6-11 February 2017. In San Pedro La Laguna our friend T loads us up with home made muffins and other delicious goodies and we pile into Santiago’s van for the four-hour drive to Antigua.
We don’t have much time in Guatemala and we prefer to see fewer places well rather than rushing and trying to see everything. So we settle for San Pedro La Laguna and Antigua. Antigua is reputedly much safer and more attractive than Guatemala City. We, along with most tourists, choose it for these reasons.
The (Spanish) Kingdom of Guatemala tried really really hard to establish a capital. The first was Santiago de Guatemala, established in 1524 but it was destroyed by fire in an uprising by the indigenous people.
So they moved the capital to the Valley of Almolonga in 1527. Maybe there was a curse or something, or the land was simply trying to reject its new Spanish rulers, but the city was entirely buried by earthquake activity and a volcanic mudslide.
So in 1543 they moved the capital again, this time to the Valley of Pacán. It was the capital in this location for 230 years. This was clearly something of a win at this point, with the city surviving floods, tremors, and volcanic eruptions, but in 1773 the Santa Marta earthquakes hit and destroyed most of the town. It was too much. Once again the capital was moved, to what is known today as Guatemala City some forty kilometres away.
Those residents that stayed behind began referring to their city, now not more than a quiet provincial town, as Antigua Guatemala – Old Guatemala. Today it is known simply as Antigua. In 1979 it was designated as a UNESCO world heritage site for it’s 16th century layout and it’s many fine examples of Baroque architecture.
Through the centuries the earth moved, and moved again. Even after all this disruption what remains of Antigua is a beautiful, easily walkable Spanish colonial town filled with the ruins left from the many earthquakes. Three enormous volcanoes loom over all.
This Baroque marvel is what’s left of the Nuestra Señora del Carmen Church. The original church was built in 1638. It was destroyed by earthquakes in 1651, and again in 1717. You have to admire the perseverance of the people. They rebuilt it, again, in its current form in 1728. It was badly damaged in the Santa Marta quakes, and was almost destroyed by quakes in 1917-18 and 1976. The defiant façade and walls still stand, a fine example of the architecture of the time.
This was the Church and School of the Society of Jesus, dating from 1561. As with the Nuestra Señora del Carmen Church, it survived the earthquakes of 1773 relatively well, but was destroyed by the 1917-18 and 1976 quakes. Although it looks solid enough it’s actually not much more than a shell.
And so it goes. It’s almost impossible to walk any street in Antigua without seeing the damaged remains of earthquake activity. It’s not surprising given that there have been dozens of quakes of varying magnitude over the years.
Day by day we slowly explore the town, always passing the ultra-Baroque La Merced Church, completed in 1767, on our way to the central square.
From the church we walk down 5th Avenue North passing Santa Catalina Arch with Agua Volcano in the background. It is one of the iconic landmarks of Antigua. The arch was constructed in 1694 to allow nuns, who had taken a vow of seclusion, to cross from their convent on one side of the street to the church on the other without having to interact with the public.
We arrive at the central town square, a feature of all Spanish colonial towns. The jacarandas are in bloom adding a soft purple to complement the leafy green.
On the east side of the square is the Cathedral of Saint James, which was begun in 1545 with rubble brought from the ruins of the town in the Valley of Almolonga. Inevitably its construction was hampered over the years by earthquakes.
Along the south side of the square is the Captain General’s palace. The building was his residence when Guatemala was a colony of Spain. After the Santa Marta quakes it became a warehouse, and then was rebuilt in 1936 to house government offices.
On the west side is a colonnade of wooden pillars, with the popular Café Condesa tucked in behind them. The years go by, electricity arrives, and automobiles, and now cell phones, and yet these worn wooden columns and the weathered walls of the café showing layers and layers of paint whisper still of earlier times, of an ageless spirit, of an earthy belonging that no tremor can dislodge.
Wandering the streets
we find the wood-sellers yard,
and this artist selling delicate paintings of the city.
Every evening we find a different restaurant and eat a great variety of meals. At Izikawa we have Japanese tapas – a wonderful fusion of cultures that includes roasted eggplant with a sweet sauce, chicken teriyaki skewers, tempura prawns, roasted mushrooms and zucchini. At an Indian restaurant we have chicken curry with nan bread and raita. One night we eat at a Middle Eastern restaurant and have pita bread, hummus, and some kind of eggplant dish, and another night we discover Guatemalan chicken stew.
Antigua is not like the town of San Pedro La Laguna. It’s a bigger city with a population over 34,000. It’s more cosmopolitan, and although we see many women (and girls) in indigenous dress,
we also see kids in school uniforms,
young women in regular western clothes,
and some in not so regular western clothes.
During our time in Antigua we were both in pain; Don because he was still recovering from falling headlong down a flight of concrete stairs in San Pedro, and me because I was dealing with chronic pain that made walking difficult. And, no doubt in part because of the pain, we were both feeling travel weary. Still Antigua charmed us with its cobblestone streets and colonial buildings, the stunning Baroque masterpieces, flowers spilling over the walls of hidden courtyards, looming blue volcanoes, earthquake ruins, and the organic flurry of the market and the nearby chicken bus terminal that made it feel uniquely Guatemalan.
Next post: Chicken buses, nearby villages, our Antigua guesthouse, the market, and visceral Santa Semana floats. Or all about nesting.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2017.