The History and Culture of Antigua, Guatemala
A visit to enchanting Antigua Guatemala is just what you need for Spanish immersion.
The colorful cobblestone streets, picturesque venues, impressive architecture, local flavors, dreamy weather, and volcano views are just some of the many reasons why Antigua Guatemala is an inspiring travel destination.
What’s more, the warm welcoming nature of its people make it a highly friendly tourist destination with interesting engagement opportunities for Spanish students.
Keep reading to explore the remarkable history of the city, its charming culture, and the top adventures to enjoy on your visit to Antigua.
Table of Contents:
- The Fascinating History of Antigua Guatemala
- Living Culture and Traditions
- What to Do in Antigua Guatemala
- Things to Know Before Visiting Antigua
- Prepare for Your Trip to Antigua Guatemala
The Fascinating History of Antigua Guatemala
Antigua is the capital of the Sacatepequez department in the southwestern part of Guatemala. The city is in a valley surrounded by the majestic Fuego, Acatenango, and Agua Volcanoes.
The Founding of Antigua
Antigua was a key city center during the era of Spanish colonization. It was the third capital of the Kingdom of Guatemala.
When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Guatemala in 1524, they established the first city in the K’aqchiquel Maya kingdom of Iximché.
After a brief period, the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado, chose to relocate to the Almolonga Valley in the slopes of Agua Volcano.
In 1541, when a massive mudslide from the volcano destroyed the city, the local authorities were forced again to relocate to a more protected and productive terrain.
Antigua Guatemala’s location became ideal for the establishment of a new city. Formerly known as the Valley of Panchoy, it was declared the third capital of Guatemala in 1543.
Prosperous Years of Antigua Guatemala
Antigua Guatemala became a hub for education, economic, political, and religious activities in Central America. The city oversaw the Spanish colonies in Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, and southern Mexico.
The city was designed with cobblestone streets running north to south and east to west. The parque central (central square) became the heart of the city where its hustle and bustle converged.
The city was surrounded by natural bodies of water, lush green valleys, and quarries. Plus, the exceptional weather and altitude made it pleasant and productive. It was the ideal location for productivity and abundance.
For almost 200 years, Antigua saw a rising population made of indigenous, Afro-Latino, mestizos (mixed race), criollos (creoles), and pure-blooded Spaniards. Being the provincial capital with an exceptional location, Antigua was home to aristocrats who became thriving merchants.
Earthquakes and Chaos
In 1773, Antigua was devastated by a series of earthquakes. The Santa Marta earthquakes destroyed most of the city’s buildings and infrastructure. Thousands died, and the city fell into a period of instability with chaos.
Following this tragic turn of events, authorities decided to move the capital to Guatemala City’s current location.
Antigua was partially abandoned. Those few who remained were indigenous Mayan people responsible for clearing the rubble and rebuilding. The remnants of architecture from Antigua’s apogee are still there to admire today.
The city eventually became known as Antigua Guatemala (Old Guatemala). Today, it continues to be a place where Spanish and Mayan heritage mix.
The plazas, streets, Baroque churches, courtyards, and facades of Antigua make it a place of cultural and historic relevance worth preserving. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
Living Culture and Traditions
The blend of Spanish heritage and Maya syncretism gave birth to folklore and customs unique to Antigua Guatemala. The city is recognized for its outstanding traditions.
Folk Tales – Leyendas
Las leyendas (legends) are folktales passed from generation to generation with a hint of mysticism and magic. Characters like La Tatuana or El Sombrerón are believed to have wandered the cobblestone streets of Antigua in the dark of night.
Read about La Tatuana and other leyendas in this spooky article about 10 Creepy Myths from Spanish-speaking Countries.
Processions – Procesiones
Las procesiones (processions) are a quintessential tradition of Antigua. The city was where the first Christian procession took place in Guatemala.
Every day of Semana Santa (Holy Week), a parade of majestic floats commemorating the passion of Christ takes to the streets of Antigua. The floats are carried on the shoulders of faithfuls wearing purple robes and cone shaped hats known as cucuruchos.
The floats carry wooden carved religious imagery and are adorned with flowers and embellishments. Visiting Antigua during Semana Santa means you’ll get the whole shebang, including vast processions that last up to 24 hours.
Sawdust Carpets – Alfombras
Las alfombras (sawdust carpets) are another magnificent and popular Semana Santa tradition that make Antigua magical.They combine craftsmanship, art, and a time-tested technique to honor the processions.
