There is a quaint, belying charm in contemporary Antigua so invigorating that you'd be justified in forgetting its once-prominent role as the mighty Spanish capital of Guatemala. Just take a walk along any of its cobblestone avenues, peppered with friendly locals, colorful cafes and colonial architecture; it's not difficult to see why, a quarter-millennium after a ferocious earthquake nearly brought it to ruin, this place has become a hub for bohemian travelers the world over. But its appeal doesn't stop there. Beyond the metropolitan limits, this mile-high city is also the gateway to some of Guatemala's most visceral adventure experiences - from hiking and mountain biking to rock climbing and white water rafting. In fact, so striking are the similarities between Antigua and another colonial super-town that it's begun to take on the nickname "the Cusco of Central America," with all the tourism and natural splendor that the comparison entails. This being the case, why not take a few minutes to get to know a destination that’s bound to be an integral part of your Guatemalan itinerary.
Start with the literal and cultural center of the city, Antigua’s Parque Central. Whether you’re grabbing a coffee along its arched perimeter, admiring the interior of the impressive Catedral de San Jose or just people watching next to the main fountain, life here maintains an air of old-world ease that’s not hard to appreciate. From here, head out in any direction and you’ll inevitably encounter a host of cultural nooks to explore. Just to the west, Antigua’s main market surges with commerce from the early morning hours until well into the afternoon, while a stroll to the east will connect you with the lively bars and cafes of 1a Avenida Sur. Now it’s just a short walk south to one of Guatemala’s most revered religious sites, the magnificent Iglesia de San Francisco, where pilgrims are continuously paying homage to the country’s first canonized saint. Then there’s always the mandatory pic underneath the Arco de Santa Catalina, two blocks to the north of Central Park. In case you’re not getting the picture here, imagine a small, easily walkable city jam packed with colonial appeal and you’ve got the idea.
But as anyone who’s been there knows, you don’t visit Antigua for the city alone. Much like Quetzaltenango to its northeast, the former Guatemalan capital is smack dab in the heart of volcano country, residing literally in the shadow of nearby Volcan de Agua to the south. Toss in names like Acatenango, Fuego and Volcan de Pacaya and you quickly realize that one could spend weeks here doing nothing more than alpine hiking, mountain biking, and cooking hot dogs on active lava flows (no joke). When it comes to water-based adventuring, Antigua might be a little farther removed than your tolerance for Guatemalan roadways would prefer; still, it’s your best bet for huffing it to destinations like Rio Los Esclavos, the mangrove forests of Monterrico-Hawaii or the awesome spectacle of nature that is Lake Atitlan. With all this in mind, you’ll want to make sure you give yourself enough time to thoroughly explore the literal ins and outs of this singular Central American hub. But be warned: Antigua’s is an appeal that, once experienced, is not easy to forget.