How to Speak Semana Santa – Antigua, Guatemala

This post is part 1 of 6 in the series Semana Santa in Antigua

Antigua, Guatemala (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) puts on the largest Easter celebration in The Americas. It’s estimated that around 200,000 people flock to this Colonial gem of a town every year to watch the colorful Semana Santa (Holy Week) celebrations between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday.

It’s all a lot more fun if you know your andas from your alfombras so we put together this handy Semana Santa Primer. Consider it a cheat sheet to guide you through the Semana Santa madness in our posts from  Antigua. You’ll see adorable kids! You’ll watch us help create an elaborate traditional street carpet made out of flowers! You’ll marvel as enormous floats navigate tight corners during processions galore!

And don’t miss our video at the bottom of this post–it’s full of highlights from Palm Sunday in Antigua.

How to speak Semana Santa

SEMANA SANTA – The Spanish phrase for Holy Week which runs from Palm Sunday through Easter Sunday.

CUARESMA – The Spanish word for Lent, which is celebrated in Antigua with processions every weekend for the five weeks leading up to Semana Santa. If you can’t make it to Antigua for Easter week (or if you can’t get a hotel room in town over Holy Week), you can still catch one of Antigua’s Lent processions.

PASQUA – The Spanish word for Easter.

PROCESSION – A religious parade which always leaves from and returns to a specific church. Processions tell the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection using elaborate floats (called andas, see below) full of iconography. More than a dozen major processions (and many smaller processions) take place day and night in Antigua during Semana Santa. We managed to attend 12 of them. The procession tradition is said to have started in Guatemala in 1524 and, today, most Semana Santa processions include two main andas. The first carries a scene from the life of Jesus. The second carries a depiction of the Virgin Mary. Each procession is named after the specific Jesus and Mary that adorn the floats (i.e. Jesús De La Merced, Jesús El Peregrino, Jesús Del Milagro).  Some last for 15 hours and cover many miles.

ANDA – An enormous hand-crafted wooden float which weighs up to 8,000 pounds and is carried by up to 100 people. Dozens of andas are paraded around town during Semana Santa and each carries a different tableau on top depicting a scene from the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. These scenes are changed every year, but their meaning remains the same. Some of the andas are antiques and some are new. Each church has their own own anda of varying sizes and the main characters from the andas (Jesus, etc) spend the rest of the year in niches in their home churches. The andas are lit during night processions when people push generators along the procession route behind the floats.

ALFOMBRA – This is the Spanish word for “carpet” and that’s exacty what these temporary pieces of street art are meant to be–fancy carpets which pave the way for the andas in each procession. People spend as much as they can on alfombra ingredients which include flowers, luridly dyed wood shavings and sawdust, fruits and vegetables even glitter and tiny Noah’s Arcs. Some are hand-made and, thus, imperfect. Others are created meticulously using stencil cut outs and exact measurements. We found ones to love in all styles. Alfombras are typically created by an entire extended family on the cobblestone street in front of their home but local businesses create alfombras too. See more alfombras.  

COPAL – A natural tree resin which is burned as incense by men and boys swinging incense burners in front of the main anda. Processions on Saturday seem to have the most incense. Our theory is that on Saturday processions only include one anda with Mary on top (Jesus is not included because he’s been crucified and not yet risen). The Saturday andas are carried exclusively by women which leaves many men looking for a role to play in the processions so they grab incense burners.    

PURPLE – During the first half of Semana Santa hundreds of men in Antigua put on a silky purple tunic and sash with a head dress or hood (some hoods look disturbingly like KKK hats, but they’ve got nothing to do with racism). Why purple? Because it is the liturgical color of Lent and some believe it symbolizes Jesus’ pain and suffering and emulates the color of a robe that covered Jesus.  The costume switches to all black on Good Friday afternoon following Jesus’ crucifixion.

VIERNES SANTO – We’re not sure why it’s called “Holy” Friday or “Good” Friday since this is the day on which Jesus was crucified. We can tell you that Semana Santa celebrations in Antigua reach their peak on Viernes Santo (not on Easter Sunday) with four major processions in town and very large crowds.  The action starts at midnight on Thursday with the Peregon de Romanos (parade of Romans). Some processions begin at 4 am on Friday morning and some don’t finish until 6 am Saturday morning. Graphic and emotional re-enactments of the crucifixion of Jesus also take place inside churches on Viernes Santo and by 3:00 pm everyone has changed out of their purple clothes and into black clothes in mourning for the crucified Jesus.

