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.
The 13,045-foot (3,976-meter Acatenango volcano towers over the colonial city of Antigua. While many travelers opt for the more-gentle ascent of the Pacaya Volcano, this twin-peaked volcano offers incredible views of its nearest volcanic neighbor, Fuego, which regularly spits out plumes of gas, ash, and hot lava.
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.
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.
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.
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 small museum is devoted to jade, the precious green gemstone that has been mined and revered in Mesoamerica since ancient times. Exhibits provide information on ancient mining of the mineral and include pre-Hispanic jade pieces. It also encompasses a workshop where jade jewelry and decorative objects are created and sold.
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.
The Maya were among the earliest civilizations to cultivate cacao for culinary use. At this chocolate-focused museum and shop in Antigua, exhibits detail Guatemala’s long-standing legacy of cacao cultivation as well as documenting chocolate-making processes, such as harvesting, roasting, tempering, and molding.
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
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.
Constructed in the mid-16th century, this Dominican monastery was one of the largest and grandest in all of the Americas until it fell victim to a series of ruinous 18th-century earthquakes. It was later converted into a luxury hotel, though large parts of the complex—including a series of fascinating museums—are open to the public.
After being ravaged by an earthquake in 1773, Antigua’s Catedral de Santiago was never fully rebuilt. Behind the imposing white facade and modest-sized present-day church—which occupies what was the cathedral’s entrance hall—you’ll find roofless remains including pillars, archways, and altars with plants sprouting among the ruins.
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.
The 15th-century capital of the Kaqchikel kingdom, this Maya city is of a smaller scale than the more heavily-visited Tikal. A sacred site for modern-day Maya, Iximché remains uncrowded and tranquil, and its pretty setting—with temples, plazas, and palaces situated on an elevated plateau amid steep valleys—makes exploring a pleasure.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Though it’s much smaller than Tikal or nearby Copán, Quiriguál attracts attention thanks to its collection of large, intricately carved stelae. Standing as tall as 35 feet (10 meters, the towering monoliths are artfully carved with hieroglyphs that reveal clues about the rise and fall of this Maya city.
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.