It’s not uncommon in Guatemala to overhear earnest conversations between travellers on the subject of how, at all costs, to avoid spending a night in Guatemala City. It has a reputation for being crowded, polluted and dangerous. A reputation which is fairly well deserved. It’s completely filthy, exceptionally ugly, and muggings and shootings are common. Apart from a couple of decent museums it has pretty much nothing to recommend it at all.
Having said that, for a person of a certain disposition it has that strange seedy charm only utter shitholes can possess. This is partly due to low expectations. A place with such a bad press can only really surprise you pleasantly, if it surprises you at all. And partly due to the people. Those that aren’t trying to rob you (and despite what you may hear, most of them aren’t) grant you a certain level of respect just for being there and bothering to talk to them in the first place. They have charisma and a nice touch of black humour, which makes for good conversations in grubby cantinas. But still, you’re unlikely to want to stay there long, unless you have an exceptionally strong stomach.
As if to provide the antidote, the colonial town of Antigua is just an hour’s bus ride away. Here there are cobbled streets and fountains and churches! And nice restaurants and Spanish schools and gift shops! And flowers and things with bows on that are just so cute you need lots of exclamation marks to describe them!!! Antigua is so determinedly picturesque that it invokes the uneasy feeling you’ve accidentally wandered onto a movie set. Although it has quite a long history, it manages to feel like a town built exclusively for tourists. It’s nice enough, with all the insipid blandness that the world nice implies, but can leave you feeling slightly ill, as if you just ate too much candyfloss.
The main reason to go to Antigua, unless you’re studying Spanish there, is to climb the highly active volcano Pacaya whose grumbling, bluish shadow can be seen from all over the town. This allows you to say something as cool as “I climbed an erupting volcano”, when what you really did was amble up a gently smoking hill with a bus-load of tourists to toast marshmallows on some hot rock that smelt of eggs. (It’s easy to sneer, but the volcano marshmallow toasting thing is actually pretty fun, and one of those things that sort of has to be done, even if you don’t really like yourself for doing it. You could always mask your childish glee and pretend to be doing it ironically, but that would probably make you look like even more of a wanker.)