Jesus has arisen and he says there’s just Una Via (one way)…

EASTER SUNDAY – The day Jesus is said to have risen from the dead marks the end of Semana Santa but Easter Sunday is not the peak of the celebrations. That honor goes to Good Friday. Processions on Easter Sunday have a celebratory vibe with fireworks, people waving yellow and white flags and confetti in the air.

MARCHAS FUNEBRAS –  This is the Spanish phrase for funeral marches. Music plays a big role in Semana Santa processions, cueing various actions and setting an appropriately somber mood. The procession bands (which are paid to perform), are heavy on drums, brass and wind instruments and they play a repertoire of more than 100 marchas funebras, mostly written by Guatemalan composers.Some bands throw in a Chopin tune now and then for variety. After a few days we began recognizing some of the songs in heavy rotation. The sound is not unlike the brass bands associated with classic New Orleans second-line funeral processions and we’ve got back up on this one. Dr. Tom Tunks, a Professor of Music at Southern Mehtodist University in Texas, has lived in New Orleans and has taught jazz musicians from the legendary Marsalis family, was also in town for Semana Santa and he agrees that some of the marchas funebras bear a passing resemblance to dirges played by brass bands during second-lines in New Orleans.

CUCURUCHOS and CARGADORAS – These are the men and women, respectively, who carry the andas. Each pays about 30 quetzales (roughly US$4) to their church for the privilege. Children, who carry smaller andasin their own special processions, pay less.

People signing up and getting measured so they can help carry an enormous wooden float on their shoulders during an Easter parade in Antigua, Guatemala.

Only men carry andas with Jesus on them and these can weigh up to 8,000 pounds and require 100 men. Only women carry andas with the Virgin Mary on them and these can weigh up to 3,000 pounds. During each processions, these enormous andas are carefully choreographed along specific routes through city streets, around tight corners and over an obstacle course of cobblestones and flower-and-vegetable-strewn alfombras. Originally done as penance with the faces of the bearers covered, it’s now clearly an honor to carry the load of an anda. Every carrier gets measured to ensure that each group of 40-100  bearers is of relatively the same height. You can imagine what would happen if the heights varied too much. It’s also said that the tallest bearers get the honor of carrying the anda out of the church. Or maybe it’s a challenge. Often the anda is already so tall that the bearers have to carry it while squatting in order to ease it out the door. Some andas have to exit on rails and get picked up once outside the church. Bearers usually carry their anda for one block then an artful switch is made. Many come back to carry again later in the procession.

ROMA – What would the crucifixion story be without Roman centurions? Many men and boys play this role and march ahead of the main anda in processions wearing fairly elaborate costumes which include armor and capes and menacing spears. Though it’s hard to look too tough when your helmet is topped by a bright red broom…

WHAT’S WITH THE KKK HOODS? –  Some of the Semana Santa costumes feature tall pointed hats that cover the men’s faces. Yes, they look disturbingly like part of the KKK costume but these versions have nothing to do with hateful racists. They’ve been worn by Catholic Brotherhoods in Europe for hundreds of years and are seen in Semana Santa celebrations throughout the world.

Here’s video of some of the processions from Palm Sunday in the daytime and nighttime:

Travel tips for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala

Route maps for the day’s processions are usually available at information booths in the main plaza in Antigua in front of the cathedral.

To get the best pictures of the alfombras, study the route map and approach the church that’s hosting the procession by walking toward it backward along the procession route–toward the church instead of away from it. This will enable to you shoot the intact alfombras before they get trampled by the procession.

During Semana Santa normally-safe Antigua becomes a magnet for pickpockets. This is for real.  Carry as little with you as possible when you venture out during Semana Santa (especially on Thursday and Friday when crowds are thickest). Eric caught a mans’ hand in the leg pocket of his cargo pants during the very first procession we watched. The pocket only contained a route map and after he caught the pickpocket Eric  followed him out of the catherdral and onto the street shouting “Cuidado! Ladrón!” (Caution! Thief!). Eric even pointed the guy out to a police officer who stopped the man and searched him but since he didn’t have anyone else’s ill-gotten booty on him they had to let him go. We also heard the sad, sad story of an elderly couple that was pickpocketed not once but TWICE. First they got the woman’s wallet by slicing the bottom of her bag open. The next day thieves got the man’s fanny pack by cutting the belt. The couple had stubbornly ignored multiple warnings not to carry anything valuable and they ended up losing all their money and creidt cards. Don’t be like them.  

