Antigua at its height was a very powerful and important city. Spain divided its conquests in the New World into three sections, and the part we now call Central America was all governed from the Guatemalan capital, that is Antigua.
Antigua, or Antigua Guatemala to give it its full name, was in fact the country’s third capital. It was founded in 1543 when an eruption of the Vulcan de Agua (Water Volcano) destroyed the second capital in the valley of Almononga. It was one of the first cities in the New World to use the Spanish grid design in the layout of the streets, and that layout is still intact in the centre (making navigation for tourists very simple!)
In 1566 the city received the name of “Muy Noble y Muy Leal Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala” (Very Noble and Very Loyal City of Santiago of the Caballeros of Guatemala), or Santiago de Guatemala for short. Indeed all three of the country’s early capitals bore the name of Santiago, as the first of them had been founded on St James’s day, the 25th July. You can see a statue of the eponymous saint in the Playa Union, donated to the city by the Spanish Santiago de Compostela.
Despite the ravages of several earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, the city was for over 200 years the capital and economic centre of the whole Kingdom of Guatemala (today’s southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.). On September 29, 1717, an estimated 7.4 magnitude earthquake hit the city, destroying over 3,000 buildings. The damage led the authorities to consider moving the capital to another city. Instead they began to restore the damage, but in 1773 there was another even more destructive earthquake, the Santa Marta, and much of the city’s only recently rebuilt political and religious infrastructure was destroyed. A proposal was drawn up to move the capital for a third time, and despite some opposition, in 1775, a royal letter was written to order the foundation of a new capital.
The badly damaged city of Santiago de los Caballeros was ordered abandoned, although not everyone left, and was thereafter referred to as la Antigua Guatemala (the Old Guatemala).
In 1942, La Antigua was declared a Monument of the Americas by the Panamerican Institute of History and Geography. In 1944, it was declared a national monument of Guatemala. In 1979, UNESCO named Antigua a Colonial Cultural Heritage of America. In 1969, the Guatemalan Congress created a law to protect and preserve the colonial city. Today it is justifiably a magnet for visitors to Central America, and a must-see destination in Guatemala itself.
Surrounded by volcanoes
Antigua lies in a valley (Panchoy) surrounded by three imposing and beautiful volcanoes. Glimpses of these can be had from almost anywhere in the city, and the views if you can get to even a slightly higher point (on top of the cloisters at La Merced for instance, and the roof of our hotel was also great!) are spectacular.
To the south is the nearest and perhaps the most impressive of them all, the Volcán de Agua or "Volcano of Water", which is 3,766 metres (12,356 ft) high. The local Kakchikel Mayas call it Hunapú, but the Spanish gave it its present-day name when a mud-slide from its 1543 eruption buried their then capital.
The other two volcanoes lie to the west of the city: Acatenango, 3,976 metres (13,045 ft) high, and the Volcán de Fuego or "Volcano of Fire", 3,763 metres (12,346 ft) high. Acatenango last erupted in 1972, but Fuego is almost constantly active at a low level. Smoke issues from its top daily, sometimes just a faint plume, but sometimes rather more dramatic, as we saw a few days after our visit to Antigua when passing on the road from Panajachel to Guatemala City (see photo 3). Fortunately larger eruptions are rare and you’re highly unlikely to experience one. Instead you will almost certainly find, as we did, that the volcanoes form a beautiful backdrop to this already beautiful city.
If you want to climb a volcano you can book a trip with any of the several tour agencies in the city – shop around for the best deal or try Antigua Tours (see my Things to Do tip)
The City Hall surrounded the...
The City Hall surrounded the plaza to the north, the palace of the captaincy to the south, the cathedral and Bishop’s Palace to the east, and on the west by the portal provided shelter for the night to merchants who come to the marketplace from far away towns.
Is central fountain, built in 1739 by the well-known architect Diego de Porres, is one of his many contributions to the city. Using fragments of the original fountain, it was reconstructed in 1936 by the Guatemalan artist Oscar Gonzales Goyri.
Santa Semana Displays
Prior to the processions on the streets, the churches are decorated with colorful patterns of colored sawdust, palm leaves and flowers. Fruits and vegetables are the usual offerings given by the people.
Take a horse for a ride
I really enjoyed horseback riding in Antigua. That was one way I ventured outside the city and explored the surrounding commuities. More on that later. The equipment is provided for you. You just have to hang on and be careful the horse doesnt run wild. You see there is no horse lane you have to jockey through the streets and be damn good at it.