Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala - Stein Travel

Antigua Guatemala


    • 16+ years

    • 12-15 years

    • 2-11 years

    • 0-23 months

Welcome to Antigua Guatemala

Antigua in Guatemala is one of the oldest and prettiest colonial cities in Latin America, situated in a valley between three volcanoes. The setting is beautiful but hazardous, the town having experienced 16 earthquakes, frequent floods and a number of fires. It was the country's capital until 1776 when, after sustaining severe damage in a series of devastating earthquakes, the capital was moved to the present day Guatemala City, 30 miles (48km) away.

In colonial times Antigua was considered to be one of the most splendid cities of the Spanish Empire and was the principal city in Central America. Today it remains an enchanting place with remnants of a prosperous past. It is a delight to wander down the quaint traffic-free cobbled streets, past single storey multi-coloured buildings and mansions, magnificent churches, monasteries and convents. Plazas, inner courtyards and fountains are pretty reminders of the Spanish legacy. The town has been protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a popular destination for visitors. Buildings of interest include the Iglesia de San Francisco, La Merced and the Las Capuchinas.

Antigua becomes extremely busy during the Easter celebrations of Semana Santa, when people from all over the region flock to see the colourful street processions. The rest of the time it has a relaxed and convivial atmosphere with a strong indigenous culture, prevalent in the Sunday market. It is also a popular place to learn Spanish at one of the many language schools, and most students are able to stay with a local family as part of the learning experience. For the more adventurous the three volcano peaks offer superb hiking opportunities and views, and many tour operators in town offer trips to the surrounding countryside, as well as excursions to the only active volcano in the region, Volcán Pacaya. Villages nearby, like San Antonio Aguascalientes, offer visitors a closer look at indigenous life and are centres for beautiful hand-woven textiles.

The official language is Spanish but English is understood in hotels and tourist destinations. Many indigenous languages are also spoken.

The official currency is the Quetzal (GTQ) divided into 100 centavos. In 2001 the US Dollar became the second official currency alongside the Quetzal and both are accepted. Travellers cheques and major credit cards are accepted, though some more than others. It is recommended to take travellers cheques in US dollars. Cash exchange is easier, but more risky. Visitors are not advised to exchange money at the informal booths on the street. There are ATMs in the towns and cities, which accept American Express and Visa. MasterCard and Diners Club have a more limited acceptance.

The ruins of the biggest and most remarkable of the city's convents, Las Capuchinas, are the best preserved and most beautiful in the city. The convent was founded in 1736 by Spanish nuns and is now a museum dedicated to religious life in colonial times. The nuns who lived here were not allowed any contact with the outside world. Their tiny cells can be found in the walls of the round tower, which has good views from the top. There are also fountains, gardens and several lovely courtyards within the compound.

For centuries the park served as a focal point for the colonial city, bustling with activity, the gathering place for public floggings, parades and bullfights. Today it is a shady, peaceful place during the week, lined with villagers selling their handicrafts, but it comes alive every Sunday for the busy market day. It is surrounded by imposing structures, including the Cathedral, whose façade is all that remains of the original structure after numerous earthquakes. The Palace of the Captains General and the Ayuntamiento (City Hall) face each other across the square.

Set deep in the jungle of Parque Nacional Tikal lies the most magnificent of all Mayan ruins, the Mayan ceremonial centre of Tikal (City of Voices). First occupied around 800 BC and mysteriously abandoned about 1,000 years later, its most striking features are the steep sided towering temples rising up to heights of 192ft (60m) into the green canopy of the rainforest. Scattered around the area are countless other structures, many still partially buried in the ground or having nearly succumbed to the overwhelming grasp of jungle greenery.

The central area, or Great Plaza, with its five main temples, was the heart of the ancient city and the centre for religious and ceremonial activity. It is the most impressive section, especially the two massive pyramid-shaped structures with steep steps leading up to the roofed enclosures at the top. Temple I, the Temple of the Grand Jaguar, is the main landmark of Tikal and was built to house the magnificent tomb of King Hasaw Chan K'awil. Temple II, opposite, has two grotesque, eroded masks on either side of the stairway and there are fantastic views from the top. The jungle around the ruins is alive with the sounds of bird and animal life, particularly the fearsome roars of howler monkeys, which have conjured up images of jaguars in many a frightened traveller's mind. Walking from ruined temple to temple, surrounded by the sounds and smells of the jungle, is an experience not offered at any other major Mayan site.

This combination of archaeological remains and natural environment of the jungle makes it the only place in the world to be declared both a Cultural and Natural Heritage to Humanity UNESCO Site. Visitors to Tikal are overwhelmed by the atmosphere and sheer scale of the place. There are two museums, one inside the Visitors' Centre, containing copies of some of the elaborate sculptures, bas-reliefs and stelae from the ruins, a map showing Tikal as it was in 800 BC, and items recovered from the excavations, including the burial goods of King Hasaw Chan K'awil.

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