Puerto Quetzal (Antigua) Cruise Port

Port of Puerto Quetzal (Antigua): An Overview

Puerto Quetzal -- a Guatemalan port that serves as the jumping-off point for Antigua, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the nearest town of interest, some 90 minutes away -- doesn't seem like much at first, but it can be a great option for anyone who needs a break from the hustle and bustle of the usual stops on a Panama Canal or South America itinerary.

Antigua is a lovely Spanish colonial city, easily walkable and quite charming. There are several churches to peek into, museums to browse, cafes to grab a bite at, and, if you're there in late winter you'll catch the gorgeous jacarandas in bloom. If you choose to stay in port instead of taking the long ride to Antigua, prepare for a slow-paced and pleasant day of shopping for colorful, reasonably priced trinkets; there's not much else to do.

Depending on where you dock, the view from your ship will either be industrial with tankers and cargo ships in your line of site, or scenic, with an adorable marina situated in front of the welcome center. You'll find shops and restaurants at the welcome center. Beyond that, as the maitre d' on our sailing slightly overstated, "it's Jurassic Park."

Despite its prefabricated nature and rows upon rows of vendors selling baubles and cheap mementos, the Jurassic Park-ness is precisely what makes Puerto Quetzal feel less forced and less commercial than some other ports.

Port Facilities

If you're at the cruise terminal, all you need do is walk off your ship, and you'll pass over an open-grate bridge as you make your way to a small visitors' center, which offers local information, shore tour sign-ups, a desk that sells postcards and stamps, and performances by local musicians. Just outside, you'll find a compilation of wooden signs that serve as a directory to various areas like shops, restrooms and restaurants. Cruisers docked at the cargo pier will need to take a courtesy shuttle to the passenger terminal. The shuttle runs every 10 minutes or so.

Don't Miss

Antigua: Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, the small city of Antigua is the place to visit if you've never been to Guatemala before. The colonial town, which was founded in 1542 by the Spanish and measures just seven streets by nine avenues, is easily walkable (it's mostly cobblestone, so you'll need to be steady on your feet) and filled with museums, churches, art galleries and cafes. It takes about 90 minutes to get from Puerto Quetzal; you'll need to book an excursion or grab a taxi outside the port to get there. Highlights of the city include: Parque Central with its pretty fountain and Jacaranda trees, which are glorious to behold when in bloom in early winter; the Cathedral de Santiago, located on one side of Parque Central, which features the ruins of earlier incarnations of the church; La Merced Church (Church of the Virgin of the Mercy), built between 1749 and 1767; and Casa Santo Domingo, a museum/restaurant/hotel set in a former convent, which features six museums to check out including the Colonial Museum, Archaeology Museum and Museum of Pre-Columbian Art.

Coffee Plantations: Coffee is a major cash crop in Guatemala and coffee plantations are everywhere. Several coffee farms offer tours giving visitors the change to learn about coffee from its history to how it's grown, harvested and prepared. Tours can be booked via cruise ship excursions, with third party tour companies like Viator, or directly with farms like the Filadelfia Coffee Resort.
Editor's Note: CruiseCritic.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Inc., which also owns Viator.

Tikal National Park: If you're in good shape and are interested in Mayan culture, this national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site -- with 1,500 archaeological sites inside it -- is a must-visit; the central part of the ancient city alone contains about 3,000 buildings. Dating back to approximately 900 BC, Tikal was one of the most important Mayan ceremonial, cultural and commercial cities; it grew to a population of some 100,000 people by around the eighth century AD. Getting there is a trek, as you'll need to pre-book a pricey excursion, take a prop plane and make your way through a tropical forest. Once there, however, you'll get to explore one of the greatest Mayan cities, only rediscovered in 1848 after hundreds of years of being hidden by the jungle.

Pacaya Volcano: Guatemala has about 33 volcanos of which 17 are active. When you arrive at Puerto Quetzal you'll see three of them pretty clearly (all of them are active), and might even greet you with a puff of smoke or a small ash eruption. You can get up close to the Pacaya Volcano on a trek from the Pacaya Tourist Centre, which is about a 1.5-hour drive from the cruise terminal. You'll need to be very fit for this hike and a local guide is required for the visit, so you'll want to book ahead. (Some operators offer mule rides for those who don't want to walk it.) Most cruise lines offer a Pacaya Volcano trek, as does Viator and several local tour companies.

