My love affair with Antigua began in the year 2000, when my best friend and I visited (we were living in Costa Rica at the time) and decided that the town was just so beautiful, moving there was a must. From 2001-2003, I called the colonial city and former Guatemalan capital my home, during which time the love affair blossomed. I worked full time, lived a fairly normal life (Antigua is far from roughing it), except that nearly every day, after greeting the Maya women weaving textiles in the park near my house, I would imagine where I stood on the world map, in what was once the capital city of all of Central America.
By 2003, it was time to move on, but the love affair with Antigua never ended. Now, seven years later, in the bus from Guatemala City I felt jittery, excited and nervous to visit and see how things had changed.
On the bus less than halfway to Antigua from Guatemala City, I spotted through the window something most unusual. Mono Loco, always one of Antigua’s more famous gringo bars, had a big, bright, well-branded billboard on the side of the highway. Then we whizzed past an even bigger billboard for the Casbah, Antigua’s only nightclub (both then and now). Billboards? Advertisements? Don’t things like that need budgets and marketing knowledge? Back in the day, the bars, clubs and restaurants like Mono Loco were party places where the owner was just as likely to be hanging from the rafters as the clientele. We were all travelers, of the same ilk. Just as I was remembering a time when one such owner (who shall remain nameless) actually did hang wildly from a balcony back in 2002, I glimpsed a second billboard for Mono Loco. Suddenly I realized that these owners were no longer ex-backpackers; they are business owners, and they, like myself, were all grown up.
In terms of tourism, the UNESCO World Heritage site of Antigua has also developed and matured. Back in the day, with great hostel choices, guaranteed hot water, excellent food choices, free movie nights and language schools, Antigua was always the spot where we dirty, grubby backpackers could clean-up, relax, eat some European or North American fare and prepare for the onward journey. Some ended up staying longer than planned, and several of my friends there had just ended up staying in Antigua all together. Today, young travelers still rule the tourist scene, but there are plenty of mainstream tourists now too, including families, older retired folks from the US, Canada and Europe, and even large tour groups from further afield, like Japan and China. The growing number of mid-range accommodation and three luxury hotels make Antigua much more welcoming for these visitors.
The increase in tourists, and the passage of several years, has meant that the old hang out spots are now dead, and new places have popped up and become popular. One night during our first week in Antigua, I insisted to Dani that we go to Riki’s Bar to try to relive some of the madness that used to ensue here on a nightly basis. What happened instead was depressing. Imagine a birthday girl, hat on, waiting for guests to arrive and when they don’t, she eats the cake (with her name misspelled) all by herself. This was our Riki’s experience. The old hangout was dead. Rather than cry in our soup, we set off to discover the best places to eat, drink, relax and explore in Antigua today. My beloved Antigua might have changed, but we can still easily keep up. Read on for what we discovered.
Eating in Antigua Guatemala
As mentioned above, Mono Loco is the typical gringo hang out, and a bit over-priced. But the burritos are huge and seductively delicious, as are the nachos, and just like at great Mexican restaurants at home, no Spanish is necessary here. For breakfast, head to the beautiful courtyard at Doña Luisa, a bakery and breakfast spot serving up a long list of Guatemalan, American and International favorites. People-watching is also great here, where diners are a mix between middle class Guatemalans, poets, families, businessmen and backpackers.
For cheap eclectic food by ambient candlelight, try Travel Menu, going strong since before 2000. Café Rocio is the best Thai/Indian cuisine we have found since starting our travels. The restaurant is cheaper than the more ‘famous’ Thai option, Café Flor, and the food is much tastier, too. For cheap local food, I was relieved to see that Café de los Mixtas, near the ‘supermarket’ La Bodegona, is still going strong. The family run restaurant has set lunch menus running from $2-$4 including freshly made juices and fruit shakes. Since I was there last, they have opened up a rooftop terrace with at least six more tables.
For your sweet tooth, try the ‘pasteleria’, located on 2nd calle oriente between 4th and 5th Ave norte. We don’t even know the name, but the courtyard, which is hidden from the street, is filled with locals who know that this is the best cake in Antigua. Try the banana chocolate cake and the cheesecake. For food as cheap as chips, stop at La Merced church on the weekends and special occasions for all the street food you can eat at $1.50 an item or less.
Directly across the street, tucked into a tiny space that could be easily overlooked, is the very special Hector’s restaurant (rated #1 on TripAdvisor in Antigua for restaurants). For budget travelers this might be a budget-buster, but especially worth it for meat-eaters. The food is perfectly-prepared fine European cuisine, the wine might make you weep, and yet the experience is not pretentious. Instead, Hector will spend time chatting to you, and although your wallet will be lighter, so will your spirits.
The newest restaurant on the scene is Angie Angie, which opened on 1st Avenue in October. The Argentine artist Angie is a long-time Antigua resident and a familiar friendly face on the scene. Her first stand-alone restaurant/café is a true accomplishment. The food, chocolate and coffee is all organic, the wi-fi is free, the staff are super friendly, and the restaurant doubles an art gallery, with sculptures, photography and paintings on the walls, tables and floor.
