White painted cathedral
Architecture,  Guatemala,  Ruins,  Squares

A city shaped by earthquakes

Antigua, or Antigua Guatemala to give it its full name, is a city shaped by the movement of the earth on which it stands. It was founded in 1543 and despite the ravages of several earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, it was for over 200 years the capital and economic centre of the whole Kingdom of Guatemala. This was a significant country, covering what today we know as southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

But in 1773 came the most destructive of all the earthquakes, the Santa Marta; much of the city’s political and religious infrastructure was destroyed. A proposal was drawn up to move the capital for a third time; and despite some opposition, in 1775 a royal letter was written to order the foundation of a new capital (today’s Guatemala City).

Left largely in ruins the city might perhaps have crumbled away completely; but enough fabric and people remained to keep it alive. Today it is a National Monument, and it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1979.

At its heart is an almost perfect grid of streets and avenues, each of them a gem. They are lined with picturesque houses, many single storey because of the constant threat from the forces of nature, and dotted with the skeletons of those ruined colonial churches.

Antigua might strike you at first, as it did me, as something of a museum piece; a colonial city preserved in aspic. Its ruined churches are frozen at the moment of destruction; its once grand houses have been turned into posadas and restaurants to cater to the whims of tourists. But you only have to walk a few blocks from the centre to discover that ‘real’ life happens here too. Visit the locals’ market; sit for a while in the Playa Union; pause for a while in one of those same churches to watch local women take a moment from their day to light a candle. This too is Antigua.

So let me take you on a tour of some of those churches; a final contribution to Becky’s month of Past Squares.

Catedral de Santiago

Antigua’s cathedral might well stand as a metaphor for the city itself; built, destroyed, rebuilt, destroyed again, and finally rebuilt for a third time but on much less grand a scale. Now the ruins of its former grandeur lie in its shadows; yet even today’s more modest structure (in my feature photo above) is impressive enough.

The first cathedral on this site was constructed in 1545 but lasted less than 40 years; poor construction caused its roof to succumb to the first major earthquake to assault it, in 1583. The site lay in ruins for a while, and then in 1670 it was decided to build a new cathedral. The task took 11 years and the conscripted labour of hundreds of indigenous Mayans. Hardly surprising, given the scale of the new cathedral. It had 18 chapels, a huge dome, five naves, and a large central chamber measuring 90 meters by 20 meters. Its altar was inlaid with silver, ivory, and mother-of pearl, its walls adorned with paintings by renowned European and colonial artists.

This magnificent building managed to withstand the earthquakes of 1689 and 1717. But Santa Marta was too much for it, and in 1773 Antigua’s cathedral was once more in ruins.

Today the structure is more church than cathedral; an early 19th century reconstruction of the front and first two bays of the original. You can go inside for a small fee, but opening hours seemed to be erratic and we never found it open when we were passing. We did however visit the extensive ruins that lie behind it. I found the crumbling stones, broken arches and faded ornamentation very atmospheric. A few signs tell you which part of the cathedral you are standing in. But for the most part it’s best just to wander and to wonder too about the people who would have worshipped here and the power of the earthquake that transformed such a mighty structure into a pile of masonry.

Iglesia de San Agustin

Nobody we asked could tell us anything about this church, the owner of a nearby restaurant, included. It was only when I returned home I was able to identify it. It was built in the mid 17th century and at its height was known for its fine wall paintings and decorated altars. Unlike many of Antigua’s ruins, this one is fenced off and closed to the public. It clearly has undergone no reconstruction since it was destroyed by a series of earthquakes, culminating with Santa Marta in 1773. It was left to crumble further, and even at one point used as a stable! But they still take the trouble to illuminate it prettily at night, as you can see.

Iglesia de Santa Clara

The convent of Santa Clara was founded in 1699 for a small group of six nuns who moved here from Mexico. With support from the city’s wealthier citizens they constructed a church and convent buildings between 1703 and 1705; but these were destroyed in the earthquake of 1717. The remains standing today are those of a new church and convent started in 1723 and finished in 1734; and destroyed in 1773.

The church runs parallel to the street with the altar, unusually, to the north. It presents quite a forbidding aspect, and passers-by would have had no idea of the ornate south façade hidden within. Even today with the convent in ruins, that façade is more or less invisible from the street but it’s possible for a fee to visit the ruins and see it and the extensive complex beyond.

