Things to Do in Antigua
Canary yellow with white trim, the baroque La Merced Church (Iglesia de la Merced) is one of Antigua’s few colonial churches to survive earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Inside its thick walls are notable artworks such as a sculpture of Jesus carrying a golden cross, which is paraded through the streets on Palm Sunday and Good Friday.
Once a powerful seat of the Mayan empire, the Tikal ruins are now the most famous archeological site in Guatemala and one of the most-visited sets of Mayan ruins in all of Latin America. The UNESCO World Heritage Site, consisting of temples, plazas, and pyramids, was first settled around 700 BC, and modern visitors still get swept away by their beauty and powerful aura.
For more than 200 years, the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales was the colonial headquarters for the Spanish viceroy that governed the entire Central American region, housing the royal court, post office, treasury, and horse stables until the capital was relocated from Antigua to Guatemala City. After an extensive restoration, the palace now hosts cultural exhibits and performances.
Named after Guatemala’s colorful national bird, Biotopo del Quetzal is a vast nature reserve in central Guatemala encompassing Lanquin Caves, Rey Marcos Caves, and the rock pools of Semuc Champey. Abundant wildlife populate the expanse, including howler monkeys and elusive birds such as emerald toucanets, highland guans, and the endangered quetzal.
The Museum of Colonial Art (Museo de Arte Colonial) is known for its extensive collection of sculptures, paintings, and furniture from the 16th to 18th centuries. The museum is housed inside the former University of San Carlos, a beautiful colonial building situated right in front of the cathedral, in the heart of Antigua, Guatemala.
Antigua Central Park (Parque Central) is considered one of the most beautiful parks in Guatemala. It’s the main outdoor area in town and where people go to sit, stroll, or meet up for an afternoon of relaxation and nice weather. From Central Park you have a superb view of the Agua Volcano, which towers over Antigua.
Ancient Mayans were the first to begin using cocoa beans in culinary preparations, and today, Guatemala is one of the countries most associated with chocolate production. At the ChocoMuseo Antigua, visitors learn about the history of chocolate and the chocolate production process in a hands-on, kid-friendly setting.
During the ChocoMuseo’s three-times-daily Beans-to-Bar Workshop, a guide walks attendees through the entire chocolate-making process, from harvest and roasting to tempering and molding. Along the way, guests get to prepare cocoa tea, Mayan hot chocolate and European hot chocolate, as well as a box of their own handmade chocolates to bring home. The museum also offers a truffle workshop and a full day tour with a visit to a working cocoa plantation.
The stark and silent beauty of the ruins of Catedral de Santiago (Antigua Cathedral) offers visitors one of only a few quiet and contemplative escapes in the 500-year-old city of Antigua. Once a towering homage to religion and faith, this European-inspired white stone wonder was devastated during a massive earthquake in 1717 and never repaired. Today, travelers can explore what remains of this unique structure, whose exterior tells a story of triumph and perseverance. It’s only when visitors pass by the reconstructed façade that they find what can only be described as broken beauty.
Covered hallways and altars now exist under open skies, since ceilings and rooftops that crumbled during natural disasters were never replaced. Delicate white engravings and vast ivory archways are tinged and darkened with dirt after so many years of being exposed to the elements. Visitors can explore the grounds, climb crumbling staircases and bear witness to exquisite views of the church and the charming streets of surrounding Antigua.
Cerro de la Cruz is a lush hill on the northern edge of Antigua marked by a massive stone cross. From a scenic overlook, enjoy expansive views of the city’s grid of pretty terracotta rooftops laid out at the base of the magnificent Volcán de Agua.
Each year, thousands of pilgrims journey to the multi-domed Church of San Francisco to offer their prayers to Saint Brother Peter (Santo Hermano Pedro), a Franciscan monk who opened a hospital for the poor of Antigua. Pope John Paul II made Brother Peter a saint in 2002, and today the monk’s tomb is one of the most visited and venerated holy sites in Antigua.
More Things to Do in Antigua
Part museum and part hotel, Casa Santo Domingo (Monasterio de Santo Domingo) —is an exquisitely restored, historic window into Antigua’s Colonial past. Founded in 1542, the Santo Domingo Monastery quickly grew into one of the largest in all the Americas, though massive earthquakes in the 18th century turned the monastery to rubble.
