In the summer of 2014, a friend and I traveled to Antigua for 5 weeks in order to improve our Spanish skills. We are both Spanish majors, but we didn’t go through our University. We just went.
If I’m not mistaken, we flew from North Carolina up to Philly, then to Miami, then to Guatemala.
Antigua is located in the department of Sacatepequez (say that 5 times fast), about an hour’s drive from Guatemala City. We flew into Guatemala City. Don’t hang out there. The language school, Tecun Uman, where we were to study sent a driver to pick us up in a van for a terrifying drive to our hostel. Lanes and driving laws seemed to be merely a suggestion. That was the last time I got into a vehicle for 5 weeks, not out of fear, but simply because everything was within walking distance after that. Our hostel and our school were both on 6a Calle Pte (Sexta Calle Poniente, or West 6th Street) and only about a block apart.
Upon arrival at the hostel we were greeted with the coolest interior I have ever seen.
I really loved that when it rained you could sit on the couch and read or watch tv while the rain poured right next to you. We were there for La Copa Mundial (The World Cup), which was a HUGE deal, the streets were deserted. It started raining while we watched it, the common tv was just outside of our doorway (you can see it in the far back left).
Typical of the buildings here, I would later learn, is a semi-outdoor area indoors. Literally in the middle of the living room there was suddenly grass and no roof. I was and (still am) in love with this architecture. I miss it so much. It is possible due to the climate in this part of the country. If you normally think of a sweltering jungle when you think of Guatemala, think again. There are definitely many places like that, but Antigua is nestled in a valley between 3 volcanoes, which creates an interesting climate system, not to mention breathtaking sights!
Here are some crappy camera phone panoramas:
The temperature was between 65-80 the entire 5 weeks, depending on the time of day. It rained occasionally, usually briefly in the afternoons. Most of the windows stayed open 24 hours a day and there weren’t many screens to be found. This was awesome, until I realized that the mosquitos loved me there as much as at home, except were much bigger. We purchased a dangerous little device that repelled them for the duration of our stay and enjoyed the fresh air after that first night. It produced a strong and weird chemical smell and plugged into the wall. Misadventure alert: It may cause me cancer later. I say dangerous because I am fairly certain they’re illegal in the U.S., but that may just be because they actually work…
Speaking of bugs…
Misadventure alert: Spiders
They are many and they are large. Prepare yourself.
(Yes, I DID make a slideshow about spiders. Why?).
Misadventure alert: One morning early in our stay I woke up to a weird chemical smell. I had placed a mini bottle of fingernail polish on the nightstand and woke up to this.
How the hell did that happen? We showed the owner of the hostel (Victoria), who was really cool about it. My travel buddy worked her magic on it and got it cleaned up. But seriously, How does a tiny thick glass bottle fall 2 feet and manage to slosh out all the polish? Did the laws of physics cease to apply in my damn room? We decided we were haunted. (Although I must have knocked it with the blanket it my sleep). I mean, it really looks like someone was playing with it, but our door was locked all night.
Antigua is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (unesco info) and was classified as such in 1979. It was the old capital of Guatemala (from 1543-1773), until it was destroyed by an earthquake and the capital was changed to Guatemala City.
What does this mean? It means that repairs must match up historically with the architecture, there are cobblestone streets and there is no smoking indoors anywhere in the city. Even in private residences it is illegal. All the buildings are touching each other. If one goes up, so does the city. Back when I traveled to Antigua I was still a smoker, but the weather was so pleasant that I had absolutely no complaints about hanging out outside (not that I would have complained about the common sense of the law anyway). I have since quit.
I am telling you about these cobblestone streets for a reason. They are old, extremely uneven and dangerous as hell for someone who has a problem merely walking on carpet and staying upright. Seriously I trip over air. I avoid wearing heels whenever possible. As soon as I saw the streets I knew I was going to hurt myself. Add alcohol and you have a recipe for disaster.
Misadventure alert: I tripped one night and went down hard. I mean, I tripped many times during those 5 weeks, but this one was bad! Landed directly on one knee and couldn’t speak for a minute for the pain. It was dark, so I didn’t realize until I got back that I had actually punctured my kneecap on the corner of a stone and my jeans were soaked with blood. I had a gnarly bruise, massive swelling and couldn’t properly bend my knee for a couple of months after I got home. I still have an odd scar and it aches in the cold. Fairly certain I had actually cracked my knee cap, but I never got it checked.
The sidewalks are a few inches higher (sometimes over a foot higher) than the street, less uneven (most of the time) and very narrow. It was a little difficult to get past people when it was busy out. FYI: The city is not very disability friendly, if that’s important to you.
The common way for people to get to further places in the city is the tuk tuk. They are… well look:
I never had occasion to take one, but this is exactly what they look like, and they were everywhere. I once saw 4 people get out of one, not including the driver, and one of them was a lady in what looked like a prom dress, a big poofy prom dress.
