Saturday, December 13, 2014



These words of caution my sound extreme, but they are my way of warning you that the Spanish colonial city of Antigua in Guatemala is a seductively special place and should only be visited if you prepare yourself for what I call "AWESOME ANTIGUA."

I was captivated with Antigua from our initial visit. As tourists, my husband and I had visited Antigua with a group of local residents from Puerto Vallarta during Antigua's incredible Semana Santa (Easter Week) celebrations. It was some years later that we remembered its many attractive attributes and we couldn’t resist the allure. It did not take long to pack our bags leaving Mexico behind and move to Antigua for a new living experience.

Part of my fascination and immediate captivation with Antigua was from its appeal on a variety of levels, but especially the following:


All of these attributes excited me with so much to see, do, and learn. I felt as though Antigua was a living museum that I could explore and learn from just by walking out the door and onto its cobble stoned streets. Very simply, Antigua was my kind of place. So let’s visit Antigua!


ANTIGUA GUATEMALA (in Spanish meaning ANCIENT or OLD) was the former capital of Guatemala and is located in the central highlands of Guatemala. It is well-known for its well-preserved Spanish Baroque influenced architecture as well as a number of spectacular ruins of colonial churches. “ANTIGUA” was founded in 1542 by Spanish conquistadors and survivors from nearby Ciudad Vieja (Old City) which had been destroyed by a volcanic mud and debris flow and earthquake.

ANTIGUA GUATEMALA (“ANTIGUA”) became the third capital of Spanish Guatemala. During the seventeenth century Antigua flourished as one of the richest capitals of the New World rivaling both Lima and Mexico City. For more than 200 years it served as the seat of the military governor of th Spanish colonly of Guatemala, a large region that included almost all of present-day Central America and Chiapas, the southernmost State of Mexico. This stable period allowed the Spanish to build most of the colonial-era buildings, churches and plazas that still stand today in the centre of Antigua. By the 18th century its population was approximately 60,000 inhabitants.

ANTIGUA’S university was a center of the arts and learning, and its churches, convents, monasteries, public buildings, and residences were characterized by massive luxury until a devastating earthquake struck in 1773. ANTIGUA, dominated by the volcanoes Agua (water) (12,310 ft/3,752 m high), Acatenango (12,982 ft/3,957 m high), and Fuego (fire) (12,854 ft/3,918 m high), was continually subject to natural disaster from volcanic eruptions, floods, and earthquakes.

On September 29, 1717, an estimated 7.4 magnitude earthquake hit Antigua Guatemala and destroyed over 3,000 buildings. In 1773 a series of earthquakes leveled the city and the Spanish captain-general subsequently ordered the removal of the capital to an area supposedly free from earthquakes thereby founding Nueva Guatemala de la Asunción (New Guatemala of the Assumption) which is now known as Guatemala City, the current capital of Guatemala.

The badly damaged city of Santiago de los Caballeros, the original Spanish name for Antigua, was ordered abandoned although not everyone left the ruins of the city. The indigenous Maya who stayed renamed the city Antigua Guatemala (Ancient Guatemala). Slowly the inhabitants rebuilt their beloved city. When Guatemala gained its independence from Spain in 1823, Antigua was named the capital of the newly-created Sacatepequez Province within the Federation of Central America.

Eadweard Muybridge, Ruins of a Church, Antigua, Guatemala [1875] 
Over many years and many generations, Antigua was slowly rebuilt into the stunning colonial city it is today. Its principal monuments have been preserved largely as ruins and are an excellent example of Spanish colonial architecture. ANTIGUA, with its many fine Spanish colonial buildings, is also a commercial center for the area and a rich coffee-growing region.


Enough of the original Spanish colonial architecture survived the 1773 earthquake to enable Antigua to restore many buildings and churches. Though many of the colonial buildings and monasteries are still in ruins, they have been preserved “AS IS” and can be viewed while walking the streets of Antigua. Such is the value of this historic district that UNESCO designated Antigua  a World Heritage site in 1979.  All of this definitely qualifies Antigua to be in my “AWESOME” category!  

The architectural remains of the churches, buildings, and plazas reflect the history of Antigua with its Spanish influence from the colonial era. A countless number of churches, chapels, convents, monasteries, and estates are available for viewing when visiting Antigua. Living in Antigua allowed me to appreciate its history and culture as reflected by the surviving buildings and monuments. Each day was a new adventure and I loved wandering the streets. Here is a representation of what I would see on my walks. Additional photos are included in my Web Album which you will find at the end of this post.


A large part of my fascination and love of Antigua was it’s incredible public celebrations and pageantry. Most of these events were part of the Catholic tradition of this country. La Antigua is especially famous for its very elaborate religious celebrations during Lent (Cuaresma), leading up to Holy Week (Semana Santa) and Easter (Pascua). We were fortunate to witness this pageantry on three separate occasions and I would not hesitate to return for a fourth time.

ANTIGUA embraces thousands of travelers each year wanting to experience this world-famed Catholic celebration commemorating the Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The entire city participates in the solemn activities during the week with a joyous celebration on Easter. Spanish missionaries from Seville initiated this religious occasion during colonial times.

On Palm Sunday “andas” or floats with images of the Holy Virgin of Sorrow and Jesus of Nazareth are carried on the shoulders of purple-robed devotees. The floats weigh up to 7,000 pounds with 50-100 curcuruchas (penitents) or carriers bearing the weight. Funeral marching bands follow the floats with sounds of slowly beating drums, clapping cymbals and mournful sounding tubas. Thick incense creates a haunting fog. Crowds are silent as the solemn procession passes by.

