Antigua Guatemala UNESCO World Heritage Site

A Laidback Tour of Colonial Antigua Guatemala

A leisurely tour through the unspoiled atmosphere of colonial Antigua is a feast for your senses. Combine well-preserved colonial buildings, pastel coloured homes and cobblestone streets with the spontaneity of ferreting out undiscovered tourist treasures and you have the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is Antigua Guatemala.

Time was almost suspended in the colonial core of Guatemala’s former capital after an earthquake struck the city on July 29, 1773. Many of the current structures are essentially unchanged since the 18th century and they are yours to enjoy on your own walking tour. Did I mention that the colonial core is also renowned for its walkability?

Our New Book

Begin at Central Park and the Cathedral of San Jose

All walking tours of the colonial core begin at the Central Park. This urban oasis is filled with well-established shade trees and the Fountain of the Sirens at its center. Before you begin your walking tour, purchase a cup of fresh Guatemalan coffee from one of the nearby coffee shops and then look for that special park bench with your name on it. The locals mill around you; children play; birds sing; and all of your cares seem to vanish as you look at the old Spanish-style structures surrounding the park.

When you have worked up enough energy to actually exert yourself, walk across the street to the Cathedral of San Jose. The white baroque facade of this holy structure makes this the most attractive building adjoining the park. A number of statues set in the facade almost appear to beckon you inside; but as you approach you find that many of these statues, including the Virgin of the Assumption and the twelve Apostles, actually have no hands. It is not clear how this arose.

The off-white interior of the cathedral almost forces you to direct your attention to the apse where golden columns are set behind the altar. Our visit coincided with Corpus Christi so the statue of Jesus carrying his cross was adorned in a green-blue robe.

The cathedral was badly damaged in the 1773 earthquake and only partially reconstructed after. You soon realize how huge the previous structure was when you walk around to the rear and find that the present cathedral only occupies a fraction of its original allotted space. Large fragments from the former structure remain in the original spots where they came crashing down almost 250 years ago. Plaster has now spalled off much of the original standing walls and you see the light brown brick from which they were constructed now exposed to the elements. A number of the original statues still remain in the pendatives set high up under the remnants of the former dome. You can also descend into the crypt where you find a soot-covered statue of a crucified Christ straddled by an unidentifiable statue on either side.

Antigua Guatemala UNESCO World Heritage Site
Also facing the Central Park is the town hall inside the Palacio Del Noble Ayuntamiento. This stone structure emerged unscathed from the earthquake of 1773. Typical of most Spanish-style buildings, there is an inner courtyard. This one is surrounded by municipal offices. Ascending to the second floor you can walk along an outer balcony. After admiring the view of the park below, look through the window at the city council chamber. The far wall inside this room features pictures of what appear to be seven past mayors. They sternly oversee today’s elected representatives. The Palacio Del Noble Ayuntamiento also houses two municipal museums but our visit was on a Sunday so these were not open.

5ta Avenida Norte

Leaving the vicinity of the Central Park, walk up the street named 5ta Avenida Norte, lined with single story pastel colored homes, to the Hotel Posada del Don Rodrigo La Antigua and enjoy its colonial decor. Stepping inside this hotel for a quick look around, you find a dimly lit museum room with a colonial era wooden table and ten chairs. A wooden chandelier hangs down from a dark wooden ceiling. An adjoining museum room named El Hostal de Capitan Tuerto is filled with colonial bedroom furnishings that you can only see through a window in the door.

A cobblestoned outer courtyard featuring a well-established shade tree beckons you inside. You may wish to spend a few tranquil moments away from the busy street outside. The adjoining inner courtyard was off limits at the time of our visit because of a private function.

Exit the hotel and pass under the pastel yellow colored Arch of Santa Catalina which is crowned with a clock tower. This arch once linked a convent on the west side of the street with a school on the opposite side so that the cloistered nuns did not have to come into contact with the general populace according to their strict rules of seclusion. Presumably there is a walkway set inside arch through which the nuns could cross the street unseen but I was unable to confirm this. The convent has long since been closed and the site is now a hotel/restaurant.

Antigua Guatemala UNESCO World Heritage Site
On the other side of the arch, colorfully dressed local women smile and entice you to purchase their handicrafts. But they are not the only distraction. While this street is closed to motor vehicles on the weekend you will likely see horse-drawn wagons ambling by, laden with tourists.

Church and Convent of Nuestra Senora de la Merced

Continue on down the road one more block to the Church and Convent of Nuestra Senora de la Merced. This baroque monastery church has the most decorative facade of any building in the city. The bright yellow walls are decorated with stuccoed patterns of white leaves, flowers and corn cobs. Your eyes are immediately drawn to the focal point of the exterior facade which is the statue of the Virgin of Mercy high above the front entrance of the church. The interior walls of the church are off-white in color except for the golden apse. The cross behind the altar is straddled by two angels with Mary elevated above it.

The interior courtyard of the monastery showcases a well-manicured a garden with a fountain in the shape of a water lily at its center. Four stone walkways lead up to the fountain which was originally designed for fish farming. Perhaps these walkways symbolize the four rivers flowing from the Garden of Eden. You may wish to spend a few contemplative minutes here and enjoy the serenity of this courtyard before resuming your sightseeing.

Wander aimlessly along any street and see what else you might discover such as the well-used hand laundry across from the Convent of Santa Clara. Not in use at the time of our discovery, the lavadaria conjures up images of pilgrims from distant corners of the country washing their clothes before entering the nearby church. On the other hand perhaps it is only the locals who make use of the row of well-worn gray stone wash basins set under a roof.

Hidden treasures await you around every corner, behind the door of any church, business or restaurant. El Sitio was a restaurant that was under renovation at the time of our visit. This property featured a beautiful shady courtyard with a white seashell-like fountain on the wall. This was another urban oasis that Diane had to pry me away from because I was feeling particularly lazy that day; and something tells me I haven’t exhausted all of the sites in the city where I can recharge my batteries. There are so many possible locations where I can just relax in Antigua that I may seriously consider retiring here some day.

If You Go

  • Your flight will bring you to international airport at Guatemala City. After clearing customs, take a shuttle to Antigua which is about one hour away.
  • Antigua is cool at night so remember to bring a coat.
  • Admission to the Palacio del Noble Ayuntamiento is free.
  • El Arco (the Arch of Santa Catalina) is located on 5ta Avenida Norte between 1ra and 2da Avenida Poniente.
  • The church and convent of Nuestra Senora de la Merced is located at 6ta Avenida Norte and 1ra Calle Poniente. Admission to the church is free. Admission to the convent is fee-based.
  • The Convent of Santa Clara is located at La Calle Oriente and Calle de Los Pelligrinos and the lavadaria is just across the street.
  • El Sitio is located at 15 6 Calle Poniente.

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Troy Herrick, a freelance travel writer, has traveled extensively in North America, the Caribbean, Europe and parts of South America. His articles have appeared in Live Life Travel, International Living, Offbeat Travel and Travels Thru History Magazines.

Diane Gagnon, a freelance photographer, has traveled extensively in North America, the Caribbean, Europe and parts of South America. Her photographs have accompanied Troy Herrick’s articles in Live Life Travel, Offbeat Travel and Travels Thru History Magazines.

All photos by Diane Gagnon

Published: July 2, 2015

© 2015