10 [Mostly free] Cheap Things You Should Do in Antigua Guatemala
1. Ice cream
If Antigua were a person I would describe it as the lover. Warm, with a touch of freshness, romantic, with many a gorgeous park, corner, or ruin in which to sit and spoon. Ice cream, I mean. Antigua is perfect for people watching and there is no better way to look less creepy than to sit in a park of a weekend, eating a dripping cone, and observing life. There are any number of places to get ice cream in this city. Saritas dot the street corners, little wheeled trucks are everywhere with pops and sandwiches, and there's even a place on the square that sells gelato. Most ice cream is a comparable cost to the US, but you can grab a Q5 cone in Pollo Campero with a fantastic swirl.
2. The Market
Even if you aren't as nutty over markets as I am, this is a must see in Antigua. There are a number of entrances and exits and I have a hard time leaving how I came, mostly because this place messes with my sense of direction. It goes on for winding meters around artisan goods, textiles, plastics of every description, shoes, used clothes sections, fruit and vegetables, and if you're lucky, you'll come across the ladies making blue corn tortillas. They will sell you 4 for 1Q and you will stumble on in happy delirium, burning your fingers and mouth over this perfectly grilled corn masa.
If you are looking for souvenirs or textiles, go into the artisan market south of the regular market. It is surrounded by a wall and will provide you with a delightful ramble. Take note that people charge more in this market, because it is clean and pretty, most speak English, some of the vendors are skilled artists, and others might charge more just because they can. I recommend Tienda Shalom (Rafael, making gorgeous hammered jewelry) and the painter, Sergio, in the north square.
3. Explore a Ruin: La Merced
Antigua is chock full of crumbling ruins and history with all sorts of stories about these places. One legend speaks of finding a tunnel that connects a convent with a monastery as being a burying ground for babies. This sort of gruesome tale is not congruent with any archaeological findings, but the stories drift across the world as they will; people love to shock and be shocked.
What fun it is to walk these places and imagine the life that inhabited them, and the people dedicated to spending their lives in silent or withdrawn worship. At least it is fascinating to those of us content to endlessly ponder existential meaning.
This particular place is the convent of La Merced, the big yellow church toward the north part of town. Entrance fee: 15Q ($2). Enter by the side entrance to the left of the park (facing the church).
4. Climb Cerro de la Cruz
You can't get anymore touristy than this, but it is a fun view of Antigua. It's also a super easy climb that might take you all of 25 minutes. Basically you head north out of town, take blue path I've indicated (or take the little side shortcut which is much prettier and has interesting abuelos watching the street), head up the hill, and you will see the entrance to Cerro de la Cruz on the left.
Huff your way up the hill, pretend that you are in shape, and enjoy the view. Cost: free.
5. Take a Salsa class
I've been in Antigua on five different trips and each time thought about taking a dance class. This time I swallowed my awkwardness and danced like no one was watching (not true, we were all side-glancing each other) at a free dance class New Sensation Dance Studio was offering. It was a blast, and we were undeterred by locals standing by the doorway enjoying the sport of watching a bunch of Germans, Swiss, Dutch, and Americans attempt bachata and salsa. I'd do it again, and pay for it this time. If you don't want to pay for it, though, I suggest showing up on Monday or Tuesday night at 5 p.m. for the free lesson. You'll learn a few basic steps and maybe get to put them together.
The reviews on the studio are accurate and Frank was hilarious as well as a good dancer.
Cost: free. Or for lessons pay 50Q for a group to come in for an hour, or 120Q for private lessons - I'm not sure how many lessons that will buy for one-on-one instruction.
6. Indulge in a Day Trip
We choose ziplining at Finca Filadelphia this time around (I've already climbed Pacaya thrice and Agua once) and loved it. We caught a free ride up to the farm where we boarded another truck to drive up into the mountains.
The staff at Filadelphia are confidant and competent, and can speak English if you need them to; their sense of humor is en pointe. One said as we were prepping for the second zip line: "this is my first day on the job." He said it with such perfect sincerity that it took us aback before we caught the joke. Good one, Martin.
Cost: 400Q per person, or $55.
Filadelphia also offers coffee tours, camping, mountain biking, horseback riding, bird watching, and has a nice restaurant to relax in afterward. Bit more expensive but they will take care of you. They have trucks leaving from certain points in Antigua several times a day for a free ride up there.
7. Eat Street Food
I can't fathom not eating as much street food as I can while in Central America. You run a risk of getting sick (but I rarely do these days). You can pick from the cleaner places, or just eat it and pray. At any rate, I highly recommend tostadas, tacos, fresh sliced fruit, and milk with rice. Let me tell you how to order from little street vendors, because these are the types of things I wish to read more about on blogs. Everyone always says, "go here, do this" and I flap about for awhile trying to figure out what I need to know.
- Say "quiero taco/tostado/arroz con leche/mango verde" and point. They will follow suit and then point to each topping in turn to ask if you want some.
- If they say the word "pica" exercise caution in regards to this sauce or topping because it's probably fairly spicy or hot.
- You don't have to worry much about these people overcharging you, but ask first for the cost if it worries you. You can say "cuanto cuesta" or just "cuesta" while doing the pointing thing again. Guatemalan's are some of the most gracious people I've met, they might laugh at you, but it's all in fun.
- Eat, eat, eat. Yes.
Cost: 5-15Q, or if you go to a street food smorgasbord, 35-40Q.
8. Sit in &Cafe on the Square on a Warm Afternoon
First off, "&" in Spanish is pronounced "eee." This makes it, " eee Cafe." Isn't that fun? Secondly, this place charmed my socks off. The seats are basically front row for all the rich and famous in Central Park, or tourists wearing zip-off cargoes and chacos. You see everyone, everything, and you can sip on a lovely drink while doing so. The employees there are the bees knees, they wrote all kinds of English blessings on my cup and meant it, too. I do love a place that combines a beautiful interior, people-watching, light breezes and good drinks.
9. Visit La Pila
A pila is a couple of concrete sinks that almost every house in Guatemala has (or Central America) - one deep and one shallow with a place to scrub clothes and dishes. The pila in Antigua is many times larger, and much more beautiful than the average pila. It is still used for some of the town ladies to do their laundry with a park stretching out to the front, and a church at the far end. It's worth a stroll to see it and sit there to enjoy the park. If you're there on a budget and staying nearby you could probably do your laundry there and really get a cultural experience. Cost: free.
Antigua is full of little things you'd probably never see from a car. The sights are heady and pleasurable, and the atmosphere bonhomie.
The heartbeat of any city is in the little strolls, the parks, the restaurants, and the times you stop and really become present in the moment. Smile at someone with your whole heart, smell the flowers, sit still and meditate on your surroundings. These are the moments that tie your heart and memory to a place, and make you feel as if for one week, you became part of another culture and time. The value of travel is to open your heart and mind.