Escape the Usual
Less than an hour away from Guatemala City, La Antigua makes people feel like they’re a million miles and a few centuries away. A bit of history: founded in the early 16th century, La Antigua was the third capital of the Kingdom of Guatemala until a series of earthquakes prompted the government to move to the current site of Guatemala City. Today this nearly 500-year-old city is the crown jewel of Guatemala’s tourism—a magnet for visitors from around the world thanks to its colonial-era buildings, history, and vibrant culture. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is also Guatemala’s second most soughtafter MICE destination, predominantly for incentives and smaller VIP meetings, upscale dinners, inaugurations, and closing ceremonies in its many plazas, gardens, and historic buildings. Planners with green meetings in mind will be happy to know that most of La Antigua is extremely eco-conscious. Bottled water, for example, is nowhere to be found in hotel rooms. Instead, guests will find handmade clay eco-filters that are refilled daily and serve fresh, pure water—a fairly recent (1980) Guatemalan invention that revolutionized drinking water across the country and beyond. La Antigua’s ancient cobblestone streets are lined with restaurants serving amazing cuisine, coffee shops, art galleries, charming bars, and shopping in boutiques, artisan markets, and more. Outdoors, eco-adventures for groups range from hiking the slopes of the Pacaya Volcano to exploring an aromatic coffee plantation, and there are voluntourism opportunities available for them to give back to local communities. The city’s small size and the number of inspired boutique hotels have prompted organizations to plan unforgettable city-wide takeovers. As an example of just how unique that type of event can be, let’s talk transportation: while in the city, attendees can be ferried to and from their hotel and different events aboard a local tuk-tuk—a three-wheeled motorized rickshaw—with the sponsoring company logo on the side and pre-negotiated fares.
The Hotel Museum Spa Casa Santo Domingo is La Antigua’s premier MICE destination—and for good reason. The property is actually comprised of two sections: Casa Santo Domingo, just 10 minutes walking distance from the city center, and the Santo Domingo del Cerro built at the top of a steep hill just outside of town. The five-star Casa Santo Domingo is built around the remains of an ancient monastery and a temple from the mid-1500s, where the owners have created a getaway that’s part hotel, part historic site, and part spa.
The respect for history is evident: in addition to architects and designers, the property has a permanent staff of archaeologists, restorers, and curators who have created museums to showcase the many ancient relics and treasures they have found during their excavations. There is also a fine dining fusion-cuisine restaurant, lush gardens, and factory stores selling chocolate, candles, ceramics. and high-end handicrafts. This pet-friendly hotel has 130 rooms, including a block of 22 “SPA Living” rooms that are directly connected to the spa and private pool (this area is adult-only and an excellent choice for top executives and their companions). All accommodations have high-end amenities and are decorated with works from renowned local artists and the country’s traditional textiles. It’s small wonder it has hosted A-listers ranging from billionaires to ex-presidents to international celebrities. A few minutes away up a hill (there are shuttles every 15 minutes that ferry guests—and nonguests—back and forth), the Santo Domingo del Cerro is Casa’s complementary property with its combination of galleries with temporal exhibits, a convention center, permanent museums, expansive gardens, a grill serving meats, pasta, and pizza (El Tenedor del Cerro), and even a consecrated chapel.
This mostly open-air space takes full advantage of the astounding views of the three volcanoes that ring La Antigua: Volcán de Agua (Water), Volcán de Fuego (Fire), and Volcán Acatenango, and there are art installations, murals, statues, and other work by Guatemala’s finest artists everywhere. Santo Domingo del Cerro also has an eco-park on the back side of the mountain and an amphitheater. The sky’s the limit for group experiences in Casa Santo Domingo and Santo Domingo del Cerro. All told, the properties have a combined 9,000 m² (96,872 ft²) for meetings and events, including a two-story convention center with capacity for up to 1,100 combined, Wi-Fi and all the a/v technology needed, and an onsite staff of professionals to help with organization, catering, etc.
