Antigua Guatemala, literally meaning Old Guatemala, sits about an hour outside of the bustling capital of Guatemala City. It is, for many tourists, the first and most mandatory stop on a trip to this Central American nation, and it was for me. Easily walkable (distance-wise, as the cobblestone streets and sidewalks seem to yearn to break an ankle or three), where the charm of Europe meets the hospitality of Latin America, I quickly fell in love.
What is it that makes this place so special? Let’s dive a bit into both historical and modern Antigua to get an idea.
One of the most iconic views from Antigua.
The History of Antigua Guatemala
Today, Guatemala may be a small country, but in Spanish colonial times, it encompassed most of Central America and southern Mexico. Santiago de los Caballeros was built in the Valley of Panchoy in 1543 after the prior capital was destroyed from a flood off of Volcan del Agua a few miles to the south. The city was laid out in traditional Spanish colonial style, with a central plaza holding government buildings and the main cathedral, and a grid pattern spreading from there.
The central plaza is home to this architectural beauty. There’s something about columns…
For the next 230 years, Santiago would be the administrative seat of the Kingdom of Guatemala, home of the Spanish viceroys, and cultural hub of the region. Built below three large volcanoes – one of them, Volcan Fuego had been active over this entire period and continues to be so today – it seems a fairly dangerous place to build a capital. However, it was not a volcanic eruption that changed the course of Santiago’s history; it was an earthquake.
Guatemala is one of the most geologically active places on the planet, sitting at the juncture of three different tectonic plates. Not only are active volcanoes common (three of the country’s 37 volcanoes are currently erupting and none are extinct), but the area has also been ravaged by numerous earthquakes. Unfamiliar with such things, the Spanish who settled the area built large-scale constructions in their normal styles, churches with large towers sitting on top of the ground. All that remains of these today are ruins. Those structures that have survived the large earthquakes of every roughly 25 years were built with almost half extending below ground, and shorter wider steeples, thicker walls, and large windows evenly spaced to absorb some of the structural shift.
In 1773, a particularly large earthquake estimated as having a magnitude of 7.5 struck Santiago. A majority of the city was destroyed, and the Spanish colonial government ordered the city abandoned. A new capital was constructed in what is today Guatemala City, and Santiago became known as Antigua Guatemala, Old Guatemala.
Today, Antigua Guatemala is a small town of approximately 30,000 and a seemingly equal number of tourists (yes, this is an exaggeration). After being abandoned for nearly 150 years, the city has been rebuilt, while leaving many of the ruined churches in their crumbled states as a reminder of the destruction of the past.
The La Merced church is one of only a few to remain as originally constructed.
Why Visit Antigua
Many cities in Latin America have colonial cores. Mexico City, for example, has an old center that with spectacular colonial architecture! However, at its heart, Mexico City is a modern metropolis holding on to that center for mainly touristic purposes.
Antigua is different. It is a colonial city. Period. Its relevance in the modern world is practically nil outside of that (yes, there are some major coffee plantations in the area and a ton of Spanish language schools, but that is pretty much it). As such, the colonial core is fully intact – and it has even been legislated to remain so! Those cobblestones streets can’t be repaved, and even repairs require reusing period stones. (The jarring they must give the motorcycles so common here is extraordinary.) The ruins of churches are being intentionally kept ruins, allowing visitors to see the period architecture free from modern construction.
So many ruins in Antigua are being left as is for historic reasons.
Yes, there are modern amenities, and period buildings house Subway and Burger King alongside local businesses and shops. But a walk through Antigua is a walk back in time.
The city’s placement geographically is likewise a reason to make this place worth a visit. The volcanoes are beautiful to look at and one, Acatenango, is easily climbed as a one or two day trip to look into the neighboring Volcan de Fuego, which erupts every few minutes. The landscape is beautiful, and can easily be explored.
What to Do in Antigua
Antigua Guatemala holds enough in the way of culture and activities to easily occupy a full-time tourist for a week or more, and a part-time Spanish student who is a tourist after hours for a month.
This is by no means a comprehensive list, as I am in no place to comment on things I have not personally experienced. If you have other recommendations, please add them in the comments here!
Santo Domingo is a hotel built into a former monastery. It has old ruins and artifacts, garden courtyards with exotic birds, artisanal shops, and several museums. Accessing the museum wing costs Q48, or about $6.50. While none are cultural standouts, the overall experience makes for an enjoyable two to three hour excursion.
One of the plazas at Santo Domingo
Ruins are all over the city, and most have admission fees ranging from Q15-40 ($2-6). For me, the highlight is the ruins behind the main cathedral just off the central square. While the front of the cathedral has been rebuilt, the majority has been left as a tribute to the 1773 earthquake. Only a frame remains, and the geometric patterns in the roof from varying angles make the admission price completely worthwhile!
The ruins of the central cathedral are breathtakingly beautiful!
Finca Filadelfia is a coffee plantation about 2 miles outside of town. A $20 tour lasts about two hours and includes a cup of their highest quality coffee. I found the grounds stunning and the tour both delightful and informative. At the cafe, you might want to try their Cafe de Cielo (literally sky coffee), a refreshing blend of coffee and pineapple. (There is a free shuttle for those not wishing to make the walk.)
For the best view of the Antigua grid, a short but steep climb to Cerro de la Cruz is a must-do. From this cross on a hill overlooking the town, the entire city is visible, as well as all three volcanoes on a clear day. There tends to be a large police presence during daytime hours, but recommendations still have been made to do the hike with a partner. (I never felt unsafe in Antigua in any respect, but I pass this along for the sake of my own peace of mind.)
The view from Cerro de la Cruz is worth the climb
Most of the churches I found in Antigua were pretty on the outside and not especially impressive on the inside. Worth seeing, but don’t waste a ton of time.
Many people are obsessed with Guatemalan chocolate, and there is a free Museo de Cacao. It is not worth even the lack of admission, and even the chocolate wasn’t of the highest quality. Stick to coffee, which I found to be pretty fantastic almost everywhere, though a latte at La Refuge was my favorite. (If you prefer alcoholic beverages, try Cafe No Se for some interesting mescal cocktails.)
While certainly touristy, Antigua Guatemala is a gem. It has preserved its colonial history, and combined with some great food and outdoor sites, it offers a lot to the deep-thinking traveler. I will definitely be back, possibly to learn some Spanish! For more Guatemala inspiration, check out the Ultimate Guide to Guatemala.
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