After a long flight from the UK the last thing I thought I’d be looking forward to was a four hour City tour, but it’s amazing how quickly the body can recover after a good night’s sleep. I’d slept like a baby, enjoyed a Guatemalan breakfast and was now "good to go".
Our guide arrived prompt and just after 9.00 we started off on our orientation tour of this UNESCO site. It was potentially going to be tough because all the routes in Antigua are cobbled and that can be pretty hard on the joints. But exploring new places is always an adventure and we were keen to see as much as we could and learn all about Guatemala. It’s a country fairly new to democracy and anxious to develop its tourism (although I was amazed to hear that Brits have been visiting to Guatemala since the 1940’s, courtesy of Cox and King). Although we had made our travel arrangements with Audley, a rival company.
Antigua has been a World Heritage Site since 1979 and the town dates back to the early 1500’s. However, it was devastated by an earthquake in 1773 with many of its buildings being partially destroyed. These ruins remained standing and provide a superb insight into Spanish Colonialism. As we looked at the town map it was very clear that the town was built on a grid pattern, inspired we were told by cities formed in the Italian Renaissance.
We started off by heading to Central Park, the town’s centre of power with the Cathedral erected on the East side, a shopping arcade on the west, City hall to the north and the Palace of the Armed forces on the south. In the centre is the Fountain of the Sirens which was designed in 1739 by architect Miguel Porras. It’s a strange fountain with the mermaids seemingly expressing water from their breasts and cherubs above spraying water from their mouths. I guess it’s some form of allegorical depiction of life, but the message was lost on me.
Next we went to check out the Cathedral. The present day church (it actually has not got Cathedral status) is a reconstruction of only a small section of the original church. As you’d expect, therefore, the inside is fairly modern looking. But take time to check out the statues and note that they are all dressed in garments not associated with the time of Jesus. That’s the Mayan influence coming through. Our big surprise was when we left the current church and went round the side to look at the remains of the original building. My word the original Cathedral was an impressive size and construction with massive arches and huge domed ceilings. Even in its ruinous state it’s well worth a view and amazing that it’s still standing, although we understand that UNESCO have ensured its structure will withstand at least the next few decades. Some of the stone carving is still clear and crisp and the emerging plant life over collapsed pillars does not detract from the fact that this was a hallowed site.
On the way out I noticed steps down to the crypt and although our guide was not leading us down that way I decided to investigate. It was worth the visit and I was told that this under-ground cavern extended to the full ground plan of the church.
Leaving the cathedral behind us we followed the grid of streets in a seemingly aimless criss-cross, but our guide knew exactly where to go. We saw many houses leading to amazing courtyards, some incredible hefty doors (not the originals but faithful 18th century copies) with impressive door knockers. A couple had door knockers at two levels the lower for the pedestrian and the higher for coach drivers. These huge doors were of course built to enable horse drawn coaches to pass through to the house’s impressive inner courtyard.
The town is littered with churches and monasteries (I seem to recall that there were over 35 active places of worship prior to the earthquake in 1773. It is still possible to see an active monastery in Antigua and we were chuffed to see the stereo-typical friar in the grounds of one of them
We passed by the town’s open air washing centre where people still bring their laundry to wash by hand and saw, at the extremes of the UNESCO site the small single storied houses that are still occupied by the local people. Of course much of the property in the centre of town is incredibly expensive and is used in the tourist business as hotels or small B&B’s.
As we walked the town we noted the impressive corner windows from where the inhabitants could see people approaching from all directions. Windows were covered by intricately carved shutters and at many corners a concrete pillar (varying in design) was inset into the wall. We presumed that this was a design feature, but it turned out to be very practical. It was indeed a hitching post for horses.
Walking is not easy over the cobbled surfaces of Antigua, but around every corner there is a different architectural masterpiece to view. Even when the building is ruinous it has managed to hold on to its original beauty.
We visited the Church of the Sisters of Mercy (and yes I did find myself singing the Leonard Cohen song, much to the annoyance of others). This is a finely decorated yellow and white building - a "wedding cake" of a church, and once again its elaborate exterior holds a plain interior. It was originally constructed in 1546, but the earthquake reeked its harm on the structure and it was repaired in the ensuing centuries. The statues are superb with amazing attention to detail even down to the tears on the face of Mary.
As we walked back to the hotel we walked under the impressive archway, El Arco, which was built across the main street to enable the Sisters of Mercy (there goes that song again) to cross from one of their sites to another. They were a closed order so their contact with the rest of the town had to be avoided at any cost. It’s amazing that they didn’t think about a simple wooden bridge but went to the top of the range and built this archway complete with ornate clock tower.
What a fantastic orientation of the town and despite the fact that the previous day had been long and tiring we felt rejuvenated and ready for the next trip in Guatemala. But perhaps we’d rest up a little before embarking on that!
Just as we were saying farewells to our guide I asked about visiting the active volcano. We’d read that there were still lava flows and a climb to the top, although strenuous, could guarantee a view of the flow. Our guide, anxious not to disappoint us explained that although the views from the top were superb (if the sky was clear of cloud) the volcano was "not flowing" at the current time. We decided to give that visit a miss and opted to "go it alone" to the Coffee museum the next day (see separate review).