Shopping: This is pretty much the only activity in Puerto Quetzal. You can find everything from the cheesy (shot glasses and T-shirts) to the authentic (handmade scarves, blankets and jewelry) at the open-air market just beyond the welcome center. Most stalls sell identical wares, and with the number of cruise ship calls dwindling slightly of late, there will be fierce competition for your business. From a consumer perspective, it's good and bad: you can pretty much name your price for any souvenir, but you'll have to prepare yourself to be bombarded by dozens of shop owners as you attempt to browse.

Getting Around

The best (and most affordable) way to do get around is by booking a shore excursion. You'll also find local guides selling excursions at the visitors' center. Taxis are available, but because Antigua is 90 minutes away, they can be pricey.

Beaches

Best Overall Beach: Getting to Monterrico, the nicest beach near Puerto Quetzal, will require a boat ride. However, once you've crossed the Chiquimulilla Canal to get there, it's a great place for sunbathing away from the masses.

Best Beaches for Families: Take a taxi about three miles west to Balneario Chulamar, which offers relaxing and pristine white-sand beaches with lots of space for kids to run and play.

Best Beaches for a Resort Atmosphere: Nearby Balneario Likin, also a short cab ride away, is a resort town with several beaches that are worth your time. Surfing is a popular pastime there, so it's also an ideal spot for active beachgoers.

Food and Drink

Guatemalan cuisine is derived, in large part, from dishes the Mayans used to eat. Most feature some variation of rice, corn or beans. Soups with chicken, beef and seafood are also popular, and flavoring is often done with chilies.

Restauranta Pez Vela: The only restaurant in Puerto Quetzal, this little open-air venue, on the path just past the Wi-Fi zone and behind the marina, is a great place to stop for a cold beer and some grub. What you'll find on the menu is a mix of fresh fish, seafood, chicken and beef in the form of sandwiches, soups and more. There's also an entire page dedicated to various types of ceviche (spiced fish cooked with onions and lemon juice), and you can choose from sides like rice and beans or French fries. Prices are reasonable, and the menu is in both Spanish and English. (Km 112, Monday through Thursday, 9:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday through Sunday, 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.)

Hotel Posada de Don Rodrigo: Located along one of the main streets in Antigua (Calle del Arco, or Arch Street), the restaurant located within this picturesque hotel is a quiet place to stop for a delicious bite to eat; ask for a table overlooking the lovely courtyard. The restaurant serves a combination of international dishes along with Guatemalan specialties, including freshly baked soft tortillas. (Calle del Arco No.17, Daily 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.)

Where You're Docked

Puerto Quetzal has room for two cruise ships at the Marina Pez Vela: one at the cruise terminal and one at the cargo pier.

Good to Know

Persistent locals can try your patience if you just want to stroll around the shops inside the visitors' center to browse without buying. They'll use high-pressure sales tactics, but a firm "no, thank you" or no, gracias usually does the trick. Also beware that prices are rarely posted on items; it's a sign that haggling is fair game. Never accept the initial price a salesperson quotes you, unless the prices are clearly marked on items from the start. If you can withstand the pressure to buy immediately, don't feel bad about checking prices elsewhere before making a purchase. Sales tactics are much less fierce in Antigua, where street vendors might follow you for a bit but will take no for an answer and vendors inside the Old Cinema Market barely try to sell you at all.

Currency & Best Way to Get Money

The official monetary unit in Guatemala is the quetzal (named after the country's official bird), but American dollars can be used throughout Puerto Quetzal, as well as in Antigua. Be sure to have small bills available, as change might not be given back to you in U.S. currency. Also be sure that your dollars are free from even the slightest rips or tears, or they might be refused by shop owners. Credit cards are not generally accepted. If you run low on cash, an ATM is available at the welcome center.

Language

Spanish is the primary language spoken throughout Guatemala, but most folks working in the port speak at least some English. It's still a good idea to study up on common phrases and numbers, download a translation app to your smartphone or carry a phrasebook. In Antigua, restaurant waitstaff speak some English, but most others do not.

Shopping

Most vendors sell beautiful hand-woven blankets and hammocks at reasonable prices. Also keep an eye out for handmade scarves, tablecloths, placemats and jewelry.

Best Cocktail

The Golden Coconut, a large tent to the right as you exit the welcome center, sells a variety of cold beverages, including popular Guatemalan beer Gallo and -- of course -- coconuts, which are cracked open so you can drink their water with a straw. For a small extra charge, you can have some rum added; it makes for some exceptional warm-weather refreshment. You'll also find Gallo in restaurants and cafes throughout Antigua, as well as Arabica coffee, considered by the locals to be the best in Central America.