Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Antigua
Guatemala’s Pacaya is one of the most popular volcanoes to visit, but travelers shouldn't skip its neighbor, Acatenango. Towering nearly 13,123 feet (4,000 meters), it is Guatemala’s third-tallest volcano and one of the tallest stratovolcanoes in Central America.
Acatenango’s first eruption was in 1924 —relatively recent in comparison to many other volcanoes—though some evidence of its volcanic activity dates back to prehistoric times. Other eruptions occurred shortly after, but it then remained quiet until an eruption in 1972. Since then, Acatenango has been declared dormant.
Acatenango is part of the Fuego-Acatenango massif, or string of volcanic vents, which includes Yepocapa, Pico Mayor de Acatenango, Meseta and Fuego. Acatenango has two main summits: Yepocapa, the northern summit at 12,565 feet (3,830 meters) and Pico Mayor, the southern and highest cone at 13,054 feet (3,976 meters).
Pacaya Volcano is considered Guatemala’s most active volcano and is believed to have first erupted approximately 23,000 years ago. Pacaya has erupted a number of times since and has had an active status since 1965. It stands at more than 8,300 feet (2.5 km) at its tallest point and is part of the Central American Volcanic Arc.
One of the most notable eruptions was in 2010, when Pacaya erupted multiple times in one day, raining ash on a number of towns, including part of Guatemala City. Schools and the airport were affected by the raincloud of ash, causing the president to declare a state of calamity. This was further complicated by torrential rain from Tropical Storm Agatha, which had caused flooding and landslides in the region. In March 2014, Pacaya erupted again, and officials discussed whether to evacuate several thousand people who lived near the volcano’s base. This eruption sent another huge ash cloud into the air and caused a number of flights to be diverted.
The Hill of the Cross, or Cerro de la Cruz, is a 30-minute walk that, upon arrival, treats its guests to expansive views of Antigua and the Volcan de Agua. While this walk is not easy, it is worth it. For those who prefer to skip the hike, cabs can whisk people to the top as well.
Located on the north side of the city, it offers the best views of Antigua. And an enormous stone cross.
Ancient Mayans were the first to begin using cocoa beans in culinary preparations, and today, Guatemala is one of the countries most associated with chocolate production. At the chocolate museum in Antigua, visitors learn about the history of chocolate and the chocolate production process in a hands-on, kid-friendly setting.
During the ChocoMuseo’s three-times-daily Beans-to-Bar Workshop, a guide walks attendees through the entire chocolate-making process, from harvest and roasting to tempering and molding. Along the way, guests get to prepare cocoa tea, Mayan hot chocolate and European hot chocolate, as well as a box of their own handmade chocolates to bring home. The museum also offers a truffle workshop and a full day tour with a visit to a working cocoa plantation.
The Palacio de los Capitanes Generales used to be home to the Spanish viceroy and the power of the entire Central American region for more than 200 years. It housed everything from the court to post office, treasury, royal office and even horse stables.
Today, the building, which was first constructed in the late 1500s, is home to many governmental offices including the tourist office and police department. A couple of years ago, it underwent large-scale repairs and restoration. The exterior facade is not the original, it was added in the late 1700s.
Located in the center of Antigua, Parque Central is the major outdoor area in the town. Considered one of the most beautiful in the country, the park is the place where people meet up for an afternoon of relaxation and nice weather.
By day, vendors line the tree-covered walks, selling their wares. By night, mariachi or marimba bands set up shop, entertaining passersby with their live music.
Be sure to check out the fountain, which was originally created in 1738. Although a replica, the 1936 reconstruction maintains the original's posterity.
This gorgeous Baroque-style church features a soft, buttery yellow exterior complimented by white trim. Originally a male monastery, La Merced was originally built in 1548. Later, in 1749, Juan de Dios began work on building today's church, finishing the project in 1767.
The exterior of the intricately designed church features sculptures and paintings, such as the well-known Jesus Nazareno. Inside, ruins of the monastery can be found, including the Fuente de Pescados, or Fountain of the Fish. During Holy Week, the church is the start of the procession.
