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.
Map of Antigua GuatemalaLoad map
Located in a beautiful valley in the heart of Guatemala, its architecture, cultural landscape, history and contributions to the cultural development of Central America are unmatched. Its perfect climate allowed the construction of wide streets unlike other colonial cities that were built with narrow streets due to the hot climate. Its low and robust architecture is the product of the ingenuity mainly of the Guatemalan architect Diego de Porres who developed Barroco Sísmico after the earthquakes of 1717, a style that can be seen in the church of La Merced, Palacio de Ayuntamiento and Arco de Santa Catalina to name a few examples. This construction technique was not copied in the then recently relocated Nueva Guatemala de la Asunción (Guatemala City) but was copied in other churches in the interior of the country such as Patzún and Comalapa.
The churches and ruins are very well preserved and several have been intervened to have a second use such as Capuchinas, Santa Clara and San José. There are still several to restore and intervene such as El Carmen, La Concepción and La Recolección. Monument conservation standards in Guatemala have improved over time and have meant that ruins remain authentic and are not altered as faux historical ones to look like decorated cakes, as has unfortunately happened in several of the buildings in Panama's Casco Viejo including its Cathedral. The reconstruction of several churches and monuments is of national interest but the problem lies in the small budget managed by protective institutions such as the Consejo de Antigua or IDAEH. As of 2023, it has been seen that there are ruins such as those of El Carmen and San Agustín that have recovered their vaults, structures and details and others such as San Gaspar Vivar that have once again served as a church.
The wealth of the city is alive and visible, not "invisible" as I have seen other people have commented, It has been transformed over time and many remain in the unique urbanism of the city, the traditions of Guatemalan Holy Week (now UNESCO intangible heritage of humanity), the colonial imagery which was exported to all parts of La Nueva España (such as the Cristo Negro de Esquipulas), and the exceptional examples of Guatemalan seismic architecture such as Capuchinas, El Palacio de los Capitanes and the ruins of the Catedral de San José, the largest from all over Central America (yes, it is not León, Nicaragua), it is said that the remains of Don Pedro de Alvarado and his wife Doña Beatriz de la Cueva are found there along with many other treasures to be discovered.
In my opinion, there is a lack of museums and visitor centers that better expose the value of the city because some of these show us very little, such as the one in Santo Domingo Convent, which allows us to appreciate part of the artistic boom that viceregal Guatemala achieved with the Estofado technique in colonial imagery and the elaborate majolica decoration that was highly sought after throughout the Captaincy and the Viceroyalty.
To this review I also add that the city has a very important spiritual value because of Santo Hermano Pedro who worked for the poorest and sick, in fact in 2023 plans began to name the Church of San Francisco as a Basilica because it is a pilgrimage center and place where he rests. The cultural landscape made up of several coffee farms such as Finca Retana and El Portal is a legacy of the colonial era that lasts to this day and gives added value to the OUV of Antigua since it results in one of the best coffees in the world, this would help a modern renaissance in Guatemala during the industrial revolution.
The towns inscribed along with Antigua and its cultural landscape add greatly to the OUV of Antigua Guatemala:
- San Bartolomé Becerra: The church houses the devotion of the Jesus of San Bartolo, an exceptional work of colonial imagery from 1640 that goes out in procession through the streets of Antigua during Holy Week.
- Ciudad Vieja: The town's Church, La Inmaculada Concepción, is a Guatemalan ultra-baroque work by Diego de Porres that he would later use as an example and guide to make the Catedral de León, Nicaragua. It also preserves the ruins of the first church of San Francisco made by the Mexica and a republican clock from the time of Justo Rufino Barrios.
- San Miguel Escobar: The church and town are located where the first colonial city of Guatemala once stood, which was buried by the flood caused by the Agua Volcano in 1541, generating the transfer to the Panchoy Valley. Unique baroque architecture in church.
- San Pedro las Huertas: Town mentioned in the Recordación Florida book (UNESCO Memory of the World) for being a fertile site that allowed the settlement of a town of indigenous people who would be at the service of the Spanish. It has a beautiful church characteristic of the Guatemalan baroque.
- San Juan del Obispo: Seat of the archiepiscopal palace of Francisco Marroquín, first bishop of Guatemala. Beautiful baroque church and one of the oldest in the Valley (almost 500 years old).
- San Cristóbal El Alto: Preserves the most distant ruin of a pilgrimage hermitage located at the top of a hill.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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...
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.
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