Jan, 2017: The first time I came to Guatemala in 2004 I didn’t spend a lot of time in Antigua. I didn’t make the same mistake twice. We initially came for only 10 days over Christmas and new year but ended up staying nearly five awesome weeks.
Antigua was the third capital of Guatemala after the first two were destroyed by indigenous Kaqchickel uprisings and an eruption from Volcan Agua. For more than two centuries Antigua was the capital of the Spanish colony of Guatemala. In those days Guatemala made up most of present day Central America and Chiapas in Mexico. This lofty position within the Spanish empire and the subsequent wealth that it bought resulted in the construction of some stunning Spanish Baroque architecture. Amazingly, despite numerous earthquakes over the years, much of this architecture has been well preserved. Having said that Antigua has around 30 different ruined churches and cathedrals within it’s city limits which have been left as is. While I had naively thought that this was out of a desire for preservation, the reality would seem to be more likely that no one has presented sufficient money to develop them. Today, Antigua is a UNESCO World Heritage site, rated as one of the world’s best preserved colonial cities. In short, it’s rather beautiful.
Enough about history though, what did we actually get up to? We kicked things off with a very laid back Christmas and then much more lively New Years celebration. On the 31st December people flock to Antigua (particularly from the capital) and pack the streets for a massive fireworks show. We finished 2016 at a thumping club night in an old municipal swimming pool in the middle of no where called La Piscina. It was right up there as one of our better NYE celebrations.
The main reason we went to Antigua was for Fi to do some Spanish study. In between we ate loads of amazing food, spent plenty of time in what I now think is Latin America’s best market, and got acquainted with Guatemala’s version of the Michelada called a Picosita (beer based cocktail). We found time for salsa lessons, lots of coffee drinking, cowboy boot manufacturing and volcano climbing. We whiled away a good few hours just strolling the cobblestone streets and sitting in the beautiful squares. After all, Antigua is stunning. Here is a bit more on some of the highlights…
The best market in Latin America
Antigua’s mercado central (central market) is a massive rabbit warren of vendors selling everything from fresh bulls testicles to pots and pans. The first time we ventured into this maze we got mildly lost; and to be fair, it took a good few weeks before we didn’t get lost. It’s so big, noisy and smelly but also so full of amazing produce and vendors selling tasty treats. I loved being greeted by the high pitched, almost wale of the indigenous women selling fruit and vegetables from a patch on the ground. I loved sharing banter with the happy faced butchers and the cheeky women at their comedors (small restaurant). Most of all, though, I loved poking my nose into all the amazing produce: from sides of pork hanging in the window to piles of chicharrones (deep fried pig skin) sitting on the ground; from mounds of fresh roma tomatoes to buckets of little tomatillos; from dried guaque chilis to the little fresh chilis.
Walking through all that goodness it was nearly impossible not to be tempted by some kind of snack whether it was chile rellenos (deep fried chiles stuffed with minced pork and vegetables), rellenitos (deep fried plantain balls stuffed with beans), enchiladas (fried tortillas topped with varying different vegetables, beans and slices of boiled egg) or the aforementioned chicharones. All this and the sheer scale of the place has brought me to the potentially controversial conclusion that Antigua’s mercado central is the best in Latin America.
Home cooked deliciousness and an introduction to picositas
For most of our time in Antigua we had the pleasure of staying with an amazing family organised through Fi’s Spanish school. During our three weeks with the family we had the pleasure of being introduced to many of Guatemala’s traditional dishes, one of the all time best late night snacks and picositas. Everyday from Monday to Saturday the family’s cook (Sandra) churned out outstanding breakfasts and lunches. From Pepian (Guatemala’s national dish) to Estofada (delicious chicken stew) and Chiles Rellenos, all Sandra’s cooking was so damn good that I ended up spending an afternoon with her to record a bunch of her recipes.
The family’s youngest daughter also did us a huge favour by introducing us to Picositas. Picositas are Guatemala’s version of a Michelada and consist of beer, fresh chilis, lime juice, worcester sauce (salsa ingles) and salt. Just around the corner from our house was a bar / car wash that served these delicious beverages. We drank plenty and would highly recommend them.
Pastores: tailor made cowboy boots and pork crackling
Four kilometres north of Antigua is a town called Pastores. This unassuming little village is home to a stack of workshops/stores who churn out all all manner of leather goods. The main product seems to be cowboy boots of all shapes and sizes, but you can also buy leather jackets, hats, wallets, bags and belts. Fi had read about Pastores and being fairly partial to a good pair of cowboy boots, had to go. As we walked down the main street of town we popped our heads into different shops scoping out the competition and pricing. After a second visit we ended up walking away with one pair of boots off the rack, one pair tailor made and one leather jacket. All for 1700Q or just under USD230. Amazing!
The other outstanding thing about Pastores is a small chicharrones stand just outside of town. I don’t think we would have noticed it if it wasn’t for the heady aroma of frying pork skin that hit us as we walked past on our way into town. Obviously this isn’t for everyone but for us the prospect of buying fresh and perfectly cooked pork crackling by the pound was right up our alley. If this is something that appeals to you, make sure you ask for bits that have a bit of meat on them as well. They’re the best.
Salsa dancing and the perfect late night snack
Dancing salsa seems to be fast becoming a realm of the older generation. Young Guatemalan’s seem to be more keen on reggaeton or western pop music. Still, an awesome thing about Antigua is that for five out of seven nights of the week there are quality salsa nights at three different bars.
