We had been in Costa Rica for 80 days which meant it was time for our first “visa run”. When you enter Costa Rica as a US citizen they automatically stamp you passport with a 90 day visa. To stay “legal” most long-term tourists cross over into Nicaragua or Panama for the day in order to receive a new 90 stamp when they pass back through Costa Rican immigration. Pretty much all long term tourists dread these trips. In the spirit of “12 Countries 12 Months!” I decided we should go somewhere new. So I bought us some $120 round trip tickets to Guatemala, and planned a 5 day trip!
Day 1: Ciudad Guatemala –> Antigua
We landed in Ciudad Guatemala at 8am, went through customs and immigration, got our visas stamped, pulled out some Quetzales from the atm, and confidently blew past the taxi and shuttle drivers out front. I had read online busses passed by the airport to Antigua regularly, but we looked around a bit and wondered where those busses might be… We asked the taxi drivers who claimed the only way to get to Antigua was on a 15 dollar per person shuttle. Lies!
We were there early and in an adventurous mood, so we set off across the street with no idea where we were going. We came to a police station a block away and I approached an officer and asked for directions to the busses to Antigua. Instead of telling us they offered us a ride and packed us into a pickup with three other cops. After a quick tour of Zona 9 they dropped us off on the side of a busy road- telling us to walk a few blocks and catch a bus there.
They had dropped us off at the Trebol station which is a loud, hectic section of sidewalk packed with vendors and men trying to pull you onto buses. We anticipated some major “hanger” and bought some fried chicken for breakfast before we were rushed onto one of the brightly colored chicken buses headed to Antigua.
OK…maybe catching a 15$pp shuttle is not such a bad deal- but we love the adventure that comes with taking buses! Here is the scoop on how to catch the bus to Antigua from GUA.
How to catch a bus to Antigua from GUA:
Walk out the doors of GUA, past the taxi drivers to the road that passes by the airport (head right). You will see a bus stop to your left, go wait there. Take any bus that says “Trebol” on the front (Bus 84 definitely does)…They come regularly, every 15 minutes or so. These busses are 1-2 Quetzales each. Ask the bus driver to let you know when you get to Trebol, I always ask someone on the bus to help too, just in case. Once at Trebol (remember- it doesn’t look like a typical bus station) people will ask where you are going, tell them and they will help you onto the correct bus. These busses are around 10 Quetzales each and take you on an exciting, windy, 1 hour trip to Antigua!
We decided to wait till we got there to book a room like the good ol days. We were rewarded for this spontaneity by stepping off of the bus right into a huge vibrant marketplace full of bright exotic fruits and veggies, flowers and grains. We bought tamales from a woman roasting them over coals and savored them as we strolled around. Then we wandered around a bit too long with our packs on checking out hostels. Just like the good ol days (oh yeah! That’s why we book in advance now…). To save you some strife here are our suggestions for budget hostels/hotels.
Hotel Dionysis (tranquilo):
We paid 130 Quetzales to stay in their smallest room which had just enough room for the bed in it. The room opened up to a nice terrace with great views of volcanoes, seating, a bbq, and complimentary afternoon coffee via room service! It’s really close to the Santa Catalina Arch and a quick walk to central park. There is a nice french bakery a few blocks away. They also offered breakfast for around 3$.
Wicho and Charlies (party):
This place is a few blocks away from the central park. 180 Quetzales got us a private room right off of the common area- so it was pretty loud. Another room only big enough for a bed but it was very comfortable! Room comes with access to hot tub, free coffee and 2 free drinks. If you want to socialize with other travelers this is a pretty cool place to do so. The dorm rooms were pretty nice too, the beds all had privacy screens- we almost considered saving a few bucks and taking a dorm bed…but we are 30. So we bucked up the extra 8 bucks for our own space.
Banana Azul (basic):
We ended up at a hostel called Banana Azul the first night. It was in the same price range but didn’t stand out enough for us to recommend it. Kind of dark, really hard beds, water leaked into our bathroom, and not a good social scene. But hey- our bags were down and we were free to explore!
After we ditched the bags the first thing on the agenda was: eat all food! The tamales had us hooked and we wanted to try more Guatemalan food. We went to the chocolate factory and sampled as many chocolates as we possibly could, followed by two americanos. Amazing. It’s one of two chocolate factories in Antigua, and there is another one in the nearby town of San Juan del Obispo that sells everything for around 2$ less- we stocked up there!
