Antigua was the capital of the Spanish colony of Guatemala, which encompassed most of modern day Central America and parts of Chiapas, Mexico. Named Santiago de los Caballeros in antiquity, Antigua was founded in March 10, 1543, following the destruction of the first capital, the original Santiago de los Caballeros. Antigua was the seat of Spanish colonial power in Central America for over 200 years. Built at the base of the Volcanos Agua and Fuego, Antigua has had a long history of earthquakes, and after several severe earthquakes in the early and mid 18th Century, the capital was moved to Guatemala City in 1776.
Modern day Antigua is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A small city dotted with colonial ruins, cobblestone streets, hidden courtyard gardens, iron windows and balconies, terra-cotta tiled roofs, heavy wooden doorways, and colorful bougainvillea Antigua retains a lot of its old-world colonial charm. The crisp, clear, Spring-like climate and breathtaking volcanic views only enhances Antigua’s charm.
Back in the early 90s when I was first acquainting myself with Antigua (I was young enough at the time, that I had to make a conscious effort to duck around the window bars) it was a sleepy, quite town during the week and a weekend escape for Guatemalans living in the city. When I returned to Antigua for a week in 2007 it quickly became apparent that Antigua had been discovered by the western tourist market, and even during the week the once sleepy town was jam packed with gringos. In the ten years since I last visited Antigua things have only gotten more crowded. It has now become common practice for westerners to fly into Guatemala City and travel directly out to Antigua for accommodations without spending any time in the City itself. While Guatemala City might not be as picturesque as Antigua, it at least has the infrastructure to deal with the larger influx of tourists. Another unfortunate side effect of all of this is that crime in Antigua has also been gradually going up. We have to give the Guatemalans a lot of credit though. Lately they have embarked on a huge campaign to improve policing and encourage tourism, and so far things seem to be on the up and up for the tourist industry in Guatemala. Unfortunately, Guatemala, like most of Central America, still has a lot of gang and drug related crime and violence, and a lot of it is fueled by a western demand for these products.
This visit, I only spent one day in Antigua. Plenty of time to explore all of my favorite childhood haunts including breakfasting at Doña Luisa’s and a peek into Doña Gordia’s. Doña Luisa’s is an Antiguan institution; complete with pensión, restaurant, and bakery. Eat your breakfast alfresco in their Spanish colonial courtyard. The wafts of freshly baked bread spilling onto the streets brought me right back to the lazy, Sunday morning breakfasts of my childhood – enchanting.
Doña Gordia’s is a traditional Guatemalan sweet shop. Step into the old-fashioned shop and feast your eyes on all of the trays filled with sugary confections as more are being passed out through a window in the back. If you are lucky you might even get a glimpse into the kitchen where all of the sweets are being made. While my sweet-tooth may have diminished as I have grown up, I still can not resist Doña Gordia’s Cocadas – a chewy shredded coconut sweet. I might have to try my hand at making them from scratch one of these days.
The one Antigua shop that colored, quite literally, my childhood memories was the old candle shop. Operated by one of the local monasteries, I remember entering the dingy, narrow shop to find row upon row and rack upon rack of beautifully colored beeswax candles. The shop was one long, almost never ending, rainbow. Yellows bleed into greens, and as you progressed into the next room the blues would begin to appear, followed by the purples, the reds, and so on until you reach the back, only to turn around and progress through all of the colors again. Unfortunately, when I returned to Antigua in 2007 the candle shop had been reduced to a few tiny racks, and on this last trip it seems like the candle shop has been relegated to a few candle racks within the Santo Domingo giftshop. To this day though, I still love the scent of beeswax, and can picture my younger self wandering through the endless racks of color.