The Palace of the City Council (Town Hall), or El Palacio del Ayuntamiento, was constructed in 1743 and once served as the Spanish colonial government seat and an 80-person jail during the colonial era. Today, it is home to Antigua’s municipalidad, or city government, the Museo del Libro and the Museo de Santiago. One of the most impressive elements of the Palacio del Ayuntamiento is its two-story façade
The double layer of stone archways with columns was done in a Tuscan style, which contributes to the building’s striking appearance. A portion of the carved-stone exterior of the east-facing wall managed to survive the 18th century, though centuries of earthquakes contributed to the need for restoration efforts at the palace.
Jade is a rare and precious stone dating back to the pre-Columbian era in Mesoamerica. Some of the world’s best jade was found in Guatemala. Historically, it was used in culturally significant ways, including in hieroglyph inscriptions and carvings of symbolic figures. There are two types of jade — Jadeite and Nephrite. Jadeite is more dense and renowned for its rich colors. Nephrite is more of a carving stone, found in many places around the world. Jadeite contains the bright green and apple colors you find in quality jade jewelry. Those colors were prized by both Chinese emperors and Maya kings.
To learn more about jade, visitors to Antigua can visit the Jade Factory and Museum, also called Jade Maya, founded in 1974 by archaeologist Mary Lou Ridinger and her husband, Jay. Fine jadeite is mined here in the same manner of the Olmec, Maya and Aztec people. Guatemalan workers at Jade Maya cut and polish the mined jade following the same traditions of their ancestors.
More Things to Do in Antigua
The stark and silent beauty of the ruins of Catedral de Santiago offers visitors one of only a few quiet and contemplative escapes in the 500-year-old city of Antigua. Once a towering homage to religion and faith, this European-inspired white stone wonder was devastated during a massive earthquake in 1717 and never repaired. Today, travelers can explore what remains of this unique structure, whose exterior tells a story of triumph and perseverance. It’s only when visitors pass by the reconstructed façade that they find what can only be described as broken beauty.
Covered hallways and altars now exist under open skies, since ceilings and rooftops that crumbled during natural disasters were never replaced. Delicate white engravings and vast ivory archways are tinged and darkened with dirt after so many years of being exposed to the elements.
Originally constructed in the 1500s, Iglesia de San Francisco, today, has mostly been reconstructed, thanks to age and earthquake damage. However, that's not the draw to this attraction. Both locals and visitors come to this old, baroque church to visit the shrine of Peter of Saint Joseph Betancur (Santo Hermano Pedro de San Jose de Betancurt). A Franciscan monk, he founded a hospital for the poor in town and is the country's most honored Christian leader.
Beatified in 1980 and made a saint in 2002 when Pope John Paul II visited Guatemala, Peter of Saint Joseph's tomb is visited by thousands each year asking for favors and miracles.
However, make no mistake, this church - which is one of the oldest in town - is still a work of beauty. It features 16 vaulted niches, a bell and clock tower from the 17th and 19th centuries and work from famed artists. Throughout history, the church has also been home to places such as a hospital and printing press.
Located in the Western Highlands of Guatemala, the pre-Columbian Mesoamerican site of Iximche was the capital of the late post-classic Kaqchikel Maya kingdom from 1470 until it was ultimately abandoned in 1524 and then declared a Guatemalan National Monument in the 1960s.
Once in the archeological site, you will see four ceremonial plazas surrounded by tall temples and two ball courts. There is also a small museum displaying sculptures and ceramics found at Iximche during excavations. As you tour the site, look for poorly preserved painted murals and listen to guides as they talk about evidence of human sacrifice found at Iximche.
Originally, the Kaqchikel maintained their capital at what is present-day Chichicastenango but then moved to Iximche sometime around 1470 due to the rampant expansion movement and growing power of their K’iche rivals. Iximche was built along the safer 7,000-foot-high (2,134-meter-high) mountain ridge, surrounded by deep ravines.
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