I originally booked a ticket to Guatemala when I signed up for an Artisan Residency Program with Jess Bercovici of Stela 9. We spent a week immersed in Guatemalan culture and learned everything from weaving and dying to how to make a leather bag. Before the retreat I decided to come a few days early to explore the country. I hiked an active volcano, visited the magical destination of Lake Atitlan and discovered many ruins and convents around the charming city. I quickly (and surprisingly) fell in love with beautiful Antigua. It has easily become a new favorite country of mine and I already can't wait to come back!
Three Monkeys: If you’re looking for cheap accommodation or just a cool place to meet fellow travelers, I recommend staying at The Three Monkeys Hostel. It’s centrally located with an open garden and airy rooftop terrace. There are mixed dorms and private rooms for those who want a little more privacy.
Casa de Stela: Owned and operated by Jess Bercovici of Stela 9 boutique, this colonial style home has two beautiful courtyards and an on-site cafe. It’s just a short stroll to Parque Central and the famous Arco de Santa Catalina.
Hike a volcano: There are a ton of options for volcano hikes around Guatemala, but if you’re looking for something relatively easy and not too far from Antigua, I recommended Pacaya. Lots of tour operators offer this particular hike (I booked through Adrenaline Tours, which was really cheap and reliable). There are usually two departure times: 6 am and 2 pm, the whole excursion takes about 4-6 hours depending on how fast your group hikes up and down. Tip: This is an active volcano, so at the end of the hike you get to roast marshmallows in the heat from the lava!
Go treasure hunting at Nim Pot: Located just past Arco de Santa Catalina, Nim Pot is a souvenir shop and second hand market for vintage huipils. It takes some patience to dig through the piles of textiles, but with a bit of persistence you’ll discover some amazing pieces at really inexpensive prices.
Visit the convents: Antigua is filled with dozens of ancient ruins and churches, but if you’re tight on time I recommend visiting the two most famous convents - Las Capuchinas and Santa Clara. Both are well preserved and filled with beautiful gardens and fountains.
Take a walk through the cemetery: It might sound weird, but the Cementerio General San Lázaro is a stunning sanctuary in the middle of the city and definitely worth a peak. The stark white graves are covered with colorful flowers and surrounded by lush greenery. Tip: admission is free.
Browse the market: Located on Alameda de Santa Lucia and open Monday, Thursday and Saturday, this chaotic, colorful and busy market is always filled with an array of goods. You can find everything from vintage Levi’s and textiles to local veggies and fresh coconuts.
Take part in a Temazcal: This was one of the most interesting activities I took part in while in Guatemala. A temazcal is a type of sweat lodge which originated with pre-Hispanic Indigenous people in Mesoamerica and is used for cleansing the mind, body and spirit. After stripping down we headed into the hot stone sauna where our guide or “shaman" took us through a series of songs and then explained the process of cleaning and restoring our chakras. Many people find this to be a healing experience, whereas others discover inner freedom or have more energy. Personally, I was really tired after, but my skin felt great - so either way, it’s definitely worth a try! Note: it gets super hot in there, so if you’re not into the heat maybe sit this one out!
El Cazador Italiano: I came to eat here twice during my short stay in Antigua. Owned by an Italian guy you can be sure the food is authentic (although a bit on the expensive side for Guatemalan standards). They also have a romantic garden in the back lit with white lights. Must trys: carbonara, mussels, suckling pig, the antipasto board with burrata and any of the pizzas!
Fridas: Filled with super cute decor and colorful murals, this Mexican spot is always busy and a good place to come if you’re looking for a lively atmosphere. The octopus tostadas and vegetarian nachos are amazing (and this is coming from a meat eater) and basically all of the tacos are delicious! My favs: Governor and Battered Fish.
Caoba Farm: This beautiful organic farm is located just a short walk outside the city center. All dishes are literally farm-to-table and on Saturday they host a Farmers Market where you can find fresh produce, local artisanal food, drinks and local crafts.
Por Que No?: Translated to “Why Not?” this spot is definitely a local favorite. It’s filled with quirky, funky objects and you can write on the walls to leave your mark behind. It’s a pretty small space, but upstairs there’s an intimate dining loft where you can enjoy a few of the random dishes offered on the menu including shrimp curry and burritos.
Union Cafe: Located inside Casa de Stela, Union Cafe offers healthy dishes and organic, fair trade coffee in a cute garden setting. My favorite: the breakfast smoothie, made with cacao nibs, peanut butter and oats.
Roots Cafe: If you’re feeling like something on the healthier side check out Roots Cafe. It’s located close to Plaza Mayor and offers a ton of fresh juices, salads and sandwiches. My fav was the steak gyro pita (with a side of fries)!
La Tienda de Doña Gavi: This super cute (and very Instagramable) shop has everything from shampoos, soaps, different types of honey, spices, and exotic and delicious ice cream. Some interesting flavors not to miss: pina, coco and avocado.
Whisky Den: Located in a shared garden space with four other local bars/shops, this cute spot is a must for whisky connoisseurs. They have an extensive collection from all over the world and make a delicious old fashioned.
Cafe No Se: With a similar vibe to Por Que No? this local hangout has live music on the weekends and a hidden mezcal bar toward the back. Tip: they offer a daily happy hour on Brava beer - 2 for 1!
Tabacos y Vinos: Located just under the Santa Catalina arch, you’ll find a tiny wine bar that most tourists bypass without noticing. While the space is small, the selection is extensive. They also offer a few bar nibbles if you get hungry.
WEEKEND AND DAY TRIPS
Get lost in Chichicastenango: If you are a textile lover or just want to dive deeper into local culture, this market is a must-do while in Guatemala. You could spend hours getting lost among the stalls and stacks of textiles. Here you can find everything from hand embroidered vintage huipils to fresh produce and flowers. Tip: don’t miss the Santo Tomas Church which has an interesting history of both Mayan and Catholic religion that has been coexisting for hundreds of years.
Lake Atitlan: In my opinion, this is the most magical place in all of Guatemala. Surround by three volcanos, Lake Atitlan, is known to be a destination for spiritual healing and magic. Unfortunately we only stayed two nights, but if you have the time I recommend at least five days here so you can take your time exploring each of the villages surrounding the lake.
Where to stay: Lush Atitlan (in San Marcos) - this beautiful boutique hotel has rooms with amazing views of the lake and a delicious complimentary breakfast of fresh fruit, granola and eggs. Where to eat: Fe - this cozy spot has a mix of wood fire pizzas and Asian curries (everything is delicious), Moonfish - this outdoor spot is only open from morning to evening and offers a selection of tasty vegetarian cuisine and Shambhala café - with a selection of baked goods and homemade ice cream this is a good place to come if you have a sweet tooth (all spots are located San Marcos). To do: visit San Juan La Laguna - this tiny town is made of up many women’s cooperatives selling amazing handmade textiles and fabrics. You can even learn the dying and weaving process (for free!) from many of the shops. Tip: to get around the lake, just flag down one of the public taxi boats.