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Thursday, November 4, 2004

In 1543, Antigua became the capital of Guatemala after Ciudad Vieja, the then capital, flooded. During the 17th and 18th centuries, no expense was spared on the city's wonderful buildings. At its height, it had 38 churches, including a cathedral.

The great earthquake of 1773 destroyed Antigua, which had endured much damage from previous quakes. The capital was moved again, this time to Valley of the Virgin, the present-day Guatemala City. Antigua was largely but not totally abandoned and plundered. However, thanks to those who remained, it began to grow again in around 1830. That's when it became known as Antigua Guatemala (Old Guatemala). Renovation of its battered buildings kept the colonial character of Antigua and in 1944 it was declared a national monument. In 1979 it became a World Heritage Site.

Central America's first printing press was installed in 1660 and many outstanding literary and journalistic works were printed. In 1676, the Royal and Pontifical University of San Carlos was founded in Antigua, the New World's third university after Mexico City and Lima. Students were able to obtain degrees in theology, arts, law and medicine.

Antigua's grandeur can be found in its architecture, sculpture and painting. Many artisans left their mark, making it a centre of the arts and culture which influenced all of the Americas. The charming colonial ambience remains and while many public buildings were restored, others have been left in ruins, testimony to their ancient splendour and nature's sometimes destructive forces.

The city's most noticeable landmarks are its three volcanoes, Volcans Fuego, Agua and Acatenango. Agua, particularly, can be seen from almost everywhere in the city and is relatively easy to climb. It has marvellous views of the Antigua Valley and Lake of Amatitlan and on clear days, you can see Guatemala City and the Pacific coast. An excellent view is to be had from Cerro de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross), but because of mugging incidents, police provide a free escort to those wishing to go there.

Catedral de Santiago has had many incarnations. Built in 1542, it was demolished and rebuilt between 1669 and 1680, destroyed in the 1773 earthquake, severely damaged by others and partly rebuilt between 1780 and 1820. The current cathedral is really a parish church, so much smaller than the original that it occupies only the entrance hall of the 17th-century version. Visitors can still get a sense of how it once might have been by looking at the ruined columns, arches and underground crypts.

The façade of La Merced church features intricate patterns in white stucco on a yellow background. It is an excellent example of the squat architectural style popular by necessity. Churches built in Mexico in the same period have soaring towers, as the area was not as seismically challenged. It was severely damaged in 1773, but was repaired and remains in service today. Many of its original grand altars and furnishings were taken to the new Mercedarian church when the capital was moved to Guatamala City. Its monastery was never replaced, but Fuente de Pescados (Fountain of the Fish) remains and with a 24.5-metre diameter, is the largest of Antigua's many fountains.

La Merced is the start and end point for the famous Good Friday procession of Antigua. It involves a cast of thousands, including Roman centurions and cavalry, self-flagellating penitents, Pontius Pilate, the two thieves, statues of saints and of Christ in various stages along the via Dolorosa. High Catholic officials walk with attendants swinging censers, while bands play funereal marches. Women walk bearing statues of the Virgin Mary.

The procession takes eight hours to pass the streets which have been covered with alfombras, or carpets, made of flowers, brightly dyed sawdust and pine needles. They are laid out in the most intricate of patterns and take hours to create.

The climax of the procession is the appearance of the gigantic float of Christ carrying the cross. Eighty bearers step in unison, giving the illusion that the statue is actually walking.

For those wishing to learn to speak Spanish, there could be no more beautiful place than the San Jose del Viejo School. With a backdrop of the ancient San Jose hermitage, wonderful ruins and thick, colourful foliage, students arrive from around the world to soak up the surroundings and enjoy the one-on-one intensive method of instruction which originated in Antigua.

The Hotel Casa Santo Domingo, once a spiritual home, has 97 rooms, gardens, pool, fountains, plazas, patios, arched ceilings and corridors. It remained underground for over two centuries and emerged to provide a beautiful place of peace. It houses one of the most complete collections of Guatemalan religious figures from colonial times. There are many reminders of the 17th-century Dominican friars and it is has not been affected by passing years or natural disasters.


Guatemala in Central America


World Expeditions has a 13-day Guatemala Adventure, starting in Guatemala City, including two days in Antigua, most meals, guides, transfers, twin-share accommodation and entrance fees for $2990 per person.
Qantas flies daily to Los Angeles, with American Airlines connections to Guatemala City, starting at $3665 from Sydney, $3751 from Melbourne, $3754 from Brisbane, $4051 from Adelaide, $4483 from Darwin and $4557 from Perth, per person. Prices include charges/taxes and are current at time of writing but may vary at time of booking. Seasonal surcharges and conditions apply.

More Information

World Expeditions
Level 5, 71 York Street, Sydney 2000
Ph: 1300 720 000
Fax: (02) 9279 0566

Spanish School San Jose el Viejo
5a Avenida Sur 34, Antigua Guatemala

Casa Santo Domingo Hotel
3ª Calle Oriente No 28 "A", Antigua Guatemala
Ph: 502 832 3028
Fax: 502 832 3029


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