Antigua, the “third capital” of Guatemala has a long history of earthquakes caused by its neighboring volcanoes that have resulted in significant damage and destruction to this third capital of Guatemala. In spite of the damage and ruins, there are still many well-preserved Spanish, baroque-style buildings. The city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The city’s cobblestoned streets and high pavements are laid out as a square with cardinal point directions so that all roads grid out from the central square. At any street intersection, you can look in all directions and see the greenery of the mountains and surrounding volcanoes. This makes for an incredibly lush and green appearance.
The walls that face the streets are high and plain, and windows and entryways are usually covered. However, once you go through the entrance, you enter another world completely. There are stately mansions, hotels, convents, churches, and homes that are truly breath-taking in size and architecture.
We spent several hours just wandering up and down the various streets, purposefully heading to specific ruins, but enjoying the other buildings at the same time.
Antigua has been devastated by lava flows from the volcanoes and by seismic activity so many times, I am sure nobody has counted. There were major devastations in 1541, 1577, 1717, 1751 and 1776.
Each earthquake resulted in significant damage to the buildings of the city, famine and food shortages, disease and death, and inhabitants leaving resulting in a lack of manpower to rebuild. With time, people would return, start to rebuild, have fights and arguments with the colonial powers, and then start the cycle again with the next earthquake.
Thus, after the 1776 earthquake, the King of Spain ordered the city abandoned in 1776. For the next nearly 150 years, there were fewer than 3,000 residents, which resulted in the good preservation and maintenance of colonial architecture. Only in the early 1900s did people began to move back into the city.
The central fountain in the town square is surrounded by statues of breast feeding women, with water is flowing from their nipples, hands cupping the breasts as they would with a child.
The Cathedral of Saint James is located on the east side of the square, with the Palace of Justice on the south and commercial buildings to the north and west.
Obviously, the Catholic Church was very influential in the city’s history; thus there are many churches, monasteries, convents, as well as the cathedral.
However, it was thought in colonial times (maybe now too) that natural disasters were divine punishments for the sins of the people. Thus, there was constant battle with the church officials about rebuilding or building the various churches.
The cathedral was built over and over, starting in 1545, usually using debris from the previous destroyed building. It wasn’t designated as a cathedral until 1743. It is not a very interesting interior, and it is not set on the usual cross design. However, the church is under renovation, so perhaps the cross design is hidden.
The Museum of Colonial Art is housed in the original Royal and Pontifical University of San Carlos Borromeo, which was the third university of the Americas. It’s a square building with colonnades facing the center, and classrooms and exhibit halls around the courtyard.
When it started, in the 1600s, it only had 50 to 60 students, but offered degrees in canon law, medicine, theology and philosophy.
Today, the building houses exceptional pieces of art dating from the colonial period. The most significant are carved polychrome wood sculptures created by local artisans. It is really a great exhibit of this type of art (although not as good as at the museum in Casa de Domingo, the hotel that now occupies the old monastery).
A short walk away is the San Pedro Hospital, the first hospital in the region. It is associated with a monastery and church of San Juan de Dios, whose monks have worked at the site for the whole time. It is used as a hospital and clinic for the underserved or indigent populations of the municipality.
It’s also known for its care of children with cerebral palsy, with the sisters, nurses and volunteers working tirelessly to keep the children healthy and happy. It was a wonderful visit, although no photographs are allowed inside for patient privacy reasons.
In the park across the street from the hospital is a communal washing station. These were used in colonial times for washing of clothing. That tradition continues; it is a place where the local women can come and catch up on the news (gossip), share their stories, and get their laundry done. The stone buildings are covered, so they can continue to work, rain or shine.
Immediately behind this washing facility, is the Church and Convent of Santa Clara. Built in the 1700’s the convent and church have been devastated by the earthquakes. However, preservation and renovation of the facilities, allows for a very nice view of what the building would have looked like.
The nuns were guided by extremely strict rules and regulations related to poverty, penance and fasting, while still helping the poor. We spent a great deal of time climbing up the stairs, standing in the choir hall, strolling down the archways and enjoying the central fountain.
The carvings are still in good preservation, while the ability to see various ruins in various stages of either decay or restoration made for an interesting juxtaposition. This is truly one of the highlights of the city, and well worth the entry (approximately US$7).
To be continued in the next installment, next week!