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The thing about Guatemala is, I didn’t really love it.

There. I don’t believe in suspense — who needs the anxiety? Guatemala. I first bought a guidebook for this country over six years ago, when I was still studying in Brooklyn, though it took me up until this trip to finally make my way to its borders. Something about Guatemala called to me, and when I finally made my way there, my expectations were as high as Antigua’s altitude.

Antigua Guatemala

Antigua Guatemala

Antigua Guatemala

In the end, I spent more time in Guatemala than I’ve spent in any other country in Central America — almost six weeks. I dove in a high altitude lake, roasted marshmallows over a volcano, climbed a Mayan ruin and sunned on a black sand beach. I met up with Brooklyn friends in Guatemala City (the Equilibrio creators!), I bonded with a blogging friend in Antigua (the Nomad’s Nomad author!), and I met a guy that I had a brief but heartwarmingly sweet travel romance with (but more on him later).

I stayed in great hostels, found truly fantastic restaurants — some that I’m still drooling about — and had some true adventures.

Tropicana Hostel Antigua

McDonald's AntiguaYup, this is what McDonald’s in Antigua looks like

Y Tu Piña Tambien, Antigua, Guatemala

Yet I have to admit that I’ve never felt quite so neutral about a country before. At one point, I texted my friend Kristin, the only other person I know who has publicly admitted to being underwhelmed by Guatemala, with a simple question. “Am I missing something…?” She got it. People I love love Guatemala. People I met on the road loved Guatemala. Everyone loves Guatemala.

Except, it seemed, for me.

Antigua, Guatemala

Antigua, Guatemala

It did grow on me. When I first arrived in Antigua, I struggled to see the charm. I was freezing, the Zumba was lame (please laugh), the altitude made me feel funny, I was anxious about crime after a travel companion was the victim of one, I didn’t have proper footwear for cobblestones and I couldn’t help but compare the city to Granada, with the tropical Nicaraguan version coming out on top. But it was a convenient base for exploring Guatemala and something about it kept pulling me back.

When I finally left Antigua for the last time I calculated that in total I’d spent two full weeks there, and I was surprised to find I was somewhat wistful to leave.

Antigua, Guatemala

I can attribute most of that creeping fondness for the city to my friend and host and fantastic tour guide Luke, who introduced me to his fantastic group of friends and showed me parts of Antigua I might not have seen or appreciated on my own.

For example, Hobbitenango.

HobbitenangoThanks for the photo, Luke!

Hobbitenango, Antigua, Guatemala

Hobbitenango is hotel, restaurant, and bar high above the hills of Antigua. When Luke told me he was a part investor in a hobbit hole, I was 0% surprised, because that is just the way that Luke rolls. What I was surprised by, as a non-Lord of the Rings fan, was how much I enjoyed this little slice of whimsy heaven.

Hobbitenango

Hobbitenango, Antigua, Guatemala

Hobbitenango can technically be reached on foot, though it will be quite the trek (we attempted it and ended up hitching a ride for the final stretch, much to my delight). Or you can hop one of the regularly scheduled shuttles. It’s the perfect place for a lazy Sunday afternoon of cocktails and conversation, and of course, the best views in Antigua.

While live music is a regular part of life up at Hobbitenango, I was lucky enough to catch Mariachi or Muerto, the annual battle of the mariachi bands competition that Luke outlines the birth of in his book.

Mariachi or Muerto

Hobbitenango, Antigua, Guatemala

I guess I feel about Antigua in Guatemala the same way I do about Chiang Mai in Thailand. It’s a great base, there’s fantastic food, it’s a convenient place to stop and work for a while, and I adore the people there. But in the end, it just doesn’t tug at those wistful wisps of my heartstrings that make me truly fall in love (I think, to be fair, that a hot sun and an ocean view might be required for that, these days.)

I may not have fallen head over heels for Antigua, or for Guatemala for that matter, but places and people and moments like these sure did challenge me not to.

Hobbitenango

Antigua Guatemala

Have you ever felt underwhelmed by a place so many others loved?

