Antigua Guatemala, A City Full of Spanish Baroque Architecture
Antigua Guatemala is the only city in Guatemala that still retains its Spanish Colonial Baroque architecture. This was the Colonial capital of Guatemala from 1543 to 1773 when most of the city was destroyed by earthquakes and fires following the eruption of Fuego volcano. After that, the Spanish king, fearing more earthquakes, moved the capital to the present day site of Guatemala City, 25 kilometers (16 miles) northeast.
Founded in 1543, Antigua Guatemala lies in the valley of three volcanoes, Aqua, Acatenango, and Fuego, which is still active. Thirty-eight monastic orders called Antigua home, building convents, monasteries and cathedrals, using Maya slave laborers, who put their own intricately carved designs on the Baroque buildings.
Today Antigua Guatemala remains the New World’s best single repository of
Spanish Colonial Baroque architecture; in 1979 UNESCO designated it a World Heritage Site and a Tribute to the Americas for its civil and ecclesiastical architectural monuments.
Having been destroyed through the years by earthquakes, most of the city’s buildings are 18th-century reconstructions. Antigua’s greatest structures lie in ruins, masses of bougainvillea hanging from their charred remnants adds to their haunting beauty.
Hugging the narrow cobblestone streets are single story stucco houses in pastel shades of pink, yellow or green topped with red tile roofs.
Everywhere you go the sights and sounds of the city surround you; uniformed school children playing riotous games of soccer in schoolyards, mothers carrying their babies on their backs in a wrap slung over their shoulders called a tsute, and women wearing huipils (we peels), traditional blouses in brilliant colors with intricate hand embroidered designs and wrap skirts in various patterns.
At Nim Po’t, a textile museum of traditional Maya dress, I learned the history of the skirts; the patterns represent the town that the wearer is from. Another indication of the deep traditions of this country. The museum’s shop and galleries highlight the creations of expert weavers from all over Guatemala.
This is a country of extreme poverty; many people can’t afford things that we take for granted such as washing machines. Twice a week women gather at the fountain outside of the Convent of Santa Clara to wash their laundry, hanging it to dry on the convent’s fence. Several women offered to go to my hotel, collect my laundry, wash and dry it, and return it to the hotel, all for one Quetzal (kit sale) a Guatemalan dollar, or $.15 cents US. Not wanting my laundry spread out for passers by to see, I politely refused but handed each of them a few Quetzals for which I was given many hugs and smiles as a thank you.
In the streets and market areas, women and children, their arms and heads piled high with their goods haunt you with “Madam please buy. Madam look how beautiful this is”. They zero in on women, because in their culture only the women do the shopping. These sellers are smart dollar wise; they quote you the price in Quetzal’s and US dollars. Always bargain, it’s expected.
Seeing the poverty and the fact that many buildings still needed restoration, even from twentieth century earthquakes, I recalled what my friend Tim told me “Guatemala is a country of great needs, and difficult politics”.
That being said, Antigua is a beautiful and fascinating city, easy to get around on foot as it’s laid out on a flat grid. On my visit I rambled through the city on my own, and made out fine with my limited Spanish, maps, and hand gestures.
Centuries ago the palm studded Parque Central, between Calle del Curio and Calle del Conquistador, was where the Maya would bring their goods to trade between tribes. Today, it is an excellent place from which to start exploring Antigua’s Baroque architecture.
Across from the park is the Town Hall, built in 1743 this two story multi arched
building houses two museums; the Saint James Museum with its collection of antique weapons dating to Maya times, and the Antique Book Museum, worth a quick stop to see the replica of the first printing press that was brought to Antigua in 1660.
Crossing Parque Central will bring you to the cathedral of St. Joseph, the largest church in Antigua; it includes five naves, and 68 smaller chambers. Carved into the faade are sculptures of Saint James, the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ and the Twelve Apostles. Construction started in 1542 and was not completed until 1680. The church was destroyed by the 1773 earthquake and re-built the following year.
Next door is the Museum of Colonial Art which was once the site of the first university in Guatemala, the University of San Carlos established in 1687, it now houses exhibits depicting what life was like in 18th-century Guatemala.
A few blocks north of Parque Central is another historical landmark, the Santa Catalina Arch, originally part of a church and convent built in 1606. Beyond the arch is the church of Our Lady of Mercy, known simply as La Merced.
Built in 1552, La Merced is the finest example of Baroque architecture in Antigua. Its Churrigueresque decorations were applied during a 19th-century restoration that included the installation of massive columns and statues of saints filling the churches many niches.
The adjacent convent, Las Capuchinas, was founded in 1736 by nuns from Madrid. Despite its elegant faade, inside are exhibits depicting the rigors of colonial religious life; 18 cells where nuns did penance for their transgressions with prayer and
Besides being the architectural hub of Guatemala, Antigua is a culinary find.
Dining choices range from traditional Guatemalan specialties to Mexican, Italian, Spanish, Austrian, French, and Asian fare.
Although the street food smells tempting, it’s best to stick with restaurants; the Posada de don Rodrigo is famous for its chicken peten with fresh vegetables in a spicy mole sauce, Hotel Casa Santo Domingo serves flawless seafood, and Caf Las Palmas is where you can get great fajitas. Another perk, most of the city’s restaurants offer alfresco dining on lush garden terraces, perfect for resting tired feet.
If staying in Antigua more than one day, Hotel Casa Santo Domingo is a sixteenth century monastery turned into a luxury hotel. At night, behind thick stucco walls, it’s a peaceful oasis. The cloisters where friars once prayed and walked are lit only by candles. A small museum holds exhibits of ancient artifacts excavated from the beautiful grounds and ruins surrounding the hotel.
For more information
Institute of Guatemalan Tourism www.visitguatemala.com
Hotel Casa Santo Domingo www.casasantodomingo.com.gt
Hotel Posada de don Rodrigo www.posadadedonrodrigo.com
Casa Madeleine Bed & Breakfast & Spa www.casamadeleine.com