Latin America on a budget: Antigua, Guatemala

My first Latin America budget adventure, to Antigua, Guatemala, got off to a bad start. My flight from New York to Atlanta was cancelled due to bad weather and I was rebooked via Los Angeles. I finally arrived in Guatemala City a day late, and two days of activities suddenly needed to be compressed into one. In the spirit of the assignment, however, I didn’t inflate my budget. $75 was my limit for accommodations, transportation from the airport, all food, and all activities.

Antigua is Guatemala’s top tourist draw. Famous for its language schools, its new age aura, and its nightlife, Antigua is a major tourist center, and it is undeniably cute. The town is a very pleasant place to loll about, with its particular hybrid of colonial, expat, new age, and contemporary Guatemalan influences, though it’s also easy for more action-oriented travelers to fill days here visiting the town’s churches, museums, and convents.

Antigua is also known as a jumping-off point for adventure activities, especially volcano climbing. One of these excursions would have made for a perfect second day’s activity.

Antigua is chock-full of visit-worthy spots. Some essential stops that also happen to be free include the Church of San Francisco, the Santa Catarina Arch, La Merced Church, and Antigua’s central park.

The Church of San Francisco dates back to the 16th century, though it has been rebuilt many times. A service was underway when I visited. The Arco de Santa Catarina is probably the most iconic sight in all of Antigua. It’s an arch across 5 Avenida North, one of the town’s busiest blocks. Its golden yellow hue is matched by the exterior of La Merced church one block away.

La Merced itself boasts a beautifully ornate stucco exterior of golden yellow and snaking white symmetrical vines that look from a distance like icing on a big yellow cake. Next to La Merced is a fountain which can be visited for 5 quetzales (65 cents.) The fountain was not running during my visit; apparently this is the normal state of affairs. Rounding out the town’s top free sights is Antigua’s Parque Central, located at the nerve center of Antigua. The fountain in the center of the park dates to the 18th century.Also not to be missed are a number of sights that have very reasonable admission costs. There is the Museo de Arte Colonial, which includes paintings, largely religious, of the colonial era. The collection is frankly a bit thin, though it is certainly of interest. Admission is 50 quetzales, or about $6.55.

There is a worthwhile exhibit on colonial religious life in the small museum area of the Capuchinas Convent, though the real treat here is the convent’s rambling compound. It features a glorious patio around a fountain and a still, echoey cellar. This was probably my favorite place in Antigua. Admission is 40 quetzales, or $5.25.

Also absolutely worth a visit are the ruins behind San Jose Cathedral, just off the Parque Central. Admission is 3 quetzales, or just under 40 cents. These ruins date from the late 18th century. There are underground storage spaces and at least one quaint and very popular underground chapel.

Eating and sleeping, of course, occupied the lion’s share of my remaining costs.

I had a delicious breakfast of eggs and beans at Fernando’s Kaffee, a lunchtime sandwich at Doña Maria Xicotencatl, and a chicken dinner–no shame!– at Pollo Campero, the enormous Guatemalan fried chicken chain restaurant. Pollo Campero has taken off across Central America and beyond. Table service sets the experience apart from US fast food chains.

At Doña Maria Gordillo Dulces Típicos, a famous traditional candy shop, I obtained a solid shot of sugar in the form of a delicious little dulce de leche puck for 5 quetzales, or about 65 cents.

Here’s my grub costs breakdown: Breakfast came to 34 quetzales ($4.40). Lunch was the most expensive meal at 46 quetzales ($6). Dinner was mine for 40 quetzales ($5.25). Three meals plus my caramel delight totaled $16.30.

My head hit the pillow at Hotel Casa Cristina, a cute guesthouse close to La Merced, where I paid $27 for a small, simple, and attractive room. Casa Cristina is a budget traveler’s dream spot–cheap, friendly, super clean, and without question a good value. Single rooms on the first floor at Casa Cristina begin at an even more affordable $22 per night in high season. There are cheaper places to bed down in Antigua, but I wanted charm and personable proprietors. I found both at Casa Cristina.

So how did I do in respect to my budget? I miscalculated slightly and ended up spending $76 on my action-packed day, once the shuttle from the airport was added into the total. Still, I came awfully close to spending under $75 even with a compressed schedule and the $20 cost of the shuttle from the airport into Antigua.

For anyone wanting to stay in Antigua for longer than a weekend, these costs should flatten out quickly. Those days that don’t require a shuttle to and from the airport, for example, will be much less expensive, and days spent visiting churches and other sights that don’t charge admission could easily translate into expenditures as low as $40 per day, assuming a baseline of $22 for accommodations and around $15 for food.

Hungry for more budget travel ideas? Be sure to check out Gadling’s budget travel archive.