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My long-scheduled trip to Antigua, Guatemala had been lurking at the back of my mind for a while, necessitated by the need to get out of the country before my Mexican Temporary Residence permit expired, but I can’t say I was feeling as enthusiastic as I would have liked about my first foray into Central America, alone and with far fewer Guatemalan quetzales than I would have liked. Turns out, my bizarre foreboding sensation was almost entirely proven correct, especially in the beautiful but corrupt backpacker havens of Antigua and San Pedro La Laguna. Did I have a good time in Guatemala? Short answer: no. Long answer: Oh, you’ll have to keep reading for that.
FROM GUATEMALA TO GUATEPEOR IN ANTIGUA
To say this trip did not get off to an auspicious start would be an understatement. I mean nothing screams success like having to circle over Guatemala City’s airport for thirty minutes as the workers on the ground ‘clean the runway’ (whatever that means) and a portly, overly chatty and downright irritating Italian man next to you chews your ear off about his Ukrainian wife and all the countries he’s lived in. Nor does being told by the pilot that he’ll be giving it fifteen more minutes before heading to their back up runway. In El Salvador. As in, a totally different country altogether.
You’ll be glad to know that we didn’t end up rerouted through El Salvador in the end, instead coming into land in what can only be described as not ideal (read: windy as fuck) conditions in Guatemala. I hopped through immigration, got a pleasingly colourful stamp added to my passport and headed to Antigua via shuttle. So far, so not-that-terrible, right?
Related Post: Must-Read Books About Guatemala (COMING SOON)
The Hostel from Hell
Well after the possibility of a reroute through El Salvador, I thought everything would look up after arriving at the hostel I’d booked right outside Antigua’s historic centre. How wrong I was. Let me put it this way, if staying in the hostel of a bizarre, warring Russian couple who perpetually stink of sweat and actively allow a known thief to live in their midst sounds like your idea of a relaxing start to a Central American adventure, by all means, stay at Hostal Capitan Tom in Antigua, Guatemala. You’ll love it.
(Or, you know, book a decent hostel. Or better yet, an Airbnb.)
Funnily enough, I did not love it.
This place was genuinely the worst place I’ve ever stayed in my life, but I won’t get into it again here. (You can read this post (COMING SOON) for the full story which contains a great Russian language pun and some actually decent Antigua hostel recommendations.)
Moral of the story? Don’t stay at the cheapest accommodation on HostelWorld. There’s a reason they’re charging less than their competent competitors.
The only upside is that the theft of my 400Q prompted me to move to a far better hostel (Hostal Villa Esthela), where I actually felt safe to cook (and could therefore save myself some money in this overpriced town) and have a decent, shower. My standards had been dramatically lowered by this point. AND they even had free coffee. I was being spoiled, I tell ya.
Give Peace Antigua a Chance!
OK, so my hostel was shitty but I still needed to give Antigua a chance, I thought, before I headed out to the centre and realised the locals’ propensity for walking two by two on the narrow pavements and not budging an inch for other oncoming walkers. There’s not much that pisses me off more than people who don’t have the common courtesy to make run for other people on a pavement and Antigua seemed to fucking know this. Which explains why I eventually ended up shoulder barging an old man.
*All readers squint to see if they read that correctly*
*Yes, yes, she did in fact say she shoulder barged an old man*
OK, hear me out, before you dismiss me as a (totally) shitty person. I was walking right on the edge of the entirely empty pavement, carrying all my worldly belongings and feeling pretty pissed off as I headed all the way across town to my new hostel for the night (more on that later). This old Guatemalan man saw me coming and actively moved directly into the path where I was walking, for…well, who knows why. So, I did the only logical thing and refused to move for him (he, by the way, knew what he was doing and even stood still as we got within inches of one another expecting me to move. He really picked the wrong day to play chicken with me though.) The resulting shoulder barge was met with a shout of WATCH WHERE YOU’RE GOING from him, which I replied to (in genius fashion) with NO, YOU WATCH WHERE YOU’RE GOING. Whatta zinger. He then told me to get back to my country, as I huffed off down the road to find my hostel. So, yeah, stay in your own lane pedestrians. Literally.
But, Lauren, What About The Food?! Tell Me The Food Was Good!
