We all have our weaknesses, and one of mine is souvenirs. Admittedly, it’s not the most masculine of traits, not the one I like to write to the guys back home about, but I’ve spent many a traveling afternoon scouring markets and engaging in hard-nosed negotiations. And, I can tell you from experience Antigua, Guatemala, is no slouch when it comes to “I must have that” stuff.
A more reasonable shopper might settle for the massive artisan market on the west end of town and call it a day. However, for those ready to indulge in tourist tat, to possibly buy a second piece of luggage to carry their wares home, a shopping tour of Antigua can not only provide a lovely array of local goods but can also reveal some top spots Central America’s tourist capital has to offer.
So, suit up, put on those comfortable walking shoes, and hit the ATM early.
In Your Bucket Because…
- Guatemala offers a wide range of fantastic souvenirs, including silver, textiles, coffee, chocolate, woodwork, pottery, paintings, hammocks, hot sauce, quippy clothing…
- For those of us who feel a little guilty on shopping binges, it helps to know this particular frenzy is riddled with cultural and historical spots in a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Shoppers, walkers, history buffs, families, and foodies alike will all enjoy a shopping tour of Antigua. Spouses with budgeting woes need not attend.
Start the Day Off Right
A great place to start any day is over breakfast, and my favorite haunt is Bagel Barn, the exact spot where this article was written. It may not sound like the most authentic Guatemalan meal, but it’s right off Parque Central, the Guate, Guate sandwich is the right kind of fuel (fried eggs, cheese, beans, and avocado on a toasted bagel), and the place supports local organic growers. It’s also the only restaurant in town to offer Maya nuts, an old staple seeking revival here in Guatemala. From there, head west (away from the park) towards Antigua’s two main markets.
The Artisan market, behind Pollo Campero, is clearly a tourist destination. It’s strung with brightly-colored textiles, from table settings to backpacks, each stall finding its own way to display similar merchandise. The floors are swept. The building is orderly, free of live (and dead) animals, and has an aesthetically pleasing entryway. Hawkers will quote prices three times higher than normal and expect to be worked down. My technique involves naming a price, never wavering, and walking away when the price doesn’t drop quick enough. It’s tough, but a vendor will not sell you something at a loss; in fact, they’ll gouge anyone willing to pay.
To the north of the Artisan market is the market locals actually use. This is where I buy my fruit and vegetables every Sunday. It’s where I buy my knock-off Crocs and second-hand clothing. “The paca”, at the far north end of the market street, is an amazing warehouse of quirky t-shirts and a graveyard to what goes unsold at Gap summer sales events. For the adventurous shopper, get lost in the covered area of the local market, where you’ll find imitation clothing, sketchy eateries, pottery stands, groceries of all varieties, and even the occasional grilled iguana on a stick.
Where to Buy What You Want
Having been here a while, the charge of negotiating a good price has long left me. In general, when I want a tiny ceramic replica of a chicken bus or Mayan textile iPad case, I head for one place in particular: Nim P’ot. Nim P’ot is on the street — 5th Avenida — with Antigua’s famous yellow archway (as seen in the photo to your right). Nimpot, a cooperative for artisans, has just about everything you’ll find at the market for just about the best price you’ll be able to negotiate. Plus, there is also more available in terms of traditional variety. On your way out, head north (away from Volcan Agua) and check out La Merced.
La Merced, a massive yellow church with twirling white trim, sits on 1st Calle (or Alameda de Santa Rosa). At certain times of year, like Lent, its front courtyard is overflowing with food stalls. The church has several chapels to explore, a little souvenir shop, and vistas from the rooftop. I generally go east on 2nd Calle, a beautiful street with 16th century ruins to the right. At 3rd Avenida, there is another artisan market (at 3rd & 3rd). This market is a bit more humble but is a pretty cool space. It’s worth a quick walk through. From 3rd Avenida, be sure to look north for a distant view of Cerro de La Cruz (Hill of the Cross).
Taking a right onto 1st Avenida, the ceiling of San Francisco El Grande Church emerges impressively beyond the church walls. This is a good street to find a little lunch. In the direction of San Francisco, there is any number of cuisines and price ranges to choose from, including another regular house of linger for me: Y Tu Piña Tambien, a sort of grungy coffee shop with cheap sandwiches and bargain breakfast food. Put those bags down and have a coffee and a snack. Then, continue your walk down 1st.
Finishing Big at Los Gigantes
Visit the church, which has a huge garden, food and souvenir stalls in the courtyard, and really cool wall of plaques inside the church. Instead of walking back down 1st Avenida, take a left onto 7th Calle coming out of the church. Less than a block away, there is a seemingly unassuming shop called Los Gigantes (The Giants). Los Gigantes is another cooperative but has worked with specific women to create more contemporary, sellable versions traditional goods. It’s a bit pricier and fancier, but…
On my mother’s recent visit, with only an hour before our ride out of town, I found myself speed-walking across Antigua so that Mom could go to “that shop” she’d “liked last time.” Antigua is tiny. However, on that afternoon, scorching hot and bone dry, I was panting by the time we got back to city center. Still, my mom reaffirmed that that was definitely her favorite souvenir spot in town.
Finish the tour by continuing down 7th Calle and taking the first right. You’ll see Tanque de la Union (a communal washing area) on the left and possibly a nice park (it’s perpetually under construction). To the left, and after one more block, you’ll find another little church. Take a final right and you’re heading back to Parque Central.
- Calles (Streets) run east to west, and Avenidas north to south. Street signs aren’t everywhere, so I usually try to keep a running tab in my mind.
- Between May and October, it’s best to plan to be finished by mid-afternoon. The rains generally kick in about that time.
- Comfortable, supportive shoes for the cobblestones. Watch your head on the windowsills. Mind your feet on sidewalks (dog poo). Hands on cameras and purses. Bring a reusable shopping bag or backpack for your purchases.