The Old Capital of Guatemala
Stunning Antigua, one of the major tourist attractions in Guatemala together with the ancient city of Tikal, one of the former Maya capital cities far in the north of the country. A must visit for anyone’s trip through Central America and Guatemala itself. This is the former capital of the country; one of the best preserved colonial cities in Latin America, all “thanks” to it’s sad past. Twice destroyed by earthquakes and abandoned after the most devastating one in 1776 on behalf of a new capital city being built at a safer location, named at the time, Nueva Guatemala de la Asuncion. While nowadays we know it as Antigua, or Antigua Guatemala, its original colonial name was Santiago de los Caballeros.
Since the last century it has experienced again a regrowth and transformation with the reconstruction and restoring of almost every old house and church. Nowadays it rather looks a city where no destruction ever happened. So much history and fine architecture no wonder it is listed as an UNESCO World Heritage site.
For me as Spanish, being here was like being anywhere in the south of Spain or the Canary Islands, where the old towns look almost identical in architecture, urbanism and colours to Antigua and of course elsewhere in colonial Latin America.
The city is not big and won’t require longer than a day to fully visit, that’s the main reason we opted for staying at Guatemala City and treat Antigua as a day trip. Staying longer was definitely a no for us mainly to keep following our busy agenda of travelling to so many other places in this trip. Two days would be already by far too much because you can absolutely explore every corner in just one. You will notice this anyway by the many buses bringing hundreds of tours in the morning and leaving in the afternoon, when Antigua gets its quietest time.
Chances to see smoke coming out of the Pacaya Volcano are not rare, although you have higher chances to see smoke and even lava coming out of the nearby volcanoes. Guatemala itself heavily lies in the Belt of Fire and it’s one of the most active regions. Hiking tours are available and are subject to weather conditions and if it’s active or not on that day. Literally, the volcano can be seen from each street in Antigua.
A few notes with regards to food and drinks, you can certainly opt for one of the many colonial houses and haciendas home to a nice inside patio with a decent quality. Plenty of choice no doubt, great grilled meats, stews, soups and vegetable, but don’t expect a great value for money. Unfortunately being such touristy place, prices are higher than elsewhere in the country.
You can find more information about the city visiting Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Guatemala’s currency is the Quetzal (GTQ). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Antigua
The only way to fully enjoy the city is by walking the streets around. The city is not big at all and by all means, you need to walk along every street to discover the so many churches and impressive colonial architecture everywhere. The list below mentions only the key buildings as churches and monasteries but there are many more than the listed points.
- Parque Central It is the main square in the city, on the same way you find on any Spanish colonial city in any other country, it is where the main streets lead to the square, the heart of the politics and worship.
-Cathedral of Saint James’ Founded in 1545, yet rebuilt and restored continuously after the many earthquakes that destroyed the city.
-City Hall A beautiful construction full of history, its courtyard and the arched gallery overlooking the square.
-Police Office Another enchanting building completing the square.
-Captain General Palace The Palacio de los Gobernadores is one of many major landmarks from the Spanish colonial era. It was from where the whole of Guatemala was governed from 1558 until 1773 earthquake and subsequent ones, especially in 1775 that made the city to be abandoned and a new capital built.
- Church of El Carmen One of the finest Guatemalan Baroque style facades not just in the city but the country. Only its facade remains pretty much intact after the several earthquakes that destroyed the body of the building itself.
- Church of La Merced One of the most symbolic in Antigua. Completed in 1767, just 9 years before the devastating earthquake in ultra Baroque Guatemalan style.
- Church of San Francisco The first sanctuary built on Santiago de los Caballeros (Antigua) in the 16th century, in Baroque style. Was completely restored between 1961 and 1967 after laying in ruins for over 200 years.
- Hospital Hermano Pedro Founded as the first hospital and monastery in 1636 by the monks of San Juan de Dios congregation. They were also in charge of the hospitals in the Kingdom of Guatemala ever since.
- Arch of Santa Catalina The landmark and icon of the city
- Convent of the Capuchinas With its construction approved by King Felipe V of Spain in 1725, was consecrated in 1736. In the Santa Marta’s Earthquake of 1773, its assets were transferred to Nueva Guatemala de la Asuncion (the current Guatemala City). It was rebuilt in the past centuries.
- Convent of Santa Clara One of the biggest ruined building in the city dating from the 1700.
- Monastery of La Recoleccion Built after the arrival of two Recoleto missionaries in 1685. It was inaugurated in 1717, and lies in ruins after the fatal earthquake.
- Santo Domingo Monastery One of the most important and largest at the time of construction, yet lying in ruins ever since the 1773 earthquake and thereafter abandoning. Nowadays part of the complex is integrated into the Hotel Casa Santo Domingo that was built in 1989.
- Cerro de la Cruz Where you will get the best views of the city and the volcano in the foreground.
- Agua Volcano You can see it from almost everywhere in the city. The world famous view is with the Arch of Santa Catalina.
Coming to Antigua from Guatemala City is perhaps the most common and easiest way most of tourist do, us included. Having Guatemala City as your base will not only save you money, but the hassle of having to travel on and on with your luggage, specially if you intend to visit other places nearby, like almost guaranteed, Panajachel or Chichicastenango. Just simply be based in the capital and having a shuttle coming to your hotel to pick and drop you gives you enough flexibility and comfort.
There are many shuttle service companies, being one of the best Casa Alegre Tours (Atitlan Tour). You can book the most convenient shuttle time to suit your needs, the distance makes barely 1 hour drive time, therefore you can take a shuttle even as late as 11.00am, as for the return, 18.30pm is ideal, giving you over 6 hours in Antigua which is really more than enough to see everything.
Within the city there is no need for any public transportation, unless you want to go to Cerro de la Cruz, for which I would recommend a taxi.
Since we were based in Guatemala City we did not have the need for looking anything in the city and cannot give you any tip. There are plenty of guest houses and most of the people we found on the way were staying on them. There are also small colonial style up-scale hotels, but we did not see any of the usual hotel chains. A good point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engines such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers.