Monday, June 13, 2011

Guatemala Part 8a: Antigua, the colonial capital

Antigua's Catedral y Palacio Episcopal. The Cathedral and Bishop's Palace fill the east side of the Plaza Armas, the main plaza of Antigua. I took the photo above through one of the arches of the Palacio Ayuntamiento (City Hall) located on the north side. After our visit to Finca La Azotea, we stopped for 2 nights in Antigua. The small city of 70,000 was the colonial capital, known as Santiago de Guatemala until its destruction by an earthquake in 1773. After that disaster, Guatemala's top colonial official, known as the Captain General, ordered the capital to be moved to its current location in Guatemala City. The old capital became known as Antigua and was more or less abandoned for 100 years, leaving the ruins frozen in time. My source for a great deal of the information I present here is Elizabeth Bell's  "Antigua Guatemala, The City and Its Heritage." Anyone planning to visit Antigua should pick up a copy of her wonderful little book. For a Google map to locate Antigua in Guatemala, click here. For a map of Antigua itself, locating the various sites I will show in this and the next posting, click here.

Pool of the elegant Hotel Porta. The hotel was on the south end of town, but Antigua is not a large place, so we were within easy walking distance of anywhere we wanted to visit. Hotel Porta has several courtyards including this one, containing the pool just outside of our room. As with all of our accomodations on this Caravan Tour, Hotel Porta was comfortable with a touch of elegance. There is a sister hotel of the same name at Lake Atitlán.

Volcan Agua is one of three volcanoes that tower over Antigua. After photographing the pool, I looked up and saw the top of Volcan Agua (3752m/12,307ft) looming up through the early morning mists. This volcano and two more, Fuego (3835m/12,579ft) and Acatenango (3960m/13,000ft), surround the Valle de Panchoy (Valley of the Lake) that contains Antigua. While Volcan Fuego is the only one of the three that remains active, the entire area has been subject to earthquakes and floods as well as eruptions ever since the Spanish arrived in 1523, and probably long before that.

Antigua cops enjoy zooming around on their motocycle. These two local cops seemed to be having so much fun that I couldn't resist the photo. I am always startled by how many female police I have found in Mexico and now in Guatemala. I did not expect that, in a culture so steeped in machisimo, I would find women in such positions of authority. Perhaps things really are changing in Latin America.

Once a jewel of the Spain's New World Empire, now only a shadow of its former glory. The Cathedral once housed a huge complex that filled an entire city block and included the palace of the archbishop. In 1774, after the catastrophic earthquake of the year before, the cathedral was reestablished  Guatemala City. The present structure became the Parish of San Jose in the 19th Century, but only the entrance and two chapels remain in active service. The very first cathedral of Antigua was made of adobe and thatch and remained in that humble state for over 100 years. Finally, in 1680, a magnificent new building was constructed on the site, but it was mostly destroyed in the 1773 earthquake. Like much else in Antigua, the ruins were declared part of a national monument to the colonial era. The Cathedral once contained the tombs of several important founders of Antigua, including Pedro de Alvarado and Bernal Diaz del Castillo. Both were conquistadors who landed in Mexico with Hernán Cortéz and participated in the Conquest. Pedro de Alvarado went on to conquer Guatemala (which included most of Central America at that time) and ruled the area until he died, crushed by a horse, in 1541. Diaz del Castillo became a member of Guatemala's colonial Council. Late in life, he wrote "The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico" a gripping first-person account that is a primary source for anyone studying that period. When the box supposedly containing their remains was opened with much fanfare in 1980, officials were dismayed to discover that it contained only animal bones. The original remains had been looted, perhaps as much as 40 years before, the last time the box was officially opened.

