Antigua Guatemala: City Guide & History

Colonial streets of Antigua Guatemala, with volcano background

Antigua Guatemala – or Antigua, as is commonly referred to – is famous for its stunning colonial architecture, making it a popular tourist destination in Guatemala. So, what’s the story of this town, how did it come to be and what has happened here?

 
The History
The Maya & the Spanish

The history of Antigua doesn’t really start until the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 16th century. Prior to that, most of Central America was home to the Maya, an early civilisation. They built great cities, such as Tikal, but their empire fell centuries before the Spanish arrived. They lived on still, but in more rural communities, or much smaller cities like Tulum.

Hernán Cortés led the invasion of Mexico, and then ordered Captains Gonzalo and Pedro de Alvarado to take Guatemala. Various local kings ruled throughout the region, which wasn’t yet unified as one country. Alvarado turned these local nations against each other. First he befriended the Kaqchikel, using them to conquer other tribes. Then, he turned on them, to eventually take control of the whole region. Sounds charming, doesn’t he? It became part of New Spain, the huge territory that the Spanish were seizing through the Americas. The Guatemala colony covered an area that included modern day Belize and southern Mexico. Overall, I think we can agree that colonialism, by many European countries, was not a good thing for the local people.

 
The Capital of Guatemala

After taking control of the region, the Spanish struggled to set up a decent capital city at first. First, in 1524, they tried using a site near the old Kaqchikel capital, Iximche, naming it ‘Santiago de los Caballeros’. However, the Kaqchikel were still pretty angry about the Spanish invasion, and started many uprisings in the area. So they moved to a new site in 1527, keeping the original name, in what is now the Ciudad Vieja region. This site lasted longer than the first, but their luck ran out eventually. In 1541, the Volcán de Agua crater collapsed, and the entire valley was flooded with debris. It destroyed much of the city.

So, third time’s the charm? In 1543, the Spanish moved the capital to a third site, just a few miles away in the Panchoy Valley. At the time, they named it again Santiago de los Caballeros. Later, it would be renamed Antigua Guatemala. The Spanish built many of the most important buildings at this time, including government offices, several churches, and a cathedral. It was the political, religious, and economic hub of Guatemala, with a population of 60,000 people. For the next 200 years, it served as the capital of the country, under Spanish colonial rule.

 
Earthquake Destruction

Nothing lasts forever though. Guatemala sits in the middle of a major fault zone, meaning earthquakes happen pretty regularly. During the 18th century, multiple quakes rocked the Panchoy valley. It started in 1717, with the San Miguel quakes, and the nearby Volcán de Fuego erupted. This caused considerable damage to the city, and being a highly Catholic country at the time, locals believed God was angry with them. In the end though, they rebuilt and stayed put. Next, came the San Casimiro quakes, in 1741. Again much of the city was destroyed, but again, they rebuilt.

The final straw came in 1773, with the San Marta quakes, destroying the town yet again. The Spanish Crown decided enough was enough, and moved the capital city again. This time, they chose the Valley of the Shrines, and changed the capital’s name, founding Nueva Guatemala, now known as Guatemala City. Santiago became known as ‘Old Guatemala’ – or Antigua Guatemala.

 
Ruins of the Iglesia del Carmen in Antigua Guatemala
Iglesia del Carmen
 
After Moving the Capital

Now no longer the capital, and lying in ruins, Antigua lost much of its importance. The Spanish Crown had actually ordered the citizens to evacuate entirely, but many remained. However, the population dropped to just an estimated 9,000 people in 1850. They were unable to rebuild most of the churches and ruined buildings, as material had been taken to help build Guatemala City. 

Guatemala gained independence from Spain in 1821. For the next century, the town existed quietly. A small population, living amongst ruined colonial buildings, refusing to leave. With a lack of resources, they could only repair what was strictly necessary. Luckily, over time, and aided by a coffee boom (the volcanic soil is ideal for growing it!), the town slowly began to grow again. As money became available, the people set to work repairing the town, attempting to preserve the beautiful colonial architecture. By 1944, the citizens had lobbied the president into declaring the town a national monument. Sadly, another quake came along in 1976, undoing much of the work!

 
Antigua Guatemala, UNESCO World Heritage

The citizens had done enough repairs to attract the attention of UNESCO though. They declared Antigua a World Heritage Site in 1979. This brought enough interest to the town to boost the restoration work further. Some buildings are still in ruins or partially damaged, but huge amounts have been repaired. Now, even brand name shops and restaurants have to exist inside the old facades, not allowed to change the exterior, in order to keep the heritage status.

In the 1990s, many new businesses opened, including shops and restaurants. Foreign students came to study in new Spanish language schools, and many Latin American couples come to get married here. The town grew in popularity more and more over the years. As well as the beauty of the town itself, it is centrally located for tourists visiting other sites in the region as well. In particular, the Semana Santa (Holy Week) festivities are an exciting, popular time to come. The town retains its old colonial charm, and is now one of the premier tourist destinations in Guatemala.

