In 1996, Jen Snyder and I, set off for Antigua, Guatemala for a month to go to school and learn Spanish. As I recall, it was Jen’s idea and I just tagged along. They put us in two different homes, so we could not speak English with one another, with local families, and we went to school each morning. Some afternoons the school provided little forays out into the surrounding areas and some afternoons, we just walked over to the beautiful town square for lunch or a coffee and to sit around and enjoy the water fountain and this lovely old town which was once the capital before Guatemala City.
Antigua Guatemala was once the most important seat of Spanish colonial government between Mexico City and Lima, Peru. Founded as Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala in 1527, it was destroyed by an eruption that swept down from the slopes of Volcán de Agua (“Volcano of Water”). The village that became reestablished on the site came to be called Ciudad Vieja (“Old City”). Another capital city with the name Santiago was constructed in 1542 near the site of Ciudad Vieja, and it became a thriving political, economic, religious, and cultural centre of some 60,000 persons. When Santiago was demolished by an earthquake in 1773, the capital was moved 28 miles (45 km) to the site of Nueva Guatemala (“New Guatemala”)—now Guatemala City—and Santiago became known as Antigua Guatemala (“Guatemala of Old”) or Antigua. (Encyclopedia Brittanica)
In 2018, when I did my first Around the World cruise, we stopped in Guatemala, but we were not able to go to Antigua because, yes… the volcano was erupting again, and roads were closed. So today, I have an opportunity to go back in time and visit a place I enjoyed so much twenty-four years ago. En route from our ship, you could see evidence of the destruction of the 2018 volcanic eruption. Homes were destroyed and just left there in pieces, empty and grey with ash like the earth around them. They are rebuilding the roads in that area, so there was also a lot of construction going on as well and these abandoned homes were being bulldozed into the earth.
I was excited to get to Antigua to see how much it had changed. And it had. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is amazing how this historical city has maintained many of its original features. It is much larger than I remembered. More shops and businesses as we drove into town, but the little narrow streets remained the same. We had to leave our big bus and get into smaller vehicles in order to get to the centre of town and when we got to the main square I was not disappointed. There was a sense of familiarity. The old fountain was still burbling and old men were sitting around gossiping. Local women were selling their wares – baskets on their heads and children at their sides. They had beautifully woven scarves, purses, and tableware, little worry dolls and hand made beaded jewellery. All with their Mayan heritage featured in their faces.
At the head of the square sits the beautiful old church, The Cathedral de Santiago, and the three other sides of the square, walls still painted in beautiful colours. There are businesses, restaurants and shops still occupying all the little rabbit hole spaces around the square.
Lunch was served on the grounds of the Santo Domingo Monastery, Casa Santa Domingo. It began life as the mainstay for one of the most important convents in the Americas. Those who lived in this sanctuary followed the order of Santo Domingo de Guzmán, and the monastery acted as a shelter for them. Its origins can be traced back to 1538 when the first Dominicans arrived in Guatemala, and during this time the monastery was a grand, two-towered, ten-belled building filled with riches and relics.
The church was partially destroyed in the 1773 earthquake and it was well on its way to being restored and becoming the five star hotel it is today when I last visited. They have done a wonderful job marrying the old with the new and keeping the integrity of the old. They have done so much more work since I last was there and I sense an obvious respect and pride in the work they have done. The ruins have been preserved, and threaded throughout them is a modern five star hotel. There is an outdoor theatre in what was once the old church. Everywhere you look it is beautiful. I once said, if I ever got married again, it would be at this venue. Well that’s not likely to happen, but I would certainly stay here if I ever return again.
NB – I remembered the corner where Jen & I used to come into the square and I asked our guide if I could go off and try to find my old house. But I was advised not to leave!! So, unlike me, I didn’t! And by the way, neither Jen nor I are fluent in Spanish today. That would be another good reason to return. But I am sure her memories are as fond as mine of this beautiful colonial town.