Old World Treasure Hunting in Antigua: Discovering the Nostalgia of Antigua’s Architecture & Ruins
Time warp comes to life in Antigua, a Spanish colonial showcase, unmatched for its old world charm and elegance in the New World.
Humbly reduced to a small town by today’s standard, it has endured the litmus test of time and has its powerful sway rechanneled through a spawn of practical recreations to modern day living.
Fast forward to cities such as Palm Beach, Boca Raton, and Jacksonville in Florida, these thriving sunshine urban communities, which owed its paternity to Addison Mizner, ought to trace their identity to Antigua, his inspiration and boyhood hunting playground. This early 1900’s architect and colonial art collector-aficionado spent his formative years in Guatemala while his father served as a US diplomat. One of the catalysts in awakening Americans to its Latin-American heritage, Mizner spearheaded Florida’s re-hispanization effort leaving a predominantly fashionable Spanish colonial inspired legacy of works in that state.
Founded in 1543 in a 3rd attempt to reestablish the seat of captaincy-general government covering Chiapas, now a state of Mexico and Belize to upper Panama after two earlier capitals didn’t hold ground, the Valley of Panchoy 4,500 feet above sea level amidst majestic volcano backdrops and tropical alpine landscape was chosen.
Earning the title “The First Planned Capital in the New World”, it was an architectural and city planning success. When New York and Washington D.C. were still backwater hinterlands, it was hundred years ahead. Nowadays, it’s a laid-back composition completing a postcard perfect picture irresistible even to accidental tourists with depletedly low degrees of nostalgic fever. Both scholars and sightseers will share a common ground appreciating its treasure trove.
A plethora of religious headquarters that converged here signified its past missionary nerve center importance. The relative density of opulent churches as numerously and necessarily close and indispensable to residents as today’s corner-to-corner convenience gas stations attested to Antigua’s image as a big apple to once upon a time Old America’s movers’ and shakers’ eyes. It was the finest city in the New World made resplendently Catholic by artisans for learned and successful men with their demanding taste for the important amenity of a hell-free afterworld existence insurance policy. They were by-products of supplication from the constantly reminding volcanic eruptions and earthquakes stimulated by the so-called “heavenly wrath” which are irrational to today’s understanding.
After the great Antiguan earthquake meltdown of 1773, these religious institutions, together with the secular administration reluctantly, if not for the threat of legal and royal harassment, decided to move on to a 4th settlement 25 miles to the east they christened Guatemala City. Relegated to a “dust and cobweb” gathering piece of real estate for almost 170 years to when the Guatemalan government took stock of its importance, Antigua underwent into a fermentation process, the results we visitors now enjoy.
The natural destruction it suffered may deservingly earn it another title as the “Pompeii of the Americas”. As we all know it didn’t actually suffer the exact fate as the Roman era city by being entombed in millions of cubic meters of volcanic ash and pumice, uninhabited, then excavated and resurrected afterwards. Much the same way, this living and livable city was rediscovered and now admired for its ruins. Similarly, the looming Volcan Agua nearby, while two others – active Volcan del Fuego and dormant Volcan Acatenango standing farther afield remind any virtually or physically globe-trotting visitor of Mt. Vesuvius. Even if Agua does not have as frequent tantrums as Vesuvius, its presence is itself a surprising interjection.
After a scholastic endorsement, the Guatemalan government officially protected the site in 1942, realizing the priceless value of the ruins, some reoccupied and reconverted, while others were preserved in its found condition. By 1979, just after reeling from another powerful earthquake three years before and the continuing deterioration, the city was declared by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
Now the city awakened from years of slumber, an intense colonial atmosphere is recreated giving way to new commercial horizons like the tourism industry particularly the 24/7 live-in Spanish language schools sprouting like mushrooms. The steady stream of American/British-student groups enrolling in Spanish cultural immersion classes is going to ensure the profitable maintenance and feasible survival of Antigua.
At best count, there are 49 personally identified religious edifices (churches, monasteries, convents, hermitages), functioning or decommissioned, in various state of preservation or decomposition, from the completely restored to the totally destroyed, as part of Antigua’s history-architecture-touristy showcase circuit.
Most are densely packed within a three and a half square kilometer area of cobblestone street-served blocks on safe walking distances from each other. Some are at the peripheral outskirts and a handful are located on the surrounding satellite towns. Tourist police are stationed in some remote areas.
Thirteen are completely restored, resuming their exclusive ecclesiastical functions.
Thirty-five are in varying degrees of preserved damage, twelve of which are sporting their new or added functions.
One, sporting an out of place Neo-Gothic style, was built after the 1773 earthquake.
