Written by: Mariana Gaitán Rojas
If Guatemala was never on your radar as a possible retirement location, that might change once you find yourself sitting on a terrace overlooking the beautiful cobbled streets of Antigua. Nestled between volcanos, the city that was once the capital of the country offers a peaceful yet vibrant place to live for those looking for a warm and culturally rich retirement spot.
Located in the Sacatepéquez Department and only one hour away from Guatemala City, Antigua is a jewel of Spanish Colonial architecture and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Amongst expats, it is known for being the kind of place you visit and never wish to leave, since many of the people that have now lived there for decades were originally only supposed to stay for a week or two. If you are looking for a welcoming place, inspiring sights, and a culturally varied calendar, Antigua might be a perfect fit.
Pros of Living in Antigua, Guatemala
Although not all-encompassing, here are some of the main pros of living and retiring in Antigua:
Cons of Living in Antigua, Guatemala
Before deciding to retire anywhere, it is important to be aware that there are downsides to any place. Once you know both the good and bad parts, it is easier to make a more informed choice regarding retirement location, and knowing the cons can help you prepare for any slight issues that might arise.
Antigua has 3 volcanoes: Fuego, Agua and Acatenango. Fuego tends to erupt the most...up to several times a day and hiking theses volcanoes is a popular activity.
What is the culture like in Antigua?
Antigua is known for the friendliness and warmth of its locals, who are fondly called “panza verdes.” This translates to “green bellies” in Spanish and stems from the widely held fact that people from Antigua consume a lot of avocados (which, by the way, is of great quality in the region!).
In addition to the local traditions, you will be exposed to a variety of cultures, since people from all over the world fall in love with the city and resettle there every year. You will find a vibrant expat community that mingles effortlessly with the very welcoming local population, making it the perfect place for those that want to learn more about new traditions while also having some of the familiarity of home.
What languages are spoken in Antigua?
Spanish is the official language and is spoken by all the locals, including the Maya people who speak it fluently alongside their respective traditional languages, like Kaqchikel or K'iche' (among others). Getting by with only English, however, is fairly easy since Antigua is a popular tourist destination and everyone tries to make an effort to understand foreigners. If you choose to learn Spanish, though, Antigua has some of the best language schools in the country and offers lots of opportunities to immerse yourself in the language.
What is the climate like in Antigua?
As was mentioned above, the weather in Antigua is very pleasant. With a subtropical highland climate, average temperatures throughout the year fluctuate between 10.8°C
(51.4°F) and 23.6°C (74.5°F), but tend to be on the warmer side of things. It’s the kind of place where you can sport either sandals or leather boots and won’t feel uncomfortable with either.
How to get around Antigua?
The size of the city and its pleasant weather make it an ideal place for walking, so most people choose to go everywhere on foot instead of bothering with a car. If you live in the outskirts or the surrounding areas of the city, however, getting a car would make things easier and ensure you don’t put yourself in any danger by walking long distances alone at night. Alternatively, during the day and part of the evening, you can take a ride on one of the picturesque tuk-tuks (auto-rickshaws) that are easily accessible throughout the city.
What are some popular activities in Antigua?
Antigua offers a wide range of activities regardless of what your preferences are. If you are retiring in Antigua, here are some of the things you can do:
Antigua has a strong ‘café’ drinking culture and many people like spending hours sipping a nice coffee while watching passersby or enjoying the view. Guatemala is also known worldwide for the quality of its coffee, so you are sure to find some of the best beans in Antigua.
If sitting at a café is not your thing but you are still a coffee enthusiast, you could spend the day at the Centro Cultural la Azotea. The 150-year-old coffee farm offers tours for those interested in learning more about the history of coffee and its cultivation process.
Antigua is ideal for those fond of outdoor activities. With four volcanoes surrounding the city, you will be able to choose a hiking adventure according to your level and discover the magic each trail has to offer. Although you cannot hike the volcano Fuego to the top since it is still active, it provides a gorgeous view from the top of the other volcanoes and is far away enough so that when it erupts, you get a spectacular show from the safety of one of the other peaks. You should not, however, attempt to hike any volcano on your own. It is important to do it with an organized tour so that you don’t put yourself in any kind of danger.
Antigua is a center for artisans and the Maya locals offer masterfully crafted pieces to tourists and locals alike. Their textiles, especially, are famous for their bold color combinations and intricate patterns. If you visit the maze-like Central Market, you are sure to find whatever it is you are looking for. From fresh fruit and flower arrangements to traditional fabrics and varied spices.