Practical Info

Where I stayed: Mostly, I crashed with Luke and his roommate Amy, and I am eternally grateful for their hospitality. I did end up also spending a few nights at Tropicana Hostel, which has a pool and friendly staff and a great combination of a lively bar and a strict 10pm close time, meaning you can both make friends and get a good night of sleep. I also spent a night at Hacia el Sur, which has a great location and very comfortable and good value private rooms.

Where I ate: Where to begin? Pitaya Juice Bar serves up the best salads I had in Central America, Metiz Delicatessen has delicious breads and cheeses and even macarons(!), Y Tu Piña Tambien has great ambiance and breakfast cocktails, Sobremesa has fun and creative homemade ice cream flavors, and the McDonald’s is probably the most scenic outpost of the chain in the world. Seriously.

How I got there: Antigua is the base of tourism in Guatemala and nearly all private shuttles between other destinations (Lake Atitlan, Monterrico, Guatemala City, Semuc Champey, etc.) will pass through here regardless of whether or not they are listed as direct service. Chicken buses are a cheap and colorful local transport alternative, though be aware that you may have to make many transfers depending on your destination.

Bonus tip: Pack warmly! I didn’t realize how chilly so much of Guatemala would be, and I felt like I was perpetually cold when I was in the highlands. Cheap second hand stores called MegaPacas are a good place to stock up on layers if you accidentally packed for the tropics.

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103 Comments...
  • Lissa
    May 24 2015

    I like that huge round door. It seems like Guatemala is so colorful. Great pictures.

    Lissa recently posted..Life is a Bowl of Red Cherries

    • Alex
      May 26 2015

      All of Central America is drenched in colors… one of my favorite things about it!

  • Alex, I totally get that. For a long time I didn’t understand the hype with Cambodia, but it has since grown on me. We can’t all love the same places and good riddance for that. Then Koh Tao would be crowded!
    Miriam of Adventurous Miriam recently posted..Photo of the Week 26 – Tornby Strand

    • Alex
      May 26 2015

      Wiser words were never spoken 🙂 Let’s leave Koh Tao for the true fanatics…

  • Yes! I understand exactly now you feel, Alex! Dubai, Langkawi and (currently) Helsinki. 🙂 Interesting to know re: Antigua, because it’s on my list too!
    Karisa @ Flirting with the Globe recently posted..11 Reasons Why You Should Travel to Egypt

    • Alex
      May 26 2015

      Well, hey, so many others are obsessed with it I wouldn’t be surprised if in the end you were too! But maybe I’ll do you a favor by lowering your expectations somewhat 😉

  • Charlie
    May 24 2015

    Omg. So gutted that I missed out on Hobbitenango!
    Charlie recently posted..What To Do with Two Days in San Salvador

    • Alex
      May 26 2015

      Reason to go back? 😀

  • Leah
    May 24 2015

    With the exception of el Salar de Uyuni, I was totally underwhelmed by Bolivia compared to everyone else. I completely understand the feeling! At least you got to see a lot of great people while you were there and have some cool experiences. 🙂
    Leah recently posted..How to Spend a Night Solo in a Hotel [SFW]

    • Alex
      May 26 2015

      Indeed! I far from hate Guatemala… I just felt pretty “meh” about it, which is actually surprising considering how many cool things I did/people I met while I was there.

  • Kristin McNeil
    May 24 2015

    Guatemala calls to me too! Actually all of Central American. How was diving in Lake Atitlan? Was it worth it? I ADORE your capri leggings! Where did you get them? And Hobbitenango looks like a blast!
    Kristin McNeil recently posted..Top Three Travel Bucket List Destinations

    • Alex
      May 26 2015

      Ha, actually there’s a funny story behind those. I ended up (temporarily) losing most of my clothes by leaving them in a laundry and borrowed those from Luke’s lovely roommate Amy 🙂 Post coming up about diving in the lake soon!

