Around every corner in Antigua, Guatemala, is a photo op. Mountains and active volcanoes surround the UNESCO Heritage site, and inside the town are open-air markets, 17th century architecture, colorful buildings and friendly faces. It is visually stunning and also a great place to relax, unless you’re looking to zip line above a coffee farm, hike an active volcano, or see some ruins. You can choose to lounge and wander around town or pack your trip full of adventures. Up to you!
Wherever you travel through or come in to Antigua, you’ll want to keep in mind the following safety information and practical tips. Here are some I share with you to make your experience easier:
Getting to Antigua from the airport:
Once you arrive in Guatemala City and walk through the final customs check point, you should see a shuttle stand inside the airport directly before the exit. Here you can book a shuttle to any of the major tourist destinations in the country. A ride to Antigua will cost anywhere between $10 USD and $20 USD, depending on how many passengers there are to split the cost. They accept dollars. It takes about an hour to get from Guatemala City to Antigua.
The currency in Guatemala is called the Quetzal, or Q for short. The current exchange rate is about 7.5 Q to $1 USD. Each denomination of money is a different color. It is extremely helpful to memorize the colors of the money so that you do not have to pull out every bill you have in order to find the amount you are looking for. Discretion is always best!
Most places accept dollars, but you will always get the best deal when paying in the local currency. There are two ways to get Quetzales:
1. Bring cash from home and exchange it for Qs at one of the banks in town. You must have your passport in order to make the exchange, and lines are often long. Pros of exchanging money at the bank is that there is zero risk involved, other than carrying your passport and a large sum of money on your person (drop off what you don’t need at your hotel or hostel when you are finished!). Con is that it can take upwards of an hour or so.
2. Use an ATM. There have been some reports of cloning of cards at the ATMs in the central square. When taking out money, be sure it is from an ATM within a hotel or secure store, and not from one that is unguarded. Pros of this method are that it is convenient and quick. A con is that there is a level of risk involved. Be sure to check your online bank statement after using an ATM just in case, and alert your bank immediately of any discrepancies.
Tip is always included in restaurants. Assume that you never tip in Antigua unless there is a tip jar (usually at bars), in which case loose change or the equivalent to $1 USD is sufficient. However, tipping your guide on a day or overnight excursion is recommended.
When paying your bill in a restaurant, never leave your money on the table! It will most likely be stolen. Instead, wait for a server to come by and pick it up.
Bartering in markets is standard and expected. A local woman told me that a good rule of thumb is to ask how much something costs, offer half of that amount, and then work your way up until you reach a price that both you and the seller are happy with.
Packing & Attire:
Have you ever tried to walk in heels down a cobblestone street? It’s damn near impossible to do gracefully, though some locals can pull it off. Keep this in mind when deciding what shoes to bring. Sturdy flats or tennis shoes are best for uneven, narrow roads.
Even though it can get hot and humid, locals keep it covered up. Shorts will ensure that you receive a lot of (unwanted) attention. The best way to fly under the radar is to wear long, lose dresses and skirts and leave flashy accessories at home.
Depending on when you go, nighttime temperatures can be chilly. You shouldn’t need more than pants and a light sweater, but be sure to check temperatures before you go.
The best purses are cross body bags with a zipper. Be sure to keep them closed. Pickpockets are not very common, but do happen.
Be sure to pack some patience with you as well – things in Guatemala, as in most Latin American countries, move at a slower pace. Don’t be surprised if things take longer than anticipated.
Health and Water:
Antigua stands at an altitude of over 5,000 feet. Taking an aspirin once a day will help thin your blood and adjust to the altitude quickly. Also, be sure to stay hydrated!
The majority of the water in Antigua is not purified. When ordering water in restaurants, be sure to ask for “Agua Pura,” or bottled water.
Pharmacies are all over town and do not require prescriptions for medication. If you become ill or need anything specific, pharmacists in any local pharmacy can help. However, not all speak English – be sure to go in with a few key words in Spanish to help with the description of what you’re looking for.
Spanish! Everywhere. Don’t be surprised if you hear other dialects in open-air markets as well. There is a large indigenous population in Guatemala.
It would be beneficial for you to learn some Spanish, as many locals do not speak English (at least not fluently). People in hotels, hostels and restaurants are usually bilingual, but you will have a much easier time communicating where you would like to go, understanding guided tours, bartering in markets and getting around if you learn some basics.
Speaking of basics, three common phrases that will go a long way:
Good morning, good afternoon and good evening. Manners are important, and almost every conversation with a stranger will begin with one of the above phrases.
Safety and Getting Around:
Antigua is easily explored on foot. It is unlikely that you will be robbed in town, though things do happen here as they do in every part of the world. For that reason, it is extremely important that you not carry your passport or anything you would be devastated to lose on you, especially at night. We’ve heard that robberies are highest during and around Semana Santa, when Antigua is packed with people.
Do not walk long distances after dark. There are taxis everywhere or tuk tuks that can take you wherever you need to go. Tuk tuks are cheaper than taxis (and in my opinion, more fun), but stop running early. You can always find a taxi in the central square. If you’re lost, any hotel can call a taxi for you.
Robberies do happen in Guatemala, but they occur most frequently when traveling by car between cities. When going on day or overnight excursions, be sure to leave everything of importance in Antigua just in case, and stay with your guide when hiking.
The people of Guatemala and Antigua are, by in large, very kind and helpful. The best thing you can do to guard against being taken advantage of is to take it easy on the alcohol intake and stay alert and aware of your surroundings. Overall, I had a great time in Antigua and made a lot of local friends. I will definitely be back!
Have you ever been to Antigua? Do you have anything to add to the above list?