Antigua Guatemala

Antigua Guatemala
Photo by Els Slots.

Antigua Guatemala is a Spanish-colonial urban landscape filled with baroque architecture.

Antigua was the capital of the Spanish colonial government in Central America. The catholic church played an important role in daily life, which resulted in numerous churches, monasteries and examples of religious imagery. The 16th-century basic grid town plan has been preserved. The baroque building style was adapted to better withstand earthquakes.

Community Perspective: Unequalled among the colonial towns in Central America, beautifully preserved, and in its tourist approach geared towards a boutiquey international lifestyle. Els gives an overview of the main sights.

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Santiago Lafuente

Guatemala - 05-Jan-24 -

Antigua Guatemala by Santiago Lafuente

I've visited Antigua countless times since it's just half an hour from my hometown, Guatemala City. Located in a picturesque valley in Guatemala, Antigua boasts a rich cultural and architectural heritage that is unparalleled in Central America. Its unique urban planning, influenced by its perfect climate, distinguishes it from other colonial cities with wider streets and scenic views of the mighty Volcán de Agua. The city's low and sturdy architecture, particularly the 'Barroco Sísmico' style developed by architect Diego de Porres following the 1717 earthquakes, is exemplified in landmarks like La Merced Church, Palacio de Ayuntamiento, Arco de Santa Catalina, and the ruins of Catedral de San José, the largest in Central America (unlike popular belief, the Cathedral in León, Nicaragua, is smaller in size).

Antigua's churches and ruins are well-preserved, with some repurposed for modern uses like Capuchinas, Santa Clara, and San José. However, others like La Recolección await restoration. Preservation efforts by Consejo de Antigua have improved over time, ensuring authenticity and preventing misguided renovations seen elsewhere, such as the unfortunate case of Panama's Casco Viejo, which has lost much of its authenticity due to excessive decorative alterations.

Contrary to previous comments, the cultural richness of Antigua is evident in its distinctive urban layout, architectural style, and artistic heritage, which are magnified during Guatemala's Holy Week, now recognized as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. The city's unhurried lifestyle complements its revered traditions, including elaborate processions and religious ceremonies. Many of the magnificent colonial artworks can still be appreciated in several churches and museums such as the Museo de Arte Colonial and Museo de San Juan del Obispo, highlighting Antigua's enduring cultural significance.

Despite its cultural wealth, Antigua could enhance its appeal with more comprehensive museums and visitor centers to better showcase its historical value. For example, museums at Palacio de los Capitanes and Santo Domingo Convent provide valuable but small insights into the artistic achievements of colonial Guatemala. Additionally, Antigua's cultural landscape includes colonial-era coffee farms like Finca Retana and El Portal, renowned for producing some of the world's finest coffee.

Brief overview of the towns inscribed with Antigua:

  • San Bartolomé Becerra: The small church houses exquisite Guatemalan imagery like Jesus de San Bartolo, an exceptional work of colonial art from 1640 that parades through Antigua's streets during Holy Week.
  • Ciudad Vieja: The town's Church, La Inmaculada Concepción, is a Guatemalan ultra-baroque masterpiece by Diego de Porres, which later served as a model for the Cathedral of León, Nicaragua. It also preserves the ruins of the first Franciscan church and its old conventual kitchen, along with a republican-era clocktower from the time of Justo Rufino Barrios.
  • San Miguel Escobar: Located where the first Spanish colonial city and cathedral of Guatemala stood, which were buried by a flood caused by the Agua Volcano in 1541, prompting the city's relocation to the Panchoy Valley. The current church features unique baroque architecture.
  • San Pedro las Huertas: Mentioned in the UNESCO Memory of the World book "Recordación Florida" for its fertile land that facilitated the settlement of indigenous people serving the Spanish. It boasts a beautiful example of rural Guatemalan baroque architecture.
  • San Juan del Obispo: Former seat of the archiepiscopal palace of Francisco Marroquín, first bishop of Guatemala, now a museum. The nearly 500-year-old baroque church houses exquisite imagery and altarpieces. Beautiful panoramic views of the Valle de Panchoy can be seen from the main plaza.
  • San Cristóbal El Alto: Preserves remnants of an ancient baroque pilgrimage chapel.
  • Finca Retana: One of Antigua's oldest and largest traditional coffee plantations dating back to the 17th century.
  • Finca El Portal: Antigua's largest traditional coffee plantation, preserves remnants of the Cotzumalguapa Mayan culture such as an acropolis and various anthropomorphic sculptures.