Like in most Latin American cities, dancing is a big part of the culture in Antigua, so you will find plenty of spots where you can spend the night dancing to Latin rhythms. Antigua also has several dancing schools where charming locals teach people from all levels how to move to the beats of salsa, bachata, or any other Latin dance you might be interested in.
One of the most appealing aspects of Antigua is that it invites everyone to explore its many hidden spots. You could spend years in the city and still find new restaurants and courtyards behind colorful doors you had not crossed before. Amidst the ruins, Spanish Baroque-influenced buildings, and cobbled streets, there is always something new to discover.
Don't be worried if you hear a series of loud booms. These are bombas and the locals love to set them off for celebrations like birthdays, holidays, weddings, church celebrations, etc.
What are some of the popular dishes in Antigua?
Guatemalan food is some of the best you’ll ever try. Here are a few of the dishes you shouldn’t miss:
Consisting of eggs (fried or scrambled), frijoles volteados (refried beans), chirmol (fresh tomato salsa), Guatemalan corn tortillas, and fried plantain, this is a classic. It is often served with fruit, sour cream, fresh cheese, or oatmeal as accompaniments, and it is definitely a must for anyone wanting to start the day with a complete traditional meal.
If you like Mexican tamales, get ready for the Guatemalan version. Wrapped in banana leaves, this cornmeal dough dish comes with different fillings and is known for its time-consuming preparation. Often served for Christmas and New Year celebrations, it is a perfect way to enjoy the holidays.
These ones might sound weird at first, but you’ll be hooked once you try them. Rellenitos are a fried dish of sweet mashed plantains filled with refried beans, chocolate, and cinnamon mixed together. I was skeptical when I heard beans and cinnamon in the same sentence, but I am glad I gave this treat a chance, since it is now one of my favorites.
Pepián is a smoky, meaty stew from the highlands of Antigua. Its unique flavor comes from a variety of roasted spices mixed with vegetables or fruits. It is usually served with rice or Guatemalan corn tortillas and it’s ideal to warm up on slightly colder days.
What should you look forward to in Antigua’s cultural calendar?
Antigua is a center of culture in Guatemala and retirees always find something going on, from concerts, to festivals, and performances. However, there are some specific dates you should keep an eye on. Here are two main events you might be interested in:
As a Catholic country, Guatemala goes big for Easter. Antigua is no exception and always puts on its best dress for the Good Friday celebrations with the help of locals, who spend hours (often working overnight) preparing ‘alfombras’ for processions to go over. These beautiful carpets made of colored sawdust, flowers, and various other materials are designed with care but are meant to be destroyed by the thousands of purple-robed figures that will walk the streets during the Good Friday parade. As a sort of sacrifice, ‘alfombras’ highlight the magic of ephemeral beauty and provide a bright-colored sight that no one should miss.
All Saints’ Day:
On the 1st and 2nd of November, people from Antigua gather to honor those who have passed away, congregating to see the ‘Barrilete’ festival, where colorful “giant kites” (sometimes with a diameter of more than 40 ft) fly up the sky. The kites are important cultural symbols and this unique festivity dates back to before the arrival of Spaniards to Central America, marking a special expression of the country’s traditions and history.
Antigua, Guatemala Cost of Living Chart
1 Bdr Apartment in City
$439 per month
1 Bdr Apartment Outside City
$351 per month
Average Utilities: 1 Bdr Apt
$42 per month
Inexpensive Meal for One
3-Course Meal for Two, Mid-Range
Retiring in Antigua, Guatemala Bottom Line
Antigua is a beautiful and unique location where different cultures converge. Although (much like every other city) it is not perfect, it is a great alternative for those wishing to retire somewhere warm and welcoming. Both locals and expats make it a vibrant city, while the characteristic vistas, delicious food, and varied activities available invite foreigners to enjoy everything this special place has to offer. As someone who lived there for several years, I would recommend it in a heartbeat.
Another interesting Latin American city to consider for retirement is David, Panama.
Comfortable year-round with a wet, overcast rainy season and a mostly clear dry season. Average temps are from 53°F and 78°F (11.6°C and 25.5°C)
Flight time to U.S.
5-7 hours hours by plane to Chicago
There doesn't seem to be a retirement-specific visa. You need to get a temporary residence visa (good for 2 years) and then apply for the long-term visa.
Walkable city with tuk tuks available