Travel

Antigua: Central America's most charming city

Haven for architecture lovers, food fiends

(CNN) - Cobbled streets, colonial Spanish architecture, nearby volcanoes and perfect weather all year round make Antigua, Guatemala, a jewel in Central America's crown.

The city, granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1979, is a culturally rich travel haven for architecture lovers, food fiends and coffee aficionados.

With streets lined with vivid purple blooming jacaranda trees, plaza corners commandeered by marimba-strumming musicians and alleyways dotted with colorful parasols shading street food stalls, Antigua is crying out to be explored.

What to do

Antigua brims with enticing local shopping, whether it be Nim Po't, a local artists crafts shop; Mercado de Artesanías, overflowing with colorful textiles, blankets, woven purses and jewelry; or Mercado de Carmen, which sits adjacent to the ruins of Iglesia El Carmen, selling pottery, blankets and jade at excellent value.

But the crowning glory is the Mercado, a fruit, veg, fish, meat and everything-you-could-possibly-need market. Half indoors, half outside, the winding walkways will have you marveling at the vibrant stalls for hours.

It's where the locals go to shop, and it does not disappoint. The maze can take all day to navigate, but when you can stop for nourishment at the hot food sections, that's not a bad thing.

The most iconic spot in Antigua is the Santa Catalina Arch. Built in 1694 as a walkway for nuns, the cloisters are now private property, owned by a local family. Get up extra early to snap a picture of the bright yellow clock tower, with the Agua Volcano in the background, before the crowds descend.

For expansive views over the city, the hike up to Cerro de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross) is a winner. It also offers a glimpse of the three volcanoes that stand guard over Antigua. The entrance is easily accessible via 1a Avenida.

The city has numerous churches worth exploring, particularly Antigua's oldest, San Francisco Church, which dates from 1542. La Merced Church, with its yellow facade, is also worth a look, although tourists have to pay around Q15 (just under $2) to enter.

Guatemala is well known for its jade, and Casa del Jade on 4a Calle Oriente is not to be missed. Learn where jade can be found in the country and admire some of the rarest stones in the world.

After the short tour, the jewelry on offer begs to be perused. Jade Maya on the same street also offers an impressive selection of stones.

Side trips

As Antigua is known for its volcanic activity, it would be a mistake not to climb one. Pacaya is the easiest, and you'll still get the excitement of seeing lava spew from the volcano's mouth, as well as getting the opportunity to buy lava jewelry from the isolated gift shop near the summit.

OX Expeditions and GetYourGuide offer reasonably priced tours. Don't forget to bring marshmallows and a stick -- there's an opportunity to roast them on volcano heat pockets once you get there.

An overnight trip to the magical, mysterious Lake Atitlán may seem like a long way, but the enchanting beauty of the water, which sits in a volcanic crater, is well worth it. It's about 2½ hours by shuttle bus or you can catch the local "chicken bus" from the bus station at Calle Principal.

There are more than a dozen Mayan villages to stay in, but your best bet is Panajachel, a bohemian haven. It's big enough to provide everything a visitor needs, but not so big that you can't experience local culture.

If you stay at Selina in "Pana," as locals call it, the hotel can help arrange transport to and from Antigua, as well as village tours on the lake.

Hiking, kayaking, swimming and sampling local art, chocolate and Mayan wool weaving is all part of the fun.

Where to eat and drink

Breakfast is a big deal in Guatemala. Samsara, a vegetarian and vegan cafe in Antigua with a hippie vibe and gluten-free options, is a great spot for making the most of your morning meal.

Scrambled eggs tossed with kale, spirulina and turmeric and served up with guacamole and plantain is one of the standout dishes, or try the black corn tortilla with organic eggs and jocón -- a traditional Guatemalan green salsa.

Guatemala is known for its outstanding coffee, and an excellent start to the morning awaits at Cafe Condesa -- sipping your coffee on the beautiful patio out back.

Want some culture with your midday cerveza? Rainbow Cafe is a bookshop serving up traditional sopas (soups), organic salads and plenty of vegan and gluten-free options. They also hold regular lectures by NGOs to encourage visitors to get involved in volunteering.

