Visiting a country’s capital city is usually a great introduction to that country’s culture and history. Yet, for every rule, there must be an exception. When the name of said capital city rhymes with insecurity, pick-pocketing and pollution, there’s a glitch in the matrix.
I hadn’t heard any praise about Guatemala City before I visited the country. For most tourists, it was a point of entry or an exit point, either way a place to get away from as quickly as possible. In my case, it was neither as I would cross the border from Mexico on my way in and into Belize on my way out.
I had followed rule number one of the visitor’s guide to Guatemala. As for rule number two, I would follow it too. In Guatemala, one city attracted all the spotlight. It overshadowed Guatemala City, to the point that some people would skip the capital city entirely to get straight to that place. It had been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was regarded as one of the most beautiful colonial towns in all of Latin America, drawing in more waves of tourists with each passing year. La Antigua was inevitable.
Antigua had been the country’s third capital city and it was definitely a great introduction to Guatemala’s history and heritage so the rule wasn’t that far off. Founded in 1541 by the Spanish conquerors, the city was first known as Santiago de los Caballeros, as a nod to the first capital city that had been built in present-day Iximche and went by the slightly pompous name of Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Goathemalan, the City of Saint James of the Knights of Guatemala.
Built more than 1500m above sea level in a region prone to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and floods, Antigua had known more than its fair share of natural disasters over the years. In 1773 however, it reached what seemed like a point of no return and was almost entirely wiped out by the Santa Marta earthquakes. The city lost most of its population as well as its status as the country’s capital city, which was allocated to the newly-founded Guatemala City. Despite the scale of the destructions, some residents decided to stay in the original town. They started calling it La Antigua Guatemala, the Old Guatemala.
With scenes of a city scarred and battered by history in mind, I arrived in Antigua and what I discovered was nothing short of a miracle. Cobbled streets lined up with vividly painted houses, fantastic churches and Baroque-style monuments, even the 16th-century Renaissance grid pattern of the city had endured, and amidst these well-preserved historic sites stood ruins.
Due to its abandonment in 1773 and to a subsequent ban on repairing ancient buildings as well as constructing new ones, Antigua’s intact heritage sites had survived along with its ruins, some in plain sight and some hidden. There was strange poetry in such a juxtaposition, some sort of behind-the-scene secrecy but also a damaged grace that made Antigua stand out among similarly pretty colonial towns.
Antigua sure wasn’t shallow but it wasn’t frozen in time either. The city’s zocalo, its central square, thrived with life. Food stalls were aplenty and local passers-by taking a chatty break on a bench blended with tourists, eyes wide open set on the lavish façade of the Antigua Cathedral or looking forward to touring the city in a horse-driven cart. The horse option didn’t sound quite as appealing to me as wandering down the city’s inviting cobbled streets though, especially when all major historic sites were so close from each other.
From the zocalo, it would take me about ten minutes to reach the Church of La Merced so I headed there decidedly, passing by the iconic Arco de Santa Catalina on my way, also known as the most famous landmark in the city. Built in the 17th-century, it was originally used as a passage between the Santa Catalina convent and a school. A clock had later been added to the building, resulting in the bright yellow monument that had come to embody the city’s architectural heritage. On one side of the arch stood the narrow, colorful streets of the city, while on the other loomed the menacing shadow of the Agua Volcano.
I finally reached the church, whose main façade stood in all its white and yellow Baroque glory by the side of the Calle Poniente. In its center stood the statue of Our Lady of Mercedes, hence the church’s name. La Iglesia de la Merced had miraculously been spared by the 1773 earthquakes, as it had been specifically designed to withstand tremors, which hadn’t prevented its treasures and altars to be moved from Antigua to Guatemala City in the 19th-century.
Turning back, I walked in front of the ruins of Convent of Santa Teresa, where an offhand market had been set up. Villagers from local communities, some wearing their traditional garbs, had laid out blankets on the floor and were selling handicrafts, from traditional fabric to backpacks and rag dolls.
Impromptu markets were a common sight in the city and I would see the likes of that one on numerous occasions, in front of a touristy building or in the corner of a street. Prices were much lower of course than the local souvenirs sold at the Mercado de Artesanias, though bargaining was in order as well.
At that point, I wasn’t exactly sure where I was going but I knew that part of the journey was getting lost. Finding out unexpected gems was indeed fairly easy in Antigua. It was the silent ruins of that ancient church that were barred entry and used as a storage place for one of the Holy Week procession’s wooden floats.
It was the peace and quiet within the cloister of the Church of San Francisco El Grande and the flickering light of the many candles that had been lit within the sacred place. It was the swiping view on the city from the top of the Cerro de la Cruz and the sun setting down behind the Pacaya Volcano as seen from a rooftop.
It was also the frustration of not being able to visit some of the city’s most scenic ruins, for they had been turned into luxury hotels, such as the Convento de Santo Domingo. Many historic houses had also been turned into more affordable guesthouses, always full of backpackers. Yet, that was part of the drill as more and more tourists, both from abroad and from within, had very well understood that Antigua was a raw diamond, not quite so polished but effortlessly beautiful and atmospheric.