  • Antsy P
    May 24 2015

    Lovely photos! I just started following your blog – I am inspired to travel more. Thanks for sharing those wonderful experiences and tips! cheers!

    • Alex
      May 26 2015

      You’re so welcome! Thanks for reading — hope you’ll stick around 🙂

  • Even though you were underwelmed, your photographs of Guatemala make the country look like one of the most facinating and beautiful places on Earth
    Emma | banquets and backpacks recently posted..Taking a Chance on Khmer Curries

    • Alex
      May 26 2015

      Wow, thank you Emma! That’s quite the compliment!

  • Sarah
    May 24 2015

    well, you might didn’t like Guatemala that much but your camera sure did! My favourite picture is the one with the blue beetle!
    Sarah recently posted..Win one of three free sign-ups for Jaano Vespa sharing in Hamburg

    • Alex
      May 26 2015

      Thanks Sarah! Snapped that one with my iPhone 🙂

  • Tash
    May 24 2015

    Yes! As a UK native I feel the exact same way about…London! I’ve been several times, and I have never really “got” it I suppose. I feel like everything London has, the rest of England has, minus the crowds, tourists and unfriendly locals, but everyone else seems to love London. Or maybe it’s just my northern pride coming through 🙂

    • Alex
      May 26 2015

      London totally underwhelmed on my first visit… and it has slowly grown on me since 🙂 I do admittedly need to get out and see more of the rest of England however!

  • Totally understand where you’re coming from. The places I have loved the most are ones in which I can’t even explain why…it’s just a feeling. The way the city, people, atmosphere, scenery captures you. And I’m certain some places are better for different times in your life too.

    As for a place that didn’t live up to the hype for me – I have to say Paris. It was great to check off the bucket list, and there are definitely parts of it that I adored (I’m looking at you, French food) but I just didn’t fall in love with it like everyone told me I would!
    Shelly I Norway to Nowhere recently posted..Weekend Getaway: A Guide to Madrid, Spain

    • Alex
      May 26 2015

      I’ve never gotten the Paris itch! Bizarre for a traveler, right? Maybe it will come someday…

  • Nicola Easterby
    May 24 2015

    Alex, this was so interesting to read as I had really similar feelings towards Guatemala! I spent most my time in Guatemala City helping out with a homeless program which was an experience in itself, but even the tourist days we had in Antigua and up to the black sand beaches didn’t have me enammered. It is definitely a beautiful place, but not somewhere I would rush back to you. Glad you feel the same sentiment!

    http://www.polkadotpassport.com/atw-diaries-guatemala-2/

    • Alex
      May 26 2015

      It’s definitely a relief to hear I wasn’t the only one, Nicola! I don’t know what I would have done if I couldn’t have chatted to Kristin about it while I was there — I was starting to feel like I was crazy! 🙂

  • Rashaad
    May 24 2015

    Actually, I felt underwhelmed by Brussels the first time I visited the city. Maybe because I felt the city lacked charm although the Christmas market (I went in December) is lovely as well as the Grand Place. It is nice seeing street names in two languages. That said, I wasn’t dying to return.

    But the next year (also in December), I returned to Brussels for a Michael Franti and Spearhead concert. I had a blast!!!
    Rashaad recently posted..Top Ten UK Moments (5-1)

    • Alex
      May 26 2015

      I think I would have had a better experience in Brussels had I not been waring with customs while I was there. My affair with the local chocolate definitely helped restore some good faith between Brussels and I!

  • MCVK
    May 24 2015

    Remember, Guatemala had a bloody civil war that lasted more than 35 years and ended less than 20 years ago. At least half a million people left during that time; the country is one of the poorest and still trying to get back on its feet. I think that, like a good book that you just can’t get into reading at this point in your life, you may return to Guatemala in a decade or so and find it fabulous.

    • Alex
      May 26 2015

      That is true and I was very interested the country’s history and recovery. However, unless I am mistaken (always a distinct possibility, ha) other neighboring countries like El Salvador have experienced similar strife in similar timelines. And yet I enjoyed them much more — so I’m not sure how much that factors in.

