Antigua Guatemala – not to be confused with the Caribbean island of the same name – is one of the best colonial cities you can visit in Latin America. Countless backpackers have fallen for its charm and are still working its hostel bars months, if not years later. It’s also a great place to take up a course in Spanish and a good base for activities like the Pacaya Volcano hike.
As with any other city that was influenced by the Spaniards in the 17th and 18th centuries, there’s an impressive example of ecclesiastical architecture around almost every corner. Some of the churches are well preserved, while others have suffered major structural damage caused by earthquakes. The best way to get around is on foot, and since the streets are laid out in a grid pattern, it’s difficult to lose your way.
ANTIGUA GUATEMALA: WHAT TO SEE
IGLESIA Y CONVENTO DE NUESTRA SEÑORA DE LA MERCED
Along with Santa Catalina Arch, this church is one of the most recognisable buildings in Antigua Guatemala. It’s been damaged repeatedly by earthquakes but, thanks to repair works, is in reasonably good condition. The huge fountain inside the neighbouring monastery ruins is possibly the largest in Latin America. Its water lily shape can be viewed more clearly my ascending the stairs inside the church.
Although I’ll forever remember this small central park as the place where I received the most painful bee sting imaginable, it does hold a lot of appeal. There are a few souvenir stalls in the centre, as well as a famous fountain. It’s also a regular spot for live music in the evenings. Surrounding it are the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, Catedral de Santiago, Museo del Libro Antiguo and Museo de Arte Colonial. The cathedral is the most interesting of these. It looks quite grand and impressive from the outside, but if you enter, you’ll find that, once again, past earthquakes have incurred their wrath. Make sure you look up through the open ceiling and check out the little gardens that have sprung up among the ruins. There’s also a ‘graveyard’ of rubble, where ornate pillars have been laid to rest.
IGLESIA DE SAN FRANCISCO
While it’s pretty to look at, this 16th century church has been destroyed so many times that very little of the original architecture remains. If you want to have a peek inside, be aware that photography is banned. Check out the gated garden which is the resting place of a monk who founded a hospital for the poor. There’s also usually a decent market just outside selling bags, jewellery and other souvenirs.
IGLESIA Y CONVENTO DE LA RECOLECCION
If you read up about this place and find that it was destroyed in the 1773 earthquake, you might not think it’s worth visiting, but the fact that it now lies in ruins makes it more fascinating to explore. For a small fee, you can roam the grounds, walk around the only walls that remain standing and clamber to your heart’s content over the rubble.
CERRO DE LA CRUZ
While walking around Antigua Guatemala during the day by yourself feels pretty safe, Cerro de la Cruz is the one place that usually comes with a caution. Although the path is quite well trodden and you’ll probably sense that there’s safety in numbers, muggings are frequent. The Lonely Planet recommends that you take a tourist police escort, but if you go up with a local guide you should be fine. As the name suggests, Cerro de la Cruz is a cross on a hill and, as you might imagine, the views of the city, and the volcanoes that surround it, are fantastic.
Never underestimate the value of simply strolling along whichever street takes your fancy and observing local life. While Antigua is steeped in history, it’s important not to miss out on what the city has to offer right now. From cosy second-hand book stores to quaint cafes, huge food markets and a buzzing nightlife, there’s plenty more to explore once you’ve had your fix of churches.