Superbly situated in a sweeping highland valley, ANTIGUA is one of the Americas’ most enchanting colonial cities. In its day this was one of the great cities of the Spanish empire, serving as the administrative centre for all of Central America and Mexican Chiapas.
Antigua has become Guatemala’s foremost tourist destination, a favoured hangout for travellers. The beauty of the city itself is the main attraction, particularly its remarkable wealth of colonial buildings – churches, monasteries and grand family homes – that provide an idea of the city’s former status. You’ll find the ambience unhurried and enjoyable, with a sociable bar scene and superb choice of restaurants adding to the appeal. Antigua’s language schools are another big draw, pulling in students from around the globe.
Expats contribute to the town’s cosmopolitan air, mingling with local villagers selling their wares in the streets, and the middle-class Guatemalans who come here at weekends to eat, drink and enjoy themselves. The downside is that perhaps this uniquely civilized and privileged city, with its café culture and boutiques, can feel at times a little too gringo-geared and isolated from the rest of Guatemala for some travellers’ tastes.
You could spend days exploring Antigua’s incredible collection of colonial buildings. If you’d rather just visit the gems, make Las Capuchinas, San Francisco, Santo Domingo and La Merced your targets.
In 1541, after a mudslide from Agua volcano buried the Spanish capital at Ciudad Vieja, Antigua was selected as a safer base. Here the new capital grew to achieve astounding prosperity. Religious orders competed in the construction of schools, churches, monasteries and hospitals, while bishops, merchants and landowners built grand town houses and palaces.
The city reached its peak in the middle of the eighteenth century, after the 1717 earthquake prompted an unprecedented building boom, and the population rose to around fifty thousand. By this stage Antigua was a genuinely impressive place, with a university, printing press and a newspaper. But in 1773 two devastating shocks reduced much of the city to rubble and a decision was made to abandon ship in favour of the modern capital. Fortunately, there were many who refused to leave and Antigua was never completely deserted.
Since then the city has been gradually repopulated, particularly in the last hundred years or so, with middle-class Guatemalans fleeing the capital and a large number of foreigners attracted to Antigua’s relaxed and sophisticated atmosphere.
The fate of Antigua’s ancient architecture has become a growing concern. Efforts are being made to preserve this unique legacy, especially after Antigua was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. Local conservation laws are very strict (extensions to houses are virtually impossible) and traffic reduction initiatives have eased noise and environmental pollution.