Alotenango Guatemala: Living At The Foot Of Fuego Volcano

Alotenango and Volcan Fuego

***If you’re looking for coverage of Fuego’s volcanic eruption on June 4, read this post***

Meet Alotenango, a Guatemalan town located nine miles southwest of Antigua and nestled between two volcanoes, one of which is active, Volcan Fuego – literally “Fire Volcano”.

Main Plaza in San Juan Alotenango

Fuego Volcano in the backdrop at Alotenango

Because of Alotenango’s close proximity to Volcan Fuego, the town is regularly subjected to evacuation orders and it’s often the recipient of varying amounts of ashes when Fuego decides to put on a fireworks display. When Fuego is active at night, its lava flows and thundering eruptions – strong enough to shake windows in Antigua, are mesmerizing.


History of Alotenango

Long before the Spanish arrived in Guatemala, Alotenango already had an established population. Historians are divided over the origins of the town’s name and it’s debated that “Alotenango” may either mean “land of tender corn” or “house of the parrot”.

In any case, the land here is very fertile and it is known to produce some of the best coffee beans in the world.

Today, the town is inhabited mainly by Maya peasants who are mostly occupied with the cultivation of corn, beans, and the coffee plants I just mentioned.

Fountain and Alotenango Church

Fountain and Church, San Juan Alotenango

Things To Do in Alotenango

Alotenango is most active during June, which is when the town honors San Juan Bautista (Saint John the Baptist), the saint which the Spanish assigned to residents for veneration when they christened the town as San Juan Alotenango.

The town’s church (above) was built in 1615 and has been rebuilt many times due to earthquakes, last in 1929.

Even though Alotenango is relatively close to Antigua, it’s well off the radar of most visitors who come to the area.

Of interest to visitors in this area will be La Reunion Golf Resort, one of the most unusual golf courses in the world. Not many golf courses can boast having fairways with a live volcano for a backdrop.

Alotenango also has trails to ascend to Volcan Agua, Volcan Fuego, and Volcan Acatenango, though the trails are not well-marked and are dangerous and in bad shape. If you seek to climb any of these volcanoes, seek paths other than those leading from Alotenango.

Living in Alotenago

There aren’t any gated communities inside the town, the closest one for expats being Antigua Gardens, a residential development located half a mile outside the entrance to the town, on highway RN-14. There is a La Bodegona supermarket in town.

Because of the poverty level, there’s been an increment in the number of gang-related crime, such as robberies and extortions, which show no signs of slowing down. Residents have been known to attempt to lynch criminals caught red-handed, and when Police intervene, things often threaten to spiral out of control.

While the plaza and stunning view of Volcan Fuego are interesting for a short daytime visit, the town is not recommended as a place to live.


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San Felipe De Jesus Church: Great Handicrafts And Street Food

San Felipe de Jesús, Antigua Guatemala

The town of San Felipe is just 5 minutes away from Antigua Guatemala. If you’re in town, it’s a great place to visit – their handicrafts market sells quality stuff at a better price than in Antigua, plus the street food at the back of the market is some of the best in Guatemala.


Getting to San Felipe de Jesus

To visit San Felipe, walk north via 6a Avenida, past La Merced Church. At the end of the street, you’ll come to a busy intersection. Keep walking north, past IGSS, a public hospital, and follow the winding road up the hill. It’s about a mile and a half walk from La Merced Church and quite safe during the day. I don’t recommend you take this walk at night since streets are poorly lit on the road leading to San Felipe.

Keep walking north, past IGSS, a public hospital, and follow the winding road up the hill. It’s about a mile and a half walk from La Merced Church and quite safe during the day. I don’t recommend you take this walk at night since streets are poorly lit on the road leading to San Felipe.

The easiest way is to take a tuk-tuk near La Merced, which should cost no more than 10Q. Or, you can get to the road at the beginning of the hill, near the hospital, and catch a chicken bus going up the hill for about 2Q. The bus will turn off the main road, so make sure to double back and head to the church. Don’t worry, just look for the red steeple – you can’t miss it.

