Antigua, the capital of the Captaincy-General of Guatemala, was founded in the early 16th century. Built 1,500 m above sea-level, in an earthquake-prone region, it was largely destroyed by an earthquake in 1773 but its principal monuments are still preserved as ruins. In the space of under three centuries the city, which was built on a grid pattern inspired by the Italian Renaissance, acquired a number of superb monuments.
Homestead in ruins of a colonial Spanish building; Volcanes de Fuego (erupting on left) and Acatenango visible in distance
The city had a peak population of some 60,000 in the 1770s; the bulk of the population moved away in the late 18th century. Despite significant population growth in the late 20th century, the city had only reached half that number by the 1990s. According to the 2007 census, the city has some 34,685 inhabitants.
Antigua Guatemala means "Ancient Guatemala" and was the third capital of Guatemala. The first capital of Guatemala was founded on the site of a Kakchikel-Maya city, now called Iximche, on Monday, July 25, 1524—the day of Saint James—and therefore named Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Goathemalan (City of Saint James of the Knights of Guatemala). Naturally, St. James became the patron saint of the city.
Façade of the former El Carmen church
After several Kaqchikel uprisings, the capital was moved to a more suitable site in the Valley of Almolonga (place of water) on November 22, 1527, and kept its original name. This new city was located on the site of present-day San Miguel Escobar, which is a neighborhood in the municipality of Ciudad Vieja. This city was destroyed on September 11, 1541 by a devastating lahar from the Volcán de Agua. As a result, the colonial authorities decided to move the capital once more, this time five miles away to the Panchoy Valley. So, on March 10, 1543 the Spanish conquistadors founded present-day Antigua, and again, it was named Santiago de los Caballeros. For more than 200 years it served as the seat of the military governor of the Spanish colony of Guatemala, a large region that included almost all of present-day Central America and the southernmost State of Mexico: Chiapas. In 1566 King Felipe II of Spain gave it the title of "Muy Noble y Muy Leal" ("Very Noble and Very Loyal").
On September 29, 1717, an estimated 7.4 magnitude earthquake hit Antigua Guatemala, and destroyed over 3,000 buildings. Much of the city's architecture was ruined. The damage the earthquake did to the city made authorities consider moving the capital to another city.
In 1773, the Santa Marta earthquakes destroyed much of the town, which led to the third change in location for the city. The Spanish Crown ordered, in 1776, the removal of the capital to a safer location, the Valley of the Shrine, where Guatemala City, the modern capital of Guatemala, now stands. This new city did not retain its old name and was christened Nueva Guatemala de la Asunción (New Guatemala of the Assumption), and its patron saint is Our Lady of the Assumption. The badly damaged city of Santiago de los Caballeros was ordered abandoned, although not everyone left, and was thereafter referred to as la Antigua Guatemala (the Old Guatemala).
As of 1850, Antigua had an estimated population of 9,000.
Central Park (Parque Central) is the heart of the city. The reconstructed fountain there is a popular gathering spot. Off to the side of the Central Park, the Arco de Santa Catalina is among the many notable architectural landmarks of La Antigua.
La Antigua is noted for its very elaborate religious celebrations during Lent (Cuaresma), leading up to Holy Week (Semana Santa) and Easter (Pascua). Each Sunday in Lent, one of the local parishes sponsor a Procession through the streets of Antigua. Elaborate and beautiful artistic carpets predominantly made of dyed sawdust, flowers, pine needles and even fruits and vegetables adorn the processions' path.
Due to its popularity amongst tourists and its very well developed tourism infrastructure, Antigua Guatemala is often used as a central location in which many choose to set up base and from here, visit other tourist areas in Guatemala and Central America. Cruise ships that dock at Guatemalan ports offer trips to Antigua from both the Pacific and Atlantic. Antigua also holds a sizeable retirement community from the US as well as Europe, drawn by its colonial charm and mild climate.
Antigua is known as a destination for people who want to learn Spanish through immersion. There are many Spanish language schools in Antigua, and it is one of the most popular and best recognized centers for Spanish language study by students from Europe, Asia and North America. Language institutes are one of the primary industries of Antigua, along with tourism.
Antigua GFC football club has played in the Guatemala top division for several years but have been playing in the second division lately. Their home stadium is the Estadio Pensativo which has a capacity of 9,000. They are nicknamed Los panzas verdes ("Green bellies").
There are many restaurants in Antigua. Many small eateries can be found at the Antigua marketplace, next to the central bus stop, as well as adjoining the main market and within it. Mediterranean, Italian, Asian, American, and traditional Guatemalan cuisines are represented.
Antigua is a growing tourist destination in Guatemala as it is close to Guatemala City but is much calmer and safer, with more tourist oriented activities. It is possible to take buses from Antigua to many parts of Guatemala, many travel agencies offer shuttles to the main touristic places: Monterrico beach, Atitlan Lake, Coban, Lanquin (Semuc Champey), Tikal or even Copan in Honduras, though the transportation is more central in Guatemala City. Antigua is also known for its chocolate makers and all the ruins that are part of it.
Important ruins and other tourist attractions
Arch connecting two parts of old Convent, Volcán de Agua in background
Three large volcanoes dominate the horizon around Antigua.
The most commanding, to the south of the city, is the Volcán de Agua or "Volcano of Water", some 3,766 metres (12,356 ft) high. When the Spanish arrived, the inhabitants of the zone, Kakchikel Mayas, called it Hunapú (and they still do). However, it became known as Volcán de Agua after a lahar from the volcano buried the second site of the capital, which prompted the Spanish authorities to move the capital to present-day Antigua. The original site of the 2nd capital is now the village San Miguel Escobar.
To the west of the city are a pair of peaks, Acatenango, last erupted in 1972, some 3,976 metres (13,045 ft) high, and the Volcán de Fuego or "Volcano of Fire", some 3,763 metres (12,346 ft) high. "Fuego" is famous for being almost constantly active at a low level. Steam and gas issue from its top daily, a larger eruption occurred in September 2012.