Forget about driving anywhere in Antigua during Semana Santa. The streets all over town are closed for hours for the building of the alfombras and then for the processions.   Oh, and Jesus always looks to the right from on top of the anda. No idea why, but it’s something to consider for photography.

 

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Holy Street Art! The Alfombras of Semana Santa – Antigua, Guatemala

This post is part 2 of 6 in the series Semana Santa in Antigua

If you already read our handy Semana Santa Primer post, then skip ahead to the pretty pictures. For the rest of you…Alfombra is the Spanish word for carpet and that’s exactly what these temporary, organic pieces of street art are meant to be–fancy carpets that pave the way for elaborate Semana Santa processions which we witnessed last week in Antigua, Guatemala, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that hosts the most mind blowing Easter celebration in the Americas.

Semana Santa alfombras in Antigua, Guatemala

People spend as much as they can on alfombra ingredients which range from flowers to vibrantly dyed wood shavings and sawdust to fruits and vegetables to tiny Noah’s arcs. Styles vary too. Some are hand-made and, thus, imperfect. Others are done meticulously using stencil cut outs and exact measurements. Some designs are circles or even 90 degree angles around corners. Some are covered in vegetables. Some are playful. Some are not.

 

Alfombras are typically created by an entire extended family on the cobblestone street in front of their home but local businesses create alfombras too. No matter who made them it’s the approaching procession that destroys them. Hundreds of feet carrying floats weighing thousands of pounds walk right over the alfombras. Once the procession has passed, a clean up crew arrives and sweeps the once beautiful alfombra into a pile so a mini front-end-loader can scoop up the mess and lift it unceremoniously into a waiting dump truck.

Like life, alfombras, is impermanent. The process reminded us of the sand mandalas we watched Buddhists make (and then destroy) during our travels in Asia.

We fell in love with alfombras of all shapes, sizes and styles and we’ve included many of our favorites in the slideshow, above. And don’t miss the slide show at the bottom of this post which shows us helping to make an alfombra with Evelyn Herrera and her wonderful staff at Hotel San Jorge.

Click on the thumbnails, below, to open a larger version of the image

We got two special Easter gifts this year. The first was from our friends Judy and Gene who so generously let us stay in their beautiful home in Antigua over Semana Santa when its nearly impossible to find a hotel room unless you’ve booked WAY in advance.

The second gift was from their friend Evelyn Herrera whose family owns the lovely Hotel San Jorge (Central location! Big garden courtyard! A fireplace in every room! WiFi! An economical mid-range price!). She invited us to help make the hotel’s alfombra, which turned out to be a blast as we snipped and stripped the flowers Evelyn had gone to the market to buy at 6 am.

Evelyn also picked up a four foot (1.5 meter) long, hard, canoe-shaped pod of something called corozo. The thing grows on a palm and when you split it open (with some considerable effort) the inside contains a large stem full of what looks like pliable rice. This is a Semana Santa must-have and almost every alfombra uses corozo.

We pulled the rice-like stuff off the vine and sprinkled it into the design, the hard pod was cut up and used to fashion baskets on both ends of the alfombra. Heck, with more than 800 quetzales (a little over $100) worth of ingredients it was all hands on deck to get the stuff prepped and placed just so following Evelyn’s design.

The slide show, below, shows you our progress from naked street to finished alfombra to passing procession to pile of trash.

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Semana Santa Processions Part 1: Palm Sunday to Good Friday – Antigua, Guatemala

This post is part 3 of 6 in the series Semana Santa in Antigua

Semana Santa starts on Palm Sunday and runs through Easter Sunday and the folks in Antigua, Guatemala cram a lot into that week with dozens of processions at all hours of the day and night and thousands of participants of all ages. The processions often overlap so you have to make hard choices about which ones to focus on.