Els Slots

The Netherlands - 15-Mar-22 -

Antigua Guatemala by Els Slots

Antigua Guatemala got inscribed really early, in a time when no significant substantiation was necessary: “A fundamental site, a well understood history, an appropriate inscription”. It has been on the tourist trail forever it seems, and – similar to Oaxaca – the town has geared itself fully to tourism. The indigenous people have been pushed to the fringes, making space for a boutiquey kind of international lifestyle. Antigua also has the appeal of the language schools for foreign students, so naïve 19-year old US Americans are an important target audience too (read the wikivoyage page for example, which seems to be written with worried parents in mind: “Don’t drink the water. You will die!”).

A visit to its core area takes half a day at most. The places that I visited:

  • Santa Catalina Arch: the most iconic structure in town, build for the nuns to cross the street between two parts of their convent without being bothered. Photos are better in the morning, as the volcano in the background is usually covered in clouds later in the day.
  • La Merced: one of the few buildings in Antigua to withstand the Santa Marta earthquake. It has the prettiest façade of all town with intricate stucco work. Best in the afternoon for photos.
  • Las Capuchinas: a good example of a ruined convent, of which there are several in town. Q40 entrance fee.
  • The Cathedral: the façade is still intact after the earthquake of 1773 and it functions again as a church. The ruïns of the former cathedral can be visited from an entrance around the corner and require a Q20 entrance fee. Also best in the afternoon for photos of the façade.
  • Convento Santa Clara has a sculptured façade (hidden behind the current entrance) and a large complex with gardens, cloisters, and everything you’d expect from a convent. The upper level has a nice view of the surrounding mountains. Q40 entrance fee.
  • Iglesia de San Francisco el Grande: a popular church with the indigenous population due to it being the final resting place of the first Catholic saint to hail from Guatemala.

The WHS plaque is chiseled into the exterior wall of the City Hall at Parque Central.

If you have more time to spend here, you could check out one of the eight additional locations, which are within a 10km radius around Antigua. They all date from the same era as Antigua itself (mid-16th century), but it is unclear what they add to the inscription.

This visit in February 2022 was actually my second, I had been there in 1997 as well. I downgraded my rating a bit (from 3.5 to 3 stars), as Antigua isn’t that great. Where other Spanish-colonial cities have kept their (baroque) religious institutions and expanded in the 17th and 18th centuries, all is in ruins in Antigua and any wealth that once was there now is invisible.

Read more from Els Slots here.


Ammon Watkins

Canada - 29-Aug-19 -

Antigua Guatemala by Watkinstravel

Compared to other colonial towns in Central America (and quite possibly the whole new world) Antigua has no equal. We arrived at night and the first impression was of how wide the streets are. Totally unlike other old towns which usually feel so cramped. It is beautifully preserved and maintained and the historic area is much larger than I expected. Make no mistake, this is a well-oiled tourism machine used to lots of visitors passing through. But rather than going the overly tacky route, they cater to foreigners with nice hotels, pretty cafes, good food and clean streets. There always seemed to be something pleasant around the next corner to find and even with only a single rainy day to visit (we couldn't even see the surrounding volcanoes) it was easy to see why so many people end up spending longer here than initially planned. 

My only complaint is that they charge high fees for every ruined convent and site. They need some kind of tourist pass for the whole town which includes most or all of the sites. Many of the ruins you can see from outside through the gate or over the fence though and that was good enough for us. 


Shannon O'Donnell

USA - 02-Jun-18 -

Antigua Guatemala by Shannon O'Donnell

Guatemala on the whole is one of my favorite countries in Central America, and Antigua specifically just oozes charm. This entire 16th century colonial city is the UNESCO site, and it means that no matter where you wander, there are interesting buildings and facets of Guatemalan culture to uncover. 

The city has done well preserving the older buildings in recent years. So would say to the point that it's been Disney-ified, but I don't think that's a fair assessment. Yes, it's touristy and the buildings are painted a rainbow array of hues straight from a box of Crayola crayons, but it's also just lovely. Keeping things nice doesn't mean inauthentic, and for that reason I enjoyed how charming it felt to wander the low-slung town and cobbled streets. 

