Dates visited: March 27, 2015 – March 28, 2015, and March 30, 2015 – March 31, 2015
Antigua Guatemala (aka Antigua or La Antigua) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its well-preserved city layout (as it existed in the 16th century) and its 18th century Baroque style of architecture. The city was founded in 1543 by the Spanish conquistadors and went on to become the seat of the military governor of the Spanish colony of Guatemala (which in those days comprised southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The lofty, but deserving title, for this important city during those times was Muy Leal y Muy Noble Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Goathemala (Very Loyal and Very Noble City of Saint James of the Knights of Guatemala).
Since Guatemala is located in the Ring of Fire (most seismically active area with over 452 volcanoes), it has seen several natural disasters. This city experienced not one but three devastating earthquakes in the 18th century and each time, the city would rebuild the destroyed structures. However, after the 1773 Guatemala earthquake (aka Santa Marta earthquake) left the city badly damaged, the Spanish Monarchy ordered the city to be abandoned and moved the capital to the present day, Guatemala City. Not everyone evacuated, and thus this city became Antigua Guatemala (Old Guatemala in Spanish). Guatemala has over 33 volcanoes and several of them are still active. So if you are a volcano enthusiast, you can see some of them from anywhere in the city—Volcán Acatenango, Volcán de Fuego (Fire Volcano) and Volcán De Agua (Water Volcano)—and even climb them as a day trip.
We visited during Semana Santa (Holy Week), the week preceding Easter Sunday, so the city was buzzing with activity. Purple is the prominent color during this time when purple-robed cucurochos (men) carry andas (floats) with effigies of Jesus on their shoulders in a ceremonial processions through the cobblestone streets. It’s all a part of Easter celebrations that kicks into high gear on Ash Wednesday. And the purple flags and purple-colored jacarandas on trees add to the colorful delight.
Our focal point for all activities was Parque Central, a central park in Plaza Mayor that is just perfect for people watching. With several benches to relax and enough trees to offer cool shade, you can see locals and tourists gather here and go about with their plans. Right in the center of Parque Central is Fuente de las Sirenas (Mermaids Fountain), designed by Diego de Porres in 1737… …what it lacks in aesthetics, it makes up for it by having four mermaids not only cupping their breasts but also shooting water jets from them. This is one photo spot where you can see people taking multiple shots to get the right angle and the correct trajectory! Among the crowd, you will also see lots of Mayan women with their young children selling trinkets and souvenirs. But as our guide cautioned me, some of these women were not really of Mayan origin and were selling “made-in-China” stuff.
Plaza Mayor is flanked by several important structures—on the east side is the once multi-domed Catedral de San José (Saint Joseph Cathedral), originally built in 1541 but rebuilt several times due to destruction caused by earthquakes. It is partially restored but the ruins give an idea why this was one of the largest cathedrals in Central America. On the south side is Palacio de los Capitanes Generales (Captain General Palace), originally built in the late 1500s that housed the Spanish viceroy then, but after undergoing numerous restorations due to earthquakes, now houses government agencies. On the north side is Ayuntamiento de Antigua Guatemala (Antigua Guatemala City Hall), an 18th century building that hosts the Office of the Mayor.
However, the most distinguished and well-known structure in Antigua Guatemala lies a little further north of Plaza Mayor—Arco de Santa Catalina (Santa Catalina Arch). This mid-17th century backdropped with Volcán de Fuego was built to allow cloistered nuns to pass from one part of the Santa Catalina Convent to the other without being seen. The cobblestone street that leads to and goes under the arch is lined with souvenir shops, galleries and restaurants so it makes for quite a lively stroll.
While there are several other striking attractions that we saw, the two noteworthy ones are:
- Convento de las Capuchinas (Convent of Capuchins)—This 18th-century convent of the Capuchins (a Roman Catholic order who seek sanctification through a life of work, privation, and continual penitence) has beautiful courtyards, gardens, bathing halls, and nuns’ private cells. This was the first convent that did not require a dowry from women to join so lots of poor women were able to become nuns. These nuns lived a very austere life and the rules included staying silent at all times, except to pray and never drinking chocolate.
- Iglesia La Merced (La Merced Church)—This 18th century church was closed for cleaning due to Semana Santa (Holy Week) but the stunning details on the yellow facade left us in awe. The church is built in the Spanish-baroque style with bell towers on each side. The stucco work is covered with ornate pattern using the ataurique design style. This church is one of the prettiest church I have ever seen.
Last but not the least, when in Guatemala, you cannot not talk about chicken buses. What? Yeah, you read that right… …chicken buses! Chicken buses are American ex-school buses. Apparently, when school buses reach ten years of age or 150,000 miles, they are sold at an auction. These buses make it to Guatemala (via Mexico) where they get resurrected as public transport vehicles. But this resurrection is a complete make-over as not only the parts get replaced but the exterior yellow color gets replaced with colorful paintings and patterns! See pics below.