In the 1970s, the monastery was dramatically revived and reborn as a five star hotel, which now has a wealth of fascinating museums that even travelers not staying at the hotel are welcome to visit and enjoy. At the Colonial Museum, wander past pieces of Colonial art from the 16th to 19th centuries, where religious paintings, sculptures and angels adorn the dimly lit walls. The artifacts get even older at the Archaeological Museum, where ceramic jugs, urns and bowls date all the way back to 200 AD and the Classic Period of the Maya. To learn about local metallurgy, visit the popular silver museum to see candlesticks, crowns and incense holders that were crafted around Antigua. There’s even a classic apothecary shop reminiscent of a 19th century pharmacy.
While Casa Santo Domingo is open to the public, it’s best accessed as part of a guided tour of Antigua’s sites,where guides can offer in depth info of everything inside the museum.
One of Antigua’s most photographed structures, the saffron-coloredxa0 Santa Catalina Arch was built in 1694 to connect two convents to a school outside their confines, to protect them from entering the outside world on their way to teach there. Safe from breaking their vow of seclusion, they passed through a hidden passageway inside the arch.
This 8,373-foot (2,552-meter) smoking peak is one of Guatemala’s most accessible active volcanoes. Its upper reaches feature lava formations formed by recent flows, as well as vents that puff up steaming hot air, while its summit affords spectacular views of nearby volcanoes including Agua, Acatenango, and Fuego.
One of Antigua’s most visited ruins, Las Capuchinas (Convento de las Capuchinas) is a Guatemalan convent with a past unlike other convents—women were not required a dowry to join. The building, featuring the work of architect Diego de Porres, is a perfect example of colonial architecture, and there’s an art museum on the convent’s second floor.
Tranquil, tiered turquoise pools suspended over limestone are what you can expect to find when visiting Semuc Champey. A natural limestone bridge supports the pools, which change their shades of turquoise according to climatic variations throughout the year. While backpackers have been coming to the remote pools for a while, one of Guatemala’s best-kept secrets is now accessible via tours.
Located in the Western Highlands of Guatemala, the pre-Columbian Mesoamerican site of Iximche was the capital of the late post-classic Kaqchikel Maya kingdom from 1470 until it was ultimately abandoned in 1524 and then declared a Guatemalan National Monument in the 1960s.
Once in the archeological site, you will see four ceremonial plazas surrounded by tall temples and two ball courts. There is also a small museum displaying sculptures and ceramics found at Iximche during excavations. As you tour the site, look for poorly preserved painted murals and listen to guides as they talk about evidence of human sacrifice found at Iximche.
Originally, the Kaqchikel maintained their capital at what is present-day Chichicastenango but then moved to Iximche sometime around 1470 due to the rampant expansion movement and growing power of their K’iche rivals. Iximche was built along the safer 7,000-foot-high (2,134-meter-high) mountain ridge, surrounded by deep ravines. It took the Kaqchikel only about 50 years to get developed again as a city, and although they were able to ward off some attacks by the K’iche, the Spanish conquistadors soon arrived. An alliance was offered to assist with gaining control of other Mayan kingdoms, so Iximche was then declared the first capital of the Kingdom of Guatemala. Due to overbearing requests from the Spanish, the Kaqchikel broke the alliance and left Iximche, which was ultimately burned two years later by Spanish deserters.
Guatemala’s Pacaya is one of the most popular volcanoes to visit, but travelers shouldn't skip its neighbor, Acatenango. Towering nearly 13,123 feet (4,000 meters), it is Guatemala’s third-tallest volcano and one of the tallest stratovolcanoes in Central America.
Acatenango’s first eruption was in 1924 —relatively recent in comparison to many other volcanoes—though some evidence of its volcanic activity dates back to prehistoric times. Other eruptions occurred shortly after, but it then remained quiet until an eruption in 1972. Since then, Acatenango has been declared dormant.
Acatenango is part of the Fuego-Acatenango massif, or string of volcanic vents, which includes Yepocapa, Pico Mayor de Acatenango, Meseta and Fuego. Acatenango has two main summits: Yepocapa, the northern summit at 12,565 feet (3,830 meters) and Pico Mayor, the southern and highest cone at 13,054 feet (3,976 meters). These are known as Tres Hermanas, and when joined with Fuego, the complex is collectively known as La Horqueta.
