Beguiling Antigua

I got an early morning flight from Managua to Guatemala City. I had a good feeling about the country as soon as I landed. I felt that I was going to love it. From the plane I got a view of the entire city. It’s similar to any modern city, which was a complete contrast to Managua. The airport was huge and modern, though it seemed too big for the air traffic that it receives. We arrived in the middle of the day and it was almost deserted. Everything went smoothly though I got a bit annoyed at this immigration officer who put the entry stamp on the amendments page of my passport— I hope i wouldn’t be needing that page in the future. But overall I felt real good about the country. I actually felt giddy as I headed toward the exit.

I already did my research and I didn’t find any place I’d want to visit in the city. Some zones were even deemed dangerous for locals and visitors alike, so I decided to head straight to Antigua which was only an hour away. Apparently almost every visitor had the same idea. There were so many shuttles heading to Antigua waiting by the exits and they easily filled up with people. A one way trip only costs 10 USD which wasn’t bad at all so I decided to take it. I did want to take the cheapest ride to Antigua, but  I have a friend who’s from the city and he told me to just stay on the safe side. There’s a real threat of danger if you get stuck in the wrong areas in Guatemala, particularly in Guatemala City. He told me to just cough up the 10 bucks and save those chicken bus rides for my trips outside the city. Who am I to argue with a local? If you want to risk it though, chicken buses from the city to Antigua costs 10 Quetzales. That’s less than 1.50 USD. I prefer taking public transport not just because it’s cheaper. I love being around locals. It also feels more of an adventure. But one can be adventurous while being cautious at the same time. I tend to ignore travel warning from foreign governments, but when the locals themselves warn me about certain things, I make it a point to listen to them and follow their advice.

It took us less than an hour. In just 45 minutes, we were in Antigua. And man, I fell in love with the place instantly. You’d think I would be tired of colonial cities by now, but Antigua has a distinct charm. Like Granada, every spot seemed picture perfect, but it doesn’t come across as pretentious or made for show. It felt genuinely authentic like León, but clean and orderly.

There are also a lot of things you can do in Antigua, which is why so many travelers remain in town for a long time. There are lots of museums and colonial structures that you can visit and explore. Fans of colonial churches would love Iglesia de la Merced. If you can spare 5 Quetzales, don’t miss the ruins of the convent beside it. It’s totally worth the price of admission. I was lucky to visit the site on a non busy day and I practically had the whole place to myself. The serenity was in complete contrast to the hustle and bustle outside the church. Yeah, Antigua in general is touristy so prices of commodities are more expensive compared to elsewhere in the country, but it’s still quite easy to find cheap places to eat. There are lots of bars in the area, and for this reason the city got this reputation among travelers that it’s a party place. This is quite true especially on backpacker lane, but there are many areas in town away from all the ruckus. Antigua is still a great place to visit if you’re looking for a little peace and quiet.

A common attraction is the Cerro de la Cruz. From anywhere in the town center, you can easily see this cross on top of a hill. It’s really easy to get there. Just head to the direction of the hill. Once you’re at the hillside, you have to look for the street that takes you around the hill. You’re going to pass by a residential area before you reach another street where the trail to the hilltop can be found. There’s a huge sign at the beginning of the trail so it’s hard to miss. It’s a short climb up on a cemented trail. It’s not even difficult since the degree of incline increases gradually. At the end of the trail you’ll be rewarded with a view of the entire town. If you’re lucky enough and you get to climb up the hill on a clear day, you’ll see an amazing view of Volcán Agua.

Volcán Agua is one of the volcanoes surrounding Antigua. The others are Volcán Acatenango and Volcán Fuego. These volcanoes give Antigua its distinct charm. Volcán Agua and Volcán Acatenango are still considered active volcanoes, but they haven’t erupted for several years now. Volcán Fuego though, erupts on a regular basis. On a clear night you may see it performing a fireworks display if you’re lucky enough. Climbing these volcanoes are arguably the most popular activities in Antigua. A lot of travelers stay in town for weeks because they climb all the volcanoes. Any hotel or hostel can arrange a tour for you. Technically for experienced hikers you can do the hikes on your own, but there’s the real threat of robbery. There are numerous reports of bandits hiding on the trails waiting for unsuspecting hikers. I did meet a couple who got surrounded by several men wielding machetes and were made to give up all their belongings save for the clothes on their backs. Let me reiterate that the threat is real. This isn’t one of those times when you can easily dismiss those guides in order to save some cash. If you’re on a tight budget think of other ways to cut corners. Find a way to the start of the trail via public transport. Once there, try to find a local guide on your own. Better yet, search for a reputable local guide online. Bring your own food. Bring your own equipment. Just don’t cut corners by choosing to climb up without a guide.

They say Volcán Agua is the easiest to climb, but it’s not that popular as the other hikes because all you get from the hike is a great view and not much else. Now a great view is usually enough, but once you consider the other stuff you get to see by doing the other hikes, you’d realize why most people opt to climb the other volcanoes.



Steam vents in Volcan Pacaya

The most popular one is the hike up Volcán Pacaya. It’s actually not visible from Antigua but it’s still in close proximity. You have to pay 50 quetzales before you can start your hike up, which may or may not be already included with the tour so better clarify this with your guides.The hike is moderately difficult, but seeing those steam vents up close make it worth it for some. A lot of people bring marshmallows and roast them on the steam vents. Some people expect to see molten lava because they saw pictures of this hike on the internet. You won’t see molten lava these days because the volcano hasn’t erupted in a while. You can do the hike in one day since it’s not that difficult. The Acatenango hike though is a very strenuous hike. Even professional hikers find it difficult. This is the reason why it’s often an overnight hike, so you can split the hike up into two days. From the base camp you’ll have front row seats to Volcán Fuego which erupts constantly. Our guide told us that we were extremely lucky that night because the volcano was erupting every hour. I honestly thought I was going to die during that hike but seeing that volcano putting on a show up close made it all worth it.

Volcan Fuego putting on a show

I was in Antigua last December and it was foggy most of the time. There were clear days, but on most days the fog and the clouds disrupt the view of the volcanoes. I imagine that it is even more spectacular during the summer so I advice travelers to visit during this time of the year. If schedule doesn’t permit though, it doesn’t really matter much. Antigua is a quaint little city, and with its irresistible and unique charm, I bet anyone would fall in love with the place no matter what time of the year one visits. I most definitely did.

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