More About Guatemala
Sharing its borders with Mexico, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador, Guatemala is the most populous state in Central America, with a rich Mayan heritage. While the capital is bustling Guatemala City, nearby Antigua is a preferred base for most who choose to volunteer in Guatemala, with its atmospheric cobblestone streets lined with colonial architecture and surrounded by steaming volcanoes.
Top tourist destinations near Antigua
Antigua’s colonial center
Antigua served as the capital of the America’s Spanish Empire from the 16th to 18th centuries and although large areas were destroyed by an earthquake in 1743, the rebuilt city has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its grand colonial churches and government buildings are steeped in history, with a faded elegance that gives Antigua an undeniable charm. Wander through its cobblestone streets to see the grandiose Palace of the Captain Generals and the City Hall which stands proudly on the north side of the main plaza, as well as the elaborate Iglesia de la Merced.
Hill of the Cross
On the northern side of Antigua is the Hill of the Cross, or Cerro de la Cruz, reached along an easy 30-minute walk from the main plaza. As the name suggests, it’s marked by a cross and boasts sweeping panoramas of the historic city, together with unobstructed views of Volcan Agua behind. There are numerous shady areas to stop along the way, as well as stalls selling drinks and snacks at the summit.
Volcan Pacaya is the most famous volcano to climb near Antigua, with the start of the trail situated just over an hours’ drive from the city. It’s a one and a half hour trek to the crater rim where you can peer down into the volcano’s belly, with volcanic gasses and steam billowing from its center. Most opt to trek during the late afternoon and early evening to catch a glimpse of the lava glowing bright red in the night sky.
If you’re after a longer hike, then you can attempt the almost 4,000-meter summit of Volcan Acatenango. It’s the highest volcano in the region and offers spectacular views across the surrounding region, which make the 8-10 hour hike worth it. Many opt to camp out overnight, allowing you to witness the light show from neighboring Volcan Fuego which is one of the most active (and violent) volcanoes near Antigua.
Antigua has a strong artistic tradition and the city is dotted with studios and workshops where textiles, woodwork, jade and wrought iron products are all created by hand. Under the guidance of talented local artists and designers, you can learn to make handicrafts yourself as part of community-based workshops and take home your own creation. Or discover the secrets of the perfect brew at one of Antigua’s coffee farms where you will be guided step-by-step through the coffee-making process and meet the farmers who work the fields.
Guatemalan culture combines elements of its rich Mayan history and influences from Spanish colonizers, with dramatic contrasts between the more traditional villagers in the rural highlands and the city-dwelling mestizo population. Roman Catholicism brought by the Spanish has been fused with indigenous Maya beliefs throughout many of the rural regions, while Protestant Pentecostalism dominates in the urban centers. San Simon of Guatemala or Maximón is the revered local saint, always depicted in black with a bible in one hand and rosary in the other.
Guatemala’s Mayan people are renowned for their brightly-colored textiles, with each village boasting its own pattern which distinguishes it from the next. Marimba is considered the national instrument and played throughout the country, particularly during religious festivals, while the Garifuna people along the northeast Caribbean coast have their own distinct folk music traditions.
Football (soccer) is without a doubt the most popular sport in Guatemala, although the country is also a natural playground for white-water rafting, spelunking and volcano climbing.
The Guatemalan diet shows influences from the ancient Mayan civilization in the use of maize, chilli and amaranth, together with black beans (frijoles) which are served at most meals. Typical Spanish dishes such as tamales, tortillas and enchiladas were introduced during Spanish rule, with stewed meats such as pepián and subanik popular throughout inland regions and spiced fish or tapado seafood soup with green plantain prevalent along the coast.
Grilled or fried beef known as bistec is widely popular, as is churrasco (charcoal-grilled meats) and chiles rellenos stuffed with meat and vegetables. There are reportedly hundreds of different varieties of tamales throughout the country which are wrapped in green maxan leaves and filled with meats, fruits and nuts, while chuchitos are a smaller variety wrapped in tuzas (dried corn husks) and often accompanied by tomato salsa and salty, white cheese.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, banana and coffee plantations were established across the country and Guatemala now produces some of the world’s best coffee. Sugarcane also became a successful crop in the lead up to World War II, while more recently Chinese cuisine has proved popular in the country and now most towns and cities have at least one Chinese restaurant.
Airlines which fly to Guatemala from Europe, North America and Australia
La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City is the main entrance point to Guatemala and situated around 40-60 minutes drive from Antigua. American Airlines offers direct flights from Miami and Dallas/Fort Worth, while Delta has flights from Atlanta and Los Angeles. United Airlines has nonstop flights from Houston and Newark, with Spirit Airlines flying direct from Fort Lauderdale.
For those traveling from Europe, there are only direct flights from Madrid with Iberia and most choose to fly through the United States, Mexico City or Panama City. There are direct flights available from Panama with Copa Airlines and from Mexico with Interjet. Taca also flies from Mexico City and Cancun, as well as a number of US destinations.
If you’re flying from Australia to volunteer in Guatemala, then connections through Los Angeles with Qantas offer the most direct route.