The spaces also lend themselves to unusual events, such as an evening five-senses experience with food, traditional marimba music, incense, and costumed actors spinning tales about the past, décor that includes the traditional sawdust artwork, or specialty dinners served under the stars among the ruins or in an art gallery, followed by a nighttime guided visit to the museums, just to name a few. Note: Santo Domingo del Cerro also has a fully functional helipad. The extensively renovated Porta Hotel is renowned for its warmth, hospitality, and high-level of service. In fact, it was chosen to host the stay of none other than Felipe VI, King of Spain in late 2018. Located a five-minute walk from the main plaza and its many restaurants and attractions, the Porta is all about fountains, gardens, and courtyards, wood-beamed ceilings, exposed brick, stone floors, and antique furnishings lovingly polished to a high gleam. Each of the 105 rooms and five suites (including accessible accommodations) has a unique décor and features a working fireplace, handmade quilts, luxury linens, and hightech touches. There are meetings rooms within the hotel, including a salon with an ample patio overlooking the ruins of San José el Viejo. However, to keep events separate from leisure guest, a stand-alone building was constructed around a private courtyard—perfect for coffee breaks or corporate cocktails. It has eight dedicated meeting rooms for a total of 900 m² (9,688 ft²) with cutting-edge ClickShare conferencing technology and professional staff. There is also an additional 210 m² (2,260 ft²) of outdoor space.
The Pensativo House Hotel was originally a mansion owned by an ex-president of Guatemala and no expense was spared in its refurbishing and modernizing. Its nine guest rooms and 17 suites are all different and have the right balance of modern amenities and restored antiques. This is, perhaps, the most sophisticated venue in town, with a décor includes contemporary art, sculptures, and pre-Columbian pieces that work together very tastefully. Tucked away behind tall iron gates, the hotel is also very peaceful and exceedingly private. Planners in the know have chosen Pensativo to host VIP events including sales conferences, product presentations, training seminars, and executive sessions in its 516 m² (5,554 ft²) of event space, which includes the private Presidential Dining room for 24, a state-of-the-art conference room, an ample outdoor courtyard or the rooftop, with its stunning views of the Agua Volcano and the downtown area.
The pet-friendly, adults-only (12 and over) hotel has one of the only parking lots in town (for those renting a car) and is partnered with the nearby Porta Hotel so guests have access to that hotel’s gym and pool. The twelve-room Mesón Panza Verde might be small, but it’s huge on charm and was the first European-style luxury boutique hotel and restaurant in town. Its eatery is considered one of the best in the country, having received the coveted “Tenedor de Oro” (Gold Fork) award for its international cuisine “with a twist,” a detail to keep in mind for corporate dinners (menus can even be printed with company logos). The Mesón’s small size makes it a given for buyouts for C-suite level events and incentive programs. The building has an assortment of openair terraces on different levels with dramatic views ideal for small cocktail gatherings. Of note is the fact the hotel has partnerships with local NGOs and has hosted benefits and fundraisers for international entities like Habitat for Humanity and USAID. Smaller still but no less enchanting, the Mil Flores Luxury Design Hotel is an exquisitely restored 16th century residence right at the entrance of town and steps from the historic center. The colorful, opulent suites have private patios and wood burning fireplaces (one call gets a perfect handlaid fire), sumptuous beds, and every creature comfort an executive guest could want, including free Wi-Fi and cable TV.
The award-winning El Convento Boutique Hotel— a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World—is an exceptional choice for upscale incentive groups right in the heart of La Antigua. The 26 distinctive suites are gorgeously designed and decorated in a contemporary colonial style, and can include a private colonial patio with fountain, chimney, living and dining area, and a jacuzzi, among other amenities. This is an ideal space for Intimate corporate meetings and events, catered by its restaurant that specializes in international gastronomy with local recipes and ingredients, served with an excellently-curated wine list. Formerly a Four Seasons property, the family-friendly Hotel Soleil La Antigua Spa, Meeting and Convention Center is, as its name infers, an excellent option for meeting planners. Its elegant colonial design is ample and airy; it has 12 meetings and event rooms—two recently of which were recently expanded and upgraded. Outdoors, their pergolas can welcome an additional 200 and garden setups can cater to up to 2,000.
