“La Antigua is like a piece of heaven on earth,” commented John Tabbutt-McCarthy, a Central America expert during a lecture aboard Silversea’s Silver Spirit that recently took us to Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala and other ports in Central America.
Guatemala’s capital in the 16th century –the capital was moved to Guatemala City in the 18th century after an earthquake shook La Antigua in 1773 – La Antigua was the first capital of Central America – rich in culture and history, a stone city filled with monumental arquitecture, churches, convents, monasteries and narrow streets with cobblestones and lamps that were a legacy of the Conquest. The city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979.
To conserve the colonial ambiance, only seven colors used during colonial times are permitted to paint houses and buildings. “People use the same color they use for their houses for the tombs of relatives in the cemetery,” Roberto, our local guide told us. “That way it symbolizes that even though the relatives are dead they are still members of the family.”
What to see: The city, currently with 70,000 residents, is ideal for walking as many of its points of interest are located near one another. A visit can start in the main plaza or Central Park with its beautiful Fountain of the Sirens and great view of the Cathedral, which acquired its grandeur in 1680. Other views obtained from the plaza are the Municipal Building and the imposing Volcán de Agua (Water Volcano) that dominates the city (incidentally, La Antigua has 34 volcanoes in its surrounding areas).
During our visit to La Antigua, a few days before Holy Week, one of the altars of the Cathedral had a beautiful “carpet” made with flowers to mark Easter Sunday. Also of interest, according to historians, the catacombs of the Cathedral hold the remains of Conquistador Don Pedro de Alvarado. From the Central Park one can easily arrange a tour of the city via a horse-drawn carriage.
Just steps from the Central Park, visitors find the local market with all sorts of local produce and products including the “fruits of the gods: zapotes and mangoes,” according to Roberto, and the market also is graced by sales ladies in typical, colorful, dress (the days of most activity in the market are Monday, Thursday and Saturday). The handicrafts market (with an interesting assortment of handicrafts created by local artists and artisans) is very interesting. Both markets are on the Calzada Santa Lucía.
Among churches and convents that merit a visit are La Iglesia y Convento La Merced with a magnificent baroque façade and one of the city’s biggest churches in the convent; the Claustro de San Jerónimo, dating from 1759 and previously the customs office; the Convento de Santa Clara from the 17th century; and the Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco where the remains of the holy brother Pedro de Betancourt rest. Betancourt helped the poor and did charitable work during the colonial era.
Must-sees in museums include the Centro Cultural La Azotea with three museums: one of them, Casa K’ojom, with a collection of Mayan instruments; Museo del Café, depicting the history of coffee and the process of making this popular beverage (there are three active coffee plantations in the area surrounding La Antigua); and the Rincón Sacatepéquez, with exhibits of typical dresses and handicrafts of Guatemala. El Museo del Libro Antiguo has a replica of the first printing press in Guatemala in 1660 and the Museo de Arte Colonial, housed in the building of what was the University of San Carlos Borromeo in colonial times, has paintings and sculptures of that era.
Activities to enjoy: Among the activities to enjoy are volcano climbing, coffee plantation tours and excursions to the spectacular lake, Lago Atitlán.
What souvenirs to buy: A beautiful souvenir is locally crafted jade jewelry. Jades, S.A., on 4a Calle Oriente #34, is a jade factory that offers jewelry and other jade objects. Visitors can see the artisans working and visit a museum on-site with replicas of Mayan masks and other jade pieces.
Where to sleep and eat: La Posada de Don Rodrigo, a few blocks from the Central Park, on Calle del Arco No. 17, is in beautiful colonial style, with an excellent restaurant, and views of the city and the Volcán de Agua from an observation deck on the roof. Visit www.posadadedonrodrigo.com.
The Hotel Casa Santo Domingo, an ancient monastery converted into a hotel on 3a Calle Oriente No. 28 A, about a 10-minute walk from the heart of La Antigua is a wonderful five-star hotel, with a variety of museums, beautiful gardens, and excelent restaurant. Visit www.casasantodomingo.com.gt.
To enjoy typical Guatemalan flavors, don’t leave without trying plátanos en mole (plantain dish), gallo en chichi (chicken dish), tamales dulces and salados (sweet and salted tamales), buñuelos y flan (desserts), among other delights.
Para mayor información: Visite www.visitguatemala.com.
By Georgina Cruz
For Al Día Today