More about the hostel: The name of it then was Luna República but is now under new management and ownership, which is why I can no longer vouch for the service . It is now called El Mesón de Antigua and classifies itself as a “Bed and Breakfast-Hotel”, so if you want to check it out, that’s the place in my photos. It looks like they have gotten rid of the dorms and made those private rooms, and thus the prices have increased.
But while I was there it was fantastic. Fan.Tas.Tic. In fact the (then) owner, Victoria is now (still) a good friend of mine and I am planning to try to visit her this summer (she has since moved to Tenerife, off the coast of Spain).
As a matter of fact, she heard my Irish roots lamenting over the lack of potatoes in restaurants and planned a special dinner for my last night, and made a special (amazing) potato dish!
Other interesting stuff
There is a huge market where you can buy fresh fruits, vegetables and meats. A word of warning: it is an open-air market, no air conditioning or refrigeration. Foods are displayed and cut open, and in the late afternoon it can smell like hundreds of dead bodies due to the food spoiling in the sun. Go in the morning! Having said that, the food is so amazingly fresh and delicious, it is a must if you are there for any length of time and need groceries. The local restaurants (I’m looking at you, Cafe Rainbow) get their food fresh daily and the taste is like nothing you will get from a grocery store in the U.S.
I have just realized that the only other market picture I have is of the potatoes. Being a good Irish girl, I was sorely missing having potatoes as a side option for meals in cafes and restaurants. It just isn’t a typical side there. (I need my mashed potatoes, guys!) I went through some major withdrawals.
Another word of warning, the market is HUGE and MAZE-LIKE. I could see someone getting lost in there and never making it out. I went with my teacher, so as to avoid yet another misadventure. I don’t know if they have maps (doubt it), but if they do it would be helpful to get one. If not, just ask for help escaping before noon. It is also very densely packed with booths and people. Don’t be weird about people bumping up against you, but keep an eye on your wallet like you would in any densely packed space.
This was a typical lunch for me, a grilled chicken sandwich plate that came with salad, chips and a small bowl of leek and potato soup (the special is whatever soup and sandwich you want). It is not chicken salad (gross). It is fresh grilled chicken, with some heavenly flavors. I generally do not like tomatoes at all, but for whatever reason I loved them while I was there. I even ate the onions. Crazy.
I ate this meal many, many times at Rainbow Cafe which was right on the corner.
Money & Prices
Things are very cheap for U.S travelers. Of course, you can always find pricier items, but in general I was amazed at how cheap everything was.
Guatemala’s unit of currency is the Quetzal (ketSALL). The Quetzal is the national bird of Guate, and the name is of Nahuatl origin. At the time of my trip,the exchange rate was $1.00= Q7.75.
Before our trip, I went into my bank in person and gave them my travel itinerary so they wouldn’t cancel my card when it was used abroad.
Misadventure alert: They canceled my card on a weekend and I couldn’t call and fix it because they weren’t open. Thanks, BANK. Thankfully my travel buddy loaned me money for food. Not that I would have starved to death in one day, I do have lady lumps. After I got ahold of them the next day, it was smooth sailing. I was able to use my card at local ATMs and get Quetzales, no problem. (And pay back my travel buddy).
On the very first day, we went to a nicer (we thought) restaurant and got a nice dinner. My food came out still cold inside but thoroughly cooked, so I realized they had just reheated it from frozen. We never went back to that restaurant and I can’t even remember the name of it, (although I could walk right back to it if I was there) but here’s a photo of the receipt (factura).
Neither of us knew what the hell we were doing with Quetzales yet, so we just put it all one one ticket and decided to do the math and pay the other one back when we got back to the hostel. You can see that we each had sodas, a dinner and we shared a pupusa plate (pupusas are amazing, but not there). Q246 ended up being just less than $32, for two meals which were the equivalent of two dinners and an appetizer shared at, say, Ruby Tuesday’s. Except this amount of food at that restaurant would be closer to $50. This was the second most expensive place we ate at the whole trip.
The other place was a super fancy restaurant on the top of a volcano, called El Tenedor (The Fork). We only went there because we wanted to go up and see the views (and because it was a famous spot), and I believe with the small tour we took we were required to buy something from the restaurant. I don’t recall how much it was, but I remember it being expensive and that’s why I only got a fondue appetizer. That was my way of giving the middle finger to an expensive Italian restaurant on top of a damn volcano in Guatemala. Come on. Who do you think you are? It wasn’t even real Italian food.
Just to illustrate the price difference, the soup, salad and sandwich that I typically got at Rainbow Cafe was only Q35, which worked out to about $4.50! And let me remind you:
Antigua has its own coffee plantations and they offer tours. Some of the little cafes even have workshops where you can grind the beans and make your own cup of coffee. Either way, Guate knows how to do coffee. I brought home 3 bags of beans for the guy I was dating because he had a fancy coffee machine. It didn’t do it justice. What a waste of luggage space.
