Budget Travel: Antigua, Guatemala

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Antigua, Guatemala is not typically at the top of the list of must-visit destinations for people considering a vacation to Latin America.

For one, it’s not located on a beach or in a heavily-traveled vacation destination. Plus, it’s filled with ruins, which not everyone can or will appreciate. But for those who are interested in history, love to tour archaeological treasures, want to fit in a bit of outdoor adventure, and don’t want to spend a huge amount of money, then Antigua will fit the bill.

The focal point of Antigua – once the capital of Guatemala – is Parque Central, which like any centrally-located town square, is a great place to sit for awhile, grab an ice cream cone from a nearby vendor, and just sit and people watch. Not only will you see locals – mostly of Mayan descent – pass by, but Antigua is also popular with American expats, many of whom have retired and relocated here because it’s possible to live like a king or queen on just a thousand bucks a month.

This is good news for vacationers, since many restaurants and hotels are priced at bargain-basement rates when compared with other Latin American countries, while still catering to first world sensibilities when it comes to comfort and cleanliness.

But the best part of Antigua is the feeling of abandonment and ruin that still linger from the mid-1770s when the city had been destroyed three times over two centuries -- first by a volcano and then by two fires -- and rebuilt twice. After the second fire, the government decided to move the capital to Guatemala City, and most Antigua residents fled, resulting in an almost-completely deserted city.

Again, it takes a special kind of traveler to appreciate this. If you’re in that category, you’ll love strolling down the cobblestoned streets, past the crumbling facades of centuries-old Colonial buildings, while trying to imagine what life was like here in the original capital of Guatemala, when the population peaked at around 60,000; today, about half that number call Antigua home.

Lisa Rogak is a freelance writer and New York Times Bestselling author. Her latest book is "And Nothing But The Truthiness: The Rise (and Further Rise) of Stephen Colbert."

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