La Antigua, or just Antigua (map), is a resplendent city in the Western Highlands of Guatemala. Proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site and often touted as the most beautiful city in the Maya region, Antigua is home to a stunning array of Spanish (colonial) baroque architecture, colourful churches, bustling markets, cobble-stoned streets and charming squares. Spend a few days and you’ll discover many things to see in Antigua and in the surrounding region.
Things to see in Antigua
The site of the city, at the foot of three volcanos, is absolutely stunning. Wherever you are in the city, either of the volcanos continuously looms in the backdrop. The closest volcano, Volcan Agua, is a towering 3,766 meters high and has been dormant since the 16th century – it is possible to hike to its summit where a breathtaking panorama awaits. The Volcan de Fuego (3,863 meters), slightly further away from Antigua, is active and constantly spews smoke from its crater, though larger eruptions are rare.
With its many cafes, art galleries, cultural centres and cozy restaurants, Antigua oozes a contemporary bohemian charm that attracts many visitors each year. I can recommend spending several days here to get a good feel of the atmosphere of this city and to explore the wonderful churches, the spectacular ruins of the Catedral, the immaculate facades of the many churches such as the La Merced, the many beautiful courtyards and the various museums (don’t miss the lovely Jade Museum).
The city is also popular as a place to study Spanish – quite a few students from Europe and North America spend their summers here learning the language and living with local families.
Where to shop in Antigua
Jade was considered to be the sacred stone of the Maya and is still considered that in most places when you shop for it in Antigua. You can easily buy a jewelry jade set at one of the markets. However, for the top-end quality, I really recommend sticking to the reputable stores along Arc Street where you’ll find the most amazing selection of jade jewelry and sculptures and where you can obtain a certificate of authenticity.
That said, markets are the thing to do here for all other shopping. You can literally shop, bargain and shop some more for your entire trip. Here are a couple of my favorite markets, where you can get the best prices and have the most fun bargaining:
1. Market next to Capuchin Ruins – the market is open daily, but on weekends the vendors bring in the extra goodies and line them up along the streets. The colors of Guatemalan art bring life to any street, but it’s even more fun when you are shopping right next to one of the most famous earthquake ruins in the city.
2. Artisan Market next to the terminal and Antigua’s Central Market – This is the best market for Guatemalan typical goods, silver jewelry and lots more. First I recommend starting off at the Central Market which runs parallel to it, so you can see what the locals shop for on a daily basis and get a feel of the chaos and randomness of goods and energy that is pumping through the stalls. Then make your way over to the Artisan market which is housed inside a one level building. Here the chaos subdues and you can enjoy walking from one clean stall to another bargaining for beautiful housewares to dolls to candles.
Easter in Antigua
A great time to visit the city is around Easter when elaborate religious ceremonies and processions are held each Sunday, reaching its spectacular climax on Good Friday. The processions, each sponsored by a local parish, sometimes involve hundreds of men, women or children carrying huge floats through the city followed by large bands.
Another amazing sight are the hand-made ‘carpets’ that cover the streets during the processions. Made of dyed sawdust, sand, flowers and fruits, the ‘carpets’ are an artform in itself. I can definitely recommend anyone who is planning a trip to Antigua or Guatemala to visit during the Lent. The sights, sounds and scents of the ceremonies are some you will never forget!