Their experienced meetings team can help international planners organize everything from banquets, conventions, workshops, forums, team building initiatives, executive retreats, VIP board meetings, and fun incentives—think coffee plantation tours aboard a chicken bus. The hotel has 180 rooms and suites (including handicap accessible accommodations) are ready for work or play, decorated with antique furniture, colorful traditional textiles, and cozy wood-burning fireplaces to ward off the evening chill. The luxurious Hotel Camino Real Antigua Guatemala has enormous gardens and 100 rooms and suites built around a series of independent courtyards water features: guests are never very far from the soothing sound of running water. (VIP planners will want to take a look at one of the two Royal Suites with living rooms and loft bedrooms.) The hotel has elegant meeting spaces that can host everything from intimate board meetings to 500-attendee events.
La Antigua is, first and foremost, an incentive destination. Cocktail parties and inaugural or closing ceremonies can take place in spectacular colonial venues: the ruins at Santa Clara or La Merced, the Convento de las Capuchinas, or the chapel at San José del Viejo, among many others. Top chefs can create traditional Guatemalan dishes or international gourmet cuisine described on menus printed with company logos. Entertainment options are endless and can range from the distinctive Guatemalan marimba music to classical quartets or lively dance music. And that’s just a glimpse of events; below is a glimpse of what to experience in and outside of town. In short: there is little about incentive trips to La Antigua that is run-of-the-mill.
The best way to get to know La Antigua is on foot to see the monuments up close and personal: the famous Santa Catalina Arch (a favorite of Instagrammers worldwide), the iconic La Merced Church and the cloister ruins, the Parque Central and the ancient Tanque de la Unión wash basins, the Fuente de las Sirenas, the arched ruins Convento de las Capuchinas, the Palacio del Ayuntamiento, and the Catedral de Santiago, to name but a few.
Guatemala’s textiles are known world-wide for their fine craftsmanship and they’re on full display in La Antigua’s many markets. Casa de Artes carries high-end pieces and is a great place to start for a little background on what to buy. Nim Po’t is a large warehouse filled with Mayan clothing, textiles for the home, pottery, masks, wood carvings, local aromatic coffee, chocolate, and more. La Antigua also has high-end boutiques that incorporate traditional textiles into high-end leather bags, shoes, and other items. Guatemalan jade is famous: Casa del Jade is a good place to find the best.
Adventure around La Antigua includes the extraordinary opportunity to roast marshmallows on hot volcanic after a hike, horseback ride, or bike ride along the trails and backroads on the volcanoes and hills. Out-of-the-box adventures can be set up with outfitters like the appropriately named Out of the Box Tour Company, whose owner Manuel Salvador can also organize deep sea sport fishing trips on the Pacific only an hour away: Guatemala is, after all, renowned as the Sailfish Capital of the World. Other tailor-made adventures can be organized by Martsam Travel’s Benedicto Grijalva, such as visits on bike to neighboring villages, bird watching, and other unforgettable immersion tours.
A visit to the Choco Museo for a hands-on chocolate making class is a must, as is ice cream at Doña Gavi. Groups shouldn’t miss a coffee tour: there are small, private farms and large estates such as Finca Filadelfia that can take visitors on the aromatic journey from the bean to the cup. The Valhalla Experimental Station is another interesting eco-tour: they grow macadamia nuts and make must-try macadamia flour pancakes. La Antigua also has more than its fair share of delightful restaurants showcasing Guatemala’s traditional Mayan cuisine.
La Antigua may be historical, but the nightlife is as lively as it gets. To name but a few: Tabacos y Vinos, right under the Arco de Santa Catalina, is a favorite for fine class of wine; there’s free salsa dancing lessons, live music, dining, and drinking at Las Palmas Restaurant; the La Antigua Brewery is a must for craft beer lovers (it has a speakeasy serving craft cocktails named Ulew—ask for it); but there are way more than this one page can hold.