Movie Nights in Antigua Guatemala
For bagels, great coffee, free super-fast wi-fi and free movies every night of the week, Bagel Barn (and now Bagel Barn II) is there to please. Las Palmas restaurant takes the free movie night concept one step further. The restaurant, which also has a huge menu of decent international cuisine, shows three movies a day in a private movie room in the back. Should only your group show up for one of the movie times, they’ll let you choose any film you like from their massive movie library.
Ask anyone where to go out in Antigua, and the answer will most likely be Reilly’s. This Irish bar had just opened before I left in 2003, and from the start, Reilly’s Sunday pub quiz was a hit. Today Reilly’s is still Antigua’s most popular bar with foreigners. La Chiminea isn’t the party place it once was, but the space is big, the pool tables are fun, and the food and drinks are very cheap. For jazz, hang out at Ocelot, for dancing the overpriced La Casbah ($4 cover charge, $5 drinks), which is big with people from Guatemala City, who drive their SUVs into town every weekend to dance here. The super cool El Afro has since been renamed La Sala, but is still as popular a watering hole as ever. This is a hard-drinking hang out bar with some drunken dancing late at night.
For a very trendy cocktail experience, head to Cargo Room, a little known restaurant/bar in the back of Lex Cargo’s fabulous jewelry shop. While most of the bespoke jewelry designs in the shop might be out of range for a budget traveler, let celebrity jeweler and local television star Lex, who will greet you at the door and sweep you inside with his fabulousness, lead you back to his restaurant for cocktails that even cocktail haters will love. Prices are similar to U.S. drink prices, but even just for one, the ambiance and a chat with the inspiring and elegant Lex is worth it.
Our top tip in Antigua for a night out is Café No Sé. This bohemian ‘outpost’, whose slogan is ‘because every dive needs a town’, serves great Mexican food and has a Mescal bar with over 30 kinds of tequila and mescal, plus loads of beer and hard stuff, and each drink is served up with popcorn (free). A Tripadvisor review says Café No Sé feels like a border dive in a Tarantino film, but filled with ex-pats and wanna be ex-pats. Go there. Trust us.
What to do in and around Antigua Guatemala
In addition to all the enjoyable eating and drinking, the once earthquake-ridden city has countless ways to spend your days. Much of present-day Antigua was constructed in the 16th century, and loaded with gorgeous ruins of cathedral and churches. Depending on your interest level, you could spend a day exploring the many ruins. Hike up to Cerro de la Cruz, the cross up on the hill that provides a perfect view of the colonial city, or for a view to Antigua’s interesting past, visit the gorgeous all-white San Lazaro cemetery at the southeast end of the city. Although we visited both places alone with no problems, we were warned that both can be dangerous alone, so go with a group, a guide or at least when there are many visitors. If you still have the energy, make your way over to Antigua’s ‘gallery row’, a square block of art galleries with gorgeous original works by Guatemalan artists, including Alejandro Wer.
Outside of Antigua, visit nearby Ciudad Vieja or San Antonio Aguas Calientes for a glimpse of very traditional Guatemalan villages, or take one of the countless organized tours, including a climb up the ever-erupting Pacaya volcano or a visit to Finca Filadelfia or Finca Azotea coffee farm, to see how the delicious Antigua Guatemala coffee makes it from the farm to your cup.
If these activities get costly and run up your budget, there are several places with great views to relax and reflect. At the risk of alienating almost our entire readership with this next sentence, it is an ‘insider’s tip’ we must share: Go to McDonalds. Really. The spacious courtyard at the Antigua McDonalds is a stunning garden filled with tropical flowers and hummingbirds, plus every table has a perfect view of the giant volcano Agua which looms over the city (courtyard pictured below). For views of the erupting volcano Fuego, find any rooftop terrace restaurant and grab a drink, and for the ultimate in people-watching, order an ice cream at the delicious Marco Polo ice cream shop and people watch in Antigua’s super green central park.
If you are traveling with at least two people, we can recommend as highly as possible what we consider the best place to stay in Antigua: Yellow House. The 8 bedroom, two-dorm hotel and travel agency on 7th in between the main market and La Merced is the best budget choice in town. Stay tuned for a full hotel review, but Yellow House (review here) has friendly staff, comfortable beds, cable TV, a large rooftop terrace with hammocks, couches and books, a kitchen, excellent wi-fi, the cleanest shared hot water showers we have found so far and the price includes a filling breakfast of porridge or pancakes, plus eggs, beans, potatoes, bread, sweet bread, fruit and coffee for Q150 or $18 per room per night.
There are plenty of budget options in Antigua, with Jungle Party, The Black Cat and Ummagumma some of the more popular ‘backpacker’ spots. Check on Tripadvisor before staying here though, as bed bugs were an issue not only for us, but for others as well. Do your shopping online first, and then comparison shop once you’re in town. It’s important to find a good place, since you may just end up here for awhile…