Antigua, Guatemala

Antigua Guatemala in Guatemala is an awesome tour of Spanish colonial architecture built from 1543 until everything was destroyed by a 7.5 magnitude earthquake in 1773. This former capital city of the Kingdom of Guatemala was then abandoned. The ruins are fascinating in this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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1 Overview of Antigua, Guatemala

Parque Central is the epicenter of Antigua Guatemala, typically referred to as Antigua. This small city of less than 40,000 residents is a time capsule of Spanish history from the mid-16th through the late 18th centuries. What makes Antigua distinct is most of the once-glorious colonial buildings are dilapidated. The empty shells have been in ruins for almost 250 years. This is one of the most unique and surreal UNESCO World Heritage Sites you will ever visit.

Templo de San José Catedral, 4 Avenida Sur 1, Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala
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2 Brief History of Antigua, Guatemala

In 1524, Pedro de Alvarado became the first Spanish conquistador in Guatemala. As they subdued ingenious people for control, Spanish colonies were established. They collectively evolved into the Captaincy General and later the Kingdom of Guatemala. This administration division of the Spanish Empire covered most of Central America before it ended in 1821. Starting in 1543, their third successive capital became Santiago de los Caballeros. The colonial city flourished as the population swelled to over 60,000 people. Lavish municipal and religious buildings were constructed for over two hundred years. Then several earthquakes struck in the 18th century until nearly everything was reduced to rubble during the Santa Marta Earthquakes of 1773. Within three years, the capital was moved, the city was largely vacated and renamed Antigua Guatemala meaning old.

Parque Central, Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala
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3 Catedral de Santiago in Antigua, Guatemala

The visual pride of Parque Central is Catedral de Santiago. The first cathedral on this site along the eastern edge of the square was constructed in 1545. It collapsed in 1583. The magnificent replacement was consecrated in 1680. Beneath a large dome were multiple chapels and naves. They were filled with paintings, statues and an exquisite altar crafted by talented European artisans. Earthquakes partially destroyed the Catholic Church in 1717 and again in 1751. Renovations occurred after each disaster. The final devastating blow was in 1773. Since then, the façade was reconstructed. Inside you can tour several ruined sections. This is now Parroquia de San José (Parish Church of Saint Joseph).

Templo de San José Catedral, 4 Avenida Sur 1, Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala
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4 Palacio del Ayuntamiento in Antigua, Guatemala

Two arcaded buildings flank Parque Central. Along the entire south side is Palacio de los Capitanes Generales. Built in 1558, Palace of the Captains General housed the government for the Kingdom of Guatemala until 1773. Now it is the Museo de Armas (military and colonial museum) and a cultural center. On the north side is this nearly identical yet shorter Palacio del Ayuntamiento. The City Hall was built in 1740. Surprisingly, it survived the 1773 earthquake. Of interest here is the Museo del Libro Antiguo. Included among the collection of the Antique Book Museum is a replica of Guatemala’s first printing press from 1660.

Palacio del Ayuntamiento, 4ta. Calle Poniente, Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala
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5 Cobblestone Streets of Antigua, Guatemala

Antigua is very walkable. There are about thirty major colonial landmarks in Centro Histórico contained within an eight-by-eight-block radius. However, you will spend a considerable amount of time watching your step because the streets and sidewalks are uneven cobblestone. Although historic and perhaps charming, they can be bit treacherous to navigate. To make matters worse, they are slippery in the rain and full of puddles.

4 Avenida Sur 1, Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala
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6 San Pedro Hospital in Antigua, Guatemala

San Pedro Hospital was founded in 1654 and opened in 1663 to serve the impoverished and destitute. Three different Catholic orders have managed the institution during its long history. After each devastating earthquake, repairs were made or the hospital was rebuilt. Unlike most colonial structures in the city, St. Peter Hospital continues to be maintained and functional. The Franciscan friars operate Hospital del Hermano Pedro with the same mission established over 350 years ago. The Obras Sociales Hermano Pedro is also a social center. It provides living quarters for the elderly, nourishment for the underprivileged of all ages, clothing for the poor and basic outpatient services.

