The capital of Guatemala for over two hundred years until 1176, Antigua is one of the best preserved Spanish colonial cities in the world. Ironically this is thanks to the 1773 earthquake, one of twenty to strike the capital, after which the capital was relocated to Guatemala City.
The city has retained the original grid layout and boundaries, best viewed from the lookout at Cerro de la Cruz, particularly in the mornings when it is generally clearer. Volcán Agua (Volcano of Water) is a presence everywhere in Antigua, which combined with single story buildings (due to earthquake risk) makes it hard to get too lost.
The classic view of Volcán Agua is through the Arco de Santa Catalina.
There are a couple more active volcanoes close by. Volcán de Fuego in particular lives up to its name of Volcano of Fire, and is neighboured by Volcán Acatenango, which people camp overnight on to view Volcán de Fuego eruptions. These happen most days, providing quite a dramatic sight and sounds.
Casa Popenoe is the best place to understand the history of Antigua, both when it was the capital, and its more recent preservation, leading it to become a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. Originally built only about a decade before the capital was relocated, the house was bought by the American Popenoe in the early twentieth century. He and his wife restored it and opened it to visitors, even while living in the house. It’s now open by guided tour, which needs to be booked at least the day before, but for anyone interested in history and architecture it is a must visit.
Antigua is filled with churches ruined by earthquakes, which I found fascinating to explore. At the peak there were 60 major churches and monasteries in a city of 60,000, which makes more sense when you understand that during Spanish times the state of Guatemala covered nearly the whole of Central America (down to Panama) and parts of Mexico, so it was an important capital.
One of the best preserved facades belongs to El Carmen in the centre of town.
Another is at Santa Clara, which was the first church ruins I visited. The ruins are similar to a degree, but I found them endlessly fascinating in their differing design, scale, gardens and state of ruin.
San Francisco is one of the most popular ruins, with lovely gardens, and is the cheapest at Q8 ($1) versus Q40 ($5) for the others.
Santa Domingo was the most eclectic, with part of the ruins turned into a luxury hotel and wedding venue, and other areas into museums.
Las Capuchinas was my least favourite but this large circular space had wonderful acoustics.
La Recoleccion is on the edge of town, past the markets, but was well worth the ten minute walk to have the place to myself. One of the most ruined sites, it demonstrates the power of earthquakes against huge stone buildings.
There are a few churches that have survived more intact, the most complete being the bright yellow La Merced, attractive by day and night.
The facade and part of the Cathedral of Saint James has been turned into San José Parish, much smaller on the inside than out. This is in Parque Central, the main square, home to an unusual fountain.
A common sight around town are the chicken buses, reused American school buses given a more colourful appearance.