Women selling special Palm Sunday decorations in front of the La Merced church in Antigua, Guatemala as Semana Santa begins.

The whole week is about telling the story of Jesus’ crucifixion which is symbolically re-enacted on Good Friday. During the processions between Palm Sunday and Good Friday (shown in this post) Jesus is everywhere and many people wear purple. Processions after Good Friday (which we’ll tell you all about in our next post) are more somber–Jesus is nowhere to be seen (until Easter Sunday) and purple clothing has been replaced by black.

The images in this slides show were taken during various processions in Antigua, Guatemala from Palm Sunday until the start of Good Friday.

 

One of the first Semana Santa processions we saw was a children’s procession–everyone gets in on the Easter action in Antigua.

We were lucky to find some space inside the San Felipe church on the fringes of Antigua where we got to see the very first moments of their procession as the enormous float, called an anda, was carried out of the church by 80 men. They’re walking over an elaborate carpet called an alfombra which the faithful created using colored wood chips, precise stencils and a lot of patience.

…huge float over a handmade alfombra “carpet” made of colored sawdust and out onto the streets of Antigua,

A Semana Santa procession from the San Felipe church begins inside the Santuario del Apóstol where 80 men carry a…

During most processions a float carrying the Virgin follows the float carrying Jesus. The Virgin’s float is always carried by women.

Everyone knows an army marches on its stomach. Men portraying Roman centurions take a break for lunch during a Semana Santa procession in Antigua, Guatemala.

 

The video, below, shows a procession leading up to Good Friday during Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

The enormous floats carried through Antigua during Semana Santa processions are awkward and heavy. Making it around tight corners as the processions move through town requires team work and exact choreography, as this slide show demonstrates.

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Semana Santa Processions Part 2: Good Friday through Easter Sunday – Antigua, Guatemala

This post is part 4 of 6 in the series Semana Santa in Antigua

There are dozens of elaborate processions between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday as part of the incredible week-long Semana Santa celebrations in Antigua, Guatemala (check out our handy primer to all things Semana Santa–from andas to alfombras to cuchuruchos). The Easter action comes to a head during reverent processions between Palm Sunday and Good Friday which tell the story of Jesus’ crucifixion which is re-enacted ceremonially on Good Friday.

Semana Santa processions from Good Friday through Easter Sunday

Processions between Good Friday and Easter Sunday take on an even more solemn, somber tone as participants and observers mourn the crucified Jesus. People’s costumes change from purple to black. Processions slowly wander the streets with just a Virgin float–no Jesus float since he is now crucified.

The images in this slides show were taken during various  Semana Santa processions in Antigua, Guatemala between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

 

Good Friday – Viernes Santo

The first processions on Good Friday departs La Merced church at 4am. On Thursday afternoon we overhead a tour guide telling his group that it rains every year around 3 am on the morning of Good Friday. This year the rain drops started a little early, but the sky cleared in time for the processions.

Jesús Nazareno de la Merced on his way to the crucifixion during a Good Friday procession in Antigua, Guatemala.

By 3 pm on Good Friday everyone has exchanged their purple costumes for black in mourning for the crucified Jesus.

The Good Friday procession from the Escuela de Cristo church.

A float bearing the Virgin (which is always carried by women) during a Good Friday procession from the Escuela de Cristo church.

 

Check out more of the sights and sounds of the Good Friday processions in Antigua, Guatemala in our video, below.

 

Saturday – Sábado de Gloria

Semana Santa processions on Saturday do not have floats (called andas) bearing Jesus. He’s now crucified, so Saturday processions have floats bearing images of a mourning Virgin, all carried by women.

The pointy hats worn during some Semana Santa processions, including this one on Saturday, have nothing to do with the KKK.

A float bearing the Virgen de Soledad leaving the Escuela de Cristo church.

A float bearing the Virgen de Soledad leaving the Escuela de Cristo church in Antigua, Guatemala.

The Virgen de Soledad atop a float carried by women in a Saturday procession from the Escuela de Cristo church in Antigua, Guatemala.

 

Check out more of the sights and sounds of the Saturday processions in Antigua, Guatemala in our video, below.

 

Easter Sunday – Pascua

Easter Sunday processions mark the resurrection of Jesus and there’s a distinctly party-like atmosphere. Children wave yellow and white flags, people cheer and smile. Confetti falls from the sky.

