Antigua was the capital of Guatemala until 1773, when the Santa Marta earthquake rocked the foundations of the town. Still, the city retains its colonial charm in the extravagant architecture of buildings, churches, convents and old residences, which offer more than a glimpse of past prosperity.
Tourism is Antigua's main income generator. With more than 60 language schools in a city of just over 30,000 people, it's a popular destination for westerners to spend a few months studying Spanish amongst cobble-stoned streets and colourful neighbourhoods. In the evenings, locals and tourists alike arise from that fabulous Latin American tradition, the siesta, and head out to enjoy the wide range of local or international cuisine on offer.
Not surprisingly, the dreaded Ronald McDonald plague has spread to Guatemala. However, Camperos, the local finger lickin' chicken chain dominates, having sent Colonel Sanders and his army running for the border like... well like a pack of chooks with their heads cut off some time ago. Whatever your pleasure, once you've fuelled the belly, you can head on to a bar for a few local cervezas, or Samba the night away in one of the lively nightclubs.
During the day, most of the action takes place around the Grand Plaza. Street vendors ply their trade as tour buses roll into the square. It's a great place to sample the local food and world-renowned coffee in the outdoor cafes and restaurants, or simply hang out under shade in the park with the Antiguans.
As you find in most developing countries, children are always at the ready to sell you some local textiles, a wood carving or jewellery, while displaying sales techniques that would put the best real estate shark to shame. Being a sucker for an angelic smile, it was useless trying to resist the charms of a little Mayan girl who promised me that my senorita would adore me if I bought her the lovely embroidery scarves her mother had made for us.
At the other end of the bench, knee-high brother was smoothly working on senorita, telling her that she had the eyes of a goddess, and any man who did not adorn her with such a gift was not worthy of her. It was now three against one, so I handed over a wad of Quetzales to the grinning dynamic duo.
It's worth spending at least a day exploring Antigua's colonial buildings and ruins. The most impressive examples being Catedral de Santiago, San Francisco, the town's most notable church near Parque Central, and the former nunnery, Las Capuchinas.
Looming over the city like a sleeping giant is the active volcano, Pacaya. For a few dollars you can take a guided hike up right to the rim of this 2500 metre chimneystack.
Climbing a volcano is not so much a strenuous activity as a complicated one. After a two hour uphill trek through dense bushland and small mountainside villages, greeting passing bulls, cows and chickens as they head into town to do lunch, you find yourself staring up at the huge dark grey cone of Pacaya, and realise the hike has just begun.
The combination of loose rubble, steep incline, and gale force wind provides excellent practice for your Latin dance moves... one step forward, two tumbles back. On a clear day, you can see right into bubbling, glowing cone. Unfortunately, we experienced fairly heavy cloud cover. Nonetheless, you get a great sense of fulfillment on reaching the peak.
For anyone contemplating a trip to Guatemala, Antigua provides the perfect introduction with its wonderful assortment of Latin charms and spirited adventures.