Obras Sociales Hermano Pedro, 6a. Calle Oriente No. 20, Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala
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7 San Pedro Hospital Church in Antigua, Guatemala

This is the church adjacent to San Pedro Hospital. They are superb examples of Antigüeño Baroque architecture designed by Nicolás de Cárcamo. Both are named in honor of Hermano Pedro de San José Betancur. During his short life from 1626 until 1667, the unrelenting and compassionate goal of this Franciscan missionary was to shelter and heal the poor, sick and homeless. Brother Pedro was the founder of this first hospital in Santiago de los Caballeros.

Iglesia San Pedro Apóstol, 6a. Calle Oriente No. 20, Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala
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8 Architecture of Santa Clara Convent in Antigua, Guatemala

This is one of two nearly identical gates of Convento Santa Clara along Avenida Sur. They were once used by parishioners to access the church without entering the convent. Despite their ruinous condition, they are a joy to admire. They are a sample of Antigüeño Baroque architecture. This style originated regionally and flourished locally during the second half of the 17th and most of the 18th centuries. Among the characteristics is decorative and intricate stucco work. The buildings are massive and the bell towers are short in an attempt to make them tremor proof. The facades have a prominent tympanum plus plenty of niches for religious statuary. Often the sculptures are missing. After the 1773 earthquake, most of the salvaged statutes in the city were sold to churches in Spain and across the Americas.

2a Avenida Sur, Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala
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9 History of Santa Clara Convent in Antigua, Guatemala

You are about to enter the Convent of Santa Clara. The complex is enormous, covering an entire city block. Here is a bit of history. In 1699, five nuns and a novice from the Order of Saint Clare were invited to the city from Puebla de los Angeles in Mexico. Sixteen years were required before their convent and church were finished. They remained standing for two years before an earthquake reduced them to rubble. Replacements were completed in 1734. Tragically, almost everything succumbed to the 1773 tremors. The nuns abandoned the property and moved to Guatemala City in 1776. 200 years later, the complex was further damaged by another earthquake. Although the structures have been stabilized and some are being refurbished, most are relics of their former glory.

12, 2a Avenida Sur, Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala
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10 Detail of Santa Clara Convent Church in Antigua, Guatemala

The church in Santa Clara Convent is an empty shell beneath three elliptical vaults. The remaining walls outline the former nave. Yet the three-tier façade is magnificent. The carved stucco on the pilasters resembles lace. The angel statues are, well, angelic. Often overlooked are the double eagles and crown relief next to the octagonal window. This was the coat of arms of Charles I. He was the King of the Spanish Empire when this city became the capital of Captaincy General in 1543. This is the only church in Antigua surrounded by a wall. The temple was initially intended for the exclusive use by the cloistered Poor Clare nuns.

12, 2a Avenida Sur, Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala
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11 Ruins of Santa Clara Convent in Antigua, Guatemala

There are two courtyards to explore in Santa Clara Convent. The main one is graced with a fountain surrounded by two levels of arched columns. You can imagine the nuns walking peacefully along the arcades. Outlines of their living quarters, kitchen, dining area and other rooms remain. The second open section is these disheveled remains of the gardens. The colonnade is a former wall of the cloister.

12, 2a Avenida Sur, Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala
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12 Wedding Venue at Santa Clara Convent in Antigua, Guatemala

The ruins of Santa Clara Convent are enchanting and romantic when decorated for a wedding followed by an open-air reception under the stars. This has become a very popular wedding venue. Different sections of the convent are available in a range of prices. Some are reserved years in advance. Equally unique are the rustic and historic backdrops for engagement and wedding photos.

12, 2a Avenida Sur, Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala
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13 Pilgrim’s Route to Church of San Francisco in Antigua, Guatemala

The distance between Santa Clara Convent and San Francisco el Grande Church is short … less than two blocks. From the convent, cross a street named Calle Oriente. Then watch for this yellow gate with the Ruta del Peregrino sign. This means Pilgrim’s Route. After a couple minutes of walking along a wall on Calle de los Pasos, you will arrive at the historic highlight of Antigua Guatemala.