A highlight of the town is that there are a good number of things to do nearby, including volcanoes (which you can see from town), and numerous historic churches. I had the pleasure of visiting during Holy Week, Semana Santa, and the Easter celebrations in Antigua were unparalleled anywhere else (even in Spain, I reckon). The city is known for its elaborate carpets that last for just a night before the Semana Santa processions destroy them. I loved seeing the town come alive with locals for the holiday, and the deep religion here is also a part of what enlisted Antigua on the UNESCO list, so at no other point in the year can you so palpably feel the long religious history than during the elaborate Semana Santa celebrations.

It's a photogenic city, so keep your camera handy as you explore, and you should surely give yourself a few days to properly enjoy Antigua's charms.

Read more from Shannon O'Donnell here.


Larry

USA - 10-Jul-08 -

My wife and I spent 10 days in Guatemala in March 2007, including 6 days in Antigua. We'd both go back today if we could. It is without a doubt our favorite place to go. We felt safe walking around town almost any time of day and even into the evening. The weather seems to always be just perfect. When you go, be sure to eat at least one meal at El Mediterraneo - just a block off the square. Plan on taking tons of pictures. Between Antigua, Lake Atitlan, and Tikal we took over 700 photos. We're planning another trip for next spring and have even talked about retiring their someday - something I would have never imagined 2 years ago.


William Garnett

USA - 27-Apr-06 -

I was in Antigua in January, 2005 for a wedding. I must say that I considered buying a house and staying. Absolutely beautiful. The people are very warm and the coffee is great. I walked all over the town night and day and I can't wait to get back and sit in the courtyard in the center of town and just be. Perhaps I'll retire there, and die there. It's funny, because I'm Plains Indian, and I really dug the whole Mayan thing. I appreciate their resistance. They've been doing it longer than we Plains People. I think the Mission Valley in Montana is the most beautiful place on Earth, but Antigua is definitly a tie, definitely a very attractive place to be despite the tourists and the ruling elite.


Emilia Bautista King

U.S.A. - 27-Feb-06 -

Past reviewers have mentioned the language schools in Antigua. I studied for 2 weeks at Proyecto Linguistico Francisco Marroquin, which I highly recommend. Having only had an introductory course in Spanish in the 8th grade, I was a bit intimidated my first day of classes but by the end of my stay, I was giving people directions in the city! (Okay, it also helped that I was fluent in Tagalog and that many people would mistake me for a local). I also stayed with a host family who were so kind and hospitable. I still keep in touch with them today.

Places in Antigua to explore include La Merced church ("the yellow monster," as someone called it) and Casa Popenoe.


01-May-05 -

1979 I lived in Santa Ana ElSalvador...went to Antigua....and stayed until around 1985...by the time I finally left I owned a Bar on the Central Parque called La Galleria.....I have travelled the world and can truthfully say it WAS one of the most serene....lovely....wonderful locations on this planet....I hope that it does not go crazy commercial....and I fear it has already started....go anyway....the people are..were wonderful...


Solivagant

UK - 01-May-05 -

Antigua Guatemala by Solivagant

Antigua Guatemala is the antidote to Guatemala City. Unless you really need to, don’t even think of staying in the capital! The drive to/from the airport is hardly any longer from Antigua than from the capital and taxis/buses ply the route if you don’t have your own transport. If you want to visit the capital it is 45 minutes away. Antigua has become a major centre for Spanish Language Schools and receives a lot of tourists, mainly from the US but on the whole is not overwhelmed by them. Its location, overlooked by a volcano, is superb and its relatively small size means that it is easily accessible on foot. Its climate is pleasant, its hotels and restaurants cater for every taste and budget.

The town doesn’t contain any buildings of “world class”, but its inscription as a WHS reflects the totality of its colonial heritage and the atmosphere it generates - the nearest comparison on the American continent I can identify would be Ouro Preto in Brazil.


Site Info

Full Name
Antigua Guatemala
Unesco ID
65
Country
Guatemala
Inscribed
1979
Type
Cultural
Criteria
2 3 4
Categories
Urban landscape - Colonial
Link
By ID

Site History

1979 Inscribed

Locations

The site has 9 locations

Antigua Guatemala
Antigua Guatemala: Finca El Portal
Antigua Guatemala: San Bartolomé Becerra
Antigua Guatemala: Finca Retana
Antigua Guatemala: Ciudad Vieja
Antigua Guatemala: San Miguel Escobar
Antigua Guatemala: San Pedro Las Huertas
Antigua Guatemala: San Juan del Obispo
Antigua Guatemala: San Cristobal El Alto

Connections

The site has

Art and Architecture
Constructions
Damaged
History
Human Activity
Religion and Belief
Timeline
Trivia
Visiting conditions
WHS on Other Lists
World Heritage Process

Visitors

Community Members have visited.

