The Backpacker’s Guide to Antigua, Guatemala

I flew into Guatemala City groggy and frustrated. My flight had been delayed over and over and over again, and slowly, my hopes of spending the night planning and preparing for Guatemala disintegrated. Instead of arriving early with plenty of time to sort out an agenda of sorts for the following days, the plane landed in Guatemala City just before midnight.

(You can skip these next few paragraphs to get to actually useful information because sometimes I accidentally become a storyteller).

The airport was practically desolate. I had no phone, no Guatemalan currency, and no idea where my accommodation was. The place I booked had a free airport shuttle, but my phone decided to break halfway through the flight. Determined not to get ripped off by a taxi for what was supposed to be a 2 minute drive, I tried to improvise.

I traded in 10 USD for the criminally unfair 50 quetzales from an exchange window because none of the ATMs were working. I asked the lone woman working at the information desk to look up my lodging and get the phone number. Next, I went outside looking for someone whose phone I could borrow. Hmm, let me try the old Guatemalan woman in traditional garb. She handed me a Trac-fone that had to have been literally the first cell phone ever made.

I dialed both numbers. Neither worked. I guess that 4 could be a 9. I dialed both numbers again, substituting 9s for 4s and so on. Nothing. I handed the phone back to her as she looked through the call log and charged me 5Q for each call. All 8. I haggled it down to 20Q total, and dejectedly made my way back to the taxi drivers who I scoffed at earlier. You know how satisfying those “I told you so” moments are? Not so satisfying when you’re on the other end, and have to basically beg one of the taxi drivers to take you.

After that overly complex ordeal, I was glad to be able to rest. Nope. You’d think that showing up around midnight, the receptionist would just rush me to bed. Not this one. She was a jackrabbit on cocaine, and kept me up forever to sort things out for me tomorrow.

I was supposed to go to Lanquin to meet a friend, but the idea of a 10-14 hour bus ride did not sit well with me after all of the trials and tribulations I had just gone through. Neither did the fact that it was well past midnight and I would need to wake up at 5 AM to catch the bus. Well, to catch a taxi to go to a hotel that offers a shuttle to get you to a nearby city that actually had a bus that went to Lanquin on that day. I went to bed thinking that there was no way the receptionist would be able to sort things out in time for me to actually go, so I went to bed exhausted and without a care in the world.

Only to be awakened at 5AM by the jackrabbit on cocaine to tell me that she had sorted everything out, despite it being Guatemala’s holiest and busiest week and despite her somehow doing all of this between the hours of 12 AM and 5 AM.

“Uhh, never mind” I told her, and went back to bed. I woke up a bit later at an appropriate time, and not wanting to spend much more time in GC, I asked the jackrabbit to get me a shuttle to Antigua.

And here I was.

antigua guatemala yellow arch

Okay, wow, that was a lot of exposition, but now you kind of know the ordeal that led me unintentionally to Antigua. I knew that Antigua was a great spot for backpackers, and almost everyone that had been to Guatemala suggested that I go there.

However, I was not expecting it to become my favorite city in all of Central America. Antigua is the place to be if you are willing to take it slow and chill, but want the option to do something exciting every now and then. I had less than two weeks in Guatemala total, and I would have gladly spent all of it in Antigua. I pretty much did save for a few days that I spent on Lago de Atitlan, another one of my all-time favorite places I have ever been.

I could live in Antigua, taking every other weekend or so off to go spend at the lake. That would be the life.

Antigua offers it all. Culture, adventure, hiking, food, nightlife, history, and much more. The city itself is small and walkable, but occasionally, you’ll look around and wonder if you’re even still in the same city. The dilapidated churches, cobblestone roads, and Spanish influence give you an idea why this city is named Antigua, Spanish for “ancient”. It might be one of the only places in the world that you’ll see indigenous Guatemalan people in traditional garb camped outside of a crumbling Spanish colonial building selling fake Ray-Bans and Minion dolls while eating Little Caesar’s Hot and Ready Pizza.

IMG_5411

Antigua is a clash of cultures, which might throw some people off, but once you accept the quirks that you’ll encounter, Antigua will steal your heart. I will admit that it does feel a bit unnatural walking by a Papa John’s located in a several hundred year old building, and even weirder when the customers inside range from goofy tourists to indigenous women adorned in their colorful garb.

For backpackers, some of the more popular hostels are Tropicana, Three Monkeys, and Matiox. I stayed at all three at some point, and they were all pretty good. Tropicana is a hardcore party hostel, and I could only survive one night there before switching over to a different one to get some rest and relaxation before my Acatenango Trek. It’s a lot of fun and a great place to meet people, and where I always pre-pregamed before heading out to Antigua’s famed pool party.

