This blog post if my first one that is not cooking-related! I am both excited to share other parts of my life (like travelling and lifestyle), but also a little bit nervous and hoping you will enjoy reading these.
My friend Tess and I have always said we wanted to travel somewhere together. However, during the 5 years of our friendship, we never managed to go away together for a summer or even a weekend! As I was planning my summer, Tess and I realized we were free at the same time and wanted to explore somewhere new…. we had finally found time that would work for the both of us!
After throwing a few ideas back and forth of where we wanted to go, we ended up booking our trip to Guatemala, Belize and Mexico for 4 weeks. I’ve had the chance to travel a lot, but had never been to Central America, and I was therefore very excited to explore this new part of the world!
Our first stop in Guatemala was Antigua, a city located an hour away from the capital (Guatemala City). We didn’t stay in the capital because it is really unsafe to stay there, and everyone recommends going straight from the airport to Antigua. Antigua is a Spanish colonial city that used to be the capital of the country, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Antigua is simply beautiful! It’s surrounded by 3 volcanoes, known for its different coloured houses, cobblestone streets, old ruins that survived the earthquakes, Spanish architecture and low traffic.
Antigua is an interesting city with a mix of locals, expats, and tourists. Quite a number of people also come to Antigua to take Spanish classes. It’s definitely a location where I would recommend taking classes: I could see myself living there for a couple of weeks or months. There’s a lot to do and eat in Antigua, and it’s the perfect base as shuttles all leave from Antigua to go to other touristic areas in the country (perfect for little weekends getaways!).
Where we stayed in Antigua:
Tess and I stayed in Cucuruchos Boutique Hostel, and we were extremely happy with it! It’s located at the center of the city, and a 2min walk from the main square. Breakfast is included, as well as tea and coffee all day, and cake at 5pm. There is a rooftop where you can enjoy the views of the city, and you can also find gym equipment there (like weights and yoga mats). The hostel is extremely clean and the staff is super nice. The only thing I would recommend is asking for a bottom or middle bed, because the bunk beds have 3 “floors” so you’re pretty high if you get the top one.
What we did and recommend doing in Antigua:
- Cerro de la Cruz: Head to Cerro de la Cruz for the best viewpoint of the city and the surrounding volcanoes. It’ll be a short but intense workout as the viewpoint is on top of a hill that you climb with stairs. While most people take a cab from downtown to the bottom of the hill, I recommend walking it. It’s only a 15-20min walk, and you get to explore the residential and more quiet streets of Antigua. It’s recommended to go during the morning to avoid the clouds of the afternoon, and to avoid going at night or early in the morning for safety reasons. Great Instagram spot too 😉
- Parque Central: at the center of the city is the ‘Central Park’, a perfect place for reading a book, meeting someone or people-watching. The square is very lively, with shoe-shiners, school kids, locals, tour groups, tourists walking around or sitting on benches. A beautiful fountain is at the center of the park, where I saw many locals having photoshoots around it! The park is surrounded by colonial structures and monuments like the Santiago Cathedral, the Palacio del Ayutamiento (former town hall) and the Palace of the Captains General – all beautifully lit up at night.
- Santa Catalina arch: probably the most emblematic structure of Antigua, with Agua Volcano looming in the background – another perfect Instagram spot! To get a beautiful photo, head there after it’s rained, as you get the reflection of the arch and volcano in the puddles.
- The local market is on Monday, Thursday and Saturday. It’s the perfect place to explore the more authentic side of Antigua and see locals shop. First, stop at the food section of the market where you can discover and try fruits or vegetables you can rarely find in your country. You can then head to the clothes and technology part of the market.
- Right by the local market is the Artisans Market, which is the more touristy market and where you will find souvenirs like wooden masks, traditional blankets, pillow cases, jade jewellery, purses, bags, textiles, etc. – all the different colours and textiles make it so photogenic. Once again, there are two parts of the market, with one being more visited by tourists (and therefore more expensive). This part of the market has yellow walls, more space to walk around and a big fountain square at the center. It’s still definitely worth the visit! You can then head to the more hidden part of the market with more choices and cheaper souvenirs. At one of the side exits of the big Artisans Market, you will see a completely covered market if you climb a couple of steps. Walk inside and you will find long aisles with more crowded stalls and a beautiful little fountain square in the middle. Make sure you bargain because vendors will make sure to triple the price for tourists! Since the hidden part of the market is closest to the bus terminal, exit from there to see the ‘chicken’ buses. The local buses are old school buses from the US that have been redecorated into really colourful and fun buses!
- San Francisco Church: a perfect opportunity for tourists to witness a restored colonial church. Every year, thousands of pilgrims visit the tomb of Saint Hermano Pedro de San José Betancourt, the first canonized saint in Central America. There is a small market right outside the church.
- Churches: Antigua has many churches, cathedrals and monasteries. While earthquakes and volcanic eruptions have damaged many, you can still visit their restored buildings and ruins. These include La Merced, Santa Teresa, Las Capuchinas and La Recolección. If going to any of the churches, don’t forget to bring a coverup (legs and shoulders), or you will be unable to enter.
- Casa Santo Domingo: what used to be the largest monastery in Antigua has now been transformed into a 5-star hotel that is worth a visit – even if you’re too broke to spend the night! Explore the ground of the hotel that include small museums, a church, the monastery ruins, local exhibitions, a re-creation of an early pharmacy, fountains, etc.