Of the thirty-five, three were retrofitted to serve as paid, either open-air or indoor museums yet still functioning as churches, namely San Jose Cathedral, La Merced, and San Francisco.
Another three are paid open-air sites in various degrees of states of shambles, their original ecclesiastical function is discontinued, namely Santa Clara, Las Capuchinas, and La Recoleccion.
Another six are converted into other functions but can still be viewed. Santa Catalina – its arched bridge-clock tower, a famous tourist icon framing Volcan Agua is what remains of the convent. The bridge served as an Afghanistan style modesty passage for nuns who were occupying the two sides of the street. Both sides are now partitioned into private properties for commercial usage. La Compaña de Jesus is now an artesiana shopping strip and the Spanish Cultural Center but the ruined church remains. Santo Domingo is now a five-star hotel with a convention and cultural center. Santa Cruz is now an open-air amphitheater permanent stage backdrop piece. Belen is now a women’s college and Santa Teresa is converted to a men’s prison.
Seventeen are idly left in ruins and don’t require an entrance fee but off limits to the public, in various stages of preservation and aesthetic state of appreciation, they can be viewed from the street.
Five of these are aesthetically outstanding namely El Carmen, San Jose el Viejo, Santa Rosa, San Agustin, and Santa Isabel.
Four follow closely: San Cristobal el Bajo, Los Remedios, San Jeronimo, and Espiritu Santo.
The remaining are severely damaged and badly in need of extreme makeover. Four of these may pass for a second look. San Sebastian – its atrium fountain the only piece remaining intact – has had a discernibly complete and beautiful façade but now heavily damaged beyond appreciation weakened by a 1976 earthquake. La Candelaria is on the northeastern outskirt and La Concepcion, a church attached to the once largest convent in Antigua. The remotely accessible Nuestra Senora Dolores del Cerro at the foothills, must be weight over weather its worth reaching.
The rest of the collection is definitely incomprehensible and a totally waste of time and effort visiting them.
The starting point of discovery tour and my distance measuring benchmark was the central leafy belly button called in various names as Plaza de Armas, Plaza Real, Plaza Mayor, and nowadays Parque Central. The pulsating heart of the city, this park is furnished with a central fountain and sculpted trees.
East of Parque Central is San Jose formerly called the Metropolitan Cathedral, now reduced to a church with Italian style façade tailored to earthquake needs indicated by its squat and bulky horizontality. The ruined rear end, retouched to its viewable devastation is turned into an open-air museum. Massive piers as huge as soaring sequoia trunks speak volumes of the mighty greatness of the structure it once was.
The Ayuntamiento (City Council) and Palacio Capitanes General are identified by their two tiered series of arcades, widely spaced fluted stout Doric colonnades.
Old San Carlos University, now the Colonial Art Museum, has a unique blend of Mayan-Mudejar ornamentation. The detailing in the courtyard arcade offers a stark affinity to the Mughal Palaces.
San Pedro church-hospital, a pleasing architecture is a misplaced Italian Renaissance in this city.
Santa Clara was a big nunnery complex converted into an open-air ruins museum. Its claustrophobic wall-surrounded façade is covered with intricate but coarse estipites and ataurique (pronounced a-ta-ree-ke) plasterwork forming a collage of coral-like carvings.
Easily identifiable for their western look Roman forum-style façades are San Sebastian (almost indiscernible), Santa Teresa, San Cristobal el Bajo, Los Remedios, and San Agustin. The latter has steroid-stuffed bulky belfry tower making it unmistakably Guatemalan.
The cheerful La Compaña de Jesus ruins is in a slightly different genre using paint ornamentation now reduced to faded traces. It’s attached to a casa occupied by the Spanish Cultural Center all painted in red.
San Jeronimo’s remains consisting of a portal by the side street show delicate arabesque execution above the doorway and Guatemalan pilasters but its façade’s toasty grimy stones evoke a Javanese shrine.
La Recoleccion is an enormous campus of stumps, rubbles, chunks, boulders, and a host of body parts impressive enough – the size of even two combined Volkswagen beetles.
This pay-per-view site has no remaining comprehensible architectural features to boast off, making the architectural excursion experience void and incomplete. But to the escapist daydreamer, this is a suggested experience. An eerie out-of-this-world feeling emanates from the standing remains. Fallen boulders provide surreal landscape especially when it’s empty of visitors. Perfect setting for a film noir or an Alfred Hitchcock movie, all it takes is a howling wind and a solitary squawking resident raven for the total effect.
El Carmen is a genre of its own, combining Roman basilica framework and Guatemalan detailing. The ruins’ facade has intact severe masculine curlicue embellishment formed into a mesh of deep arabesque serrations wrap around the columns and on the frieze, a remarkable ataurique masterpiece executed in dramatic bravura.