Matiox is peace and quiet for the weary traveler. I stayed there the night after my annoying travel ordeals in Guatemala City, and ended up staying there and doing nothing for another three days in their cozy little pods. It’s a bit further away from all the action of Antigua, but still no more than a 10 minute walk to the city center.

Three Monkeys is where I stayed before going on the Acatenango Trek because I didn’t really want to deal with crazy Tropicana. Of course, that didn’t matter much as I stayed out partying until around 8 AM on the morning of the trek. It definitely would not have been a bad place to rest, if I had made smart decisions. It was a good mix of relaxed, social, and beautiful.

There’s many other hostels in the area, so finding accommodation should never be a problem.

For things to do in and around Antigua, you have a variety of options.

The Acatenango Trek is one of the hardest and most challenging hikes I have ever done. It is an overnight trek where you hike for 18 kilometers up to altitudes of almost 4,000 meters and camp on the inactive volcano Acatenango. The real fireworks come at night when you get to watch the nearby Volcan Fuego erupt and light up the night sky. It is tough, but also an incredible experience. I booked my tour with Tropicana Hostel for about 300Q which included our guide, transportation, meals, and an assortment of warm clothing you could rent.

acatenango volcano eruption

If you aren’t wanting to do something that tough yet, Volcan Pacaya is an easier volcano hike. It is also an active volcano, and you’ll get to roast marshmallows over some of the weird vents between the hot rocks. I don’t know science well enough to explain anything, but it was a… unique experience. It stormed on my Pacaya hike and I was miserable, but the rare glimpses I got of the beautiful scenery were worth it, I guess. Hope for better weather on yours.

Pacaya Volcano

To get a stunning view of the city, you can also hike up to Cerro de la Cruz just above the city. You can take a taxi there as well. For even more stunning views, Hobbitenango is a new-ish spot a bit outside of the city that is trying to be Antigua’s own Hobbiton. It does offer lodging, but it also has a restaurant and is overall a beautiful place to chill for a day.

For things to do in the actual city, you have an abundance of markets, historical buildings, and beautiful calles. Roaming around the city never got old, and no matter how much exploring I did, it always felt like I kept finding new streets that I hadn’t walked on before.

Now to the good stuff. Nightlife. My first few nights in Antigua were a bit confusing since I was not really sure where to go and let myself go into full relax mode. It was my fourth day in Guatemala before I actually cracked open my first beer. Despite this, Antigua was one of the places where I had the most fun in all of Central America. Aside from the legendary Sunday Funday in San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua, Antigua’s pool party rave was one of the best nights I had.

Drinking at a hostel is always a good way to get nights going for backpackers, so get to Tropicana if you are in dire need of getting your night jumpstarted. I enjoyed staying at the quieter hostels, but if you need to get in the zone and meet some fun people, then you really need to go to Tropicana. From there, let the night take you wherever.

Antigua does actually have a decent amount of bars and clubs with unique personalities. Café No Sé and its speakeasy style setting with a plethora of oddly-placed candles stands out in particular. Lucky Rabbit is a big open space with a big dance floor for the general public and then a smaller dance floor to the side with an electronic DJ to cater to that crowd. They also have a ping pong table which is dope. There are dozens of bars, restaurants, and clubs in Antigua and it could easily be one of the best party towns in Latin America. But…

The sad part is most of them close at around 1AM at the latest. When we found this out, we wandered around until like maybe 5 AM trying to squeeze everything out of what started off as such a fun night. We got some “gringos” from a person selling drunk food out of his window at around 3 AM. Apparently they call it that because only gringos and tourists eat that late in Antigua.

It was a pretty lame Friday night in hindsight, but that gave me energy for what would be an insane Saturday night.

The Pool Party.

I wrote an entire blog post on it so you can read about it there, but let me tell you, it is one strange but incredible night out. It’s also not the kind of night out you want to have before going on one of the hardest overnight treks out there.

I still successfully did both, but it was pure misery and neither one should be underestimated.

Returning to Antigua after the Acatenango Trek made me feel like a champion, and I could have easily spent a week relaxing in Antigua to reward myself. As a backpacker, Antigua was the closest in all of Latin America that I had been to actually volunteering at a hostel. I could have seen myself spending weeks there and never running out of things to do. It’s a good location for those wanting to learn Spanish, as well.

Even if you want to leave, Antigua can help you out. Lake Atitlan is just a few hours away and is like a vacation during your vacation. Shuttles and buses leave to basically everywhere from Antigua, and it is a touristy enough town that they’ll leave at least once a day. Antigua is a stress-free and chill town that offers a lot of excitement for those looking for it.

I ended up writing a lot more than I expected, but thanks for reading! Make sure to follow me on Instagram to party all over the world with me!

homegirl think she slick tryna hide an entire Easter basket on her head 👀

A post shared by Eli 📍USA 🇺🇸 (@thepartyingtraveler) on

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