The thing about Guatemala is, I didn’t really love it.
There. I don’t believe in suspense — who needs the anxiety? Guatemala. I first bought a guidebook for this country over six years ago, when I was still studying in Brooklyn, though it took me up until this trip to finally make my way to its borders. Something about Guatemala called to me, and when I finally made my way there, my expectations were as high as Antigua’s altitude.
In the end, I spent more time in Guatemala than I’ve spent in any other country in Central America — almost six weeks. I dove in a high altitude lake, roasted marshmallows over a volcano, climbed a Mayan ruin and sunned on a black sand beach. I met up with Brooklyn friends in Guatemala City (the Equilibrio creators!), I bonded with a blogging friend in Antigua (the Nomad’s Nomad author!), and I met a guy that I had a brief but heartwarmingly sweet travel romance with (but more on him later).
I stayed in great hostels, found truly fantastic restaurants — some that I’m still drooling about — and had some true adventures.
Yup, this is what McDonald’s in Antigua looks like
Yet I have to admit that I’ve never felt quite so neutral about a country before. At one point, I texted my friend , the only other person I know who has publicly admitted to being underwhelmed by Guatemala, with a simple question. “Am I missing something…?” She got it. People I love love Guatemala. People I met on the road loved Guatemala. Everyone loves Guatemala.
Except, it seemed, for me.
It did grow on me. When I first arrived in Antigua, I struggled to see the charm. I was freezing, the Zumba was lame (please laugh), the altitude made me feel funny, I was anxious about crime after a travel companion was the victim of one, I didn’t have proper footwear for cobblestones and I couldn’t help but compare the city to Granada, with the tropical Nicaraguan version coming out on top. But it was a convenient base for exploring Guatemala and something about it kept pulling me back.
When I finally left Antigua for the last time I calculated that in total I’d spent two full weeks there, and I was surprised to find I was somewhat wistful to leave.
I can attribute most of that creeping fondness for the city to my friend and host and fantastic tour guide , who introduced me to his fantastic group of friends and showed me parts of Antigua I might not have seen or appreciated on my own.
For example, .
Thanks for the photo, Luke!
Hobbitenango is hotel, restaurant, and bar high above the hills of Antigua. When Luke told me he was a part investor in a hobbit hole, I was 0% surprised, because that is just the way that Luke rolls. What I was surprised by, as a non-Lord of the Rings fan, was how much I enjoyed this little slice of whimsy heaven.
Hobbitenango can technically be reached on foot, though it will be quite the trek (we attempted it and ended up hitching a ride for the final stretch, much to my delight). Or you can hop one of the regularly scheduled shuttles. It’s the perfect place for a lazy Sunday afternoon of cocktails and conversation, and of course, the best views in Antigua.
While live music is a regular part of life up at Hobbitenango, I was lucky enough to catch Mariachi or Muerto, the annual battle of the mariachi bands competition that Luke outlines the birth of in his book.
I guess I feel about Antigua in Guatemala the same way I do about Chiang Mai in Thailand. It’s a great base, there’s fantastic food, it’s a convenient place to stop and work for a while, and I adore the people there. But in the end, it just doesn’t tug at those wistful wisps of my heartstrings that make me truly fall in love (I think, to be fair, that a hot sun and an ocean view might be required for that, these days.)
I may not have fallen head over heels for Antigua, or for Guatemala for that matter, but places and people and moments like these sure did challenge me not to.
Have you ever felt underwhelmed by a place so many others loved?
Where I stayed: Mostly, I crashed with Luke and his roommate Amy, and I am eternally grateful for their hospitality. I did end up also spending a few nights at Tropicana Hostel, which has a pool and friendly staff and a great combination of a lively bar and a strict 10pm close time, meaning you can both make friends and get a good night of sleep. I also spent a night at Hacia el Sur, which has a great location and very comfortable and good value private rooms.
Where I ate: Where to begin? serves up the best salads I had in Central America, has delicious breads and cheeses and even macarons(!), has great ambiance and breakfast cocktails, has fun and creative homemade ice cream flavors, and the McDonald’s is probably the most scenic outpost of the chain in the world. Seriously.
How I got there: Antigua is the base of tourism in Guatemala and nearly all private shuttles between other destinations (Lake Atitlan, Monterrico, Guatemala City, Semuc Champey, etc.) will pass through here regardless of whether or not they are listed as direct service. Chicken buses are a cheap and colorful local transport alternative, though be aware that you may have to make many transfers depending on your destination.
Bonus tip: Pack warmly! I didn’t realize how chilly so much of Guatemala would be, and I felt like I was perpetually cold when I was in the highlands. Cheap second hand stores called MegaPacas are a good place to stock up on layers if you accidentally packed for the tropics.