Cobbled streets, rust coloured buildings and terracotta roofs combine with a unique Mayan heritage to make Antigua Guatemala’s premier tourist destination. This UNESCO world heritage site has survived multiple earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and social shifts. It is a wonder that this beautifully preserved colonial centre survives to this day. The town has developed a cosmopolitan vibe, with a number of Spanish language schools in the town, combined with an eclectic mix of expats, locals and tourists.
Any first time visitor will naturally gravitate to the Parque Central. This expansive square is the heart of the town, shaded by lush vegetation and framed by classic colonnaded buildings. These colonnades are a popular spot for people watching, especially when the heat is too much. On the east side of the Square lies the Catedral de Santiago. Up a short flight of steps, the Cathedral dominates the Square. Inside, the altar shimmers in gold and one cannot but help to look up at its immense sense of scale.
Antigua is a beautifully walkable place, and not far away from the Parque Central is 5 Avenida Norte and the iconic Santa Catalina Arch. Built as a passageway for nuns to walk between two parts of the original convent unseen, it is now the emblematic Instagram image of Antigua. Its mellow yellow colour and colonial flourishes contrasts against the deep forested mountains and volcanic peak behind. The pavements are a chaotic throng of tourists, and sellers of traditional woven crafts who venture into the town from the rural hinterland to sell their wares. Each building has a different pastel shade, each doorway is uniquely decorated, making the street a feast for the eyes. At the top of 5 Avenida Norte is the stunning church of La Merced. Accessed via a pretty palm fringed square, its amazingly intricate façade is a reminder of the riches of the colonial era. Inside, the Church is quiet and cool, the perfect antidote to the streets outside. The relative simplicity of La Merced’s interior is perfectly juxtaposed against the golden intensity of its altar.
Antigua is an aide-memoire of the Mayan civilisation and its lasting mystique. This civilisation, so advanced for its age and whose presence has shaped the Central America that we know today, mysteriously disappeared. The Mayan culture however lives on through towns such as Antigua.
The essence of Antigua is best experienced through a gentle meander through its streets, soaking up ordinary life carrying on around the tourists. Guatemala is a culturally rich country, with immensely friendly people. Antigua is very much Guatemala personified. Whilst the town might be more sanitised and gentrified than it may well have been twenty years ago, it is still very much a pulsating and energetic town, and is far from being a museum for tourism. The constant flow of traffic and motorbikes remind the visitor that life carries on here around the tourists, and that is the way it should be.
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