “Old Guatemala”? To answer that, let us guide you through a bit of the turbulent history of this Central American state.
When the Spanish started their bloody arrival in what is now northern Guatemala in 1524, Tecpán was built atop the ruined city of Iximché, and was to serve as the capital of the region. Three years later, the Spanish moved the government to Ciudad Vieja (literally: old city – in keeping with the trend!). In 1541, a mudslide reached the city and forced the inhabitants to flee. The search for a new seat for the government began. The Spanish conquistadors founded the modern city under the snappy name of La Muy Noble y Leal Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Goathemala. Unfortunately, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are not uncommon in this area, and so the third capital could not be held for too long either. While Antigua was rebuilt and began to prosper once more, the government scarpered 45 km south to the plain of Ermita. Here, they founded the current capital, Guatemala City, in 1773.
Meanwhile, the old capital turned to tourism. Nowadays, tourism is the beating heart of economy in Antigua Guatemala. Everything from accommodation to restaurants, supermarkets and travel agencies is on offer. This international industry also means that Antigua Guatemala is significantly safer than other Guatemalan cities, such as the capital. Numerous reputable shuttle bus providers offer affordable journeys straight from the international airport of the capital straight to Antigua. We highly recommend you skip Guatemala City and hop over to Antigua as your first stop in this wonderful country.
Top Sites in Antigua Guatemala
In addition to alluring Mayan sites, Antigua has a particular colonial charm. No matter which street corner you walk along, a certain flair of bygone imperial days will be your travel companion. All of Antigua Guatemala’s monuments are within walking distance from each other. Spend one or two days exploring the city centre in all its glory – the entire area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and rightfully so.
While history is alive in the aesthetic alleys of Antigua, the sense of passing time is also perceptible. In past times, the city could easily keep up with Lima or Mexico City with its architectural style and importance for the Spanish colonies. Due to its geography, however, the area has been plagued by natural disasters for years. With its unstable economy and the aftershock of the pandemic, Guatemala has not yet been able to get fully back on its feet.
What you shouldn’t miss, though, is the city centre with its numerous churches. A pay-as-you-feel walking tour is the perfect way to learn about the history of the city from a local. There are also several dance schools, bars, and language schools throughout the city – should you get bored of all the sightseeing.
Antigua Guatemala City Centre
As in many South American cities, the main square is the geographical and cultural heart of Antigua Guatemala. The Plaza Mayor in Antigua is defined by the mesmerising, pastel-coloured buildings such as the Cathedral of San José, the National Palace, or the City Hall. The best thing to do is strolling through the Parque Central next door and watch the street artists. Maybe even treat yourself to one of the many appetising local street food delicacies…
We highly recommend a visit to the chocolate museum in the main square. Take your pick from their choice of workshops and walk away with a bag of your own handcrafted treats, a belly full of delicious Guatemalan chocolate-based drinks, and a brain bursting with new knowledge!
A few streets away, you’ll find the most famous sight of all: the Santa Catalina Arch. With its distinctive clock and yellow pigment against the quaint cobblestones and the looming volcano in the background, it makes for a great photo opportunity. Right by the arch, you will find a cavernous hall selling all sorts of traditional Guatemalan clothes, wooden curiosities, and dolls. Afterwards, why not treat yourself at one of the street’s superb bars and restaurants? Check out Restaurante Fridas for mouth-watering Mexican specialities and cocktails. Just a stone’s throw away, you’ll find Tabacos y Vinos, where glasses of wine get cheaper the more you buy!
If you like admiring the fascinating architecture of churches, then Antigua Guatemala is the right place for you. The former capital’s cityscape has numerous churches, cathedrals, and chapels. We can’t possibly name them all, but be prepared to see at least one crucifix on every corner.
Besides the cathedral in the main square, we recommend you visit the churches of La Merced, San Francisco, and San Pedro. Each of these colossal structures is still a place of worship. Overflowing with relics and opulent ornaments, each church is a small work of art on its own.
The many parks and green spaces within the city are also worth mentioning. Many of the chapels and monasteries have beautiful exteriors with impressive fountains, balconies, and water basins.
The many abandoned churches and ruins in the city also shouldn’t be missed. The Convento de las Capuchinas is a former monastery, and you definitely need to take in the magnificent courtyard gardens and the “Tower of Seclusion” (Torre de Retiro). The churches La Concepción and Santo Domingo are former places of work for nuns and monks and can be admired from outside. Santa Cruz, Nuestra Señora del Carmen, and La Recolección should be added to your must-see list. The ruins are not only for history buffs – everyone will be taken in by their unique atmosphere.
If the city should ever seem too small for you, nature is on its doorstep. The surrounding landscape is characterised by the three volcanoes Agua (water), Acatenango and Fuego (fire). The latter is still active. Intrepid explorers can go on a two-days, one-night hike up Acatenango and witness Fuego erupting up close. Backpackers give mixed review regarding the difficulty of this hike – at the very least, the altitude and thin air will be a challenge! If you don’t fancy pushing your limits, you can always opt for an ATV tour across the volcanic landscape.
Further out, you will find one of the backbones of Central American economy. Ever considered where your morning cup comes from? In one of the numerous coffee plantations around Antigua Guatemala, you can learn all about the history and production of the export success.
Your Onward Journey
Guatemala’s unique climate allows you to travel there almost all year round. The most popular season is the dry season, which runs from November to April. Rainy season is also a doable alternative, as the showers are normally pretty regular and dry quickly in the humid climate. That being said, September and October are the least favourable options for tourists. In fact, locals call September septhambre (meaning hunger in Spanish) as the income from tourism is so low this month.
Our recommendation is to come straight to Antigua Guatemala if you land at Guatemala City airport. Antigua is not only a dream destination itself, but also a great starting point for any Guatemala trip. A visit to Tikal or Flores is best done by plane, as the twelve-hour bus journey can be hot and difficult.
Many tourists choose to live on the wild side and try out the local chicken buses. So-called because they are used to transport livestock to market, the chicken buses run sporadically and don’t always stop at every destination – so it’s best to know some Spanish if you want to try to navigate them! We recommend shuttle buses for longer journeys. In just a few hours you can reach stunning destinations like Quetzaltenango, Lake Atitlan and Semuc Champey. The neighbouring countries of Mexico, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador are also easily accessible by road.
Antigua Guatemala is a must when backpacking Central America. Christian churches, Mayan ruins, and natural highlights within and outside of the city walls make for a magical encounter.
It is relatively easy to see Guatemala’s unique history. All you have to do is visit the country’s four capitals: Guatemala City, Ciudad Vieja, Tecpán and Antigua. However, if you can only visit one of these destinations, we definitely advise you to visit Antigua Guatemala. It has not lost any splendour to the earthquakes, despite having aged just a little. As we said, no name could be more apt for the city – and yet this old destination is still an absolute dream for backpackers.