Things to Do in Antigua
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.
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.
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 shades of turquoise due to climatic variations throughout the year.
Semuc Champey is one of Guatemala’s best-kept secrets—one that is quickly getting out. Its remote location was often bypassed for more popular and certainly more accessible destinations and sights in the country, but the turquoise pools and surrounding scenery have helped Semuc Champey garner attention from backpackers traveling between the Western Highlands and Tikal.
Despite the increase in visitors, you can still easily find a quiet spot to enjoy the tranquil pools. You can stick close and lounge (or swim) in the shallow waters, or venture off for some further exploration. A slippery path leading upstream a few hundred meters brings travelers to Río Cahabón, the river that feeds the pools. Be careful in this area as the fast-flowing river “gets lost”in the underground caves, an area called “El Sumidero.”
If you’re up for a bigger adventure, head up a pretty steep, slippery trail to the mirador, high above the pools, where you can snag postcard-type photos of the entire area.
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.
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.
The Cerro de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross) is a 30-minute walk that, upon arrival, treats its guests to expansive views of Antigua and the Volcan de Agua. While this walk is not easy, it is worth it. For those who prefer to skip the hike, cabs can whisk people to the top as well.
Located on the north side of the city, it offers the best views of Antigua. And an enormous stone cross.
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.
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.
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.
The Santa Catalina Arch (Arco de Santa Catalina) is one of the most iconic structures in Antigua. Located on Fifth Avenue North, it was built in the 17th century to connect the Santa Catalina convent to a school. This allowed the cloistered nuns to pass between buildings without ever having to enter the street and come into contact with the general public, thereby violating the strict laws regarding seclusion. On either side of the arch you will find the Convents of Virgin and Mártir Santa Catalina.
The Santa Catalina Arch is one of the most photographed spots in Antigua, and its prime location creates a beautiful frame for the Agua Volcano in the background. Although technically owned by the Guatemalan government, the Santa Catalina Arch is looked after by the Santos family, which also owns the Reino del Jade store and Hotel El Convento.
If you’ve been to Guatemala City, this arch may seem familiar, and for good reason; the Guatemala Post Office Building was patterned after this iconic arch.
More Things to Do in Antigua
Originally constructed in the 1500s, Iglesia de San Francisco, today, has mostly been reconstructed, thanks to age and earthquake damage. However, that's not the draw to this attraction. Both locals and visitors come to this old, baroque church to visit the shrine of Peter of Saint Joseph Betancur (Santo Hermano Pedro de San Jose de Betancurt). A Franciscan monk, he founded a hospital for the poor in town and is the country's most honored Christian leader.
Beatified in 1980 and made a saint in 2002 when Pope John Paul II visited Guatemala, Peter of Saint Joseph's tomb is visited by thousands each year asking for favors and miracles.
However, make no mistake, this church - which is one of the oldest in town - is still a work of beauty. It features 16 vaulted niches, a bell and clock tower from the 17th and 19th centuries and work from famed artists. Throughout history, the church has also been home to places such as a hospital and printing press.
The Biotopo Mario Dary Rivera Nature Reserve, commonly referred to as Biotopo del Quetzal, is one of Guatemala’s best nature sites. It gets its name from the country’s national bird, the endangered Quetzal, which has found a home within the sanctuary.
Quetzals are rather elusive within Biotopo del Quetzal, but they are sometimes spotted near local restaurants, as they prefer to feast on avocado-like fruits from neighboring aguacatillo trees. Some say December and January are the prime months to spot them; keep your eyes open for birds with bright-red chests; green, fuzzy feathers on their heads; and exotic, long tail feathers.
If you don’t manage to spot one, there is still plenty to see at Biotopo del Quetzal. Despite the fact that only a small portion of the vast reserve is open to visitors, there are a number of different mosses, ferns, orchids and epiphytes to see, as well as other birds, including the emerald toucanet and highland guan. Howler monkeys and other wildlife also make their homes in the reserve.
Two trails begin at Biotopo del Quetzal’s visitor center, branching off into the vegetation. The first trail, Los Helechos, is shorter at 1.24 miles (2 km), while Los Musgos (The Mosses) is twice that length. Whether you opt for the shorter or the longer trail, you will pass by scenic waterfalls where you can stop and enjoy a quick swim.
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.
The Palace of the Captains General (Palacio de los Capitanes Generales) used to be home to the Spanish viceroy and the power of the entire Central American region for more than 200 years. It housed everything from the court to post office, treasury, royal office and even horse stables.
Today, the building, which was first constructed in the late 1500s, is home to many governmental offices including the tourist office and police department. A couple of years ago, it underwent large-scale repairs and restoration. The exterior facade is not the original, it was added in the late 1700s.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Antigua City Hall (Palacio del Ayuntamiento) was constructed in 1743 and once served as the Spanish colonial government seat and an 80-person jail during the colonial era. Today, it is home to Antigua’s municipalidad, or city government, the Museo del Libro and the Museo de Santiago. One of the most impressive elements of Antigua City Hall is its two-story façade.
The double layer of stone archways with columns was done in a Tuscan style, which contributes to the building’s striking appearance. A portion of the carved-stone exterior of the east-facing
wall managed to survive the 18th century, though centuries of earthquakes contributed to the need for restoration efforts at the palace.
The Ayuntamiento building was heavily damaged in a 1773 earthquake, and the capital seat was then transferred to Guatemala City. The Museo de Armas de Santiago, an arms and weapons museum, is housed in the section that once served as the jail. The Old Book Museum, or Museo del Libro Antiguo, is in the same area where the first Central American printing press once stood and includes a replica of the printing press, along with copies of works produced by it.
Be sure to head upstairs and check out the scenic views from the second-floor balcony, where you can see the Central Plaza, Metropolitan Cathedral and the three volcanoes surrounding the
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.
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