Like many couples Fi is a natural dancer while I seem to have two left feet, no hip movement and lack the ability to count in time whilst also moving my body. My handicap is fine when busting out the two step shuffle in a club in Australia but when trying to lead my wife through a night of Salsa in Latin America it’s not ideal. Having said all this, I’m very lucky that Fi patiently put up with my woeful dancing and encouraged me through each missed step and squashed toe. And, after several lessons I even managed to string together a few, not altogether awful moves.
One particular night after some enthusiastic salsa dancing we were desperate for some food when our host sister took us to a late night snack stand. There we discovered these delicious sandwiches where the bread was brushed with chimichuri, toasted on the grill and then filled with beans, cheese and your choice of meat. After much sampling we decided that the cerdo adobado (marinated pork) was hands down the best.
Antigua travel and feasting tips:
- Spanish lessons and homestay: Fi went with Antiguena (which is one of the biggest schools in town. She really enjoyed her lessons although potentially would have liked some more structure. Our advice is to be very clear about how you would like to study and if you don’t get along with your teacher then change. Fi’s teacher was great – ask for Judith (hoo-dit). 20 hours/week one-on-one tuition including room and board with a family cost USD175. For me to stay with the family with no Spanish lessons cost an additional USD90/week. If possible ask to stay with Chicki and Oscar. They’re the best!
- Salsa lessons:
- We started with free lessons each Monday and Tuesday afternoon, 5-6pm with Frank at New Sensation Salsa (7a Avenida Norte 78). Private lessons with Frank cost 125Q/hour (including Spanish school discount).
- We also had some free lessons with Gloria from Salsa con Gloria (across the road and down a few blocks towards Parque Central from New Sensation) which are the same days and times as New Sensation Sensation. Private one-on-one classes with Gloria cost 100Q.
- We would recommend trying both teachers and see which one is for you. Both are awesome but Frank is definitely more technical.
- Salsa nights:
- Tuesday nights are at the club under La Sin Ventura Hostel (5a Avenida Sur 8), Fridays and Saturdays are at Las Palmas (6a Avenida Norte). Both have great live bands cranking out Salsa and Bachata. After both you can continue on to La Sala (6a Calle Poniente between 6a Avenida Sur and 5a Avenida Sur) which has a DJ but is equally good fun. La Sala also has a Sunday salsa night.
- Bars and cafes: There are a lot of great bars and cafes in Antigua. Here are a few of our favourites.
- For coffee my favourite was definitely Refugio (7A Avenida), with Fat Cat being a close second. Stay tuned for my review of Antigua’s best coffee coming soon.
- For bars: Picosita (2a Avenida de Chajon, just up from the corner with Calle de los Nazarenos, towards mercado central) was our local; definitely order a picosita and if hungry the tempura prawns are gold; we really liked Cafe No Se (1a Avenida Sur) for it’s dark intimacy; Frida’s (5a Avenida Norte #29) had delicious Mescal cocktails; Door Eleven (1a Calle Poniente) was a fun and friendly local with apparently the best wings in town on Thursday nights; The Terrace Hostel (3a Calle Poniente #24-B) has a great terrace bar with friendly staff and awesome views of the volcanos: we probably spent most of our time though in La Palmas and La Sala for salsa and general good times.
- Good eating: As we spent most of our time staying with our family we didn’t actually eat out that much. That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of awesome restaurants, we just didn’t get to them.
- We ate out most at the stands in the mercado central given value for money deliciousness
- Each afternoon there are a bunch of street stalls in La Merced selling steamed corn, enchiladas and sandwiches
- We did go to Toko Baru (17a, 5 Avenida Sur 1) a few times which is owned by a Dutch expat and is great for a fairly authentic and reasonable priced curry
- For something more fancy, we had a pretty delicious french inspired meal at Hector’s Bistro (No. 9, 1a Calle Poniente).
- For a late night feast, watch out for the stand on Alameda de Santa Lucia just near Hugo’s Ceviche; for 20Q you’ll get an enormous sandwich which may well change your life.
- Accommodation: While we did stay with the family for most of the time we also sampled three different places. All were good in their own way.
- Hotel la Casa de Don Ismael: first place we stayed with tidy rooms, friendly staff and a kitchen you could sometimes use. Best part was the big roof terrace (2a Callejon, #6, 3a Calle Poniente, USD30/night/double room with shared bathroom). NOTE, prices at Don Ismael were higher than usual as we stayed over Christmas.
- Hostel Capitan Tom: funny place right near mercado central run by a super friendly eastern European lady. Well equipped kitchen (albeit quite small), another great rooftop terrace and cheap rooms (Calzada Santa Lucia Norte #10 interior area. Close to the ¨El Mastil¨ Store, USD18/night/double room with shared bathroom)
- Hospedaje el Viajero: Nice place down a quiet street with huge rooms, decent kitchen and a little roof terrace (7a Avenida Norte, USD20/double room with shared bathroom)
- For a great view across town (especially for sunset) take a walk up to Cerro de la Cruz. There have been reports of muggings and harassment on the way up to the mirador so preferably go as a group and make sure you leave before it gets too dark. Having said this, we never had any problems.
- For a taste of some local chocolate and to learn about the manufacturing process, catch a bus up to San Juan del Obispo. There is a also a pretty random local distillery up there making local fruit wine.
- People may promote a trip to Aguas Calientes, some ‘hot springs’ about 30 minutes bus ride from Antigua. DON’T BOTHER! They’re more cool than hot.