Antigua, Guatemala may be an almost 500 year old city filled with convents, colonial mansions and stunning parks and plazas. It may also once have been the country’s capital prior to a bunch of destructive earthquakes in 1773, which prompted the government to move to Guatemala City after much of the town was destroyed.
But let’s face it, if you’re a backpacker and looking for Mecca in Central America, this is it. Many come to stay for days, months, even years, but this pair of travellers spent less than a week lapping up what’s effectively Gringolandia in a gorgeous colonial setting.
Now, this wouldn’t be a food and travel blog without a dose of food, so let’s just say the majority of my 5 things to do in Antigua involve something edible. I mean, isn’t travel all about the food?
Antigua is a UNESCO World Heritage site, so that means there’s a whole lot of unique something going on. Perhaps it’s the gorgeous plazas, cobbled streets and fountains, the unique Barroco antigueño style buildings that dot the historic centre, and the preservation you see everywhere you cast your eyes.
With camera in hand, the best way to explore Antigua is on foot. You could easily cover most of the city’s sights and monuments in half a day, leisurely wandering its grid of north-south and east-west cobbled streets.
It truly is a feast for the eyes, from decorative stucco ornaments on weathered façades, to something as simple as a vendor dressed in traditional garb tapping on a smart phone.
The market in Antigua is a hodgepodge of fresh produce vendors, cheap clothing and electronics, pharmaceuticals and so much more.
Monday and Thursday is when it gets right down to business with ample traders, but even if the remaining weekdays are quieter, there’s always something going on.
There’s more than enough fruit and veg to pick up, herbs, spices, maybe some faux-designer footwear or perfect egg-laying hen to take home with you. Keep wandering the labyrinthine passages and the more you’ll discover.
The quantity and quality of cafés in Antigua is seriously impressive. Very different to how it was on our last visit, some fifteen years ago. After drinking way too much bad coffee in South and Central America up to this point, there are places in Antigua that remind you how coffee should taste.
And it isn’t solely about the coffee, either. There’s some good food going on in these joints.
Let’s take a look at a few.
Bella Vista Coffee
El Refugio Café
Guate Java Café
Coffee Bloom Café
Fat Cat Coffee House
Fancy your morning coffee with a view of Volcán de Fuego as it puffs smoke from its crater? Well if you head up to the terrace at Bella Vista you can do exactly that. Not only is the espresso on the excellent side, but you can chow on the San Augustín (29) – a typical brekky plate of eggs, refried beans, cheese, plantain and salsa.
For the best coffee in Antigua, well we think so, grab a stool at El Refugio. This small batch roaster takes the utmost precision and pride in what they put into their cups. They know their shit and do it well.
It’s locally grown beans all the way at Guate Java, another tiny roaster that knows what its doing. The beans are roasted weekly, all the filter methods are available and you can even enjoy a pastry as you sip your poison. Try the affogato for a quick cool-down, made with coconut ice cream.
The dimly-lit yet cool interior of Coffee Bloom offers alcove seating options downstairs and a light-filled and spacious room upstairs. Friendly service and a decent espresso, even if it is higher priced than the excellent ones you get a few doors away at El Refugio.
You can get your V60, Chemix and all the espresso options at Fat Cat Coffee House. This family business roast its own local beans and the baristas are passionate about their craft. Plenty of bean varieties are available to take home, as well.
Y Tu Piña También
San Martin Bakery
The Brownie Hole
If you’re after a bit more substance from a café, then hoe into some huevos rancheros, biscuits & gravy, a McFucking muffin or chorizo sandwich with your morning coffee or hangover smoothie at Y Tu Piña También. Yes, they did name their muffin that way.
There’s always the Bagel Barn with their variety of bagels and breakfast wraps. The Inglés (39) is a near perfect specimen of fried egg and bacon in a toasted bagel, or try one with coffee cream cheese.
For a few simple breakfast options, head to the very cosy Union Café for their overnight oats, fruit plate or yoghurt and granola. Or the ever-popular Café Condesa for French toast or pancakes in the courtyard of a stunning 1549 colonial house
The best looking bakery in Antigua would have to be San Martín with its impressive array of sweet and savoury goods. You really could go mad in there.
If that’s all too much and you prefer it simple, look no further than The Brownie Hole which does just one thing – a brownie topped with either chocolate or vanilla ice cream. They also do coffee, tea, juices and smoothies. As for that brownie – it’s out of this world.
Boozing in Antigua is never a problem so if your preference is a dive bar, whisky bar, wine bar or something in-between, the city delivers.
For a drink with a view of a volcano or three, that is if it’s not overcast, step on up to Sky Café for your cerveza, cocktail or vino. Grab some nachos or a pizza while you’re there.
It’s difficult to go somewhere and not trip over an Irish bar in your travels, so why not pick yourself up and take advantage of the two-for-one beers and spirits at Reilly’s? To be sure!
If Irish is a bit much, how about The Londoner Pub? Live music, karaoke, a full bar, rowdy atmosphere and some typical Brit pub grub. That homemade pie with mash, peas and gravy ticked all the right boxes!
Reilly’s Irish Tavern
The Londoner Pub
Moving on from pub grub, there’s a handful of Asian eateries that may provide the perfect break from local or Euro fare. Everything sounded promising at Juancho Ming, until the chalky Gaochii dumplings (35) were tried. The arroz frito (55) and chao fun noodles (45) are fairly standard.
You can get a good dose of barbecue at Pappy’s BBQ. Start with some local craft beers and then move on to smoked whisky bbq wings, St. Luis ribs, Southern pulled pork and all the usual sides.
For the ultimate típico Guatemalan food experience, look no further than Cuevita de los Urquizú. Its small shopfront displays an array of stoneware pots containing slow-cooked meat stews which include turkey, chicken and beef plus beef tongue, tripe and pig face for the more adventurous. Plenty of non-meat options, as well. For 80Q you can choose one protein and two sides. Tortillas are included.
Quevita de los Urquizu
The #249 bus runs frequently from the main stop in Juayúa to Sonsonate Terminal. Jump onboard and wait for it to fill before it departs. Cost is 50¢ per person and it takes an hour.
From Sonsonate get bus #259 to La Hachdura (Frontera – border bus). Cost is 90¢ per person and it takes 1½ hrs.
Once you cross the border, walk over the bridge after El Salvador customs. Get a stamp on the Guatemalan side, then grab the bus that goes to Esquintla. Ask a local and they’ll point where the bus is, or check my map. Cost is 50Q per person and it takes 3 hrs.
Get off at the stop on the corner of Calle 9 & CA-9, walk about 30 metres to the corner by the convenience store and wait for a bus that goes to Antigua. Cost is 8Q per person and it takes 1 hr. Check map for bus stop locations.