  • Stef
    May 24 2015

    I’m gonna go to Guatemala in the beginning of June. Let’s see how I like it. The Hobbitenango seems great and I’m totally going there. Thanks for sharing that tip.
    Stef recently posted..Horseback-riding in Viñales, Cuba

    • Alex
      May 26 2015

      It was a highlight for me, Stef! Literally and figuratively 😉 Let me know what you think!

  • Martha
    May 24 2015

    I feel the same way about Chiang Mai…and I live there! It isn’t even close to being my favorite city in Thailand, but I appreciate what it has to offer, like lots of yoga studios and job opportunities.
    Martha recently posted..Hey, I’m not a sexpat!

    • Alex
      May 26 2015

      Nice to hear from someone who feels the same about Chiang Mai! Not sure I could live there — I’d miss the ocean — but I do love my annual trips there despite my protests over not loving the city 🙂

  • Katie
    May 24 2015

    I felt that way about New York, it seems I am definitely in the minority there! I didnt hate it, I liked it but I didn’t love it. You can’t fall in love with everywhere you go
    Katie recently posted..Why I am going home to New Zealand

    • Alex
      May 26 2015

      I can see how New York would be really overwhelming to a traveler. It’s a city I’m grateful to have lived in rather than visited.

  • Justine
    May 24 2015

    The place that immediately comes to my mind is Ubud, Bali. I’d heard everyone I know rave about it for years and I went in with high expectations. I was so underwhelmed the first time I went there. I’ve since gone back a couple times and learned to appreciate certain aspects of the city, but I still don’t completely get it. It always fascinates me how different travelers’ opinions of places can be. We are all very different people and our experiences are so different. You just never know which place is going to tug at those heartstrings. Lately I’ve found that the places I have low expectations for end up being my favorites 🙂
    Justine recently posted..I’m Moving to Cambodia!

    • Alex
      May 26 2015

      It’s almost a blessing not to have those expectations, isn’t it! I think that’s part of what made me love El Salvador so much. I did have sky-high expectations of Nicaragua and it did live up to the hype 🙂

  • Mary B
    May 25 2015

    Funnily enough, I felt about Nicaragua how you felt about Guatemala! Everyone I know who’s been to Nica has raved, but I just didn’t connect with it (the severe case of food poisoning probably didn’t help). I think sometimes it’s timing, sometimes it’s expectations… and sometimes it’s like online dating – everything’s good on paper, but there’s no chemistry. At least you got some gorgeous photos out of it!
    Mary B recently posted..The In Between

    • Alex
      May 26 2015

      It is all about country chemistry. And, well, different strokes for different folks. I adored Nicaragua, though I do think that a huge factor in my preference for it was the weather — and my slower travel schedule.

  • Kat
    May 25 2015

    Wow, what beautiful photos. It looks lovely from what I see here, but as you say sometimes you just don’t fall for a place, no matter how much you may want to! I felt the same about Kuala Lumpur, I just did not get that city and looking back I wish I’d spent more time on the Malaysian islands. At least I know now for any re-visits 🙂

    Also – I need to go to Hobbitenango! I feel like I’ve just been transported back to me as a Lord of the Rings loving 14 year old (yes I was a very cool teenager ;))

    • Alex
      May 26 2015

      I wasn’t crazy about Kuala Lumpur either. I wonder how I’d feel now if I returned…

  • Melissa
    May 25 2015

    I lived in Guatemala for two years–divided my time between Antigua and Panajachel–and I just couldn’t make myself fall in love. I had two years to ponder what I was missing and came up with many, many theories; the simplest being there are many other countries I like more. I returned to NYC a year ago, and for the most part, I don’t miss living in Guate. I was curious to hear what you’d think about your visit. We’re very much the minority!