Palacio Capitanes fills the south side of the plaza. The magnificent building above was the headquarters and residence of the Captains General of Guatemala. The Palacio was constructed piece-meal over a long period, beginning with a wooden, two-story structure begun in 1558 to contain the offices for taxation and control of the Maya. Five years later, in 1563, Bishop Francisco Marroquín sold his house to the Crown, thus allowing the Palacio to extend the full length of the south side of the plaza. The building was badly damaged in the earthquake of 1717, and again in 1751. Ten years later, in 1761, funds were finally granted for repairs. The facade we see today, with its 54 arches, was completed in 1764. At that time, the building housed the courts of justice, treasury, archives, chancery, and Council chamber. It provided workspace for a host of minor colonial bureaucrats, as well as the guard, the militia, a troop of dragoons, cells for prisoners, a torture room, and a chapel where condemned men could pray. At the time, the Palacio was lavishly decorated and furnished and was often used for grand social occasions. Apparently, the structure only suffered minor damage from the 1773 quake. However, the Captain General wanted--over strong opposition from the church and other local interests--to move the capital to a new location, so he may have exaggerated the Palacio's problems. He moved everything to Guatemala City and stripped Antigua's Palacio Capitanes to its bones. He even tried to take the pillars lining the facade, but they were too heavy and were left piled inside. Efforts to restore the old Palacio did not begin until the late 19th Century and went on fitfully for over 100 years. They continue even today.

Jorge and tourist police. Jorge Fuentes (far left), was our Caravan Tour director. Here he was introducing us to the local Tourist Police. They accompanied us as Jorge conducted a walking tour of Antigua's Centro Historico. Guatemala has a considerable problem with street crime, and Antigua is not immune. Jorge made sure throughout our visit to Guatemala that no one molested us. He is a very knowledgeable, expressive person, and is very detail-oriented. Should you ever have an opportunity to tour Guatemala with Caravan, count yourself lucky if Jorge is your tour director.

Mermaid on the Plaza Armas fountain. She is one of several that stand around the main fountain in the center of the plaza. For its first 150 years, the central plaza was little more than a dirt square, deep with mud during the rainy season. The first fountain was installed in 1561, but it was located to the side of the plaza so as not to interfere with bullfights or other festivities. Not until 1704 was the plaza was cobblestoned. The effect was to create a huge market with stalls whose haphazard arrangement impeded the passage of carriages. The City Council finally intervened and ordered that stalls be arranged in a way that wouldn't cause problems for those trying to pass through. In 1738, a new fountain was built at the center of the plaza, at the current location. The old one had been damaged by the 1717 quake. The new fountain contained charming mermaids. However, at the end of the 19th Century during fit of civic bad taste, these were decapitated and removed and a kiosco (bandstand) installed.  Apparently it was somewhat of an eyesore, because in 1936, the kiosco was removed and the fountain rebuilt, with replicas of the mermaids. The originals are on display at the Museum of Santiago, with the intent to show that the destruction experienced by Antigua over the centuries was not only from earthquakes and floods.

The Street of the Arch. The arch shown above connects two parts of the old Santa Catalina convent. The convent was begun in 1609 when the convent of the Capuchin nuns (covered in the next posting) became overcrowded. The nuns were cloistered, which means they were not allowed to be seen in public. The archway was constructed with stairs and an inside passage in order to allow them to cross from one building to the other without mingling among the people in the street. Miraculously, the arch survived numerous quakes but was in bad condition by the mid-19th Century. Because it had become such an icon of Antigua, public support grew to save it. In 1850, the Corregidor José María Palomo y Montúfar ordered it repaired, and probably added the clock at the same time. In the distance, through the arch, you can see La Merced Church and Monastery.

La Merced Church and Monastery. Maya women in traditional clothes pass the day at the plaza in front of the church. The Fathers of Merced arrived very early after Pedro de Alvarado conquered Guatemala. In fact they were the first religious order to do so. They were so attached to the church they built in the first capital, also called Santiago, that it took some time before they were able to build a new church in the new Santiago (now Antigua). Finally Bishop Marroquin persuaded the City Council to award them the present site on the northern edge of the city.  

La Merced closeup. The yellow paint of the exterior is lime-based and matches the kind and color used in colonial times. Repeated earthquakes and poor workmanship prevented the Fathers of Merced from finishing their church for almost 200 years. Finally, in 1749, they found the right architect in Juan de Dios Estrade. He was a man who had a firm grasp of the problems of building in earthquake zones. Thick walls with many buttresses, high small windows, and an overall low profile gave great strength. As a result, the church escaped almost unscathed during the devastating 1773 quake.

