If there was ever a place where the overwarmed phrase “frozen in time” actually applies, it would be
Antigua. The former capital city and Spanish colonial outpost was constructed in the shadows of three volcanoes, but it was an earthquake, not lava, that leveled the town in 1773. What stands today is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Lined with cobblestone streets and colorful stucco buildings from centuries past, Antigua had a population of just 35,000 people in 2007, the last time anyone checked. Many still wear the traditional garb of Guatemala’s 21 Mayan groups. At 5,000-feet elevation, picture-worthy moments come easy here, and so does coffee—in fact, it’s some of the world’s finest.
Staying in the Casa Santo Domingo ($153-$329) is a little like shacking up in a friendly museum. Built on the grounds of the Santo Domingo Monastery, the 128-room hotel is home to exhibits showcasing colonial and pre-Hispanic art as well as a couple of good restaurants. Reachable by tuk-tuk (a three-wheeled cab with a cloth roof), the property’s hilltop Tenedor del Cerro is the place to get a Guatemalan breakfast of eggs fried sunny-side up, coarse refried beans, plantains, cheese, and sour cream. Afterward, head down to Central Park, a scenic half mile from the hotel and surrounded by 18th- and 19th-century buildings, like the Catedral de Antigua and the Palacio de los Capitanes, with its stunning rococo arches. It’s a nice spot to linger as the calls of street vendors echo off the buildings. (Just watch out for pickpockets.) A three-block walk north will lead you to the park and the dramatic ruins of the 18th-century Capuchinas Church and Convent beside it. From there a shuttle travels the two miles to the Filadelfia Coffee Resort, an elegant estate at the foot of the mountains where you can take a tour and do a tasting.
Coffee helped resurrect the earthquake-ravaged city’s econ-omy in the 1800s, but chocolate has been a staple in Antigua even longer. Guatemala is the birthplace of the stuff, so if you’re craving dessert before lunch, you can say you’re honoring tradition. There’s a two-hour workshop at the ChocoMuseo, where you’ll learn to make Mayan hot chocolate, which is prepared with chiles, cornmeal, and cinnamon. From the museum you can hoof it to 5th Avenue North, through the historic Santa Catalina Arch, to Nim Po’t, where you will find a dazzling selection of Mayan textiles and other handcrafted items. Though things are less organized and serene at the nearby Municipal Market, it’s worth a visit to barter for souvenirs and sample regional cuisine—hilachas, a shredded beef stew, is a specialty—from the array of stalls. Or ask somebody to point you to the pickup truck known as Hugo’s Ceviches, which serves fresh fish Guatemalan style, in a mixture of lime, tomato juice, Worcestershire, mint, and chopped vegetables. Have it with picositas: a can of El Gallo, the national beer, made into a spicy cocktail (and presented in a paper bag to satisfy the authorities). For a sit-down lunch, walk over to La Cuevita de los Urquizú, a simple place with exposed rafters. Order the mildly spiced, Antigua-style pepián—chicken or beef stewed with Guatemalan chiles, tomatoes, herbs, and seeds and given a base of toasted and ground pumpkin seeds. On another day be sure to try an enchilada (the country’s version is tostada-like), along with a sweet bowl of plantain mole from one of the stands near La Merced, an exquisite church featuring the intricately patterned stucco called ataurique.
As fetching as Casa Santo Domingo is, it’s not the only pretty hotel you could use as a base camp. Mesón Panza Verde ($100-$275), ten minutes south of Central Park, also offers graceful colonial architecture with a dozen uniquely decorated rooms and contemporary art exhibits. The hotel’s restaurant roams the globe (from rack of lamb to escargots to Thai stir-fry), and the private dining area is even more intimate. Before dinner you’ll want to visit the new La Casa del Ron, a rum tasting room and cellar owned by the distillers of Ron Botran and Ron Zacapa, one of the most respected labels of rum around. Soak it up with a meal at 7 Caldos, where celebrity chef Mirciny Moliviatis prepares such traditional stews as jocón (chicken in a green sauce) and kak’ik (a pre-Hispanic turkey stew). The air up here can get crisp at night, which makes the heavy food all the more comforting as you stroll past the colonnades cast in an amber glow.
Free up one morning to catch a ride with one of the many tour operators to the Pacaya Volcano, about 60 minutes from town. At 8,400 feet above sea level, it’s the most active volcano in Guatemala. On the two-and-a-half-hour ascent you’ll observe an awesome lagoon of calderas and have a view of three smaller volcanoes. The tour takes you back to Antigua in the early afternoon.
Antigua is about an hour west of La Aurora International Airport, which receives two direct flights a day from LAX (a four-hour, 40-minute trip).
Like many Latin American cities, Antigua is busy with local and international tourists during Christmas, Holy Week (Semana Santa), and Easter.
Antigua has a mild climate year-round, with highs in the 70s and lows in the mid-50s. The rainy season runs from May to October; the dry season begins in November and lasts through April.