Monday through Thursday similar processions parade through the streets in memory of Jesus’ final days. There is standing room only along the streets of Antigua with crowds awaiting each church’s arrival with their float. On Good Friday, the participants dress in black. A float with a sculpture of Jesus carrying the crucifix leads crowds of mourners who pray silently and offer penance. In the afternoon, preparations are made for a mock trial and sentencing of Jesus Christ. Participants are dressed as Roman soldiers and even Pontius Pilate is represented. Eventually floats covered with statues of the crucified Jesus come to rest at the church late in the night. This is an especially dramatic evening with the main plaza packed with participants and observers.

Holy Saturday’s processions are dedicated to images of the Virgin Mary of Sorrow. Women dress in their finest outfits and often wear high heels. Easter Sunday is a day of rejoicing the resurrection of Christ with fireworks, family meals, and celebrations continuing throughout the day.

One of the most special aspects of Holy Week are the elaborate alfombras (Arabic word for carpet) which adorn the cobbled streets between processions. Families and friends begin preparations weeks and months ahead of the festival to create these beautiful offerings.

Sand is first spread over the cobblestones to level them. Then dyed sawdust in hues of black, red, yellow, purple, blue, and green are pressed through intricately designed cardboard stencils. Flowers, seeds, plants, vegetables, and pine needles add the final touches to these temporary works of art. The carpets’ designs reflect biblical symbols, Mayan traditions, and scenes from nature.

During the course of the processions the marchers with their heavy floats trample the once-beautiful alfombras leaving only a flower mess behind. “Semana Santa” (Saint or Holy week) is a sensory experience that mingles Spanish and Mayan traditions. It is a fantastically moving experience and well worth the trip.

The third most important celebration after Easter and Christmas in Mexico and in the majority of indigenous Central American countries, including Guatemala, is in honor of the Catholic Virgin Mother Mary and is called DIA DE LA VIRGEN DE GUADALUPE (Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe). She is honored each year on December 12th.

The following excerp from Wikipedia I think is a good mini-introduction to the Virgin of Guadalupe:  Our Lady of Guadalupe (Spanish: Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe), also known as the Virgin of Guadalupe (Spanish: Virgen de Guadalupe), is the title given to the Virgin Mary.  Official Catholic accounts state that on the morning of December 9, 1531, Juan Diego saw an apparition of a young girl at the Hill of Tepeyac, near Mexico City. Speaking to him in Nahuatl, the girl asked that a church be built at that site in her honor; from her words, Juan Diego recognized the girl as the Virgin Mary. Diego told his story to the Spanish Archbishop of Mexico City, Fray Juan de Zumarraga, who instructed him to return to Tepeyac Hill, and ask the "lady" for a miraculous sign to prove her identity. The first sign was the Virgin healing Juan's uncle. The Virgin told Juan Diego to gather flowers from the top of Tepeyac Hill. Although December was very late in the growing season for flowers to bloom, Juan Diego found Castilian roses, not native to Mexico, on the normally barren hilltop. The Virgin arranged these in his peasant cloak or tilma.”


MORE OF THE LEGEND:  "According to legend the Dark Virgin of Guadalupe (aka Coatlaxopeuh and Tonantzin) appeared before the peasant Juan Diego only ten years after the Spanish conquest. The symbolism of the Virgin of Guadalupe can be interpreted from both indigenous and Spanish perspectives.Whether or not the Virgin of Guadalupe actually appeared to the indigenous peasant Juan Diego in 1531 at Tepeyac Hill is a question of faith. What is certain is that the cultural significance of her image for Latinos across the Americas is indelible.

According to anthropologists, the duality of her symbolism spoke to both Spanish and indigenous Nahauatl audiences in the sixteenth century. Her very name, Guadalupe is the Spanish pronunciation of the Nahuatl name Coatlaxopeuh, a Mesoamerican fertility goddess.The well-known image is, according to scholars, full of a number of symbols that strongly relate it with the culture and history of the indigenous people."  


Irregardless of personal beliefs or persuasions DIA DE LA VIRGEN DE GUADALUPE is one of the most important and celebrated occasions in Latin America and that is certainly true in Antigua. Every 12th of December in Guatemala on the Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe children throughout the country dress up in colorful, traditional indigenous costumes and carry an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe in local processions. Usually marimba music (the national instrument of Guatemala) and food stalls offering tradtional foods are part of the festivities.

In Antigua the celebrations take place in front of the beautiful baroque church of La Merced. Rustic mini-scenes backed by painted images of the Virgin are set up in front of the church and parents pose their children for photographs. The the boys have mustaches painted on their faces in honor of the peasant Juan Diego who saw the apparition of the Virgin in 1531 and the girls have little baskets tied to their heads and backs representing traditional indigenous custom. It is a very happy celebration with families and children participating. A more solemn celebration is also conducted at mass in the church. Without a doubt, Dia de la Virgen de Guadalupe is one of my favorite annual festivals.

I hope you have enjoyed your “mini” visit to AWESOME ANTIGUA with me. It has been a pleasure for me to also revisit this wonderful town. I realize there is so much more to share with you from this beautiful and interesting Spanish colonial city. But until then, I leave you with more photographs from the following PHOTO WEB ALBUM.


Please do not hesitate to contact me with any comments, suggestions, or questions. I may be contacted directly by email or by posting a comment on this blog page. Until next time, saludos and gracias, Laura  

                                                   Memories are just a click away!

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