Jesus rises during an Easter Sunday procession from San Pedro church in Antigua, Guatemala.

Jesus rises during an Easter Sunday procession from San Pedro church in Antigua, Guatemala.

 

Check out a party procession on Easter Sunday in our video, below.

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Children of Semana Santa – Antigua, Guatemala

This post is part 5 of 6 in the series Semana Santa in Antigua

One of the things that makes the Semana Santa celebrations in Antigua, Guatemala so special is that everyone participates including the children, who were especially fun to watch. During the week-long Easter celebration in Antigua (one of the most elaborate in the world) we saw costumed children walking along with their parents in solemn processions meant to tell the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. We saw wide-eyed children watching processions from the sidewalks and roof tops. We saw children helping their families create temporary street carpets called alfombras. We even saw children carrying  wooden floats that are the center pieces of the processions.

All of them were adorable and here are the child stars of Semana Santa 2011:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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So Much More Than Semana Santa – Antigua, Guatemala

This post is part 6 of 6 in the series Semana Santa in Antigua

A Semana Santa procession begins inside the Santuario del Apóstol San Felipe as the faithful carry a huge float (called an anda) over an elaborate temporary carpet (called an alfombra).

Antigua, Guatemala is well known as the town that hosts one of the world’s biggest and most colorful religious festivals. Holy week, or Semana Santa in Spanish, is celebrated with elaborately made and profoundly temporary street carpets called alfombras and lots of somber and processions in which hundreds of the devout carry enormous floats (called andas) through the cobble stone streets all in an effort recreate the persecution, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In a word, Semana Santa in Antigua is epic and you should experience it if you can. But there are other great reasons to visit Antigua. We were part of the entire Semana Santa week in 2011 and also able (thanks Gene and Judy and Evelyn) to be able to explore Antigua above and beyond Semana Santa.

In the end, we spent more than 40 days in Antigua–more than almost any other destination on our Trans-Americas Journey so far. Here are our insider travel tips for having as good a time in this colonial gem of a town as we did.

Colonial streets of Antigua with Agua Volcano

Colonial architecture lines a cobblestone street in Antigua with the Agua Volcano–one of three that ring the city– in the distance.

 Must-sees in Antigua

There are at least a dozen churches in Antigua and at least half are in ruins thanks to the area’s seismic activity. We are not going to show you every single church in town. Suffice to say that each is unique and atmospheric, especially the ruined ones which have a sort of ancient Roman feel to them.

Santiago Cathedral is Antigua’s main church and it anchors the main square, Plaza Mayor.

Ruins of Santiago Cathedral - Antigua

These are the ruins of Antigua’s original Santiago Cathedral.

The ruins of Compania de Jesus in Antigua, Guatemala.

The ruins of the Santa Teresa church in Antigua, Guatemala.

The ruins of San Jose church in Antigua, Guatemala.

Learning Spanish in Antigua

There are at least twice as many Spanish schools in Antigua as there are churches. When we were in town Ana Díaz was just opening a brand new Spanish school called Antigua Plaza and she contacted us to see if we wanted to be among her first students. Nos dijo que si!

We spent every morning for the next week sitting at an antique wooden table in a lovely courtyard refreshing the Spanish we learned during lessons in Guadalajara and adding some new skills. It was fun and effective and we loved our teacher Brenda who was great at her job and gave us each adorable children’s notebooks. It’s also nice that Antigua Plaza has partnered with the serene Tabi House guesthouse so long-term students can get great accommodation too.

Santo Domingo El  Cerro Museum

One of the sculptures on display at Santo Domingo El Cerro, an art park, gallery complex and restraurant above Antigua, Guatemala.

Art in Antigua

The Casa Santo Domingo hotel owns a large chunk of land on a hill above Antigua which has been turned into an aviary, art galleries, sculpture garden and high-end restaurant (the prices were a lot more reasonable than we’d expected). They call it Santo Domingo del Cerro and it’s home to great art, great food, great views and it made a great place to go to do our Spanish homework. A totally free on demand shuttle runs between Casa Santo Domingo hotel and Santo Domingo del Cerro.

Arch of Santa Catalina - Antigua

The Arch of Santa Catalina serves as a gateway into Antigua, Guatemala.

