Too much tourism is often bad news for a small town. Tourists fill public spaces and locals divert their attention to fast moneymaking schemes. Prices go up and a town can lose its authenticity. Fortunately, this is not the case in Antigua, where the uneven, cobbled streets have weathered the storm of countless foreign footsteps. In fact, Antigua has found the perfect balance between retaining its Guatemalan feel and benefitting from the tourists. The streets, markets and churches are full of Guatemalans, while tourism has given rise to countless independent coffee shops and bars. Entertainment options are endless.
Antigua was always likely to be favoured by foreign visitors. Historical pride, a pleasant year-round temperature and constant activity give the city an exhilarating charm. Volcanoes dominate the skyline on all sides, encasing the city in a mountainous ring. Situated just an hour away from Guatemala City’s international airport and not far from the hugely popular Lake Atitlan, Antigua has firmly established itself on the gringo trail.
Fortunately, despite attracting a wealth of international guests, the Guatemalans are the soul of this city, constantly setting off exuberant firework displays and filling the main square with food and conversation. Although tourism undoubtedly benefits the local economy, there is a sense that Antigua would be thriving without it. The city is not reliant on tourism, but uses it well to its own advantage. Antigua seems to exude ambition, more so than anywhere in Guatemala. It is the entrepreneur capital of the country.
Of all the many independent businesses, ranging from quirky bars to photography studios, the coffee shops are most noticeable, particularly to the caffeine-deprived traveller. Guatemala is the world’s eighth largest exporter of coffee, producing a diverse range of beans from Cobán in the north down to the hills surrounding Antigua in the south. Antigua entices visitors with the fresh, aromatic scent of locally grown beans, but also sells coffee from all over the country.
Large-scale coffee production does exist in Guatemala, but the focus in Antigua is on the independent farmers and smaller plantations. The result is not just a variety of unique blends, but a focus on quality over quantity, explaining the popularity of Guatemala’s coffee worldwide. Best of all, these independent cafés cut out the middlemen and work directly with farmers, who take home greater profits as a result. ‘Café Loco’ in Panajachel and Antigua’s own ‘Guate Java’ are personal favourites not just for flavour, but in their goal to help local producers. As ‘coffee culture’ becomes ever more prominent, these relationships will bring Guatemala’s finely crafted coffee to a wider clientele.
Perhaps as a result, Antigua is a hotbed of competition. This breeds good customer service and attention to detail, two business traits that we take for granted but can be hard to come by in this part of the world. In the market, a large chamber is devoted to small restaurants that cater to the countless people who run stalls nearby. By and large, these stalls all serve exactly the same thing: rice, beans, broths, hilachas, and grilled meats. The women who run the food stalls are in fierce, daily competition with one another and yet they all seem to be friends. This stuffy, windowless room is a far cry from the artisan coffee shops of downtown Antigua, but a contagious competitive spirit spreads to all corners of the city, with or without tourism. Antigua is a very liveable city, as optimistic as it is popular, and its appeal will endure.