Antigua Guatemala was founded in 1543 by the Spanish Conquistadors. Initially named Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala, the city ruled for 200 years as the capital of the Spanish colony of Guatemala, which at the time was a region that included parts of Mexico.
Unfortunately, Antigua suffered through a number of devastating earthquakes during its reign as capital and was rebuilt each time. After a series of earthquakes in 1773 destroyed much of Antigua, the Spanish government finally decided to relocate the capital to Guatemala City, a much safer site in the Ermita Valley. And Antigua has never since recovered to its former level of prestige and vibrance as a city.
Antigua Guatemala is a mountainside enclave infinitely more beautiful than Guatemala City. The city is surrounded by rolling hills that are great for mountain biking. Its horizons are dominated by large volcanoes like the Volcán de Agua and Volcán de Fuego, which both rise over 12,000 feet high, as well as the Volcán Pacayá and the Acatenango. The Volcán Pacayá is the only volcano in Antigua that is still active while Acatenango is the highest of the volcanoes with its apex measuring more than 13,000 feet high. These volcanoes are perfect for hiking and trekking expeditions that last for more than a day.
The inner city of Antigua itself, however, is attractive by its own right, full of cultural and historical sites. Near and around Plaza Mayor, the main square of Antigua and the heart of the city, you’ll find many old colonial buildings such as the Palacio del Ayuntamiento, Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, the Catedral de San José, and the Casa Popenoe. The Palacio del Ayuntamiento is the City Hall and houses two museums, including the Museum of Antique Books and the Museum of St. James, which displays various colonial art and artifacts. The Palacio de los Capitanes Generales is a beautiful architectural palace with fine archways. It used to be the residence of the old Captain Generals but now houses the city’s tourism office. The Catedral de San José is a baroque cathedral built in the 17th century and used to be the main place of worship for Antiguans. The Casa Popenoe is one of the few colonial mansions still lying around. It was originally built in 1636 and was recently restored. The estate features courtyards and rooms with fascinating antiques and decorative items like oil paintings and ceramic dishes.
There are also a number of colonial buildings a little further away from Plaza Mayor. The most famous of these are the churches and convents: the Nuestra Señora de la Merced, the Arco de Santa Catalina, and the Convento de las Capuchinas. The Nuestra Señora de la Merced is the most iconic of the churches of Antigua with its yellow stucco façade. It was built in 1548 and the front is decorated with figures of Maya deities, a large stone fountain, and central courtyard with booming flowers. The Arco de Santa Catalina is another landmark with its yellow arches, now the only remnant of the early 17th century Convent of St. Catherine. The Convento de las Capuchinas, on the other hand, is Antigua’s largest convent. It was built in the early 18th century for the Capuchin nuns. It has a round tower, lovely courtyards and gardens, and several bathing halls, which all give visitors a glimpse of the kind of cloistered life these nuns lived.
Especially after a long day of volcanic trekking or city sightseeing, it might be a good idea to visit the Antigua spa resort, located about a few miles from Antigua in the village of San Pedro El Panorama. The resort offers relaxing massages, facials, and other therapeutic treatments and provides a shuttle to and from the city for those who book in advance.
Most of the shops in Antigua Guatemala are found in Mercado de Artisanías, selling everything from clothes to ceramics. Most travelers enjoy buying the hand-woven fabrics crafted by neighboring villagers and sold in the shops of Antigua. Pottery, festival masks, and especially jade jewelry are popular souvenir items among tourists.
The city is packed with clubs, discos, and bars, mainly because of the swarm of students in Antigua Guatemala; the city has several dozen Spanish-language schools that attract students from all over the world. Most of the clubs are around the Plaza Mayor area. And most of them play live Latin and salsa rhythms and do so until sunrise.
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