Next, it was time for some substantial food and after wandering around trying to find some tipico (local) food and failing we stopped at “Ta’Cool” which was an awesome decision. Best tacos I have ever had outside of Mexico! We had the asada and orange chicken smothered in all of their delicious housemade salsa’s.
We worked our way down to the central park area and enjoyed some delicious gelato as we watched vendors trying to sell scarves and necklaces in the central park. *Tip- Don’t buy souvenirs here if you are going to Guatemala City- you can buy anything you want there for half as much at the Mercado Central!* We continued wandering, searching for tipico food and cheap hostel rooms which -spoiler alert- those are not things that we found in Antigua.
As dusk fell a brightly lit ferris wheel beckoned us back towards the market where they were setting up a carnival. It was pretty deserted but a few booths were selling cheap Guatemalan carnival food and we were stoked! We had pizza, elotes locos (corn on the cob covered in mayo, chili, cheese, and ketchup) and a “gringo” (a chalupa stuffed with pork? cheese and pickled cabbage). Pleased with our food finds and with a few hotels in mind for the next day we headed back to the hostel, threw on some Rick and Morty and passed out watching cartoons in a hard hostel bed.
Down with the sickness:
We woke up and headed over to the french bakery for coffee and pastries. We were feeling fabulous, holding hands in the morning sun; but two unfortunate realities of travel were about to derail our good spirits. First we got bad news from home. Especially in long term travel you can’t avoid this kind of thing, and being away from home can make these situations extra painful. As we talked through our problem and moped into our coffee I realized I was sick. Really sick. From something I ate the day before. Agghh I always get sick!! I was worried I was going to ruin the trip and in tears at the idea of not being able to eat anymore yummy street food. Luckily, after ten years of travel together Scott knows just what to do. We drop our mopey mood and spring into action. Straight to the pharmacy for the medicines I needed and I was feeling better in a few hours. Whew! Moral of the story: act fast! Carry pepto, loperamide, and probiotics if you have a hungry and weak stomach like me. **Please Do NOT take ciprofloxacin! See my warning at the end of this story.**
Back to business
I started feeling better quickly, and our bad mood had lifted as the sun rose higher in the sky. We moved our bags over to hotel Dionisio and set ourselves up in the smallest hostel room we had ever had, with one of the best views. I made it a goal to check out a few tattoo parlors, find a place to rent bikes, eat lots of good food, and find another affordable hostel (Dionisio was booked for the next night due to some festivities being held in town).
We still could not find any great tipico restaurants… but did eat at a place that I dug that was quite the opposite. It’s a chain called “Go Green!” that was pretty much like subway but better with great salads, rice bowls, soups, and breakfast sammys! Yums. If you need a taste of home or have a recovering tummy this is a good place to go play it safe.
Cafeteria del Mercado Central
Scott is a hungry boy so we end up spending a lot of time looking for good food 🙂 For lunch we headed back to the market and navigated the cyclopean maze to the the central dining area. This is where we typically eat when we travel in Central America.
When we finally located the cafeteria deep within the market we were attacked by middle aged women grabbing us and physically trying to pull us into their stalls! It’s typical for stall owners to try to entice you in, but these women were ruthless. At one point Scott had a woman grabbing each of his arms pulling him aggressively in different directions. I rescued him with my best “I might bite” look and we scurried out of the feeding frenzy. Normally we would push through aggressive peddlers and find a good stall, but it was kind of dark and no one else was eating there which are two big turn offs for us.
We re-oriented ourselves and ran out to the sunny outdoors. Gulping fresh air we scanned the surroundings. Locals lined up by the busses frying chicken and french fries and cooking fresh tortillas in small stalls. We picked the stall with the most people around it and gorged on fresh tortillas and fried chicken.We ended up here frequently, buying 2 tortillas for around 10 cents and eating sinfully tasty fried food.
You can find pretty much anything you need at the mercado central except for size 13 rubber boots…can’t find those ANYWHERE down here! If you have big feet make sure to bring extra shoes from the states. One part of the mercado worth highlighting is the “Paca”- a huge clothing resale area. If you need to gear up for treks this is a great place to find cheap jackets and thermal layers.
