Today on HudsonWorks, we’re looking at our first UNESCO World Heritage City in the Americas, Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala! With Breathtaking Color and landscapes, and one of the best preserved Spanish Colonial settlements, Antigua is the gem of Central America.
Profile of the City:
Founded: 1543 by Spanish Conquistadors
Population: 34,685 (2007)
UNESCO World Heritage City
Meaning “Ancient Guatemala” because of its status as the former capital of Guatemala (the third capital due to earthquakes and fires destroying the first two), Antigua was one of the first examples of city planning in Latin America. Founded by Spanish Conquistadors in 1543, Antigua served as the capital of Guatemala for 230 years until the government was moved to Guatemala City, the current capital, for fear of earthquakes. Located in the Sacatepequez department of Guatemala, and with a modern day population of 34,685, the city is bordered by volcanoes on three sides (With awesome names-Volcan de Agua, Volcan de Fuego and Volcan Pacaya), tucked into a valley and is subject to frequent earthquakes due to its topography.
Antigua’s history starts with religion, a rich heritage that the city has carried on for centuries. Franciscan monks moved to the region just after the conquistadors, establishing this christian heritage in the town. With the construction of the first cathedral in 1545, scores of christian orders such as the jesuits followed the Franciscan’s lead and journeyed to Antigua to set up their own missions and cathedrals.
In order to inspire indigenous people and Spaniards alike to follow a certain order, the houses of worship constructed were incredibly ornate and stylized. Arguably the most successful in their pursuits, the Mercedarians, built one of the most beautiful churches in the Americas, La Merced (Convent of the Mercedarians.) Originally constructed in 1751 and completed in 1767 by the architect Juan de Dios Estrada, La Merced is a stunning testament to the devotion of God, and painted bright yellow to stand out amongst the crowd.
Built in the Baroque Barroco Antingueno style with dual bell towers to proclaim church’s power over other orders with a gorgeous ornate facade covered with ataurique plasterwork, and to withstand seismic activity, (a cornerstone of Barroco Antingueno design) the original church was destroyed by an earthquake in 1773, and quickly re-constructed. Sculptures in the bays of the facade represent important historical figures in the Mercedarian Order, including the order’s founder San Pedro Nolasco. A 17th century cross from 1650 is the centerpiece of this magnificent house of worship, the crowning gem.
Holy holidays in Antigua are some of the largest celebrations of religion in the world. In fact, the largest celebration of Lent in the Western Hemisphere is held in Antigua with processionals through the streets each Sunday of Lent. The colors of the Antiguan buildings inspire the Purple and Yellow Mosaics seen throughout the streets, and the Purple gowns of Lent.
Bill Cunningham has a great profile of the Lenten Celebrations in Guatemala, check it out below!
Incredibly well preserved, many of Antigua’s 17th and 18th century buildings still stand today in the 16th century grid of Antigua. The distinct architectural Style deriving from the Baroque Spanish Colonial Order is known as Barroco Antingueno, with characteristic decorative stucco, carved tympanum and exquisite ornamentation of the facade. Some of the best examples of this style of architecture include the following:
San Francisco El Grande-Originally constructed in 1579 and expanded and completed in 1702, this was the chapel to start it all. Home to the eponymous Franciscan order, features unique salomonic columns and 16 vaulted niches reserved for statues and tributes to saints and friars. Before being restored in 1967, the runs of San Francisco El Grande were used as the backdrop in the filming of the original Tarzan movie!
The Church and Convent of Society of Jesus, built in the 1690’s. Destruction of the church can be attributed to the San Miguel and San Casimiro Earthquakes in 1717 and 1751 respectively. The church was dedicated on October 21st, 1698 and considered one of the most beautiful churches in the Americas.
Of course, Antigua was and is more than a collection of beautiful churches. When someone in the city was ill or injured, they would go to San Pedro, the Hospital of Antigua Guatemala. Founded in 1663 by Dominican Friars, most notably Hermano Pedro Betancourt, it was the first hospital in the city. Brother Pedro would travel to the homes of the sick all across the city, and bring them on his back if they were unable to walk, to his hospital to take care of them. Pedro is a beloved figure in Guatemala, and one of the most important priests in the history of the country.
Like so many other buildings in Antigua, the original church was decimated by an Earthquake. The most damning Earthquake occurred in 1974.Rebuilt in 1984 by the Franciscan Priest Guillermo Bonilla, the hospital now serves as a shelter and relies solely on donations.
The Heart and stage of Antigua, Parque Central, is where the quintessential Antiguan and Spanish Colonial architecture can be displayed most prominently.
People gather around the Plaza Mayor (Main Square) and the famous Mermaid Fountain built by Diego de Porres (1737) to share stories and enjoy the beauty of every day that comes to Antigua.
On the far side of the park, framed by one of the cities’ three Volcanos is City Hall, a gorgeous 18th century (1743) building taking influences from Neo-Classic aqueducts with a quintessential spanish flair.
To the left of the park is the gorgeous Saint Joseph Cathedral (Cathedral de San Jose), built in 1541, though largely reconstructed with the last major construction project occurring in 1773 due to destruction of the structure by the 1773 Guatemala Earthquake.
Also along the square is the Captain General Palace, or Palacio de los Captaines Generales, constructed in 1558 for the Spanish Conquistadors. It originally served as military personnel offices for those in the General Captaincy of Guatemala. After a series of devastating Earthquakes in the 18th century, Antiguans fled the city to other parts of Guatemala and Central America. With the citizens, so too left the military. After remaining vacant, along with the city, in the 19th century, Antigua began to be restored by those moving back into the area, intrigued by the stunning natural beauty and architecture of this historic city. Today, the Captain General Palace serves as the headquarters of the Guatemala institute of tourism and administrative offices for the national police and Sacatepquez government.
With cobblestone streets, gorgeous colonial architecture, religious history and magnificent natural surroundings, Antigua is a treasure. As more people have begun to relocate to the city and restore the architecture back to its former glory, Antigua is a thriving place. With many schools dedicated to teaching Spanish to foreign students, new restaurants and attractions, Antigua is the heart of tourism in Central America, and one of the safest places in the region.
As new sites and structures are restored, we will update Antigua’s profile! If there are any stories or sites to be shared that we have not covered, comment below what we should add or a story that you have of this place for a chance to be featured on the site!
More shots of beautiful Antigua!
Wanna Know More about Antigua Guatemala? Try out these great sites!