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Flanked by three volcanoes, Antigua's smoking mountainous backyard beckons to summit-seekers and pyromaniacs eager to try lava-roasted marshmallows.
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Destination name: Antigua, Guatemala
Common nickname: The Land of Eternal Spring
Leave the craziness of La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City for a 45-minute commute to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Antigua nestled in the central highlands. Opt for the iconic chicken bus journey for 10Q (~$1USD), hire a taxi or shuttle service, or reserve transportation through your hotel or hostel.
Flanked by three volcanoes, Antigua's smoking mountainous backyard beckons to summit-seekers and pyromaniacs eager to try lava-roasted marshmallows. As well, yoga retreats or kayaking on Lake Atitlan and snorkeling opportunities at Monterrico-Hawaii can be accessed within a two-hour drive of this idyllic town of 34,000 people.
Looming above coffee plantations and farmlands surrounding Antigua, Guatemala's third highest volcano offers expansive views and the occasional cannon boom and nightly fireworks display of neighboring Volcán de Fuego. The 9-kilometer (5.5-mile) one-way hike begins at 4,600 feet and rises to a staggering 13,044 feet. Climb from cornfields to cloud forest and ultimately enter a volcanic zone that hasn't blown its top since 1972. Make camp in the crater and scramble up the scree slope to witness lava erupting from Fuego, a constantly active beast that boasts thermal activity daily.
Want to experience a volcano but don't want to schlep up mighty Acatenango? A short drive from Antigua, Volcán Pacaya is an easy, 1.5-hour hike best done at sunset so you can taste the perfection of hot dogs charred over ever-changing lava flows.
Checkout El Zur Mountain Bike Park for a challenging six-hour ride on 25-kilometers of surprisingly fantastic singletrack.
SAFETY NOTE: Security in Guatemala is not to be taken lightly. Drink bottled water, for starters, and only choose adventure tours with reputable companies that will bring along armed security officers. This may seem extreme, but once you hear the tales of many an unlucky traveler, you'll know why it's paramount to let someone else focus on your well-being so you can better enjoy the experience. Do your due diligence and stop in at the INGUAT office in Antigua for security updates and information.
The Land of Eternal Spring sits at 4,500 feet above sea-level, so it never gets too hot or too cold. However, if you're planning on climbing volcanoes, pack plenty of layers as frost is not uncommon above 10,000 feet. The dry season (November to April) is the best time to visit, with December and January deemed the busiest tourist months. Predominantly Roman Catholic, Antigua is also a hotspot for religious holidays - especially Semana Santa (Holy Week), which features gorgeous processions of handmade carpets crafted from dyed sawdust, flowers, pine needles and even fruits and vegetables. Book hotels early.
Antigua not only showcases a European feel with its highly walkable, cafe-and-bougainvillea-lined cobblestone streets, colonial architecture, plazas, and historical significance; it's also known as the best place to learn Spanish through immersion with one-on-one tutoring and homestays. Endless language school options abound, so do some research. A good place to start is www.guatemala365.com.
From the recently-remodeled San Rafael Hotel ($165USD/night) to the way cheaper and more culturally-engaging prolific homestay opportunity, Antigua offers quite the spectrum of fine and dime lodging. Same goes for food: taste true Guatemalan fare on an evening stroll around Merced Square, sampling street eats (like tostadas and chuchitos), or cozy up with a glass of wine and your choice of Mediterranean, Italian, Indian, American or French cuisine. Chocolate, coffee, ice cream, and tropical fruits found around this ancient capital complement any of these cosmopolitan alternatives. And for the best sunset seat in town, sip a cocktail at the Sky Bar.
The juxtaposition of colonial and indigenous charm create a fascinating tradition. Days spent exploring cobblestone streets and vibrant cafes, learning how to Salsa and navigate volcanoes, is balanced with the powerful presence of colorful markets and a proud native population who are warm, welcoming and excited to help you on your journey to honing in on a language we all should speak fluently. Buena suerte!
Check out www.aroundantigua.com for a kick-start to your trip planning, and order a copy of “Moon Spotlight Guatemala City & Antigua” for a sufficient resource of beta, logistics and inspiration. As well, numerous online forums can help determine the best Spanish school for your needs.