Imagine a trip to Europe for half the cost and without the jet lag. Then throw in the charming (albeit somewhat shy and reticent) Guatemalan people (Indian, Mestizo and European), proximity to bustling Indian markets (Chichicastenango is 2.5 hours away) and spectacular Mayan ruins (Copan, in Honduras, is 6 hours away), boutiques full of local crafts, jewlery and clothing, and top it off with a surprisingly vast selection of world-class restaurants of all sorts at relatively rock-bottom prices.
Antigua Guatemala, once the epicenter of Spanish colonial Central America, is a treasure trove of colonial architecture, both ruined and restored. After a series of earthquakes in the late 18th century the city was pretty much abandoned and the capital moved to Guatemala City, about an hour east of Antigua. But the town was never completely abandoned, and it began to experience a revival starting about a century ago. More recently it has become a major tourism magnet, and has also attracted expats from around the globe. For its wealth of colonial architecture it was declared a UNESCO world heritage site. I'd say it compares favorably with Toledo, Spain, and the weather's a lot better in the winter. It's a compact, completely walkable town, a joy to wander around. The city is laid out on a grid, so even though street signs are somewhat intermittent, it's hard to get lost in Antigua (in the bad sense of lost in Antigua, that is).
I'm almost ashamed to admit that before researching my trip to Guatemala about a year ago I hadn't even heard of Antigua Guatemala. But now I'm happy to share the joy. It's a great place to hang out for a few days, or a week, or maybe longer to study Spanish at one of the town's many language schools.
The new cathedral...
...was built in front of the ruins of the original cathedral,
on the east side of the Parque Central, the hub of activity in most Latin American towns (I don't believe they use the term "Zocalo," as in Mexico).
Church ruins and architectural detail:
Indian women selling their wares:
The streets of San Francisco (church):