- Coffee tour: My favourite thing we did in Antigua!! Guatemala is one of the world’s largest high-quality coffee producers, and exports half of its production to the US. The coffee in Antigua is known to be of particular high quality thanks to the minerals coming from the surrounding volcanoes, so it was the perfect place to learn more about coffee production.
We booked a tour with De La Gente , a non-profit where the cost of the tour helps supplement the farmers’ income for their children’s education, healthcare, housing and nutrition. Before going on the tour, we also booked to have a traditional lunch with the farmer’s family. The food was delicious and it was really nice to sit down and meet the farmer, his wife and our translator before going to the fields. The farmer and translator were both so passionate about coffee and about the organization, and were happy to answer my thousands of questions!
After learning everything about how everything is planted, cared for and harvested, we headed back to the farmer’s house. With the help from his wife, we dehusked the beans, roasted and ground them the traditional way before making our own cups of coffee. It was overall an amazing experience where we learnt tons about coffee from local Guatemalans, while helping smaller coffee farmers and their families! The cost of the tour also included a bag of coffee beans from your farmer to bring back as a souvenir! I’d recommend having a look at their website because they offer other tours and workshops, peanut butter workshop and Pepian cooking class (traditional meal).
- Avocado tour:
Tess and I being a little bit obsessed with avocados, we thought it was only fair to also take an avocado tour! The owner’s daughter picked us up from the Parque Central and started the tour there before driving us to the farm, which took around 20min. The tour lasted over an hour and was really interesting. I personally didn’t know much about avocado farming, and learned tons during a short time. We walked around the avocado trees while the guide shared with us the struggles of harvesting avocados and going 100% organic. At the end, we made our own Guatemalan guacamole to eat with fresh tortilla, and had an avocado smoothie ! The only thing I’d recommend is to layer up as it gets colder on the farm than in Antigua! While I really enjoyed it and learned a lot about avocados, I would definitely recommend taking the coffee tour over the avocado tour if you had to pick one.
- Yoga class at Shakti Shala: I came to Guatemala (and particularly Antigua) knowing I wanted to take a yoga class because I had read that the yoga community was pretty significant. On my way from Guatemala City to Antigua, I shared a cab with an expat living in Antigua who highly recommended Shakti Shala. And so I went to a candle-lit class with two other girls from my hostel! The studio is super cute, and while the class was PACKED, the teacher made sure she came around the class to correct people’s postures. It was a fun experience and a good stretch after walking all day!
- ChocoMuseo (Chocolate museum): While walking around Antigua, I stumbled upon the chocolate museum. It’s free to visit: you can learn the history of cacao, as well as the process from the harvest to the chocolate bar. They also have lots of products you can try for free, and a shop where you can buy chocolate beauty products, chocolate pasta, chocolate tea, etc. The museum also has a few workshops that you can book (you have to pay for that). Tip: You can also refill your water bottles for no charge there too!
- Bookstore: By getting lost in the streets of the city, I also found an adorable bookstore that sells books in Spanish, English, French and a few other languages. They also sell guide books and that’s how I bought my Guatemala book for $9! I’d also recommend going there because they have novels set in Guatemala and Central America, and it’s always fun to read books set in a place you’re currently discovering and you can learn so much about the culture from them!
- McDonald’s: I know I know, you didn’t travel all the way to Guatemala to go to McDonald’s, but trust me on this! This will be the most beautiful McDonald’s you’ve ever seen and it doesn’t look anything like a fast-food restaurant. They also have a square with a fountain, benches, tables and…. free wifi! Perfect spot for a little break without even having to purchase anything.
- Cafe Sky: I recommend going there for the views!! You can see all of Antigua, and its surrounding volcanoes and mountains. They have good drinks and a good selection of food. If you like very cheesy and creamy nachos, they’re supposed to have the best in town.
- Toko Baru: really close to Cafe Sky, this restaurant is great if you’re looking for Indian, Asian or Middle Eastern food. Really good, cheap and large portions (what else can you ask for?). They also have lots of vegetarian options.
- Samsara: a super delicious vegetarian restaurant. Lots of different choices and super filling as well. Great for a healthy dinner or for smoothies!
- Porque no?: we weren’t able to go there in the end, but it was highly recommended by lots of people!
- Rincon Tipico: another place I wish we went to. This place was next door to our hostel and was often busy. I believe it’s a barbecue and local cuisine so a perfect first stop to try some national dishes!
- Union Cafe: go there for great juices and smoothies! They also have daily sandwiches and breakfast.
What I wish we would have done, or other things to consider:
- Pacaya Volcano: this volcano is the most accessible volcano you can hike around Antigua. It takes about half a day, but departure time is early morning. The hike up takes between an hour to an hour and a half, but is pretty steep so it’s a good workout (you can also rent horses if don’t want/can’t walk up). Since it’s an active volcano, you can even roast marshmallows using lava!
- Acatenango Volcano: If Pacaya isn’t challenging enough for you, you can also hike the Acatenango Volcano. The hike is very steep and longer, but the views are also said to be more impressive. You can either do it in one day, but lots of people also do it in two days and camp for the night on the volcano!
- Valhalla Macadamia Nut Farm: I also really wanted to visit this organic farm but we didn’t have the time and we picked the coffee and avocado tours instead. But if you have more time, I would recommend touring this nut farm where you can walk around, eat macadamia nut flour pancakes with blueberry jam and macadamia butter, and buy cool souvenirs in their shop!