The US State Department put Guatemala under a Level 2 travel advisory earlier this year. Exercise extreme caution, it warned, because some areas have increased risk. However, in August, 2018, USA Today reported that crime is rampant throughout Guatemala. I met a woman who had spent 5 years there before returning to her home in California. The first thing she did when she got home was rent a car and drive all over the state just to enjoy the freedom. Feeling like a hostage, she said she was always on edge while in Guatemala.
We had no trouble in low-risk Antigua, but then we drove through Guatemala City, both the capital of this country and the largest city in Central America. It didn’t look like a place that I would wander around without a trusted guide. Ruth & I felt perfectly safe on our own in Antigua, but it has become a tourist city and police were everywhere as were visitors. Guatemala has been advertising heavily lately and encouraging travelers to “explore the secret country”. Some ads call it the Heart of the Mayan World.
Antigua, founded in 1543, was the 1st capital of Central America. After the town was destroyed by an earthquake 230 years later, the capital became Guatemala City. The Antigua that was rebuilt remains today pretty much as it was in the 18th century. Be ready to walk only on cobblestones and be confused by maps. There are even a few buildings that were damaged by this ancient earthquake but remain. They are eerie to see. The Arco de Santa Catalina, Antigua’s most photographed landmark, was one of the few structures that survived the quake. It’s about to celebrate its 325th birthday.
If you go to Antigua, be forewarned about 2 things. Most of the buildings you will see are historic churches, and many street vendors will follow you expecting to wear you down while bargaining for their trinkets. They are quite persistent. There is one very fine museum in the city devoted to Guatemalan jade that’s a must-see. Antigua has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979. Experts claim that the best time to be there is during Holy Week, especially Good Friday.
Antigua’s setting is world-class. It has a relatively high elevation and there are a few volcanoes towering over the city. The most active ones are Volcán Pacaya and nearby Volcán de Fuego. The latter erupted in 2018 and the former spewed lava shortly after that. Guatemala has 32 volcanoes and these 2 are said to exhibit steady activity. Fuego erupted in June, 2018, reportedly killing 113 people. Antigua is only 27 miles from gritty Guatemala City. Climbing Pacaya used to be risky so now it is recommended that you do it only with a reputable guide.