Antigua was the capital of Guatemala from 1543 to 1733 when most of the city was destroyed earthquakes and fires following the eruption of Fuego volcano. After that, the Spanish king decided that the capital would be Guatemala City, 15 miles northeast.
Antigua lies in the valley of three volcanoes, Aqua, Acatenango and Fuego which is still active. Thirty-eight monastic orders built monasteries and cathedrals here using Maya slave laborers, who but their own carved designs on the Colonial Baroque buildings.
Today Antigua remains the New World’s best repository of Spanish Colonial Baroque architecture. In 1979 UNESCO designated the city a World Heritage Site and a Tribute to the Americas for its civil and ecclesiastical architectural monuments.
Having been destroyed through the years by earthquakes, some of the city’s buildings are 18th century restorations. What were once Antigua’s greatest structures now lie in ruins, covered by masses of bougainvillea hanging from their charred foundations and walls.
Cobblestone streets are lined with single-story stucco houses in pastel shades of pink, yellow, blue and green and topped with red tile roofs.
Everywhere I went the sights and sounds of the city enveloped me; uniformed schoolchildren playing soccer in schoolyards and parks, mothers carrying babies on their backs in a wrap slung over their shoulders called a tsute, and women wearing huipils (we peels), traditional blouses in brilliant colors with intricate hand embroidered designs, and wrap skirts in various patterns. A woman told me that the different patterns represent the town that the wearer is from.
Guatemala is a country of extreme poverty. Many people can’t afford things we take for granted, like washing machines. Twice a week groups of women gather at the fountain outside the Convent of Santa Clara to do their laundry, hanging it to dry on the convent’s fence. Several women offered to go to my hotel, get my laundry, bring it to the fountain, wash things, dry them on the fence and return it to my hotel. They would do all this for one Quetzal, a Guatemalan dollar equal to 13 cents U.S. I refused but handed each of them a few Quetzals, receiving hugs and smiles as a thank you.
In the streets and market areas women and children, their arms or heads piled high with textiles, haunt you saying “Madam, please buy. Madam look how beautiful this is.” They zero in on women because, in their culture only women shop. Always bargain, it’s expected.
Antigua is laid out on a grid making it easy to navigate on foot. I rambled through the city on my own doing fine with my limited Spanish, maps and hand gestures.
Centuries ago, the palm studded Parque Central, between Calle del Curio and Calle del Conquistador, was where the Maya brought their goods to trade with other tribes. It’s an excellent place to start exploring the city’s Colonial Baroque architecture.
Across from the park is the Town Hall, dating to 1743. This two story multi-arched building houses two museums, the St. James Museum has a collection of antique weapons dating back to Maya times, and the Antique Book Museum is worth a quick stop to see a replica of the first printing press that was brought here in 1660.
Across the park is the massive Cathedral of St. Joseph with five naves and 68 smaller chambers. Carved into the façade are sculpts of St. James, the Virgin Mary, Jesus and the Twelve Apostles. Construction started in 1542 and was not finished until 1680. The church was destroyed in the 1773 earthquake and rebuilt the following year.
Next to the church is the Museum of Colonial Art with exhibits depicting what life was like in 18th-century Guatemala.
Several blocks north of the park is the Santa Catalina Arch, once part o f a church and convent built in 1606. Beyond the arch is the church of Our Lady of Mercy, known as La Merced. Built in 1552 La Merced is the finest example of Colonial Baroque architecture in the city. Its Churrigueresque decorations were added during a 19th-century restoration.
The adjacent convent, Las Capuchinas, was founded in 1736 by nuns from Madrid. Despite its elegant portico, inside exhibits show the rigors of religious life; 18 stark cells where the nuns did penance for their sins and transgressions with prayers and self-mortification.
Besides being the architectural hub of the country, Antigua is a culinary find. Restaurants run the gamut from traditional Guatemalan specialties to Mexican, Italian, Spanish, French and Asian fare. The Posada de don Rodrigo is famous for its chicken peten in a spicy mole sauce, Hotel Casa Santo Domingo serves flawless seafood and Café Las Palmas is where you can get great fajitas.
I stayed several days at Casa Santo Domingo a 16th-centurt monastery turned into a luxury hotel. In the evenings, behind thick stucco walls, it’s a peaceful oasis. The cloisters where friars once walked in prayer are lit only by candles. A small museum holds ancient artifacts excavated from the beautiful grounds and ruins surrounding the hotel.
Images courtesy of Visit Guatemala