Start the self-guided Historical Walking Tour at the town square. While I was intensely drawn to the beauty and activity buzz of all the town squares in Guatemala, Antigua’s plaza is especially impressive. The massive trees offer friendly shade, and combined with the cold drinks and snacks sold by countless vendors, it is a prefect place to beat the heat. The cooling sounds of the local fountain almost distract you front the fact that the water is spouting out of the breasts of the female statue figures. Now add in the scenery of colonial architecture and massive volcanos rising in the distance, and you too will be in awe.
Around the perimeter of the central park are many buildings of note. Directly to the south is the Palacio de los Capitanes, built in 1543. This building was the headquarters of the Spanish Colonial government. This is also the building that the INGUAT (Tourism) office is in – stop in to pick up a map that outlines a Historical Walking Tour.
To the east of the Palacio is the old University of San Carlos building, now the Museo de Arte Colonial (Colonial Art Museum). This museum has a good collection of colonial paintings. The entrance fee for this museum is 25Q (US$3), but entry is by donation on Sundays.
Directly east of the plaza is the Santiago Cathedral (1542). The church has been damaged and rebuilt many times. It is said to contain somewhere within the remains of Don Pedro de Alvarado, conquistador of Guatemala. Admission 2-3Q.
North of the plaza is the Palacio del Ayuntamiento, the current town hall. In addition to government offices, this building contains the Museo de Armas (Old Weapons Museum), and the Museo del Libro Antiguo (Antique Books Museum), admission 10Q (US$1.25) pp for each museum.
Scattered within a 5 block radius of the plaza are many more places of interest. There are numerous churches and convents: Santa Clara, San Francisco, and Capuchinas, just to name a few. There are also many sites of former churches, destroyed by earthquakes and either not rebuilt or only partially rebuilt. They are interesting in their own right - it is a great conflict to see big piles of rubble, with beautiful bits of statue or architectural embellishments sticking out of the mess.
On 5a Avenida, between 1a and 2a Calles, is the Arco de Santa Catarina. Arches are common architectural scenery in Antigua, but this one is massive and bright yellow. It was built in 1694 and has withstood each and every earthquake.
Going north through the arch, the Merced church cannot be missed. An interesting outcome of the earthquake/restoration/repeat process is that the buildings retain the original architectural aspects, but are finished off in the style of the period in which they are restored. The Merced was last rebuilt in the 1850s, and the baroque façade – white detail on yellow background – is unforgettable. Inside in somewhat unremarkable, save for the 27m fountain, said to be the largest in Central America. I welcomed the quiet cool escape from the hot busy street outside.
I did not visit Popenoe House, solely for the reason that I missed it on the list for some reason. Anyway, apparently this was a colonial mansion, destroyed in the 1773 earthquake, like most other buildings. In the mansion lived Don Luis de las Infantas Mendoza y Venegas – a royal official of Spain – and his family. It stayed in its ruined condition all the way until 1931, when it was given a full authentic restoration (by a man named Popenoe), with attention given to the details of how this royal family would have lived. Popenoe House is only open 2pm-4pm, every day except Sunday. Entrance fee = US$1.25
Check out my other journal entries on Clothing Museum (Casa del Tejico Antiguo) and Music Museum/Coffee plantation (Casa K’ojom).
There is no need to carry and food or water on this walking tour, as nourishment is never far away. There are shops of all sizes and shapes, internet access galore, and plenty of beggars and pickpockets thrown in to keep things interesting. One can spend 1-3 days exploring the streets of Antigua when combining it with shopping and eating – relax and wander, there is something interesting around every corner.