Rincon Tipico is one of the best known lunch spots in the city. It's cheap, cheerful and traditional, and you can watch as your food is roasted on the wood fire right before your eyes. Plus, all the meals are served on traditional Mayan pottery.

For something more upscale, Saberico is an organic deli delivering comfort food with a healthy twist and Guatemalan takes on international dishes. The shakshuka and chile rellenos are superb.

If you're after more traditional fare, Los Tres Tiempos is a fun, relaxed restaurant with ceviche, pepián (a meaty stew) and chuchitos (Guatemala's take on tamales) on the menu. It also has a beautiful rooftop brimming with bougainvillea.

La Fonda de la Calle Real serves up traditional home cooking in a colonial setting, offering a variety of specialities from regions across Guatemala. Order the plato típico, a medley of local delicacies, including chile relleno -- roasted stuffed bell peppers -- plantain, refried beans, farmer's cheese and pupusa.

For a special dinner, Mesón Panza Verde is one of Guatemala's most acclaimed restaurants. Here, the chefs are challenged to come up with weekly food specials using only local and seasonal produce. Ask for a seat in the picturesque garden to dine under the stars.

Samsara, 6 calle 7 avenida #33, Antigua; +502 7832 2200

Cafe Condesa, La Casa del Conde, Parque Central, 5a Avenida Norte, #4 La Antigua; +502 7832 0038

Rainbow Cafe, 7ma Avenida Sur, No. 8 Antigua; +502 7832 1919

Rincon Tipico, 3a Avenida Sur, Antigua; +502 5029 4647

Saberico, 6a Avenida Sur #7, Antigua; +502 7832 0648

Los Tres Tiempos, 5a Avenida Norte No. 31, Calle del Arco, Antigua; +502 7832 5161

La Fonda de la Calle Real, 3a Calle Poniente, Antigua

Mesón Panza Verde, 5a Ave South, Antigua; +502 7955 8282

Where to drink

For pre-dinner cocktails, Cafe Sky boasts a gorgeous terrace and an incredible view of the city -- the perfect place to watch an Antigua sunset.

if you're a wine connoisseur, the tiny, easily missed Tabacos y Vinos tucked under the Santa Catalina arch has an impressive selection of wine at great prices.

For a nightcap, the Whisky Den is a dark, cozy lounge with a world-class selection of whiskeys. Like the decor? Everything is locally made, and available to buy.

Cafe Sky, 1a Avenida Sur, 15 Antigua, Sacatepequez; +502 7832 7300

Tabacos y Vinos, 5a Avenida Norte #28B, Antigua; +502 7882 4133

Whisky Den, 4A Avenida Norte, #4 Antigua, Sacatepequez; +502 5011 2233

Where to stay

Selina is a hip, quirky, hotel-hostel hybrid with a lively atmosphere and eclectic communal spaces. There are two Guatemala locations -- one in Antigua and one at Lake Atitlán.

Guests on a budget can choose to stay in dorms, or those looking for privacy can opt for the beautiful, airy rooms that are decorated and furnished by local artists and craftspeople. The focus is around activities and exploration, and it's a great option for those looking to meet other like-minded travelers.

Mesón Panza Verde is an upscale, boutique hotel with 12 rooms and a wealth of amenities: an art gallery, yoga studio and rooftop lounge. It's where to stay if you want a luxurious setting with a European vibe, and it's home to one of the best restaurants in the city.

Casa Santo Domingo is a five-star hotel that was formerly a convent, and the building dates back to the 1500s. Despite being partially destroyed in the 1773 earthquake, the hotel was rebuilt around the ruins making for a magical experience.

Featuring a jade factory, an art gallery, a gym and museums, you'll be hard-pressed to find a reason to step outside the hotel's stone walls. But there are many reasons to explore the rest of the city, rest assured.

Selina Antigua, 6a Avenida Norte 43A, Antigua; +502 7832 1386

Selina Atitlán, Calle del Embarcadero Zona 2, Panajachel, Solola; +502 2378 4869

Mesón Panza Verde, 5a Ave South, Antigua, Sacatepquez; +502 7955 8282

Casa Santo Domingo, 3a Calle Oriente No. 28 A, Antigua; +502 7820 1220

- Lucy Sherriff is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Bogotá who covers environment, travel and gender issues.


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