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Published: September 30th 2017
... Antigua is one of the most unique Spanish colonial towns anywhere, with its crumbling churches lending the city an almost indescribable character and atmosphere.
Geo: 14.56, -90.74
Antigua is considered the crown jewel of Guatemala's tourist offerings, and it's easy to see why - it offers history, natural beauty, both ruined and beautifully-restored colonial architecture, and though quite expensive by Guatemalan standards, is still relatively reasonable for North American travelers. Also, don't forget the dining scene in Antigua, which not only has some of the best restaurants in all of Guatemala, but also countless cafes and coffee shops that are the perfect place to while away an afternoon or two. And it gets even better - many of these establishments are located in spectacularly atmospheric courtyards, full of greenery and colonial ruins.
It's a tourist Shangri-La - the type of place that backpackers seek to chill out for a week, a location where you can do as much, or as little as you want. It also represents both the good and bad of backpackers, a subculture which constantly seeks out off-the-beaten path destinations, but often eventually destroying that which it seeks. Typically, it's backpackers that first "discover" the next big thing in the travel World; their first arrival on the scene is a prelude to the tourist hordes that inevitably follow. But mainstream tourists can only follow
after a parade of backpackers have shown the way, leaving a well-worn path to the next Shangri-La.
Southeast Asia may be the best example - the "next" Thailand is Vietnam, but now that Vietnam is going to be Thailand, what will replace Vietnam? Cambodia, of course! And the next Cambodia will surely be Laos, though nobody knows for sure which country will be the next Laos, since there aren't that many other Southeast Asian countries left that could fit the bill. Through it all, nobody stops and asks if being the next Thailand is really something a nation should aspire towards, as its red light districts full of strip clubs, sex shows, and prostitution aren't exactly things to be proud of. Like it or not, establishments like those multiplied exponentially, directly correlated to increasing tourist traffic over the years.
The effects of tourism on Guatemala are nowhere near as extreme as what you would find in Thailand, and an argument can be made that tourism has only benefited this charming colonial city. Over decades, the influx of foreign investment probably started out with a small cottage industry serving the first adventurous foreign tourists that appeared on the scene, probably in
Casa Santo Domingo ...
... half-hotel and half-archaeological site - a stunning hotel with an incomparable atmosphere, if you have the cash to blow in Antigua, which we did not!
the form of rooms for rent, the sale of local crafts, and the opening of additional restaurants. Then after the place was "discovered", foreigners started opening hostels, guesthouses, and hotels, and began expanding their business empires, following up with bars, cafes, and restaurants. It all makes for a wonderfully exciting and vibrant atmosphere, but does detract from the local culture.
As touristy as Lake Atitlan is, it does appear to retain at least retain some vestige of Guatemalan flavour in certain areas, whereas Antigua appears to have lost some of that. Don't get me wrong - we absolutely love Antigua for many reasons, but sometimes you stop and look around, seeing that nearly all of the higher-end establishments are foreign-owned, bringing their own distinct twist on Guatemalan culture, and wonder how it would have been here ten or twenty years ago. Would it have been less enjoyable because it had fewer amenities and was less safe, or would it have been better when it felt more authentic? It would be interesting to have that conversation with someone that has been able to visit here several times over the years.
In the end, this debate matters little, as Antigua can no longer
return to what it once was, and can only look towards the future. Perhaps it doesn't matter whether or not the mass tourism found here has been good for the local culture; what's important is that it brings in significant dollars to a country where the average daily salary $6 USD. So rather than spend too much time thinking about these things, you do what we are doing here - forget about all that and play the role of the backpacker, spending some of our tourist dollars, and continuing to savour some good international food and the vibrant energy of this beautiful little town.
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