In a separate genre are Las Capuchinas and Escuela de Cristo, modest and unique for having been stone faced, something of an anomaly in ataurique-crazy Antigua.
Inside Las Capuchinas are a cool contemplative fountain-filled courtyard and gardens. Courtyard arcades supported by modified Tuscan style columns in Guatemalan proportion, similar to those typically found in the government buildings at the Parque Central.
The Novice Quarters called El Retiro formed by two stories of retreat cells evokes a mini Roman coliseum. Below is an amazingly cool basement supported by a humongous pier.
Santo Domingo is a secretive attraction unheralded by any significant structure. Understandable for all its cupolas, towers, or spires were toppled down and long gone, this compound can be easily missed.
Inside is a tastefully contrived ground-to-roof, wall-to-wall landscaping designed to conceal architectural blemishes and damages. The landscaping marvel pitted together ruins and activities in cohesion. Museums, art galleries, and function areas work around the structural remains of this Beirut-in-the-80’s style monastery now glowing alive with blooming flowers and eye-soothing, creeping, cascading, and sprouting greens. Rubbles and fallen pieces are enhanced into art works.
El Calvario Gatehouse marks the entry into the contemplative Hermitage. Awaiting the visitor is a syncretic combination of Mexican exuberance and Guatemalan burly proportion and detailing.
The Hermitage is contemplative and somber in function but with an upbeat personality finished in bright mustard and white. The stout Italian Baroque style structure sits on a quiet garden studded with date palm trees reminiscent of Palestine.
My three favorites are La Merced, San Francisco, and Guadalupe.
The queen of Antiguan churches, La Merced is intact, saved by seismic design, with an unfortunate monastery. Flanked with massive belfries in steroids, this heavily proportioned Church is quintessentially High Guatemalan Earthquake Baroque finished in the ataurique technique, producing an exquisitely sumptuous embroidered effect on the walls. Its interior is dull and dark.
Its ruined monastery revolves around a gigantic stage-like fountain-pool that comes with pigeon runways radiating in four directions. The fountain centerpiece appears to be voraciously gobbling up the whole courtyard space dwarfed by its presence. Reputedly but undoubtedly, it’s the most beautiful and humongous in the whole Guatemala.
San Francisco is surrounded by a dirty white Mexican-style stone fencing enclosing a large atrium-plaza. The walls are cornered with capillas posas or short-resting room-sized chapels and intercepted with portals. In the center is the grimy-white but pleasing church in Guatemalan earthquake Baroque style, its façade appearing very stocky – and very evidently earthquake inspired as shown by its smashed right side. The remaining bulging left belfry, bloated by steroids, is tempered by a well-crafted superimposition. The Retablo style portada is partitioned with very smooth jade-like glowing solomonic column-pilasters.
Inside is a somber clean white-walled high interior interrupted with ornate Guatemalan gilded retablos in their trademark rainbow arch-shaped tops.
Guadalupe is a gracefully decaying whole edifice in a genre of its own. In slender symmetrical Roman basilica framework, its overall imagery projects elegant sophistication. A nativity scene tableau resides on the center niche. The final touch is a restrained ataurique decoration, finished in fading mustard and chalky sky blue pastels on grimy white trimmings.
Personally, I am awed by its architecture. It existed before 1773, destroyed until reconstructed in 1874 in altered design. It’s regretfully reasonable that travel guide publications are not excited to feature it.
From San Francisco downwards is Via Crucis, the depiction of the road to Calvary dotted with 13 Stations of the Cross housed in capillas posas, completely rebuilt in 1942 all identical to each other. Kept in the chapels, life-size but lifeless tableau vivants leading to Jesus’ crucifixion make an appearance every Good Friday and paraded through the streets.
The lower part of Calvary Way is marked by a leafy promenade and a grand fountain.
There are other green spaces such as Parque La Union, a very pleasing busy hangout spot with a grove of Mediterranean palms. At the northern end is an arcade over a huge tank used as public laundry by natives as well as filling up tank for fire trucks.
The earthshaking destruction proved a blessing in disguise. If Antigua was spared of the great 1773 earthquakes and allowed to spin out of control and slide through the slippery slope of 20th century Third World transformation, we will not be admiring these edifices.
Although many treasures were carted away from handrails to hinges when the Spanish government declared it criminal and unsafe to stay in this city after 1774, a surprising amount of remains have miraculously stood it out to tell a captivating story. These structures would have faced the wrecking ball in the name of ephemeral progress, or equally worse, deteriorated by downtown decay specially pollution and graffiti. Or at least half will survive surrounded by ugly, anarchic, modern buildings much the same way as the fate suffered by those in pulsating cities, which managed to transform into industrialized ones.