If God and the government had their way, Antigua would no longer exist. Once the capital of colonial Guatemala, it has been repeatedly toppled by earthquakes. After another series of earthquakes in 1773, the government got fed up with having to rebuild the town and decided to relocate the capital a few miles down the road to more stable ground. That new capital is now known as Guatemala City. Antigua’s population was ordered to leave, but many of the locals simply refused.
The town’s original name was Santiago, but with the relocated capital simply known as “Guatemala” interchangeably with “Guatemala City,” Santiago became known more commonly “Old Guatemala City,” or, using the Spanish word for “old,” “Antigua Guatemala.” Over time, it’s been shortened to “Antigua.”
Modern Antigua is no longer the nation’s capital, but it has long since reinvented itself as a major hub of travel and tourism. In 1979 it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, which has helped both protect its charm and draw the tourists. Those that defied the government’s order and the less-than-subtle geological warning signs have created a fascinating town and a wonderful place to visit, with cobblestone streets, charming Spanish colonial architecture, some fascinating churches, a vibrant market, two nearby volcanoes, and a buzzing cultural scene. It’s no wonder that it has become a favorite place for Spanish language schools to set up and for expats to plant roots. Just a short drive from Guatemala City’s airport, it’s also a convenient jumping off point for destinations in Guatemala’s highlands like Chichicastenango. There are a number of charming, and might I say, surprisingly inexpensive hotels scattered near the Parque Central in the center of town and plenty to see. And while there, you won’t help but notice some of the colonial churches now in ruins from the earthquakes as well as the three towering volcanoes nearby that serve as constant reminders of Antigua’s shaky heritage.
Photos of Antigua, Guatemala
What To Know Before You Go
- Antigua is about 45-60 minutes from Guatemala City’s main airport. Your best bet is to pre-book a shuttle that will drop you at your hotel–your hotel will be happy to make the arrangements for you. You’ll often have a choice of a scheduled shuttle that picks up other passengers en route or, if you pay a little more, a private shuttle. Costs for both are very reasonable if you’re used to typical American, European, or Australian prices. I don’t recommend just arriving at the airport in the hope of finding transportation to Antigua, especially at night.
- Antigua is very tourist-friendly and generally safe. That said, Guatemala is a poor country and has one of the highest violent crime rates in Central America. Use sensible security and safety precautions. Be especially careful if you decide to set off on some of the walks away from the downtown area. If you run into problems, the town’s special Tourist Police are usually very helpful. You can find current U.S. State Department travel advisories here.
- Cobblestone streets are charming but they can be tricky to walk on if you have foot or leg issues. Many sidewalks are uneven. There’s a reason you won’t see many people in wheelchairs in downtown Antigua.
- If you’re looking for more information on the town’s history and festivals than is found in your travel guide book, local historian and tourism entrepreneur Elizabeth Bell has some very interesting and useful books. You can buy them online or pick them locally at souvenir shops around town.
- Antigua has a higher proportion of foreign-language speakers than just about anywhere in Guatemala, but not everyone speaks English. For many locals, Spanish is a second language (after one of the dozens of Maya dialects).
- Spanish (and Maya) language schools have a very strong presence in the town, so if you’re looking to pick up some language skills for a few days, a few weeks, or even a few months, this is a great place to do it.
- Antigua is at an elevation of about 1500 meters, so mosquitoes are rare. Check the CDC website for current health warnings and recommendations and check with your doctor or a specialized travel clinic, preferably at least a month before your trip (some vaccinations require follow-up shots to be effective). That’s especially important if you plan to head to other places in Guatemala or Central America where malaria, dengue fever, chikungunya, or zika might be problems.