Culture & Language
Every single person on the street will say hi to you. Say it back, and say it in Spanish. A simple “buenos” for “buenos días” is most commonly heard. I routinely wake up in a bad mood because I am not a morning person. By the time I walked the block to school at 8am each morning, I was all smiles from hearing “Good morning!” from all the workers coming into town. You just can’t help it. They’re genuinely smiling at you and it is beautiful.
When leaving shops or restaurants you’ll hear “Que le(s) vaya bien” (Lit: that it goes well for you), say it back! It’s a formal way of hoping/wishing someone has a good day. If it is multiple people, use les instead of le.
In the shops you will be ushered in by “pase” or even if you’re just trying to pass by they’ll try to manipulate you into entering by calling this to you. The salespeople can be aggressive (like anywhere else), so if you don’t want to try to bargain with them, a firm No is needed. If you sound wishy-washy it can be taken as a way to try to get them to bargain with you on the price. Use this wisely.
Learn at least a few basic useful phrases in Spanish. Don’t be that kind of tourist. The best steak I had in Antigua was in a tiny little spot where no one spoke English.We went back again for steaks and their pupusas that this adorable little grandma cooked on a griddle right there in the 4 table dining room. They even served potatoes with it! (like 3 whole teensy ones, but they were so good!)
People will try to tell you how dangerous Guatemala is, and as a country or in other cities that may be true. I can’t speak on that. What I can tell you is that I felt safer in Antigua than I do at my own apartment complex. There is a very strong police presence because it is a tourist destination. You can see them everywhere. The city makes its money from visitors and they have a reputation to uphold. Even the police officers all said “buenas noches” or “buenas” when walking past me at night.
However, don’t be an idiot. At night, stay with at least one other person, especially if you are drinking. Don’t flash your money…basically don’t do anything you wouldn’t do in any big city, like New York or Philly. If you are traveling alone, grab a buddy from your hostel and do stuff after dark, especially because you’ll likely be walking everywhere. You may need someone to pick you up off the cobblestones when you break your knee cap because you are gravitationally challenged.
As a female traveler, I did have an incident when a drunk guy was hitting on me. I shut him down (I was not rude, just very direct) and since he was a local (actually, he was from Honduras, so more of a local than me, but not exactly local) he tried to manipulate me into feeling bad by telling me that shutting him down in that way was very rude in his culture. He was trying to make me feel bad and shame me into being nicer. It did not work. Don’t ever forget that “No.” is a complete sentence in every language. Even if it was rude, I would rather be an asshole than end up in a dangerous situation or even one that I was uncomfortable with.
Other random things and helpful links
Many of the little cafes and restaurants and other places we went to do not have websites, so I can’t share the links. I wish I could! But we randomly discovered them just by walking around, and I am confident you will too! I will share what I do have:
– Rainbow Café– I cannot emphasize enough how great this place is. Please do yourself the favor and stop in at least once. The staff are super friendly. They are a restaurant, bar and bookstore and they have live music and even talks and readings. I still keep in touch with a few of the wait staff and bartenders and they came to hang out with me at the hostel and took me out dancing while I was there. Keep in mind that bars close around 11pm usually (or earlier). That’s why there are “after parties”.
– The “after parties”– they are illegal, yet many locals told me I should go to them anyway! Even my 50-something year old teacher! I was told nobody gets arrested, but the club or bar could be fined. Don’t blame me if I’m wrong though, I never did end up going to one because my hostel was entertaining enough, but don’t be afraid to live a little!
– El Mesón de Antigua– I said I couldn’t provide feedback about the hostel now because of new ownership, but I am going to go ahead and provide the link in case anyone is interested in checking out the place in my photos. Please do your own research first.
–Mister Menú-This was a handy little app that I downloaded and used to navigate restaurants in Antigua.
–City Maps– This is another handy little app that allows you to download and access maps offline so you don’t use any data while traveling abroad, it includes not just restaurants but everything. I did not use it in Antigua, as I recently just discovered it, but I have downloaded and will use it on my next trip, in about a month. If anyone uses it in Antigua, please comment how it worked for you!
–Chocolate Museum– They make their own chocolate and show you how. I had almost forgotten about this place! Try the chocolate tea. Sounds weird, but it is delicious. I bought some for my then-boyfriend’s cousin and my ex-mother-in-law (that’s a lot of hyphens), there’s even a cool little metal thing to hold the chocolate shells while it steeps. I’m just saying, it looks fancy. Go there.
–Tecun Uman Spanish Language School– This place is amazing. One-on-one Spanish language sessions, flexible hours, great pricing, fantastic teachers and great customer service. They can also arrange transport to and from the airport.
–tripadvisor.com– Great resource for traveling abroad. See reviews for everywhere by everyone.
–booking.com– This is the site I always rely on, after much research. It has always had the lowest prices and easiest website.
–Antigua UNESCO info– Information about Antigua as a World Heritage Site. A lot more info than I provided.
I am not paid for any reviews, all opinions are my own.