As I hinted at above, Antigua is not the budget backpacker haven you might be expecting and was, in my opinion, more expensive than other similarly touristic Mexican towns of a comparable size and status. It was also far more disappointing when it came to cuisine.
Honestly, Mexico has utterly ruined the ability to eat food in other countries and enjoy it, marring my favourite part about travelling, by being so fucking tasty. God damn you tacos al pastor, I never asked for this! Guatemalan street food and cuisine just paled in comparison and was far pricier to boot. Take the promising looking burrito I ate at Casa de Las Mixtas, which tasted like the secret ingredient was dish soap, or the cold rellenito I bought from a street vendor in the centre (admittedly, I can see how that would have been delicious were it freshly plucked from the frying pan though). In fact, the only place I ate decent food in Antigua was at the genuinely great Rincón Típico, right off La Merced. For 30Q you get a choice of meats, accompanied by two well-seasoned, non-soapy sides, thick handmade tortillas and juice. I definitely recommend this place.
(I do, however, recognise that my budget put the breaks on trying out places that were probably genuinely tasty, so keep that in mind and if you are looking for budget eats in Antigua, Guatemala, I found this post to be a very useful resource.)
Related Post: Why You Have To Eat Fast Food in Mexico
Antigua’s Deceptive Façade of Respectability
Anyway, questionable anecdotes and overpriced food aside, Antigua is, in my eyes, just another tiny town that seems to have been taken over by a party-hard, cocaine-snorting crowd of travellers who descend on the place, hang out in herds of roaming foreigners, never bothering to learn Spanish yet claiming they’ve found their slice of paradise in Central America. Cool story, guys, but you just make me cringe for you. (Arguably, that just tells you more about the people I was hanging out with and the places I went to, so, as with any first person, subjective account, take my assessment with a pinch of salt. However, that doesn’t negate the fact that that’s how I felt.)
Antigua is also deceptively commercial, hiding massive fast food chains behind the quaintly colonial facades of their pastel-hued buildings. In many ways, I feel like this serves as an appropriate parallel for the vibe of the town itself, which seems pleasant enough during the day (if very touristy and full of locals who don’t know the meaning of sharing a pavement with oncoming pedestrians), but transforms into a drug-taking, English-speaking only party town after dark. My one night out in Antigua involved far too many handsy locals and a coked-up driver for my liking.
Related Post: Backstrap Weaving is The Highlight of Lago Atitlan (COMING SOON)
As a side note, I’d never realised how much elderly white men love talking the ears off solo women until this trip. On multiple occasions, I was minding my own business, only to be met with the dulcet tones of an old guy in my ear. One man from Missouri collared me in the central square while I was reading and proceeded to give me his life story as I slowly but surely tried to edge away and say my goodbyes, while I feel like I now know the aforementioned Italian on the plane entirely too well.
Is Antigua Even Worth Visiting Then?
Now, I recognise that my stay in this popular Guatemalan town was marred somewhat by the utterly shitty luck (which also included a website hack) that plagued me over the three days I was there, but I still have *opinions* about that place in and of itself.
First of all, it is undeniably pretty. Street after street of colourful houses, colonial buildings and crumbling religious relics, as well as the swell of the mountains bubbling up around Antigua on all sides really make it a captivatingly enticing destination. However, I’ve seen towns and cities like this in Mexico, done far, far better than Antigua. And I’ve seen it done cheaper, with friendlier people and miles better food too. Basically, if you’ve ever spent time in Mexico, Antigua may seem just as beautiful and charming, but your opinion of it is sure to be tarnished by the clear superiority of its northern neighbour.
Related Post: The Most Colourful Towns in Mexico
Am I biased? Duh. This is a principally Mexico based travel blog, after all, and I’ve lived there for two years, so my opinions on the place are obviously positive as a rule of thumb. However, I think this is a pretty standard opinion, shared by many, many people. My advice is, visit Mexico after Guatemala and let the charm of Antigua suck you in, all the while keeping in mind that there’s something infinitely better waiting for you a bit further north.
As for drawing comparisons with Mexico, some will think that’s unfair. Me? I think it’s to be entirely expected. However, if you want my trademark rage-subjectivity combined with some more objective facts and figures, check out my Country Guide: Mexico or Guatemala? (COMING SOON)
Do you agree with my assessment on Antigua, Guatemala? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!