 
The Arco de Santa Catalina in the streets of Antigua Guatemala
Arco de Santa Catalina
 
Your Visit
Significant Sites

The earthquakes ruined some of Antigua’s most important buildings, but today, many have been renovated, or at least preserved and made safe for visitors to see! The Parque Central in the town centre is the heart of Antigua, buzzing with activity, and lined with plenty of colonial buildings. The Palacio de los Capitanes Generales on the south side was once the colonial headquarters, and today has been repurposed as a cultural centre. The Casa Santo Domingo is now a hotel, but used to be a convent that provided sanctuary for people in need. Today, you can still the many small museums in the complex, the ruins of the church, and explore the grounds, where you’ll also find a free sculpture park.

There are churches in abundance to see as well; the ornate, yellow Iglesia de la Merced is one of the most popular, and the main location for the Semana Santa (Holy Week) celebrations. The Iglesia de San Francisco is another stunning site, and the oldest active church in the town. Iglesia El Carmen is also spectacular, but its ruined state keeps it inaccessible. The Catedral de Santiago only has a church in the entrance hall, as the rest lies in ruins. Spend a while exploring the beautiful, haunting interior, with no roof, leaving it open to the elements, and allowing plants to grow within. And the Convento de Capuchinas, also destroyed by the quakes, has been carefully restored for visitors. You can see what life was like for the nuns, who ran an orphanage and women’s hospital on the site.

 
Exploring the Streets & Markets

One of the great things about exploring Antigua is that it’s a small town, so you can wander the streets at leisure, and easily pass all these important sites. There’s lots more to see in between as well – not least, simply admiring the cobbled streets and each building along the way. Not all of them are hugely grand and impressive, but they’re all wonderful examples of the Spanish Baroque style of the time. It’s a quaint, picturesque place to explore! One of the most famous views though, is the Arco de Santa Catalina, a bright yellow arch over the street, with the Volcán de Agua visible behind. It is the last remnant of a nunnery, and acted as a bridge for the nuns to cross the street without being seen.

You’ll no doubt stumble upon many markets around the town, but Mercado is the most authentic. It’s brimming with interesting, chaotic stalls to explore, and there’s café’s nearby to take a break in. Keep an eye out for the colourful textiles of the region too – you could even visit the Museo Casa del Tejido to learn more about their history, and see the market and workshop there as well. Or, for sweeping views of the whole town, head to Cerro de la Cruz. When the town was rebuilt in the 18th century, they used a grid design, inspired by the Italian Renaissance. You can see this, and the dramatic volcanoes, at this spectacular viewpoint. It literally means ‘Cross on the Hill’, as you’ll find one up there too, and only takes about half an hour to walk up – just make sure to choose a clear day!

 
Unique Experiences

If you eventually tire of roaming the colourful streets at leisure, Antigua does have a few other activities available to you! The town is surrounded by volcanoes – Agua, Acatenango, and Pacaya. All of them are still active, but you can also choose to hike them, for a truly unique experience! Pacaya is the most popular option, as a half day excursion from the town. You will walk past warm lava on top, and can even roast marshmallows in the hottest pockets! For the more daring, try a full day hike of Acatenango, or do it over two days, with a night spent camping on the volcano itself.

Back in Antigua, did you know it’s the birthplace of chocolate, courtesy of the Maya? Visit the Choco Museum to see how it is made, and how that process has changed over the years. You can even make your own, and of course, buy plenty of varieties to take away! Coffee is also a major industry in the region, and you can visit plantations nearby to try some. The town is also full of Spanish schools, to practice your language skills. Or brush up on your dance moves with salsa classes, before heading on a night out!

 
Baroque colonial Iglesia de La Merced in Antigua Guatemala
Iglesia de La Merced
 
Important Information

Languages:

Like most of Central America, Spanish is the official language here. There are also twenty one Mayan languages spoken throughout the country, but most people learn Spanish as well.

Currency:

The official currency of Guatemala is quetzals, (GTQ).

Transport:

Be very careful to note that Antigua does not have an airport – but the Caribbean island of Antigua does! The closest airport to the town is in Guatemala City, from which you then have to take a shuttle service, or taxi to Antigua itself. Many tour agencies operate shuttles from Antigua, or Guatemala City, to other parts of the country as well. Hiring a car is another option.

Within the town itself, most places are within walking distance, as it isn’t that big. To visit places outside of the town, you can book on to a tour or shuttle bus – such as the nearby volcano hike – or hire a taxi. Note that locals use the public ‘chicken buses’ throughout the country, however they are Spanish language only, and I was warned away from them because crime is common. Especially the route between Guatemala City and Antigua, where you’d have all your luggage with you!

Public holidays:

1st January – New Year’s Day

Mid April, Thur-Sun – Easter Weekend

1st May – Labour Day

30th June – Army Day

15th September – Independence Day

20th October – Revolution Day

1st November – All Saints Day

24-25th December – Christmas

31st December – New Year’s Eve

 

Have you visited Antigua before? Leave a comment about your experience!

Check out my personal experience visiting!

Check out more things to do in Guatemala!

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