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Antigua: In the Land of the Maya and Volcanoes

Below is an article that I wrote for V!VA Travel Guides, published on their website and in their print guidebook. It’s about the city that has been my home for four years.

Also check out my article on International Living’s website Living in Antigua, Guatemala: An Expat’s View.

1. The city center. The cathedral and central plaza (Parque Central) against the backdrop of Agua volcano.

In a highland valley some 1500 meters above sea level, the charming colonial city of Antigua lies, surrounded by three volcanoes. It’s tickled by the skirts of the extinct Volcán de Agua to the south and is within the gaze of two (one dormant and one active) volcanoes to the southwest, the double-ridged peak of Volcán Acatenango and the smoking Volcán Fuego.

2. Antigua sheltering in the folds of Agua volcano.

3. Volcanoes Fuego and Acatenango at sunset.

Once the seat of the Spanish colonial authority in Guatemala, Antigua oversaw a vast area stretching from southern Mexico to the impenetrable Darién Gap. The city is officially named La Muy Leal y Muy Noble Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala, (“The Very loyal and Very Noble Knight’s City of Santiago of Guatemala”) but shortened to La Antigua Guatemala, or simply Antigua.

Nowadays, Antigua’s population stands at about 47,000 and its status as a world heritage site has preserved and restored its colonial architecture and old-world appeal. The local government only approves certain shades to paint the exterior walls of buildings and prohibits the display of signs or notices that are out of character with the rest of the city. Cobblestone streets are splashed with colorful house and shop fronts and old churches and crumbling ruins are dotted throughout.

4. Antigua's landmark arch with Agua Volcano peering beneath it.

5. Agua volcano looming over the colorful streets.

6. Distinctive La Merced church.

Due to its location, beauty, history, variety of cultural activities and outdoor excursions both inside Antigua and close by, it has become a thriving landing-place for globetrotters. The mixture of locals, travelers and expats gives it a certain worldly air.

Get a birds-eye view of the city and surrounding volcanoes and villages from the cross on the hill, Cerro de la Cruz, to the north. For security reasons it’s always advisable to go with a Tourist Police escort.

7. Antigua at the hemline of Agua volcano's skirts. View from Cerro de la Cruz.

If your time is limited, take a city walking tour of the main sights, ruins and museums. Wander through the handicrafts market to pick up souvenirs and take a look at how jade is transformed into jewelry and masks in one of the store factories. Get out-of-town to visit a coffee plantation and trek up to the edge of a flowing river of red-hot lava on Volcán Pacaya.

8. The central fountain in Parque Central overlooked by the cathedral.

9. The carved stone fountain adorned with mermaids spouting water from their bare breasts is the focal point of Parque Central.

10. The main tourist drag, the 5th Avenida. Lined with shops, restaurants and bars, spanned by the iconic Arco de Catalina and watched over by Agua volcano.

11. The ruins of San José el Viejo.

12. Santa Clara ruins.

13. Exquisite, handmade huipiles in the handicrafts market.

14. A jade factory inside a jewelry store.

15. Coffee beans.

16. Within arm's reach of red-hot lava on Volcán Pacaya.

Many travelers hang out here a while to recoup energy and recharge on the good eats. There is no shortage of restaurants in Antigua. Grab tasty bites from street venders, comedores (eateries) or restaurants serving cuisine from most corners of the world.  There are also plenty of bars to wash it down after.

17. Delicious street food.

18. International restaurant.

19. Street candy stall.

20. Fire artist performing during a fund-raising event in a popular bar.

Scores are lured by the well-earned reputation of the city as one of the choice spots to study Spanish and there are hordes of language schools of all calibers vying for the bucks.

21. This high-end Spanish school has individual classrooms in a beautiful garden overlooked by ruins. Many of the schools have ample courtyards and gardens to study in.

Volunteering opportunities are endless both in Antigua and in outlying areas with NGO organizations and projects all focusing on different social, educational, health and environmental issues. Many students invest their afternoons donating whatever skills they can offer.

22. The KIDS Restaurant is a T.E.S.S. Unlimited project to help kids learn English, develop social skills and learn to work as part of a team.

Forever a popular place to learn salsa, there are qualified instructors running classes for all levels in dance studios around town.

23. A restaurant based salsa studio.

There are infinite options for laying your head at night. The streets of Antigua are brimming with hostels, guesthouses and hotels of every description and for every pocket from penny-pinching to luxury.

24. Guatemalan style hostel terrace.

25. Luxury boutique hotel.

Tourism is the lifeblood of the local economy and language schools are one of the major employers along with hotels and restaurants. The production of typical handicrafts and fabrics and the cultivation of coffee, macadamia nuts and veggies are other big income earners.

High season is June through August and November through April. On July 25 the streets come alive with colorful parades for the Day of Santiago, the city’s patron saint.