Both Acatenango and its twin, Fuego, offer stunning views overlooking the city of Antigua. Ascending Acatenango takes visitors through four different temperate zones — high farmland, cloud forest, high-alpine forest and volcanic. Acatenango is the perfect spot to watch Fuego’s regular activity, which includes audible moans and groans, plumes of smoke and large lava rocks hurling into the air.
Jade is a rare and precious stone dating back to the pre-Columbian era in Mesoamerica. Some of the world’s best jade was found in Guatemala. Historically, it was used in culturally significant ways, including in hieroglyph inscriptions and carvings of symbolic figures.
There are two types of jade — Jadeite and Nephrite. Jadeite is more dense and renowned for its rich colors. Nephrite is more of a carving stone, found in many places around the world. Jadeite contains the bright green and apple colors you find in quality jade jewelry. Those colors were prized by both Chinese emperors and Maya kings.
To learn more about jade, visitors to Antigua can visit the Jade Factory and Museum, also called Jade Maya, founded in 1974 by archaeologist Mary Lou Ridinger and her husband, Jay. Fine jadeite is mined here in the same manner of the Olmec, Maya and Aztec people. Guatemalan workers at Jade Maya cut and polish the mined jade following the same traditions of their ancestors.
The jade is transformed into pre-Columbian-style, museum-quality replicas and beautiful handmade fashion jewelry and accessories. There is an online catalog that shows some of the designs Jade Maya has created to date. The small museum has a nice chronological timeline on the history of jade and various displays depicting jade artifacts discovered on excavations. Visitors to Jade Maya will appreciate the knowledge Ridinger shares with visitors as an expert in mining jade. She and her husband discovered the jade mining zone, an area lost for more than 500 years after the start of the Spanish conquest.
Quiriguá (sometimes written Quirigua) is an ancient Mayan site in southeastern Guatemala. Although it’s considered a small Mayan city, it is without a doubt one of the most important. It was here that the tallest stela from the Maya world was discovered. The monolithic stone stands 35 feet high (10.6 meters), 5 feet (1.5 meters) wide and 5 feet (1.5 meters) thick, weighing over 60 tons (53.6 long tons).
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Quiriguá once controlled the jade and obsidian trade route. During the same time, the city had a fierce rivalry with its neighbor Copán in Honduras. Researchers believe Quiriguá was inhabited starting in the second century, and the bulk of the most important monuments were carved between A.D 426 and AD 810. It is unknown why Quiriguá entered a period of decline, but evidence suggests that when the Europeans arrived, the jade route was under the control of Nito, a city closer to the Caribbean coast.
The stelae, or monolothic sandstone monuments, at Quiriguá were carved without tools and contain hieroglyphic texts that provide information on the Maya city’s rise and fall, along with details during the most important years. These monumental structures also tell an important tale of Quiriguá’s relationship with Copán and were built around the Great Plaza. The Ceremonial Plaza and the Plaza of the Temple are renowned for their complexity.
The last known hieroglyphs from Quiriguá date back to A.D. 810, which was around the time of the entire Classic Maya collapse. Researchers believe that the reduction in trade along the Motagua may have caused Quiriguá to ultimately be abandoned.
Constructed in 1743, Antigua City Hall (Palacio del Ayuntamiento) once served as the seat of the Spanish colonial government seat as well as an 80-person jail. Today, the building is the city’s administrative center and home to the Museo del Libro and the Museo de Santiago. The hall’s visually striking two-story façade has a double layer of stone archways and Tuscan-style columns.
Built during the 1540s upon the ancient foundation of a Maya temple site, Santo Tomas Church (Iglesia de Santo Tomás) is a Roman Catholic church in Chichicastenango, Guatemala. It remains a venerated holy site for people of both Catholic and Maya faiths and blends of the two. The stone stairs leading to the gleaming white Dominican church are reminiscent of those at ancient temple sites, and the steps have turned black from prayer sessions in which shamans waft copal incense and set purification fires. Inside, the church is adorned with offerings, everything from maize to liquor, and numerous candles, which have colors and patterns that correspond with those they've been lit for.
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