A. Mehmet Haksever ALS Adrian Turtschi Alberto Rodriguez Gutierrez Alfons and Riki Verstraeten Ali Zingstra Alicemears Ammon Watkins Amylaic@msn.com AndreaTLV Andrew Wembridge Ani AniaCh Artur Anuszewski Ask Gudmundsen Atila Ege Bamse Bas Ben Pastore Bob Parda Boroka Szamosi Bram Cleaver Bram de Bruin Carlo Medina Carlos Caminando Carlos Sotelo CascadianRain Christoph Cirene Moraes Clem C Clyde Coppi Craig Harder Ctravel DOn Szumowski Daniela Hohmann Dave wood David Pastor de la Orden Deborah Caster Delphine Delaunay Dennis Nicklaus Digits Don Irwin Donald M Parrish Jr Donnico DouglasR Drinkteatravel EDC Els Slots Emilia Bautista King Eric Lurio Eric PK Erik Jelinek Eternalarrival Eva Kisgyorgy FGKJR1492X Fderuet Feldhase Fernweh Fmannucci Francky D'Hoop Frédéric M G.L. Ingraham Garrett Gary Arndt George Evangelou GeorgeIng61 GerhardM Gerlach Gi Glendaviste Hammeel Hanming Harry Mitsidis Headventure Hfxdeb Homadism Howard Howard Brayer Hsaenzjr1 Hsjamsil Hungarian Geographic Iain Jackson Irena Klementov Iriss Izzet Ege J Mitchell JGirlJGirl JP J_neveryes Janklak Jarek Pokrzywnicki Jaroslav Klement Javier Coro Jeanne OGrady Jennifer Prout Jens Jezza Jgera Jon Bauer Jonathanfr Jos Schmitz Jose Josef Mikus Joshuakirbens Josie Borst João Aender Jrsbrgmn Jsalda Judith Tanner JudyWalsh KAO Karol Estrada Kasienka5 Kasper Keith90245 Kelise Kelly Henry Kelseyyurek Kjdavis Klaus Bondar Kurt Lauer LaVale Leontine Helleman Lloyd Cross Loic Pedras Longdutch Lorenzo Mejino Loscuernos@gmx.de Lucas Del Puppo Lucio Gorla Ludvan Luis Filipe Gaspar MMM Mahuhe Malgorzata Kopczynska Mardigny Marleen Speelman-Kooijmans Mars51 Marta Lempert Matthewsharris MaxHeAnouBen Maxine Eisenberg Michael Cummings Michael Novins Michael anak Kenyalang Michal Kozok Michal Marciniak Mikek Mikko Miriam laschever Misswanderlust MoPython Monica66 Monika and Rini Morodhi Nanvano Nihal Ege Ninifishes Nomad99 PabloNorte Pascal Cauliez Patricia Schiller Patrick Matgen Patrik Paul RYKEN Paul Schofield Paw90 Philipp Leu Pieter Dijkshoorn Pink Bunny Plutomu Ralf Rotheimer Red Reza Rica Duchateau Richardleesa Rickard Alfredsson RobRos Roberto Diaz Roger Ourset Roland Roman Bruehwiler Royacurt Ruben Mend Rvieira Ryan watkins Ryan09sb S1m0n3t4 SHIHE HUANG Santiago Lafuente Sascha Grabow Sclowitz Sergio Arjona Shannon O'Donnell Simmot2019Z Simon Penton Simonf Sncjob Solivagant Sophie Sschooler Stanimir Super-Sophie Sutul Suzanne Tamara Ratz Tammy Gouldstone Thomas Buechler TimAllen Tino A Offner Tonioto Trevni Trine Truls Brekke Uwebart Vanessa Buechler Vanessacmc Viaje al Patrimonio Vino4vino VisionMX123 Walter Westwards Wieland Willc1515 Wolfgang Sander Worldstuwim Wouter Wtrentfox Xavier b Zizmondka Zoë Sheng