Antigua Revisited

El Arco de Santa Catalina with El Volcan de Agua in the background

I recently returned from a second visit in two years to Antigua, Guatemala, which is a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the best-preserved colonial towns in all of Latin America.

Street scene in central Antigua with El Volcanic de Agua in the background

Everywhere one walks in Antigua, the Volcan de Agua (“the Water Volcano”), a 12,000ft volcano six miles south of the town, looms large. Each morning, upon walking out of my hotel just after sunrise, it was an almost unconscious act to glance up at the volcano to see what kind of mood it was in today, to wonder whether today might be the day when it chooses to bury me alive in hissing streams of hot, molten lava and, with me, all of the other residents of this impossibly pretty town. I remember reading somewhere that people who live in the shadow of a volcano have an elevated risk of stress-related mental health disorders. After only a few hours back in Antigua, I was already starting to feel twitchy. Fortunately, throughout my two-week stay, the volcano’s mood remained benign.

The Capuchin Convent

Perhaps due to the ever-present dual threats of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, the Antigüeños are a deeply religious people. Churches, convents and monasteries dot the town and religious symbols, statues and imagery are to be seen in every home, through every window and on every wall. It was the Spanish, of course, who first introduced Christianity to Guatemala from 1519 onwards and, although the conquistadors’ suppression of the stubbornly resisant indigenous Mayan people took almost two hundred years, the population has now clearly embraced Christianity, particularly Catholicism, which, although not the official religion of the country, is recognized as “a distinct legal personality,” enjoying certain privileges from the State.

View from the Plaza Mayot looking south towards El Volcan de Agua

View from the Plaza Mayor, looking south towards the Volcan de Agua

Even apparently secular buildings often have hidden religious significance. Indeed, the picturesque Arco de Santa Catalina, the structure most often used to advertise Antigua as a tourist destination, was originally built to serve a religious purpose.

El Arco de Santa Catalina looking north along La Calle del Arco

The cloistered nuns of the Santa Catalina convent, situated on one side of the street that is now called La Calle del Arco, were prohibited by their vows of seclusion from crossing the street to reach the school on the opposite side, as this would have involved their mixing with the general population of the town. So, in 1694, the Church built the arch which contains a secret overground tunnel that allowed the nuns to cross unseen above the street to teach at the school opposite.

La Iglesia de San Jose El Viejo

Over the centuries, the arch has come to be regarded as a symbol of the town’s resilience, as it was one of the few structures that survived the cataclysmic earthquake of 1773, which flattened most of the town and led to its being uninhabited for a decade. The earthquake also resulted in the relocation of the capital to Nueva Guatemala (“New Guatemala”), now Guatemala City, and to the name of the town being changed from the original Santiago de los Caballeros (“Saint James of the Knights”) to the current La Antigua Guatemala (“Old Guatemala”).

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