Calle de los Pasos 2, Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala
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14 History of Church of San Francisco in Antigua, Guatemala

This handsome Saint Francis Gate is one of two entrances into the Church and Convent of San Francisco. Sections of San Francisco el Grande date from the late 16th century. They are the oldest in Antigua Guatemala. In 1541, Franciscan missionaries arrived in the Panchoy Valley, two years before the Spanish Empire declared the area as their new capital. An oscillation pattern of building and destruction plagued the complex until the existing church was finished in 1702 and consecrated in 1714. After being ruined by the Santa Marta Earthquakes in 1773, it was vacant for almost two hundred years. In 1960, the Franciscans returned and began restoration efforts. Mass and other Catholic services are again performed inside the church. Although the nave is attractive, it pales in comparison to the lavish appearance from the late 18th century.

Calle de los Pasos 6, Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala
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15 Church of San Francisco in Antigua, Guatemala

The façade of the Church of San Francisco is a masterpiece of Antigüeño Baroque architecture. This was the inspired design of Diego Porras. He was the most talented and prolific architect in the Kingdom of Guatemala during the first half of the 18th century. Among his long list of projects are several of the city’s famous structures. He also introduced the corkscrew-like Solomonic column flanking the entrance. Iglesia de San Francisco was built in 1702. The twin bell towers were added in the 17th century, reconstructed in the 19th century and again in the 1960s.

San Francisco el Grande, Calle de los Pasos 6, Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala
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16 Statue on Church of San Francisco in Antigua, Guatemala

On the front of the Church of San Francisco are 16 vaulted niches. All but two contain a statue of a saint or celebrated Franciscan friar. This appears to be the image of Didacus of Alcalá, also called Diego de San Nicolás or simply San Diego. He was a 15th century missionary in the Canary Islands after they were conquered by Spain. In 1769, this Catholic saint became the namesake for Mission San Diego de Alcalá. This was the first Franciscan mission established in a providence of New Spain now called San Diego, California.

San Francisco el Grande, Calle de los Pasos 6, Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala
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17 Brother Pedro Statue at Church of San Francisco in Antigua, Guatemala

This statue is a tribute to the most revered Franciscan in Guatemala’s history: Brother Pedro. Born in the Canary Islands in 1626, he arrived in Antigua in 1650 and studied to become a Jesuit but failed. He assumed the name Peter of Saint Joseph when he joined the Franciscans. Then he became committed to the tireless service of the hungry, sick, desolate, poor and prisoners. Hermano Pedro de San José Betancur would later be called St. Francis of Assisi of the Americas. In 2002, the Catholic church canonized him as Guatemala’s first saint. His tomb is in Vera Cruz Chapel at the north end of San Francisco Church. The shrine is frequently visited by locals. It is also a popular pilgrimage for people across Guatemala and Central America.

Jardín del Santo Hermano Pedro, Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala
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18 Garden at Church of San Francisco in Antigua, Guatemala

The Brother Pedro statue and tomb are located in the Santo Hermano Pedro Garden to the left of Iglesia de San Francisco. These arches are part of the former Concepción Chapel. Apparently, the saint planted one of these Esquisuchil trees in the mid-17th century. Adjacent are the remains of the Franciscan monastery. In the late-18th century, this was among the biggest and most beautiful convents in the city. Here you will find the Hermano Pedro Museum. Among the artifacts are crutches of people healed during a pilgrimage. Of special interest is the saint’s bell displayed in a showcase. He used to ring it while wandering the streets of Antigua Guatemala in search of the destitute.

Jardín del Santo Hermano Pedro, Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala
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19 Convent of the Conception Church in Antigua, Guatemala

In 1563, Bishop Francisco Marroquín allocated land for a convent. 15 years passed before four sisters from the Order of the Immaculate Conception arrived from Mexico. They constructed Nuestra Señora de la Concepcion near the Achiguate River in 1620. This city’s first female monastery grew to over 1000 nuns plus female students and servants. The convent was wealthy and filled with religious art. This Baroque Spanish Catholic church was added in 1729. The complex was crippled during an earthquake in 1751 and destroyed by the massive tremor in 1773. The Church and Convent of Our Lady of the Conception were abandoned the following year.

