If you’ve only got a limited time in Guatemala to learn Spanish or you’re looking to set yourself up in the one spot for a while, you’ll probably wonder whether it’s better to do so in Antigua or Quetzaltenango (Xela).
So having spent a week studying in both places, here’s my take on the subject.
A UNESCO world heritage listed town, Antigua is less than an hour from Guatemala City airport, making it the perfect first stop in Guatemala if you’re arriving by air. It’s a very popular place to learn Spanish, and one of the cheapest places to do so in Latin America.
More than you can poke a stick at, most with excellent reputations.
The food in Antigua is pretty damn awesome. The variety is huge, so if you’re staying with a host family and are sick of the Guatemalan staples of rice and beans you can easily get McDonalds, bagels, Mexican, fried chicken or even a Southeast Asian fix. The downside? Eating out in Antigua is pretty expensive, and a meal including a soft drink or beer will run you upwards of 60 – 80 quetzales.
Of course, there is also plenty of street food to be had near Parque Central, but I admit I ate McDonalds more times than was probably strictly necessary.
Top tip: Go to Bagel Barn and have a bagel with chocolate chip cream cheese. You’ll want to kiss me in thanks, I promise.
It’s really easy to get to Antigua from Guatemala City and once you’re there, tourist shuttles can take you almost anywhere in the country.
Top tip: Don’t pay your language school $30 for an airport transfer. Although I was told at the airport that there were no $10 shuttles to Antigua as all the guidebooks suggest, I did manage to bargain a taxi down from $30 to $15 for the 45km trip.
Antigua is packed with bars and pubs, although each night it’s generally only one or two places that are hopping – you have to be in the know! If you’re a woman, ask your teacher or other students about ladies nights where drinks cost a tiny 5 quetzales.
Top tip: Reilly’s has a fun pub quiz on Monday nights – great for meeting people
Things to do and see
From hiking up Volcano Pacaya, or up to Cerro de La Cruz to taking a tour of a coffee farm – you’ll never be bored after class or on weekends.
Top tip: Take someone with you up to Cerro de La Cruz – it can be a bit dodgy
Antigua feels very safe, so it can be easy to let your guard down. I knew of a few people (mostly girls walking alone at night) who were mugged at gun or knife point – the muggers are not out to injure you, just scare you and take your stuff. Apparently petty theft is on the increase.
Top tip: Don’t use the ATMs around Parque Central. If you’re taking money out, only do it inside a bank – the ATMs in Antigua have serious card cloning problems right now.
This was where Antigua fell over for me. It’s a little Disney-fied – a little too clean. It’s also very much a party town – you could go out until 3am every single night of the week if you wanted (or could afford) to.
While I like to have a drink, I am most definitely not a massive partier so this was a downside for me – it might not be for you!
It’s also very, very easy to meet people in Antigua. In fact, I met so many people I was looking for some alone time by the end of my week there.
In the highlands north of Antigua is the university town of Quetzaltenango. More gritty in feel than Antigua, it’s quite a liberal city with a strong – local – arts and music scene.
It’s generally a place where people a little bit more serious about travel, studying spanish and volunteering come to stay.
Plenty. Probably not as many as Antigua, though. I loved mine.
There isn’t as much variety as in Antigua, but it’s much cheaper. There are some really great atmospheric cafes within a couple of blocks of Parque Central, and there is a McDonalds and Pollo Campero for anyone who wants their fast food fix.
There are also lots of local comedor style restaurants serving tipico Guatemalan fare, and the popular Albamar, a more local verision of Pollo Campero with a larger menu.
Top tip: Cafe Luna, although slightly out of the way, does awesome hot chocolate. Go for the chocolate purro.
Xela’s downside is that it’s much further than Antigua from Guatemala City (about 5 hours from Guate), so it’s a bit of an awkward first stop if you’re arriving by air. Your Spanish school will probably recommend you take a taxi from the airport to one of the bus companies that run regular coaches up to Xela.
There are plenty of shuttles operating from Xela – those to Lake Atitlan are popular.
Top tip: Getting around Xela is exhausting because of the altitude! At 2,300m, Xela’s hills are punishing on the lungs. Be ready for it – my teacher told me it sends some people running (stumbling?) back to Antigua.
No where near as crazy as that in Antigua. There are a few pubs/bars and a club or two – ask around for what’s hot. There’s also a well known gay bar.
Top tip: Quetzaltrekkers and other organisations often host parties. Ask at your Spanish school for their evening plans, too.
Things to do and see
Xela’s cobblestone streets are just as beautiful as Antigua’s, if a little more run down. There aren’t as many sites in the immediate vicinity, but if you’re into hiking, this is the place to come. There are also loads of volunteer projects you can get involved with.
Top tip: Make Xela’s cemetery a must visit on your list, but take your Spanish teacher with you for safety in numbers.
Although it’s considered a safe city by Guatemalan standards, Xela is not as safe as Antigua. A girl from my school was grabbed around the throat by a mugger at 7.30pm on a Sunday evening – if there is no one on the streets, you should get off them, too. Just be cautious.
Top tip: Don’t use the ATMs in Zone 1. Those around the mall in Zone 3 are fine.
I loved it. It’s much more relaxed than Antigua and the crowd a little more on the same wavelength as me. It also felt much more Guatemalan than Antigua.
Hands-down, I preferred Xela. I was able to get to know my teacher, do some volunteering and avoid the rain in some comfortable cafes, and I didn’t feel guilty for not going out and partying every night.
My verdict? Go to Xela. It’s awesome.