Makers dye sawdust into different colors for their design. They use stencils and cutouts to create shapes and patterns with the sawdust on the cobblestone streets. The art, images, and messages are meant to cause an impression and awaken emotions.
The result is impressive and is an admirable display of the organization and teamwork of the people of Antigua Guatemala.
Learn more: The History and Traditions of Semana Santa in Guatemala.
La Antigua celebrates many special holidays throughout the year. The annual patron saint festivities provide spaces for savory foods and folkloric dances.
La danza de los moros (dance of the Moors) and la danza de los gigantes (dance of the giants) tell stories of the colonial times in Antigua Guatemala. Throughout this vivid presentation, the dancers move to traditional music while wearing elaborate costumes and colorful masks.
What to Do in Antigua Guatemala
A city this magnificent offers something for everybody!
Antigua Guatemala attracts all types of travelers due to the comfort of exploring it. Most tourists use it as headquarters and starting point for the rest of their travels in Guatemala.
It’s a welcoming place with high-quality services. According to Prensa Libre and the Guatemalan Institute of Tourism (INGUAT), Antigua Guatemala welcomes more than 500,000 visitors per year during the high season alone.
In the last two years, Antigua Guatemala has attracted plenty of digital nomads and expats. Although there isn’t official data on how large the expat community is, the rough numbers are believed to be around 1,600 people mainly from the U.S., Canada, the UK, Europe, and Australia.
Many travelers become enchanted with Antigua and make plans to return to this lovely city. Others are instantly captivated and declare Antigua Guatemala their new home away from home.
Check out: 8 Things Living in Guatemala Taught Me.
The towering volcanoes around the city, the cute shops, the pleasant weather, and entertaining activities make it a place worth experiencing to the fullest.
Antigua Guatemala is the perfect place for an unforgettable vacation. Start planning with this list of fun activities to do in Antigua.
Fun Things to Do in Antigua
- Walk to El Cerro de la Cruz lookout for sunset
- Visit the ruins of the Cathedral, Santa Clara Convent, La Merced, and Capuchinas
- Eat dulces tipicos (traditional sweets)
- Try the delicious local food stalls by La Merced church
- Buy textiles and crafts at a local artisan market
- Take a photo under the famous yellow Arch of Saint Catherine
- Hike up a volcano
- Carve your own piece of jade jewelry at Xibalbá Studio
- Discover the museums and ruins of Hotel Casa Santo Domingo
- Relax in the gardens of Finca la Azotea
- Join a local cooking class at Colectivo Criollo
- Have top coffee in Fat Cat Coffee House or Café Condesa
- Practice yoga and self-care at Shakti Shala
- Take a Spanish class
- Venture to the surrounding villages for ethical tourism experiences
Recommended reading: Etnica: 10 Reasons to Experience Ethical Tourism
Things to Know Before Visiting Antigua
Antigua Guatemala has hundreds of hotels and hostels, as well as homestay options and student accomodations.
It’s located 45 minutes from the Guatemala City Airport, making it quick and easy to get there as soon as you arrive. Antigua is prepared for tourists with loads of restaurants, cafes, banks, ATMs, tours, Spanish schools, and volunteer opportunities.
If your trip to Guatemala involves serving others, read this list of 45+ Mission Trip Spanish Phrases.
Prepare for Your Trip to Antigua Guatemala
Travel+Leisure declared Antigua Guatemala top city in Central and South America. The interesting history, living culture, and resilience of this ever-evolving city make it a brilliant place for adventures like learning Spanish in beautiful surroundings.
Fluent Spanish communication is a game-changer for travelers when you’re buying souvenirs, using transportation, asking for directions, and making new friends.
Practicing Spanish with a native speaker supports your confidence and fluency. Sign up for a free trial class with our certified teachers from Antigua Guatemala. They’ll provide cultural insight and useful vocabulary for your visit. Choose from our effective programs and get started today!
Join one of the 40,000 classes that we teach each month and you can experience results like these
“My Son, Heath, is taking the classes. He’s been with Luisa the entire time and we absolutely love her. She is always patient and is a great teacher. Heath’s dad speaks Spanish so they get to have little conversations.”
– William R, Parent of 3
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“HSA offers very affordable, quality, one on one classes with a native speaker. My son has greatly benefited from taking classes. We have seen his confidence increase as well as his pronunciation improve, because he learns from a native Spanish speaker. HSA has quick, personal customer service. Our family has been very pleased with our experience so far!”
– Erica P. Parent of 1
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