Antigua: How to Experience a City’s Spirit, Not Just its Tourist Spots


Sailing in Antigua

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I love to travel, but I don’t like to stay within the bounds of pre-packaged tours and resort walls. I like to get out and explore a place and if possible to stay long enough to get to know the true culture and mood of the city and country I am staying in.

When I visited Scotland in 2007, I intended to stay for 3 weeks and ended up living there for nearly two years. In 2003 I went to Los Angeles for a one month writing course and stayed for 6 months. I can’t do these kinds of extensive trips anymore but I still find it distressing to visit a country or city and only see one aspect of it. If the national language is not my native tongue I try to learn at least basic phrases and bring along a phrasebook so I can interact in the local tongue, even if I do fumble my words and feel rather silly at times. I know I’m not the only one who does this, nor am I the only person interested in engaging more with the places I visit.

So for my fellow intrepid travellers who want to enjoy comfortable accommodation but discover more in their travels than what a guidebook can reveal, here are a few tips for more culturally involved Antigua holidays:

Dickenson Bay Beach in Antigua

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1. If possible, plan to stay at least three weeks. Investing time is part of the experience and helps you to engage more with the culture and environment you’re staying in. Nuances of culture cannot be understood quickly.

2. Learn Spanish. Highly recommended is Cooperacion, a Spanish language school in Antigua. There are many schools available but this is one of the best. Here you’ll improve your Spanish communications skills and gain some cultural insights for Guatemala and Latin America as well.

4. Shop at the Markets, speaking in Spanish as you do. This is a great way to practice your language skills but also a perfect way to experience life like a local. Keep your eyes open, see what they do – and get into the rhythm of local life! The best markets are a few blocks from the city centre west of old town.

5. Spend a day in the Parque Central. Bring a packed lunch, a notebook or sketchbook, and spend some time sitting among the colonial buildings and trees. When you feel confident enough, see if you can engage a local in conversation. You’ll also want to visit Parque Union, just a few blocks over to the south east. Fewer tourists wander here so you’ll run into many locals and experience more of local life. There are also numerous character buildings and sites with clear Spanish influence.

6. Visit the nearby Mayan ruins, but don’t go with a large group. Hire a private guide (easily found at most hotels or the airport). This will make it easier for you to go at your own pace and fully take in the mystery, beauty and wonder of the ruins. If possible stay near the ruins at the Posada de la Selva (Hotel), the only accommodation actually inside the park.

7. Hike a Volcano. Antigua and much of Guatemala was formed out of volcanic rock. This is a big part of the culture and spirit of the country and city. So get hiking. Pacaya is the most popular touristy volcano, and the easiest hike. There are several others worth a visit including Agua, Acatenango, and Fuego (this is the most active of the three). The other volcanoes involve more difficult hikes and it is recommended for some that you hire a private guide for safety purposes.

View of the rocky shoreline in Antigua

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As we near 2012, murmurs remain about the Mayan calendar and possible impending doom. Many believe the world is going to cease to exist next December, while others believe it’s just a turning of the page, a calendar reboot of sorts.

What better way to face up to the possible end of the world than to visit the home of the Mayans themselves and stand at the foot of the Mayan temples contemplating the stars, the universe and beyond in the midst of wild steamy rainforests and the sound of monkeys and birds nearby?

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