Our visit to Antigua was to an ancient city in Guatemala, not an island in the Caribbean! Founded on the Feast of St. James (Santiago) in 1524, its full original name was Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Goathemalan (City of St. James of the Knights of Guatemala). The road to Antigua from the port was through a valley surrounded on both sides by volcanoes, of which Guatemala has at least 37, three of which are active. Two of them vented as we drove by! But it was only a release of gas, not a full-blown eruption.
It is a fabulous city! The many ruins are noteworthy, as you can see the richness of the buildings from times past…decorated with baroque scrollwork, statues, domes, arches, and for lack of a better term…ancient bling! The city had about 60 churches, cathedrals, convents, and monasteries. Being the capital city of the Kingdom of Guatemala, the municipal buildings and residences were likewise very ornate. So, we have a capital city with gorgeous buildings and lots of wealth…what happened?? Well, remember the 37 volcanoes? They erupted occasionally over the centuries. When they did, they caused earthquakes. Earthquakes cause big, old stone buildings to collapse, which they did. Big time. Eventually the capital city was moved and the buildings in Antigua that weren’t already damaged lost their usefulness. But now it is once again a revived city with many, many shops and restaurants. The country’s major exports are coffee and sugar cane, so a lot of other items need to be imported. Food prices were on the higher end, even though the average salary in Guatemala is $100 per week.
On to the photos. Scrolling through will give you a good idea of the city’s past and current conditions. There were lots of people carrying items for sale on their heads or draped over their arms and shoulders. Beautiful woven scarves in vivid colors were $1. One young man kept trying to get us to buy his carved flutes and drums, and finally yelled, “My prices are so low, these things are almost FREE!” However, there wasn’t pressure to buy…once we shook our heads and said no, gracias, we were left alone. The first photo shows one of the colorful vendors, while the second is a shot from the bus of a volcanic gas eruption. There are white clouds around the top, but the gray plume that is highest in the air is from the volcano. After the volcano are four photos of the ancient cathedral destroyed by earthquakes in both 1717 and 1751 and rebuilt each time, only to be destroyed again in 1773, and this time it was abandoned. We liked the surviving carved angels, way up in one of the arches…the one shown appears to be holding a thurible (incense holder). There were about a dozen domes surviving, although very deteriorated.
Following those are photos of things we just liked around the city…after the “Restaurant Open” sign is a cemetery, but it looks a little like a housing development! Most of the streets were in a grid pattern, and the streets looked largely empty. That is because most entrances opened onto pretty courtyards that housed either a restaurant or a small array of little shops. Flowers were bursting everywhere. Many of the facade ruins that you see were churches or religious residences. In one photo you can see the yellow Santa Catalina Arch, the most iconic image of the city.
The woman making handmade corn tortillas drew us into that particular restaurant, and they were delicious…soft, chewy, and fresh. The photo before that one is the courtyard where we had lunch…chile rellenos encased inside two tortillas (the local version of a sandwich) and nachos with fresh local cheese and delightful guacamole and salsa. The fountain and two photos following it are found on the main city plaza, where everyone was gathered and lots of shopping and dining took place. It really was bustling.
After the photo of the cute owls are two photos of La Merced Church (Mercy), built by a religious order of the same name. We love the yellow and white ultra Baroque exterior contrasted with the white, almost stark interior. The architect learned from the previous earthquakes and erected the building at a lower height with wider columns and arches so it could better withstand an earthquake. It has done pretty well over two-and-a-half centuries, hasn’t it?
Overall, we would love to return to Antigua sometime in the future for more exploring. So many places and restaurants attracted us, and we wanted to try all kinds of cuisine. The streets here are all cobblestone, and the people very warm. The temperature is also warm…it rarely climbs higher than 80 degrees F and doesn’t dip much below 60. The colors are vibrant here, and everything was very clean and looking good. We decided we will have to do a Central American tour…soon!