39 4a Calle Oriente, Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala
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20 Society of Jesus Church, Convent and College in Antigua, Guatemala

A Royal Degree in 1561 gave the Jesuits permission to build a convent. This evolved into a complex consisting of a college (added in 1582) and a church (first built in 1626 and replaced in 1698). During the 17th century and most of the next one, the School of the Society of Jesus (San Lucas School) taught the children from the elite families in the city. In 1767, the Jesuits were expelled across the Spanish Empire including in Santiago de los Caballeros (today’s Antigua Guatemala). Six years later, most of the complex was destroyed by an earthquake except the convent building. It fell during a 1912 seismic event. This is the façade of the former church.

Compañía de Jesús, Poniente & 6a Avenida Norte, Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala
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21 CFCE Inside former Society of Jesus Complex in Antigua, Guatemala

Part of the ruins of the Society of Jesus Church, Convent and College has been converted into the Centro de Formacion de la Cooperacion Espanola (Training Center of Spanish Cooperation). In the center are a lovely courtyard and gardens. Behind the arched corridors are exhibitions of contemporary art. Admission is free. The CFCE Café is a beautiful and tranquil place for a light lunch. The cultural facilities also have a library and training center.

Cooperación Española, 6a Avenida Norte, Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala
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22 Spanish Colonial Influence in Antigua, Guatemala

When this former capital city was founded in the mid-16th century century, it was planned similar to other Spanish settlements across the New World. In the center was a main plaza surrounded by government buildings and a cathedral. Close by were the homes – often mansions – of the social elite and wealthy. Other major structures, such as churches and monasteries, were built with an elaborate Baroque design. The streets radiating from the center were narrow and followed a strict grid pattern. Flanking them were typically single-story buildings. Their shared, thick stucco walls were seamless for an entire block. Common denominators were red clay-tile roofs and grillwork over the windows. The demarcations between properties were different color paint, variances in roof lines and the style of wooden door. Not much has changed in Antigua Guatemala. While most landmarks are in ruins, the majority of buildings still reflect the colonial period. Some are well maintained like this one. Others are in varying degrees of disrepair.

3a Calle Poniente 20, Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala
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Inner Courtyard in Antigua, Guatemala

Another prominent feature of Spanish Colonial architecture in Antigua is the inner courtyard. Every major structure had one. There was often a fountain in the center. Encircling the open space was an arcade defined by large arches and columns. This was perfect for an outside stroll while being sheltered from the sun or rain. Many homes in Antigua Guatemala still have a courtyard yet on a modest scale. Residents fill them with blooming flowers, potted plants, shrubs and trees plus occasionally a small religious shrine.

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23 Women Shopping at El Mercado Farmers’ Market in Antigua, Guatemala

On the west side of town is the farmers’ market called El Mercado. The front stalls have clothing and souvenirs for tourists. Keep walking into the bustling maze. Each step reveals more traditional and rustic displays of fruit, vegetables and flowers. You can also purchase fish, meat and pirated DVDs. Many vendors are inside a rudimentary concrete building. Others are crowded together outside. This scene of Guatemalan women haggling over the price of produce is typical. The market is open on Monday, Thursday and Saturday.

Mercado de Antigua Guatemala, Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala
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24 Mixed Vegetables at El Mercado Farmers’ Market in Antigua, Guatemala

Fifty percent of Guatemalans work in agriculture. They primarily grow coffee followed by bananas for export. The local farmers also grow fresh fruit and vegetables to generate income at local markets such as El Mercado, the main farmers’ market in Antigua. The wooden box holds varieties of sapote fruit. They are native to Central America and Mexico. Inside is an orange flesh surrounding a large seed. Behind them are watermelons. Guatemala is among the largest exporters of melons in the world.

Mercado de Antigua Guatemala, Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala
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