Cerro de la Cruz
Outside of the mercado we approached the line of tuk tuks (tiny tiny little 3 wheeled cars!) and asked how much it was to take us to one of the famous sites: Cerro de la cruz. It’s about a half an hour walk uphill…probably an hourish from the mercado. We were feeling lazy. The first guy offered 50. We declined and asked the next guy who offered 35. Deal! It was a fun ride through town and up the hill to some gorgeous views! We ignored the signs and ended up hiking down the hill from Cerro de la Cruz on a hiking trail. It was fun and beautiful, but should be noted we had heard this area could be dangerous and muggings have occurred there.
Back in town I found a tattoo artist I really liked at Graveyard Tattoo. I went to their studio to get a quote on my ink, and for a simple, silver dollar sized design they wanted 200$! I told them that was outrageous tourist bullshit and headed to Antigua Tattoo. They quoted me 30-50$. As I hung around chatting I saw familiar art on the wall, and one of the artists asked me if my arm piece was done by Dorian Serpa of Nicaragua. I was so confused…how did he know!? Apparently Dorian came and worked at their shop for a bit after I modeled for him at a tattoo convention in Managua, Nicaragua. He is famous throughout central america and one of the best and most unique artists in the world.
Antigua tattoo is also famous for being the first legitimate tattoo studio in Guatemala and for setting the standards of safety and sanitation for all tattoo studios in Guatemala. It was meant to be. I booked an appointment for the next day to get a Monja Blanca (the Guatemalan national flower) added to my sleeve of flowers from all the countries we have visited.
More food, ice cream, shopping, chocolate…And museums! We skipped some of the more expensive museums and went to Casa de Tejido, Casa del Jade, and the ruins of San Jose El Viejo. We photographed countless other ruins throughout our stay… Guatemala is a very earthquak-ey place for large Catholic churches.
After price checking a few places we decided to rent some bikes from the hostel Hacia El Sur. They gave us helmets and printed out some maps marking fun places to bike to. The cobblestone streets SUCKED to bike on so don’t plan on leisurely biking through town. We hit the autopista out of town and once it turned to asphalt it was really nice. We biked to San Juan del Obispo. On the way we FiNaLly passed a traditional lunch spot. A beautiful woman with one eye cooked us a meal over a small charcoal grill in traditional dress. The other diners all looked like they were taking a break from work and it was around 3$ for a big delicious meal. It was an easy uphill ride to SAn Juan del Obispo. We checked out the church and took some photos, there was a great view of Antigua. Not much else to do (there was some sort of wine tour but we don’t drink) so we went to another chocolate museum! It was pretty great. Way better prices than the one in Antigua and TONS of samples, so we ended up biking back with pounds of chocolate in our bags. The sugar fueled downhill ride was awesome.
We spent our last night at Wicho and Charlie’s. There was a hot tub- but when we finally got into our suits to use it there were people having sex in it lol. There was a pretty fun crew there and good vibes over all. Staff was a bit “partied out” either too drunk or too hungover to be much help. But as long as you are not expecting too much, the bathrooms were nice and clean with hot water and our bed was super comfortable. Also free coffee FTW. We woke up early the next day, packed our bags and locked them in our room. We walked to Iglesia San Francisco el Grande. We ended up being so happy we did this, it was one of the coolest sites we visited in Antigua. There was a tomb and ruins of a giant library, a museum with lots of creepy jesus dolls and a small market. There is a dress code so make sure to dress nice, no shorts and no tank tops allowed.
After spending a few hours exploring El Grande we grabbed our packs and headed to the bus station. We grabbed one last plate of fried chicken and tortillas before hopping on the bus back to Guatemala City. We truly enjoyed our time cruising through the streets of Antigua. Being in a new country feels so nice and Antigua was a very entertaining, safe, and comfortable place to visit. We had two more days to enjoy Guatemala and we were super excited to check out Guatemala City! Check out the next blog post to find out more about our adventures in Ciudad Guatemala!
***I will be honest and tell you I took a popular antibiotic used for “travelers stomach” called Ciprofloxacin. About a week after taking it I started getting excruciating pain in my tendons and months later I still have not fully recovered. This drug is still prescribed by doctors in the USA and Europe even though “Tendon rupture” and “long term nerve damage” are possible side effects of this drug. Please don’t risk it! more info here***