Antigua, Guatemala, Is a City Stuck in the Past Yet Ready for the Future

Iglesia del Carmen, mostly destroyed by earthquake in 1773
Iglesia del Carmen, mostly destroyed by earthquake in 1773
Dustin Ames

I was waiting for my red-eye to Guatemala from LAX when a friend texted me a photo. It was one of the three volcanoes surrounding Antigua, and it was erupting in the night sky. By the time I arrived the next morning, I missed the excitement, but not the telltale signs that something big had happened, including the layer of ash that covered everything. After dropping my bags at El Hostal Bed and Breakfast (Primera Avenida Sur 8, Antigua), my accommodations for the next 30 hours, I hopped next door to Y Tú Piña Tambien (Primera Avenida Sur 10b, Antigua; www.ytupinatambien.com), where you can get breakfast all day long. It specializes in egg dishes (try the Egg McFuckin' Muffin) and fresh-fruit smoothies, all aimed at fixing the damage you've done to your liver the night before (Advil is free, all you have to do is ask).

Good for what ails ya
Good for what ails ya
Dustin Ames
The ruins behind Iglesia de San Francisco
The ruins behind Iglesia de San Francisco
Dustin Ames
Iglesia San José el Viejo
Iglesia San José el Viejo
Dustin Ames

Antigua was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, and it's apparent from the moment you drive into town. The Spanish-colonial architecture hasn't changed since the 1600s. Antigua's residents and businesses cohabit cobblestone streets lined with buildings and churches that crumbled during the 1773 earthquake, a metaphor for the city's struggles and beauty. One of the largest landmarks is the Iglesia de San Francisco, which includes an attached museum and more ruins. The façade of Iglesia del Carmen (3a Avenida Norte, between 2a and 3a Calles, Antigua) remains, the rest having been destroyed in the aforementioned earthquake. But the Iglesia San José el Viejo (5a Avenida Sur 34, Antigua; www.sanjoseelviejo.com) has been converted into a school, though the main church structure continues to be used for weddings and celebrations.

The ruins behind Iglesia de San Francisco
The ruins behind Iglesia de San Francisco
Dustin Ames
Primera Avenida Sur, with the entrance to Iglesia de San Francisco in the background
Primera Avenida Sur, with the entrance to Iglesia de San Francisco in the background
Dustin Ames

Indoor/outdoor market stalls are prevalent here; you'll find all types of crafts, from handmade leather bags and carved wooden masks to woven textiles and T-shirts that proudly proclaim, "Guat's Up?" or, "Guatever!" Nim Po't (5a Avenida Norte 29, Antigua) is a bit different; taking up a large warehouse-style building, Guatemalan tourist tchotchkes and true artisan furniture fill every corner. Make sure you head out back to see the shrine to Maximón (pronounced "ma-shee-moan"), the non-patron patron saint of drink and drug. The Spanish priest was rumored to have slept with the wives of all the field workers while they were out making a living; in return, they cut off his arms and legs. Now, he's revered as an unofficial saint. How fucked-up is that? Don't forget to buy your own Maximón figure, complete with his signature hat, cigar, cane and chair. Cheer up all your friends with his tale or just have him keep a watchful eye over you and your booze.

The shrine to Maximón behind Nim Po’t
The shrine to Maximón behind Nim Po’t
Dustin Ames
Take home your own Maximón
Take home your own Maximón
Dustin Ames
This pup has the right idea
This pup has the right idea
Dustin Ames

Antigua has not been immune to globalization. If you are truly homesick, you can stop at the Domino's Pizza or McDonald's. Actually, you should stop into the McDonald's (4 Calle Poniente, Antigua) because it's pretty incredible. The food is the same with the addition of some regional differences, but remember the UNESCO World Heritage tidbit? That requires that all new construction keep the original aesthetic of the building. So this McDonald's is likely the fanciest-looking fast-food restaurant ever. Grab your hamburguesa con queso, then sit out back by the fountains and sprawling gardens. If you want something more substantial (and you should), Ni-fu Ni-fa (www.nifunifadeantigua.com) is a steakhouse run by an Argentinean expat with some of the best cooked meat in the city. The 24-ounce Delmonico rib-eye will set you back all of $27. Ni-fu Ni-fa roughly translates to mediocre, but this is anything but.

