The history and face of one of the most beautiful colonial cities in the Americas were shaped by three factors: volcanoes, earthquakes and the Catholic Church.
La Antigua Guatemala was founded in 1543 as “La muy noble ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros”. The Italian architect Juan Batista Antonelli, who had also built the fortifications of Cartagena, Havana and San Juan in Puerto Rico, was commissioned with the urban planning.
In Antigua he created one of the first examples of the strict chessboard geometry of most Spanish colonial cities. On the sides of the square Plaza Mayor, the cathedral, the town hall and the palace of the General Colonels (Palacio de los Capitanes) represented the religious, civil and military power of the colonial rulers.
More than 35 magnificent churches and monasteries still document the city’s former wealth. Even if most of them are in ruins since the devastating earthquake of 1773, this aesthetic of decay has a special charm.
The most prominent victim of the earthquake that persuaded the colonial government to relocate the capital to today’s Guatemala City was the mighty Catedral de Santiago, behind whose façade only the foundations and parts of the vaulted arches tower up into the sky. The cathedral, which took 100 years to build, once had 68 domes and 17 side chapels.
Particularly delightful is its sight during its nightly illumination. Around midday, however, the church of Nuestra Señora de la Merced impresses with its ornamental yellow-white façade shining in the sunlight. The courtyard of the adjoining former monastery is dominated by the large central fountain with a diameter of 24 metres.
Antigua’s landmark is the yellow Arco de Santa Catalina, the only remnant of the convent of the same name, which extended to both sides of the fifth avenue and allowed the nuns to cross the street unseen.
An unusual monastery was the Convento de las Capuchinas, whose partly restored, partly dilapidated remains are worth a visit. Thus, the number of nuns living here was limited to a maximum of 28, no usual dowry had to be paid upon entry and the sisters lived in complete isolation. Remarkable are the concentrically arranged cells around a round inner courtyard.
One of the most beautiful places of Antigua is the Parque de la Unión with its palm trees and its still used public washing place “Tanque de la Unión”. Finally, the church of San Francisco houses the tomb of Hermano Pedro de San José de Betancur, who is still revered today and canonized in 2002. He worked in Antigua in the middle of the 17th century and built a hospital for the poor among other things.
Beside the Palacio de los Capitanes with its later placed double arcades the Casa Popenoe from the 17th century captivates with its detailed restoration and its cultivated garden as one of Antigua’s secular buildings.
There are several worthwhile destinations in the surroundings of Antigua as well.
The Casa K’ojom, part of the Azotea Cultural Centre, is dedicated to the music of the Maya. Musical instruments are not only exhibited here, but also performed.
In the district of San Felipe we recommend a visit to the Filadelfia finca, which includes a tasting of the shade grown highland coffee.
The ascent of the active volcano Pacaya is not technically demanding. Only the last part of the ascent on loose lava sand is strenuous. But the descent, if necessary sliding on the bottom of the trousers, is all the easier. Before the descent there are beautiful panoramic views and glimpses of the red-hot lava of an active volcano crater.