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.
Santiago de Los Caballeros was the first planned city in the New World.
Its layout was assigned to the architect Juan Bautista Antonelli. He oriented streets and avenues a grid- like pattern, starting from the Central Plaza and extending from north to south and from east to west to from the core of the city.
As time went by, communities dedicated to specific crafts or industries developed around it, forming small towns, now part of modern Antigua.
The foundations of the first cathedral built in the new city of Santiago were laid in 1542, using the debris brought in by bishop Marroquin from Cuidad Vieja, the previous capital. Its construction and continuos repairs lasted throughout the rest of the century, caused by the delays from lack of funds and the earthquakes of 1651, 63, and 66.
The original roof was made of straw, which was later replaced with wood and a carved paneled ceiling. The demolition of this first cathedral began in 1669 in order to build the second cathedral at the same site. This was inaugurated eleven years later.