San Felipe de Jesús Church

Meet San Felipe de Jesus Church, known in Spanish as Santuario de San Felipe de Jesus, and one of the most distinctive churches in all of Guatemala.

San Felipe de Jesus church, Antigua Guatemala

San Felipe Church (Santuario de San Felipe de Jesús)

This church is one of my favorites due to the beautiful colors, sky-high spires, and bell and clock-tower. This colorful church feels as if it would be right at home in one of Pixar’s animated films.

San Felipe is a brisk 20-minute northbound walk from Antigua’s Central Park.This church owes its Neo-Gothic style to the fact that it was built in its present form later than the churches around Antigua’s valley.

History of the Church

San Felipe’s church has actually been rebuilt many times over. The town of San Felipe, first settled in 1670, had a curious beginning. The first residents in the area settled in 1670 and arrived here from another community after suffering through one-too-many disease outbreaks and a bat plague. Yes, bats. San Felipe came full circle with its past when they decided to build the church in the Neo-Gothic style, which is most prominently associated in present pop-culture with Batman, the comic book superhero.

In 1760, residents erected the first church on these grounds, which unfortunately later burned to the ground.

In 1820, the town built a second church, which the town quickly outgrew.

Less than 50 years later, in 1867, work began on a newer, much more spacious church, which opened its doors in 1870. This church had the familiar baroque style that was popular with other churches around the area.

Massive earthquakes struck Guatemala between 1917 and 1918, which seriously damaged the church. Because it was in such disrepair, the Priest in charge decided that the structure should be demolished, save for the sanctuary, and to completely rebuild it.

Instead of building the church in the traditional baroque style, they opted for a face-lift, which is how it ended up with its current style.

This church also houses a relic, the wood-carved Cristo Sepultado (“Buried Christ”) image, which dates back to the 1600’s.

Traditional Guatemalan Food

This place is a great stop if you’re in Antigua for a few days.

The church has a plaza which often fills with street vendors selling high-quality traditional Guatemalan food. Behind the handicrafts market (just go through the market itself), you’ll find good, tasty street food.

Handicrafts Market

There’s a handicraft’s market across the street from the church, which is a good place to find original handicrafts, meet artisans, and get some traditional Guatemalan sweets.

Traditional Guatemalan Sweets

I highly recommend a visit here, as I’ve found the handicrafts market in Antigua to be overpriced and filled with most of the same mass-produced items you can find much lower elsewhere. You’ll probably find better prices and more original merchandise in San Felipe.


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Unemployment In Guatemala: Stress Index

Antigua Guatemala Busker

A recent article by Bloomberg caught my attention. The article placed Guatemala right in the middle of the list of the top 10 most “stressed-out” countries in the world. Nigeria, South Africa, El Salvador, and Mongolia were above Guatemala, while Colombia, Pakistan, Jamaica, Macedonia, and Bolivia rounded out the list, in that order.The US, if you must know, checks in at number 54 on the list, while Norway sits at the bottom as the most stress-free country in the world.

The US, if you must know, checks in at number 54 on the list, while Norway sits at the bottom as the most stress-free country in the world.

Unemployment in Guatemala

With such high unemployment in Guatemala, any job will do

To rank each country, Bloomberg assigns points to the following categories:

  • Annual homicide rate per 100,000 (Guatemala is third among the top 10 with 38.5 while El Salvador blows everyone else on the entire list away with 69.2 – which right away told me the list was incomplete since Honduras was nowhere to be found).
  • GDP per Capita ($3,415 for Guatemala for seventh among the top 10).
  • Income Inequality (Guatemala is eighth – no surprise there).
  • Corruption (Guatemala is third on the top 10 – I expected higher. In fact, Antigua’s Mayor was recently arrested for corruption and is now in jail awaiting trial. But I guess is hard to top Nigeria and Pakistan).
  • Unemployment (Guatemala has the lowest unemployment rate among those on the top 10 at 4.5%).
  • Urban Pollution (Guatemala is second cleanest).
  • Life Expectancy (Middle of the pack with 69).