John Rexer, owner of Ilegal Mezcal, Y Tú Piña Tambien, Café No Sé and Dyslexia Bookstore
John Rexer, owner of Ilegal Mezcal, Y Tú Piña Tambien, Café No Sé and Dyslexia Bookstore
Dustin Ames
Crates of Brahva Beer in one of Antigua’s cantinas
Crates of Brahva Beer in one of Antigua’s cantinas
Dustin Ames

We here at the Weekly have written about Ilegal Mezcal quite a bit lately, and for good reason. The owners hate Donald Trump; we hate Donald Trump. They love mezcal; we adore mezcal. Their Southern California brand ambassadors are Anaheim boys; our Mexican in Chief, the same. If you are a fan, too, be sure to check out the infamous Café No Sé (Primera Avenida Sur 11c, Antigua). Across the street from El Hostal and Y Tu Piña, Café No Sé hosts local and expat singers and songwriters nightly, while serving up cold local beers and a small selection of spirits. Toward the back, step through the small green refrigerator and into the mezcal bar: a dim, candlelit space that holds maybe eight to 10 people comfortably, but there are almost always more. Here in the back, all that's served is Ilegal and beer. It's all you need, and it's cheap.

Antigua’s worst-kept secret: The entrance to Café No Sé’s Mezcal Bar
Antigua’s worst-kept secret: The entrance to Café No Sé’s Mezcal Bar
Dustin Ames
A few of Ilegal’s Brand Ambassadors (from left): Kayla Mata, Gilbert Marquez and Joaquin Valdovinos
A few of Ilegal’s Brand Ambassadors (from left): Kayla Mata, Gilbert Marquez and Joaquin Valdovinos
Dustin Ames

If you continue toward the street, you'll walk through Dyslexia Libros (Primera Avenida Sur 11b, Antigua), a new- and used-book store housing reading material in more than a dozen languages. Longtime expat and Ilegal owner John Rexer opened Café No Sé after leaving New York post-9/11; originally looking for a spot to hide out from the rain, he rented the small building that eventually turned into the café and bookstore.

Serene pool in Mesón Panza Verde’s restaurant
Serene pool in Mesón Panza Verde’s restaurant
Dustin Ames
The beautifully overgrown courtyard of Mesón Panza Verde
The beautifully overgrown courtyard of Mesón Panza Verde
Dustin Ames

If stumbling back to a hostel with a head full of mezcal isn't quite your cup of tea, you can always stay at Mesón Panza Verde (5a Avenida Sur 19, Antigua; www.panzaverde.com), a luxury boutique hotel that will only cost you roughly $100 per night for a double room or $200 per night for a suite. The Panza Verde is constructed around a beautiful stone courtyard overflowing with local flora and offers rooftop views of the city, as well as an art gallery with rotating exhibits. The on-site restaurant offers an eclectic international menu and is consistently rated one of the top in the country.

The path to Cerro de la cruz
The path to Cerro de la cruz
Dustin Ames

While there are both day and overnight hikes and tours of Antigua's volcanoes offered, if you are short on time, you can make your way to the Cerro de la Cruz. This 20-to-30-minute hike starts at the end of Primera Avenida Sur and will take you up a meandering path of stairs that climbs the side of a small mountain (or would it be a large hill?). The view from the clearing offers a spectacular vantage point high above the city and an even better view of Volcan de Agua. If you are really short on time, you can take a tuk-tuk or a scooter to the top and tell all your friends that you walked it.

The view from Cerro de la Cruz
The view from Cerro de la Cruz
Dustin Ames

All that hiking (or fake hiking) deserves a drink. You can find a plethora of small cantinas around Antigua where you can order little more than beer or beer. Take your pick and try a Gallo, Moza or Brahva, and if you are lucky, you might also be served a small plate of tortilla chips and mole. If beer isn't cutting it and you need a swift kick in the pants, ordering a Quezalteca Rosa de Jamaica will do the trick. For a bit more than a dollar, this strong, bright-purple hibiscus liqueur is stronger than it looks—there's a reason it comes in 125mL bottles.

¡Aguardiente!
¡Aguardiente!
Dustin Ames
Maybe get the Bart?
Maybe get the Bart?
Dustin Ames

As I prepared to head back to Guatemala City for my flight out of Aurora International Airport, I was already thinking about returning to see and do all the things I missed. For a small city, there's a lot to take in: coffee plantations, Lake Atitlán, even getting a haircut at the Simpson's Family Barber Shop. The sights and sounds of Antigua are lying dormant in my mind, just like the surrounding volcanoes.

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