26. A desfile or parade to celebrate Antigua's patron saint's day.

27. Trumpeters sweating under the strain and heat.

28. This desfile marched and thundered straight past my house.

Antigua is at its most crowded during Semana Santa (Holy Week) when thousands of people engulf the city to participate in and observe the ceremonies. Solemn religious processions slowly trudge the streets trampling in their path the beautifully elaborate and artistic alfombras (carpets) of dyed sawdust and flowers. Not to be missed for visitors in Guatemala at this time. Accommodation during Holy Week is filled to bursting and needs to be booked months in advance.

29. Procession during Semana Santa.

30. Finished stained sawdust and pine needle alfombras waiting for the procession to pass.

31. The 5th Avenida during Semana Santa. Making intricate sawdust alfombras in the path of a procession.

25 responses

  1. Abi

    What a great, colourful display. I’m particularly intrigued by the hot lava…

    March 14, 2011 at 11:26 pm

    • Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. I don’t think there are many places in the world where you can get within arm’s reach of red hot lava!

      March 15, 2011 at 9:15 am

  2. Yet another fantastic post! I love your colorful pictures and hope to someday visit! Great article…keep them coming!

    March 15, 2011 at 12:52 am

    • Thanks so much! Let me know if you visit, I’d love to show you around! It’s definitely not off the beaten path but it’s well worth a visit.

      March 15, 2011 at 9:13 am

  3. I adore Antigua. It’s so bright and colourful; well captured in your beautiful photos.

    March 17, 2011 at 2:50 pm

    • Thank you! It’s such a photogenic place and there’s always something new to photograph no matter how long you’re here for.

      March 18, 2011 at 2:06 am

  4. Beautiful images capturing what Antigua is all about.. awww how I miss it!..

    Wishing you more sucess and publications..

    Nat

    March 21, 2011 at 1:01 am

    • Aw Nat, thank you!!! Antigua is missing you too that’s for sure. Good luck with everything and I hope you get working on your jewelry again very soon. I’m now off to check if you’ve made any recent blog entries! Lucy

      March 21, 2011 at 1:19 am

  5. Caron Tate

    Wow! I am packing my bags and coming to join you… what fabulous photos!

    April 1, 2011 at 7:16 pm

    • Thank you Caron! It’s an incredible place for photography. Let me know if you’re headed this way!!!

      April 1, 2011 at 10:22 pm

  6. Estupendo, tus fotos de maravilla, creo que ya yo adicto a tu blog…
    La magia a veces está en el lugar menos pensado¡
    Un saludo…
    C.

    April 6, 2011 at 9:33 am

    • Muchas gracias otra vez cruz del sur. Me alegra mucho que disfrutes mi blog!

      April 6, 2011 at 9:30 pm

  7. hey Lucy, how I miss you and Antigua! Your photos have really taken me back to those good old days we spent together, amazing shots! Miss you and love you much, Nellie 🙂

    April 19, 2011 at 2:07 am

    • Thank you so much Nell! Those were great times! I miss you too but hope to see you again soon somewhere else in this small world. Much love to you and Alberto, Lucy

      April 19, 2011 at 4:47 am

  8. Tom Fitzgerald

    Hi,
    Great coverage of Antigua. My babe and I are heading there for a vacation in preview before we decide to move there.

    We hear that Guatemala can be somewhat dangerous, what’s your take on that?

    Thanks
    Tom

    August 16, 2011 at 3:27 pm

    • Hi Tom,

      Thanks! It’s definitely a good idea to come and visit before deciding to move here. Guatemala does have safety issues but security is pretty good in places where tourists frequent such as Antigua and during daylight hours in populated areas of tourist destinations you’re unlikely to encounter problems. However in crowded places you do need to look out for pickpockets and bag slashers. Like anywhere it’s not advisable to walk around out of the city center late at night and I’d always advise taking a registered taxi then. In Guatemala City on the other hand there are much higher risks and it’s somewhere I go only if I need to.

      Take a look at what I wrote about safety in Antigua for V!VA Travel Guides in 2009: http://www.vivatravelguides.com/central-america/guatemala/antigua-and-around/antigua/antigua-overview/safety-in-and-around-antigua/

      I think if you take the usual precautions when traveling you should lessen the risk of problems.

      I hope you have a great trip!
      Lucy

      August 16, 2011 at 4:39 pm

  9. Deborah Pearl

    Hi Lucy great to see your enjoying life, travel and photography still. Your photos may have given me some inspiration for my love of painting. Im currently using water colours, but want to start using some oil paints a friend gave to me, as I think they would cover the depth and vibrancy more.

    take care
    Deb’s

    December 1, 2011 at 3:50 am

    • Hi Debs, are you the Debs I knew back in Welney? If so, it’s lovely to hear from you and a huge surprise to see a comment from you on my blog! I’m so happy my photos have inspired you to paint! Let me know if you’re the Debs from my past. Lucy

      December 1, 2011 at 11:57 am

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