Take a trip back to the time of the conquistadors in the incredibly preserved Antigua, former colonial capital of Guatemala
Walking into Antigua Guatemala is like walking onto the set of The Mask of Zorro. But where the absence of Catherine Zeta Jones or Antonio Banderas may disappoint, the scenery will not.
The former capital of Guatemala is an immaculately preserved (and restored) 18th-century colonial town. The first thing that hits you is the colours of the buildings, which are almost exclusively one-storey and organised strictly into a grid system that allows you to look from one end of a street right through to the main square at the centre of the town. The buildings are coloured bright yellows, oranges and blues, with terracotta and pale greens. These were the fashionable colours at the time the town was abandoned in 1773, after the last in a series of earthquakes destroyed bits of the town and it was deemed no longer fit to serve as the country’s capital.
For us tourists, this was a stroke of luck, because instead of developing into a huge metropolis, Antigua’s glory has been incredibly preserved. Former colonial mansions have been converted into small shops, stunning hotels and restaurants – the town even has a number of jade factories. But all conversions have kept the original appearance. Many decorative fountains remain, and vines and flowers grow up the verandas looking out over the traditional courtyards.
There’s no point driving in Antigua. The cobbled streets make any ride a bumpy one. Instead, Antigua is a place for wandering around and soaking up the atmosphere.
Some of the most special sights in the town are its churches. Several are huge cathedral-like structures and others are in ruins, with just the façade left standing. One of the largest churches is Iglesia de la Merced. It’s a giant yellow structure with white trimmings that elsewhere might look a bit like a giant wedding cake. However, surrounded by the other colonial buildings, it just works. The monastery attached to the church costs five quetzals to enter, but it’s worth a look. In the centre of the quad is a gorgeous fountain surrounded by climbing flowers with bright purple petals. The balcony overlooking the fountain has great views across Antigua and the fire volcano that towers over the town.
From here you can also peek into the monastery’s garden, where the monks (who have now moved to Guatemala City) used to grow avocados and oranges. The trees have been kept for Holy Week, when the monastery is filled with religious staff for the festivities.
The Cathedral de Santiago is the main cathedral and sits in the central town square. It’s actually just a façade and is faded white and quite ghostly – it’s very atmospheric at night when you can see it illuminated looking over the main square. On the other sides of the square are small shops and cafes.
Antigua is known for the coffee produced in the surroundings and at Café Constanza, on the main square, you can sample the home brew and have a huge slab of some pretty impressive cakes that are on offer. The café has a small food shop with homemade goodies like pineapple and papaya jam. You can also buy the ground coffee here to take home with you. There is also a small bookshop as part of the café, where you can buy handmade paper and other objects made from it - great for little presents.
The building the café is in is a former royal mansion. There is a legend that says that one of the Counts who lived in it returned from a voyage unexpectedly, to find his wife in a compromising position with their butler. During the reparations after the earthquake in 1976, a skeleton was found in one of the walls of the building – a man who had apparently been buried standing up. So it looks like the Count got his revenge.
A few doors down from the café is a small passageway that leads into a market hall. There are stalls here selling all sorts of touristy stuff. There are lots of Mayan textiles in various forms – cushion covers, chairs, magazine racks, tablecloths. There is also jewellery and novelty T-shirts.
Ceramics are big in Antigua, as is jade. There are several factories where you can take a tour (very quickly) to see how the jade is shaped and learn a bit about why it was so sacred for the Mayans. Then you’ll be shown into the shop (takes a bit longer) and you can try to resist some of the pieces they have. One advantage of buying jade at the factory is that you are assured that it is real. Often lots of different stones in markets across the country are hawked as jade, even if they aren’t worth a fraction of the price.
Away from the main square, a sight worth visiting is the Casa Santo Domingo monastery. The monastery has been carefully restored into three museums, a luxury hotel and a classy restaurant. Some amazing baroque relics that were discovered during the renovation of the property are on display in the archaeological museum. If you aim to see them towards the end of the day you can then go directly to dinner at the restaurant.
The whole of the interior of the hotel (the public bits at least) is lit with candles and very subtle uplighters. There are fountains everywhere, and the noise of running water, as well as the choral soundtrack that is played over subtly hidden speakers, does give you the impression of stepping back in time into the monastery. As gorgeous as the building is, the star of the show was the food. Although eating in the best restaurants in Guatemala can set you back London prices, the dishes are not relatively much more expensive here than elsewhere in Guatemala. The food is served Michelin-style on large white plates. Guatemalan beef is renowned for its flavour and the steak is packed with it. For some fun, order the piña colada fruit salad for dessert. It comes with a shot glass of dry ice that explodes steam over your salad when the waiter pours the piña colada syrup on it – just like the volcanoes nearby to the town.
Where to stay
Hotel Casa Santo Domingo: beautifully restored luxury hotel and restaurant.
Porta Hotel Antigua: this is a sleek hotel in a restored colonial mansion. The beds are plush, the gardens are immaculate and the original features of the building that have been preserved are stunning.
El Convento: this new boutique hotel is situated opposite an 18th-century Capuchin convent and has brick-vaulted ceilings and a serenic central quad.
Hotel Posada de Don Rodrigo: this hotel is the former mansion of the Governor of Antigua. It is rustically restored and has a resident marimba band for dancing into the night.