View of Antigua and Agua Volcano from Cerro de la Cruz

Antigua, Guatemala and the Agua Volcano as seen from the Cerro de la Cruz viewpoint above town.

Hotels in Antigua

There are more fantastic hotels in every price point in Antigua than in any other destination in Guatemala. We’re happy to recommend one fabulous splurge and a great economical value. Let’s start at the top.

Agua Volcano from Ponza Verde

The Agua Volcano as seen from on one of the serene patios at Meson Panza Verde boutique hotel in Antigua, Guatemala.

Stunning Meson Panza Verde, one of the first high end boutique hotels in Antigua, will celebrate its 25th anniversary this year. Just 12 rooms are arranged in a traditional, colonial-style, open courtyard building. Rooms are big and full of rich fabrics and lots of wood and tile all accented with an unexpected collection of art–both colonial and modern. You can feel, see and touch old Antigua and new Antigua everywhere.

Hotel San Jorge has large, spotless rooms from $50. They all have fireplaces and they’re all arranged around a meticulously maintained and super-serene garden. There’s also Wi-Fi and a secure parking lot but the best amenity is your host, owner Evelyn Herrera. She’s a bilingual fountain of knowledge and assistance. You could not be in better hands. During Semana Santa (book ahead!) she even invites guests to help her create a traditional alfombra out of flowers on the street in front of the hotel. We don’t know of any other hotel in Antigua, in any price point, that offers that.

Antigua Municipal building

Antigua’s municipal building off the main square called Plaza Mayor.

It has to be said that Hotel Casa Santo Domingo was a disappointment. Yes, the hotel is housed in a breathtaking reinvention of what was the church and convent of Santo Domingo and the Santo Tomas de Aquino College which date back to the late 1500s. Yes, the hotel lands on luxe travel magazines’ “best of” lists. However, it’s also true that the rooms we toured and stayed in were disturbingly motel-like (especially the bathrooms and the tattered soft goods) even though room rates start at $250 per night.

We can’t advise you to check into Casa Santo Domingo but you should definitely checkout the museums on the grounds of the hotel (free for guests, 40Q, or US$5, for non-guests). That one fee gets you into museums containing religious art, archaeolgoical pieces, a vast liturgical silver collection and a creepy crypt.There’s also a modern art gallery and a strangely-compelling Pharmacy Museum. A tour of the grounds is given on Saturdays and on Sundays mass is held at 10 am in the stately (but wall-free) remains of the on-site cathedral.

La Merced church - Antigua, Guatemala

La Merced church in Antigua, Guatemala.

 Eating and drinking in Antigua

Drinking Absenth at Bistro Cinq in Antigua Guatemala

Drinking absynthe at Bistro Cinq in Antigua, Guatemala.

Even in a town full of  inventive restaurants (you can get great local dishes, superb sushi, classic Italian and more), Bistro Cinq stands out. Created and helmed by Chef Robbin Haas, a Florida native who spends part of the year in Antigua, Bistro Cinq lures you in with a welcoming metal-topped bar that is more than fully stocked. We enjoyed Pig’s Nose scotch, great wine and sampled some of the 12 types of absynthes on hand, each prepared in the traditional way (flame, water, sugar). The menu (tuna tartare, duck pot stickers, real burgers, profiteroles) is written on a blackboard and each dish is expertly executed by local chef Mario Godinez.

There’s no shortage of bars and cafes in Antigua but there’s something different about La Esquina. Maybe it’s the bar made from old bus parts. Or the smell of tasty chicken on the grill. Or the tempting handcrafted leather goods and jewelry and housewares in the window of the adjacent boutique (all at great prices and 20% off if you pay in cash). Or the DJs and bands performing live in the open courtyard. Or the…oh, just go and see for yourself.

La Esquina restaurant in Antigua

La Esquina bar, restaurant, boutique. live music venue and generally cool place to hang out in Antigua, Guatemala.

La Fondita offers about a dozen different traditional dishes. Pick what you want (a standard plate with a meat dish, a veg dish, thick Guatemalan tortillas and other sides) and  enjoy in a lovely back courtyard. It’s certainly not the cheapest meal in town, but our lunch was delicious and it’s the best place we found to sample a lot of different dishes in one spot and the atmosphere can’t be beat.