The one that jumped out at me was the unemployment rate because it seems unusually low. One constant complaint I always hear is that there aren’t enough jobs available here, especially for young people. A whopping 59% of men are underemployed, meaning they’re in a job beneath their skill level. For women that number is 40%.

A little digging around on the net reveals how the government arrives at their unemployment figure. Curiously, the government here classifies anyone involved in any job, no matter how menial, as part of the “Poblacion Economicamente Activa”, or Economically Active Population.

Many women are not counted as part of the unemployed population either, as they are labeled “housewives”, even though they often are the hardest working person in the household. Anyone who is getting money in any way, shape, or form is “employed” according to the government.

Which leads me to Tin Man, the man pictured above. Tin Man, as I’ve dubbed him, works at Antigua’s Parque Central as a busker on weekends. I know he does the same thing in Guatemala City’s Sexta Avenida during the week because I’ve seen him there as well. Does the government here classify him as employed or unemployed? By their definition, I guess he has a “job”.

In Guatemala, promises for more employment come and go each election. Whether the government sees the population as employed, or unemployed, in the end, it doesn’t matter to the average citizen. People here do what they have to do to survive no matter what the unemployment number says. That, I bet, causes more stress than any other statistic Bloomberg can cobble together.

And so Tin Man, along with millions of other Guatemalans, will go to work every day.

Job satisfaction is likely to never be part of the equation for a good number of them. The only thing they can do is to put up a brave front and do whatever they can to support their families since no unemployment check from the government is likely to ever come their way.

And then they say Tin Man has no heart.


See more about living in Antigua Guatemala here.

Guatemalan Handicrafts: Learning To Bargain

Mayan Handicrafts Antigua Guatemala

As I walk the cobblestone streets of Antigua, sometimes catches my eyes. I pause to admire a beautiful scarf, in the unmistakable colors and patterns that Guatemalan handicrafts are known for.

Mayan Handicrafts in Antigua Guatemala

Handicrafts for sale in Antigua

“30 Quetzales!”, the woman says.

I look at my wife in mock disbelief and turn my eyes elsewhere.

“25 Quetzales!”, says the seller again, trying to hold my attention.

I feign a “maybe I like it”  glance at the scarf, refusing to touch it as she hands it to me. Five seconds pass.

“20 Quetzales!”, she says.

That’s more like it. I finally open my mouth to half-heartedly counteroffer. “Diez?”, I ask if she’s willing to drop the price to ten.

She smiles and shakes her head. “Veinte.”

She’s still set on twenty.

I glance at the scarf again and feel the texture as she holds it in her hands. I hesitate for a few seconds then let the scarf go as I take a half-step away from the seller. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t.

Diez?”, I ask again. This time she comes back with “Dos por treinta.”

Smart – she’s willing to drop the price to fifteen each if I buy two. Not bad at all, but I only need one. I consider it for three seconds, then tell her “No gracias.” Thanks but no thanks.

At this point, it’s the seller’s choice. They can drop the price a bit more, or hope to catch another tourist who’ll pay triple the price they are willing to sell the item for.

“Dos por veinticinco!” she pleads.

Two for 25? Hmmm… That’s only 12.25Q each. Part of me want to haggle a bit more, but then I realize I’m really arguing over what amounts to Q5, or 0.62USD. I’ve paid more than that for a can of Coke.

I give in. It’s a win-win for both. She gets to sell two scarves, I get, well, my wife gets two beautiful scarves for a very reasonable price.


Antigua Guatemala offers a great opportunity to acquire interesting Mayan handicrafts. Learn to bargain if you want to get the most value for your money. A quick rule is to begin every negotiation at half the price first quoted by the seller and then go from there.

When I first arrived, I felt uncomfortable asking “¿Cuanto es lo menos?” (What is the lowest price?). Now? I haggle on everything, from rent with the landlord, to tomatoes at the Mercado.

Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but when you and the seller strike a deal, everyone wins.



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