    • Alex
      May 26 2015

      We are indeed Melissa — but I find it a huge relief to hear I wasn’t completely alone. I really spent a lot of time wondering why I wasn’t getting swept away…

  • Jessica
    May 25 2015

    It’s to easy to become underwhelmed by a place that you’ve been dreaming of and building up in your head for so long, and it’s even harder when so many others tell you how great it is. I had the same exact thing with the Bahamas our first year there. Guatemala was actually the opposite. I am one of those who fell head in heels in love with that country, but possibly because I had the lowest expectations when I got there. But at least you were still able to appreciate it and didn’t hate it! 🙂

    • Alex
      May 26 2015

      Indeed! The trip was far from a disaster — I had so many highlights and quite a few memories I’ll cherish. However, I wouldn’t rush to return to Guatemala. Actually I didn’t love my first trip to the Bahamas. So glad I returned, ten years later. I fell totally in love!

  • Alex, I totally understand the feeling. I felt that way about Budapest and much of Costa Rica! I was expecting to love both places, and instead, I wound up wondering if something was wrong with me, or if I had missed something everyone else seemed to get! I felt the same way you do — there were people and certain moments that I loved, but overall, it felt strange to be content to move on. Normally I get at least a small pang of regret that I can’t stay longer. But, I suppose we just aren’t going to jive with every place we see!
    Holly of The Brave Little Cheesehead recently posted..So, You’re Broke in a Foreign Country and your Card is Declined…

    • Alex
      May 26 2015

      I definitely didn’t have that pang with Guatemala — and I know exactly what you mean by that. I almost always DO have it, so it’s notable when missing 🙂

  • Very nice images of authentic Guatemala. I’s quite surprised on the McDonalds restaurant there. Very artistic. Thanks for sharing Alex!
    Christian from Squeeze Pod recently posted..Top 10 U.S.A. Vacation Spots “Off The Beaten Path” (Infographic)

    • Alex
      May 28 2015

      Antigua has ALL the fast foods! They are pretty scenically hidden in historic buildings, however…

  • Lori
    May 26 2015

    I know exactly what you mean. I went to Costa Rica because everyone raves about it and left wondering what I missed. I still don’t get what people love about CR. I have loved so many other Central American countries better.

    • Alex
      May 28 2015

      I guess we can’t all love everywhere. Good thing the favorites are at least getting spread around 🙂 Otherwise my two passions Panama and Nicaragua would be a little too crowded!

  • kristin Addis
    May 27 2015

    I’ve definitely felt this way about places other people loved. There’s no one size fits all place and I always say it’s the people who make a place for me. Not that I’m suggesting you didn’t meet awesome people there, but for me, if I’m alone too much or don’t make good connections, a place falls out of my favor.

    • Alex
      May 28 2015

      I was definitely feeling lonely towards the end of my Guatemala trip — in fact, I detoured completely to return to Guatemala City to see my friends there again! For me, weather also has a massive impact and I just couldn’t get over how uncomfortably cold I was for so much of my time in Guatemala. Sticky heat I can take any day — yet a slight chill puts me in a terrible mood.

  • Laura
    May 27 2015

    Interesting observations! I’m debating going to either Nicaragua (Granada area) or Guatemala (Antigua area) for a long weekend this year and it’s hard to decide between the two! Lots of people say you can’t go wrong with either place yet OTOH we can’t really predict which countries we will connect to.
    Laura recently posted..On Going Back: Visiting Brazil after Four Years Away

    • Alex
      May 28 2015

      For me, the biggest differences were that Granada had a climate I vastly preferred, though Antigua had an expat community I more connected to thanks to my personal connections there. Interested to hear what you decide!

  • Laura
    May 27 2015

    Makes me think that sometimes going into a situation without expectations can be a blessing 🙂
    Laura recently posted..The VIP Experience on a Cowboys Stadium Tour

    • Alex
      May 28 2015

      So true. I definitely set them high for Guatemala — it was a lot for one country to live up to.

  • Kacy
    May 28 2015

    Interesting. I appreciate your honesty! I honestly don’t know that much about Guatemala. It’s on my to-go list, but not really near the top. This is good information to have!
    Kacy recently posted..The shortest route to Paraty…