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Antigua: Guatemala's UNESCO World Heritage site

Eleanor Hughes

Contributor

Hours can be spent wandering the old part of town along cobbled streets lined with 17th and 18th Century buildings all the colours of a paint box. Dotted here and there are church ruins, and the aftermath of an earthquake in 1773. No building is higher than two storeys due to Antigua’s earthquake history and you’ll be reminded of that history with astonishing views of volcanoes. It’s a picturesque town with lots to do.

Walking the Cobbled Streets

For a great view of Antigua, set out in grids with Baroque-style cathedral and church domes rising above predominantly terracotta coloured rooves, take a walk up to the look-out point at Cerro de la Cruz. It’s at the northern end of town – you can’t miss it, there’s a cross on top of the hill.

Back down in the town, it’s a flat but uneven walk along narrow pavements made narrower from jutting window ledges encased by black wrought-iron grilles. Discover small, green plazas surrounded by brightly painted dwellings, greenish/grey metal door knockers, in the shape of animals, hands or faces decorating solid wooden doors, which hide hotels, restaurants, shops or cool green courtyards with fountains. Snap away at photogenic scenes of dilapidated homes next to the well-cared for. Perhaps the most photographed street is Calle del Arco/5a Avenida Norte where the bright yellow Santa Catalina Arch frames Volcán de Agua in the distance. Amongst the passers-by will be traditionally dressed women in long skirts, usually wearing brightly woven belts and embroidered blouses.

Catedral de Santiago in Parque Central, a fountain in its centre, is actually only a chapel of what was once a huge cathedral and is very simple and plain. Around the back of it stands the ruins of the original. It would’ve been magnificent. Much of the roof has gone and domes open to the sky. Wander through arches, around fallen pillars and amongst sculptured stone fallen from partial walls. Some has been restored. A guide helps to bring it to life.

Another must-see ruin is the Santo Domingo Church. It now houses a five-star hotel with serene gardens and dining and reception areas built around the remains of broken walls, columns, fountains and arches. Some has been restored and excavations continue. Free to enter, there are also a number of museums including ones pertaining to silver, glass and archaeology. 

Shop for Jade, Chocolate and Handcrafts

Chocolate dates back to Mayan times and Guatemala is said to be its birthplace. The ChocoMuseo found at 5a Avenida Norte #15C, holds a Bean to Bar workshop, as well as other workshops, which takes participants through the process of making chocolate starting with the cacao bean. They also have a free museum which covers the history and the process of making chocolate, and of course chocolate to purchase. There are a number of chocolate shops dotted throughout the old town.

Jade, used for jewellery, medicine and death masks, was mined by Mayan long ago in Guatemala. In the 1970s their ancient quarries were discovered by two North American archaeologists who subsequently opened Jade Maya, a workshop, free museum and shop. It is the largest jade operation in Central and South America, carving the rare jadeite into pre-Colombian style replicas and jewellery. There are other jade shops along 4a. Calle Oriente. You’ll be tempted.

There are a number of shops and markets packed with colourful indigenous textiles, bags, and other local handcrafts. Mercado des Artesanias on 4a Calle Poniente/Calzada Santa Lucia, to the west of the historical centre, is huge, selling woven and embroidered items, leather shoes/handbags, jewellery and ornaments. Take a wander behind the next door Mercado Municipal and you’ll come across the bus station. Busy with old American school buses garishly painted and pimped with colour and chrome, figurines and lights, it’s worth a look. On 3a Avenida Sur, behind the cathedral ruins is another colourful street market selling handcrafts. Nim Po’t, just by the Santa Catalina arch, is an extensive store of textiles, chocolate, clay, wooden and glass items, jewellery, t-shirts and more. 

Climb a Volcano

Guatemala has 37 volcanoes, three of which overlook Antigua – Agua, Acatenango and Fuego, with a fourth, Pacaya, nearby. Two are active. Fuego last erupted in 2018 and blazing orange lava can be seen at night, flaring up in the darkness, from highpoints in Antigua – try the rooftop of your accommodation. Pacaya, situated around 1¼ hours drive from Antigua, has frequent mild lava eruptions. Tours to walk the volcanoes can be booked from Antigua and are reasonably priced. Overnight hikes are available on Acatenango (3,766 m) to see Fuego at sunrise.

A tour to hike Pacaya (2500 metres) is around 7 hours return to Antigua. It can get cold on the volcano so wear layers. Steep in places, a reasonable level of fitness is required, although there is the option to hire a horse to carry you. You’ll trek through forest first, coming to a viewpoint which overlooks crater lakes and surrounding volcanoes, although it can be covered by fog in the mornings. The rest of the walk is across rocks, some difficult to walk on as they are large and loose, part of the lava flow. The Lava Shop, a corrugated iron and rock structure, in the middle of nowhere sells jewellery made from lava rock. It’s a source of income for locals who began making the jewellery after the last eruption, turning a bad thing into good. A highlight is toasting marshmallows over the heat emitting from rocks you walk on, within sight of the summit. You may even witness lava and rocks tumbling from the top. 

Make Your Own Peanut Butter

De La Gente works with small-holder coffee farmers & cooperatives in Guatemala and run a number of workshops in local communities. These include coffee tours, pepian (Guatemala’s national dish) cooking classes, artisan workshops and peanut butter workshops.

The peanut butter workshop, around 1½ hours long, is held in the small town of San Miguel Escobar, a short tuk tuk ride from Antigua. At the home of Lidia and Lilian you’ll discover what goes into making peanut butter, from the farm to the finished product and make your own. You’ll shell, roast over the kitchen’s wood fire, de-skin and crush the peanuts in a process that is done by hand by families throughout the area. Enjoy the finished product on freshly made tortillas with bananas and honey and go home with a jar. It’s a great local experience.

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