La Fondita restaurant in Antigua

The mind-boggling selection at La Fondita restaurant in Antigua, Guatemala.

The cheapest wine so far during the Trans-Americas Journey was at the supermarkets in Antigua where entirely drinkable bottles (mostly from Chile) go for less than $5.

A few blocks from Antigua’s central market (bustling every day of the week) is a two level restaurant called Weiner where just a few bucks gets you a plate of authentic German schnitzel. Go for the pork. And be hungry. This thing is huge.

Just off the main plaza is a tiny ice cream store called Sobremesa Helados Exoticos which sells sublime scoops of rich, exotic, gourmet flavors like jasmine blackberry, apple chipoltle, ginger guava, triple chocolate and caramel sea salt praline. Rumor has it they’re up to 50 different flavors which rotate on and off the menu.

Random facts about Antigua

  • Antigua was founded by the Spaniards in the early 16th Century and became the first capital of all of Central America. The city’s full name is Santiago de Antigua, though no one uses that anymore.
  • A very early governor of Antigua was Doña Beatriz de la Cueva, one of the first women in the region (and the world, for that matter) to hold such a high office. Unfortunately, she didn’t hold office for long. Twenty four hours after taking power in 1541 Volcano Agua blew it’s top. She was eventually killed in the disaster.
  • There is a plaque honoring L. Ron Hubbard, author and founder of the Church of Scientology, in the main plaza in Antigua. No one we asked could tell us why.
  • Antigua was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
  • Cobblestone streets are atmospheric but they’re a bitch to drive or walk on. Leave the heels at home and be prepared to marvel at the six-inchers women from Guatemala city (mostly) strut around in during weekend getaways to Antigua.
  • WARNING: An ATM scam has been going on in Antigua for years. Particularly afflicted are the ATMs at the banks that ring the main square. Avoid using them if at all possible. We used an ATM in a supermarket away from the square on numerous occasions and had no problems. We did have problems with pickpockets. Eric caught a hand in his pocket (and not in a good way) before the thief had the chance to snatch anything but many other travelers are not so lucky. Be wary. Antigua’s success at attracting tourists and gringo residents has also attracted an influx of unsavory types form nearby Guatemala City and they’re anxious to take what they can. Remember to pack your common sense.
La Merced Convent - Antigua, Guatemala

The La Merced Convent in Antigua, Guatemala.

 Day trips around Antigua

Edwin-boots

Don Roberto doing what he’s done all his life: made awesome (and SO affordable) handmade cowboy boots.

 

Seven miles from Antigua you’ll find the small town of Ciudad Veijo. This is where Don Roberto and his son Edwin Castillo live and work. The Castillo family has been hand-crafting cowboy boots for generations and they now design and make a line called Botas Rango. Some regional shoe stores sell their boots but the only place to get the insider price (starting at just 325Q or US$42) is by visting their home/workshop. Call +51000603 or email botascastillo (at) hotmail (dot) com (Spanish only) to set up an appointment. Custom orders can be done if you give them enough time.

 

Antigua is ringed by three volcanoes. One of them, Pacaya Volcano, has been a regular erupter since 1965. That is until May of 2010 when it ceased all activity. For now. Bear that  fact in mind before you book a hiking and camping trip to Pacaya which many local tour agencies are still selling with no mention of the fact that the volcano is not currently putting on the show visitors walk all the way up there to see. Unless, of course, you just want to take a steep, long walk.  Luckily our friends over at 2 Backpackers have a great video of  the lava and smoke show Pacaya Volcano used to put on.

We highly recommend a day trip to Lake Amatitlan (about an hour away from Antigua) for a visit to the Santa Teresita Banos Termales & Kawilal Spa. The sprawling, sparkling clean facility has many beautifully tiled outdoor thermal pools of varying temperatures and offers a timed and guided circuit which includes a delicious natural fruit smoothie and time in a eucalyptus-infused private steam room. From about US$15 per person (more if you add on spa services or other extras) it’s a bargain. Just be aware that the best prices are online only so check the web site for specials and book before you arrive.

Antigua Los Remedios church ruins

The ruins of Los Remedios church in Antigua, Guatemala.

Read more about Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala

 Read more about travel in Guatemala

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