La Merced interior. The clean, white, and largely unadorned walls give the main sanctuary a classical appearance. Since it was built in a different architectural era from that in which it was restored, the church of 1773 would have had a much different look. Although La Merced survived the 1773 quake with flying colors, an aftershock a few months later did cause damage, and the church was abandoned in favor of an almost identical structure in the new capital of Guatemala City. The Antigua church was stripped of its interior decorations and left to molder away. In 1850, Corregidor José María Paloma y Montúfar once again came to the rescue and ordered a restoration. 

La Merced side chapel. This chapel was decorated with a colorful alfombra (carpet) made of painted sawdust and flower petals. Although requiring great skill and much time to create, alfombras are temporary, and devoted to the celebration of particular religious fiestas. Placed around the edge of the alfombra are various kinds of squash including pumpkins.

Maya family at La Merced's entrance. This mother and her children were selling colorful textiles and votive candles. Since we had no need for either, they gracefully accepted our propina (tip) in return for taking their photograph. The little girl on the left and her brother behind her hold dollars they collected from us. We have often found poor families eking out a living selling trinkets at church entrances in both Guatemala and Mexico. US dollars can sometimes be used in place of quetzals, the local currency.

Posada Don Rodrigo, built as a home in the 18th Century. After looking over La Merced, we toured Posada Don Rodrigo, and 18th Century home turned into a hotel and restaurant. The old home was constructed with multiple courtyards, including this one with its lovely fountain.

Courtyard of Posada Don Rodrigo. Surrounding the courtyard were covered walkways draped with beautiful plants. Notice the tile work at the base of the wall. Colonial craftsmen used similar tile work on the ceiling of the walkway between the rafters.

Antique marimba. I found this ancient instrument hanging on the wall of the passageway surrounding the courtyard. The gourds dangling from the keys help produce the sound. Marimbas probably originated in Africa and were brought to Guatemala by black slaves.

Another courtyard fountain at Posada Don Rodrigo. This structure has the look of something practical, not just decorative. I am still trying to determine what its function might have been in the household. Whatever its original use, it certainly provides a beautiful centerpiece to this lovely garden.

Mannequins at the entrance of Posada Don Rodrigo's restaurant. The costumes are used in traditional dances. These are supposed to represent the clothing of the Spanish conquerors and are used during a re-enactment of the clash between the Spanish conquistadors and the Maya Quiche. The dance where they are worn is normally performed in Chichicastenango on December 21 during the fiesta of Santo Tomás. (My thanks to Jorge for emailing me this background detail). 

Ruin of Hermitage San Jose el Viejo.  Just down the street from Hotel Porta, we found this old ruined "Hermitage." It was originally built to house a statue of San Jose (St. Joseph) sculpted by Alonso de Paz. The faithful raised funds beginning in 1740 and began construction but neglected to seek the appropriate permit from the authorities. Officials were annoyed by this neglect of procedure and denied the permit. The partially completed building sat unused until 1759, when Antigua officials finally relented. The Hermitage was completed in 1763, and apparently suffered little damage from the 1773 quake. However, the pressure from the Captain General on the inhabitants of Antigua to leave and come to Guatemala City caused the gradual abandonment of the old city, along with the relatively undamaged San Jose el Viejo.

Detail of the Hermitage. San Jose Viejo continued as a religious structure for a while, temporarily housing Carmelite nuns. Then, in the 19th and early 20th Centuries it was used as a tannery and later as a barn. When the restoration movement got underway in the middle of the 20th Century, the Hermitage was recognized as one of the small jewels of Antigua. During the evenings we were in Antigua, the old ruin was floodlit very attractively.

This completes the first of two parts of my postings on Antigua, Guatemala. Next week, we will show some of the other ruined churches and convents. If you would like to comment on this or any other posting, please either use the Comments section below, or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Nice posting. I was surprised to see the woman police, and she was driving! Hooray!

    I do love the courtyards and architecture that includes outside as well as inside (hope that makes sense).

  2. I lived in La Antigua when I first came to Guatemala and recognized right away the beautiful courtyard at Don Rodrigo's. Thanks for posting! Now I live at lovely Lake Atitlan, but always remember my early days in Antigua. It's a walking museum everywhere you go!


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim