This Ancient Town Is Proving To The World That We Need To Add Guatemala To Our Bucket List ASAP
With its stunning architecture and wild natural setting, this former colonial capital is among Central America’s must-visit destinations.
Nestled in the forested hills of southern Guatemala, the small city of Antigua was once the most prominent seat of Spanish colonial government between Mexico City and Lima, Peru. Founded in the early 16th century, it served as Guatemala’s capital for almost 300 years, until 1773, when it was abandoned by crown officials following a series of devastating volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and floods.
In the mid-1800s, agriculturists took note of Antigua’s rich volcanic soils, and the city thrived once again, as a center of coffee and grain production. It was during this period that its canary-colored Santa Catalina Arch, built in 1694 as a walkway for nuns, received its domed clock tower, becoming Antigua’s most iconic monument.
In 1979, Unesco designated Antigua a World Heritage Site, ensuring the protection of its architectural and cultural legacy.
Now, the city’s cobbled streets – arranged in an easy-to-navigate grid, with views of the stunning Volcán de Agua to the south and the twin peaks of Volcán de Fuego and Acatenango to the west – are lined with farm-to-table restaurants, contemporary art galleries and design studios.
Beyond the city’s lush Parque Central, these new additions are taking root near 17th- and 18th- century buildings – such as Las Capuchinas, a former convent that is now a colonial-era art museum.
The Santa Catalina arch is one of the city’s most famous landmarks.
Antigua is well known for its rich colonial history and cultural attractions, but none are so iconic as the Santa Catalina Arch. Standing above the cobbled streets and in front of the hulking Volcán de Agua, this saffron-yellow arch has become the symbol of Antigua and the central image on most postcards.
To critics, it might just be another arch, but to locals, it represents the resilience of the city and a history that spans four centuries.
The city’s amazing architecture is only beat out by the city’s dedication to beautiful handmade textiles.
Made using natural dyeing techniques and sold at workshops and bustling open-air markets across the city, fabrics, and textiles are a must-buy souvenir.
The entire region surrounding Antigua is also a hub of coffee production.
Guatemala is known around the world for its great coffees and at Finca La Azotea, which has been producing coffee since 1883, visitors can learn more about one of Antigua’s most valuable exports.
During a tour of the property, which is certified by the Rainforest Alliance, coffee enthusiasts can see how the raw fruit – which grows in dense, shaded rows of trees – is cultivated, harvested and processed. A portion of the plantation’s profits benefits local education programs focused on the preservation of the environment and Guatemalan culture.
And some of the world’s best chocolates come from Guatemala.
For chocolate lovers, Guatemala is a sweet place to be.
This is especially true in Antigua, where chocoholics can try chocolate bars, amazing truffles and liquor-filled bonbons. The city is full of artisanal sweet shops.
And as if this weren’t enough to tempt a sweet tooth, Antigua boasts its own chocolate museum. In addition to producing edible cacao products, the ChocoMuseo educates the public about the entire chocolate-making process through interactive workshops, beautifully crafted exhibits and entertaining tours.
The city is surrounded by jaw-droppingly beautiful volcanoes.
As Antigua is known for its volcanic activity, it would be a mistake not to climb one. Pacaya is the easiest, and you’ll still get the excitement of seeing lava spew from the volcano’s mouth, as well as getting the opportunity to buy lava jewelry from the isolated gift shop near the summit.
And if you want to explore a bit more, Antigua isn’t too far from Lake Atitlan.
A side trip to the magical, mysterious Lake Atitlán may seem like a long way, but the enchanting beauty of the water, which sits in a volcanic crater, is well worth it. It’s about 2½ hours by shuttle bus or you can catch the local “chicken bus” from the bus station at Calle Principal.
There are more than a dozen Mayan villages to stay in, but your best bet is Panajachel, a bohemian haven. It’s big enough to provide everything a visitor needs, but not so big that you can’t experience local culture.
With its towering volcanoes (accessible by challenging day hikes), booming coffee scene and bevy of boutique hotels, Antigua is quickly garnering appeal as one of the most enticing cities in Central America.
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