The Prettiest City in Guatemala

The Prettiest City in Guatemala

Antigua sits on a plain surrounded by low hills and three tall volcanoes. When we were here a few weeks ago (before our detour into southern Honduras), we managed to take some pictures of them. Now, although the house we’re looking after has windows facing all three volcanoes, you can barely see them through the haze. The air is muggy, and wind whips up the dust that has accumulated in the streets through months of dry season. Everything needs a good soaking, but apparently the rains are still about a month away.

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The word “antigua” means “former” or “old.” The town’s full name is “La Antigua Guatemala (City).” This place was Spain’s colonial capital for all of Central America from the 1500s to the late 1700s, when a series of earthquakes wreaked so much havoc that the powers-that-be moved the capital a few valleys over to what is now Guatemala City. Antigua languished for almost two centuries, until Guatemalans and expatriates rediscovered its crumbling charms, and money for preservation poured in.

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What makes Antigua so pretty is the buildings. This is the first place we’ve seen in Central America that reminds us of southern Spain: cobblestone streets (a beast to drive on but lovely to look at), low buildings stuccoed and painted white or earth tones (mustard yellow, ocher, brick red), with clay tile roofs, wooden doors and eaves, and decorative iron grilles over the windows. The fancier houses open inward, Moorish-style, to courtyards with fountains and flowers and covered walkways on all sides, like cloisters, where the inhabitants could live and work out of the sun but in the open air.

Amid all of the old Spanish feeling are unexpected Baroque touches. Turn a corner and you’ll find the ruined facade of a Baroque church rising high above the houses and shops around it. For some reason, although most of Antigua’s residential structures have been lovingly restored, many of its 17th- and 18th-century churches and convents are still in ruins. Some of the churches that have been preserved are painted bright yellow with white plaster trim, making them look like elaborately iced lemon cakes.

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As it that weren’t picturesque enough, Antiqua is currently draped in purple bunting for Lent. The 40 days leading up to Easter are a big deal in this town. Every weekend, parish churches host religious processions through the downtown streets—brass bands, marchers in purple Arab-style robes, immense amounts of incense, and floats with ornately dressed statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary carried on parishoners’ shoulders like huge coffins. These processions are much less solemn affairs than the Easter processions we saw in Spain last year. Here, the local spectators chatter while the floats go by, marchers sport backpacks and talk on cell phones as they walk, and legions of balloon sellers bring up the rear of the
parade (followed by the garbage truck and a half-dozen men with brooms). But what they lack in solemnity, the processions make up in colorful cultural spectacle. A special twist here is the elaborate carpets of colored sawdust, flowers, and fruit that people construct as offerings in the path of the processions. Hours and hours of painstaking work to make something that will be obliterated by the marchers’ feet in minutes. Like a Tibetan sand painting, the glory is in the creating of them.

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We arrived in Antigua for the first time after a day-long series of bus rides through villages of dry adobe or new cinder-block houses, dusty rutted roads, and remote hills. Emerging at last into this flat, tidy, manicured, historical town with its drop-dead views, posh shops, and diverse restaurants was a shock. As Melissa put it, you could plunk Antigua down anywhere in Europe and it would be a beautiful city. Here in Central America, it feels like a mirage.

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