A few months before turning 30, I conferred with my two best friends who, coincidentally, share the same birth month. To honor the big 3-0, we settled on taking our very first international girls trip together. The destination? Antigua, Guatemala. The city is renowned for its Baroque architecture, cobblestone streets, secret courtyards, and cotton candy-colored houses. Antigua is also known for its food scene, bevy of boutique hotels like Villa Bokéh, and ancient volcanos—which you can see erupting in real-time, in very small spurts. The city is home to chic design studios, master leather workers, and artisans who craft blankets, tapestries, and huipil (traditional Guatemalan women’s clothing) from beautifully hand-woven textiles. In case that wasn’t enough to entice you, it’s only a three-hour drive to Lake Atitlán, revered by Mayans for its mystical healing powers. Antigua was the perfect place to commemorate (read: take lots of photos) our milestone birthday. Below, the best things to see, eat, drink, and where to stay.
What to See
Guatemala is known for its textiles, and each region of the country has a distinct weaving pattern and color palette. In Antigua, products from Colibrí textiles incorporate the ancient art of back strap weaving, and sales support Indigenous widowed women. The legendary Nimpot market has endless rows of handicrafts, in addition to textiles. And Algodones Maya has beautiful artisanal cotton products in tons of traditional colors. Other shops that shouldn’t be missed include: Luna Zorro, Hilosophy, and Ixcaco.
On the outskirts of Antigua is Pastores, a small town that’s world-famous for its boot-making. The main drag is one family-run shop after another, all with handmade cowboy boots for sale. Though boots dominate the scene, there are also belts, bags and hats. Some shops, like Botas Atitlán, will even work with you to make custom boots.
San Juan La Laguna
The famed Lake Atitlán is just a three-hour drive from Antigua. Dozens of small towns dot the lakefront, including San Juan la Laguna, a predominately Maya municipality which is home to an all-women weaving cooperative, the family-run apiary Xunah Kaab’, and the famous Kaqasiiwaan Viewpoint. While you’re in San Juan la Laguna, be sure to take a boat ride around the lake—its waters are said to have sacred healing powers.
Where to Eat
Is it a restaurant? Is it a vintage shop? Nana is both, combining my two favorite things in the world: Second-hand shopping and snacking. The restaurant-boutique hybrid features a rotating menu with traditional dishes. And, after eating, be sure to peruse Nana’s selection of hand-picked vintage finds from around the country.
Quiltro is Antigua’s first fine dining establishment. The restaurant concept features an array of iconic Guatemalan ingredients and flavors. The menu is constantly changing, but a standout dish is the cucumber with mango ice sitting atop a creamy yogurt spread.
La Tienda de Doña Gavi
The helado in Antigua is famous. There are ice cream trucks all over the city with all different kinds of flavors. But ask any local about their favorite brick and mortar spot, and they’ll likely tell you: “Doña Gavi.”
Where to Drink
Ulew Cocktail Bar
Behind a phone booth tucked into the Antigua Brewing Company is the speakeasy-style cocktail bar Ulew. As soon as you sit down the bartenders want to know your favorite liquor so they can make you a custom drink tailored to your tastes.
Whether you’re staying at Casa Palopó or just passing through, the hotel’s restaurant and bar—which features a beautiful view of the lake and nearby volcano—is a great option to enjoy a non-alcoholic night beverage. The hotel offers a unique Guatemalan “tea-time” experience with an array of different local teas and desserts.
Technically, El Comalote is a restaurant. The tortillería works with mostly organic corn farmers and makes the tortillas in the middle of the restaurant. But El Comalote also has an impressive drink list, from kombuchas to local cervezas to spicy micheladas. Grab a cool beverage. Snack on a fresh tortilla. Enjoy.
Where to Stay
Many engaged couples choose Villa Bokéh for their wedding venue—and it’s not hard to see why. Set on the outskirts of downtown Antigua, Villa Bokéh is a former estate turned luxury boutique. Staying at the palatial retreat is like being in a fairy tale. Each night, before going to bed, there is a knock on the door. It’s a member of the hotel staff delivering chocolate, essential oils, and a selection of sleepy-time teas. The villa’s backyard, which has a glittering pond, provides a picture-perfect view of Volcán de Agua. And, the entire hotel smells amazing—all the time. Everything is by design, of course. The genius behind Bokéh is Claudia Bosch, who oversees day-to-day operations, recruits and hires chefs for the in-house restaurant and bar, and meets with guests. The impeccable interiors of the hotel are courtesy of her daughter Katy Jay, who works with local artisans to source pillowcases, blankets, towels, and linens. The staff at Bokéh are attentive and the hotel’s vibe is warm, as evidenced by the delicious and refreshing hibiscus lemonade you receive upon arrival.
Sometimes, a place just take your breath away. Casa Palopó is one of those places. Tucked into a hillside looking down at Lake Atitlán, Guatemala’s most famous body of water, the hotel is more like an experience. There is a dramatic infinity pool, multiple terraces with unparalleled views, and a dining room that serves local dishes, like traditional Guatemalan beef stew. There are 15 rooms and suites, all decorated with indigenous Guatemalan artwork, and a private three-suite villa complete with a terrace. Let the panoramic view entice you down to the lake, where there are boats ready to take you on day trips to nearby towns or on a hike to one of the area’s several volcanos. Staying at Casa Palopó is an experience you won’t soon forget.
El Convento is a a small luxury hotel located in the heart of Antigua. Each unique room is beautifully designed, many with high wood-beamed ceilings and quaint patios. There is an outdoor pool and a gorgeous rooftop to enjoy volcano views and a glass of cerveza.
Rose is a Senior Editor at ELLE overseeing features and projects about women’s issues. She is an accomplished and compassionate storyteller and editor who excels in obtaining exclusive interviews and unearthing compelling features.