With the exception of that façade the ruins are sprawling. The church forms one side of a large cloister. On the remaining three sides are the vestiges of various rooms; the nuns’ work rooms, common room and salon. In the centre of the cloister’s garden is a small fountain, and in places the arches are beautifully outlined with bougainvillea. You can also ascend to the choir above the south end of the church to view its layout from above. The church lies open to the sky, although its walls are fairly intact.

A few more rooms lie to the south of the cloister, beyond the large garden. Again, a bit of imagination is required to appreciate the scale of this convent during its brief period of occupation. When we were there the tiled floor of the cloister was being restored and possibly because of the activities of the workmen, or possibly because of the very new and shiny tiles being used, I found these ruins much less atmospheric than others we visited in the city. Nevertheless that south façade  alone probably justifies paying the entrance fee.

Iglesia el Carmen

The façade of the Iglesia el Carmen is one of the most ornate in Antigua, which makes it well worth seeking out even though its ruins are not open to the public (though you can peer through the iron gate to get an indication of the extent of the devastation caused by Santa Marta).

The church was completed in 1728, and is the third to occupy this site. Its façade is ornately Baroque in style, and unique in Antigua, being decorated with triple pairs of columns set on podia projecting forward from the main wall rather than the niches and saints usually found on Antigua’s churches.

Convento della Compagnia de Jesus

This Jesuit church and its convent were founded in 1582. In 1767 the Jesuits were forced to leave the country and the buildings were therefore vacant at the time of their destruction by the 1773 earthquake. Unlike some of the ruined churches and religious buildings, parts of this one were restored and in the 19th century housed a textile factory.

If you visit in the morning its east-facing façade  is illuminated by the sun. You can easily pick out the vestiges of the unusual (for Antigua) painted friezes that once decorated it.

La Merced

The Iglesia y Convento de Nuestra Señora de la Merced, to give it its full name, is one of the loveliest in Antigua; and unlike many has been fully restored. On a sunny day its vibrant yellow paint and intricate white carvings are truly stunning. Notice how short the bell-tower is; a necessary precaution in this earthquake-ravaged city.

Entrance to the church is free and it’s worth going inside to see the striking altarpiece. You do however need to pay a small fee to enter the monastery attached to one side of the church. Unlike the church this was never restored after the destruction caused by the Santa Marta quake and is rather atmospheric. At the centre of the cloister is the Fuente de Peces, said to be the largest water fountain in Latin America. It is constructed in the shape of a water lily, although you need to climb to the terrace above the cloister to fully appreciate this.

I visited Antigua Guatemala in 2010


  • maristravels

    I loved all your pictures, as I always do, but I can’t help giving an extra star to the ruins with the glorious purple bougainvillea tree just because the sheer pop of colour reminds one of the life that can still be found even in ruins and just because I love colour. I can spend whole days wandering among ruins and never want to leave as thinking about the lies lived among them, especially if I’ve read up about the area properly before visiting, is so fulfillng. Thanks again for another wonderful post.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Mari 😊 I’m happy you picked out that photo because it’s a particular favourite of mine! If you like ruins Antigua is a good place to visit, although you can’t wander around all the churches as some are closed (I think for safety reasons).

  • wetanddustyroads

    Wow Sarah, these buildings are just so beautiful! Although they are (mostly) destroyed, one can still see some of the earlier splendor! What a privilege to visit these ruins – lovely pictures, as always!

  • Rose

    The ornate, intricate carvings, columns, and other architecture is so magnificent. How fortunate to be able to glimpse their grandness even though they have suffered through earthquakes and other misuses in their long history.

  • thehungrytravellers.blog

    Yes, I agree with others, a fascinating post about a fascinating place. It looks almost haunting. You’re a lucky lady to have been there Sarah….I bet like us you’re growing more and more excited about the prospects of travel in 2022…

  • Easymalc

    This was an absorbing post Sarah. The cathedral must have been some building. To see all these religious houses left mostly in ruins must have been quite thought-provoking. It’s almost as thought Big G is saying that ‘just you remember who’s in charge here’.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Malcolm 😀 Yes, it was slightly odd to see so many ruined churches in so small an area – really all within a few blocks of each other. It must be a constant reminder to the locals that they live in a volatile part of the earth!

  • BeckyB

    wow, such a fascinating and informative post – and loving the square photography too. I have never been to South America, so many fascinating countries to explore, history to discover and culture to enjoy. I do hope I visit one day, but suspect it will be a very long while before I have that opportunity

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much Becky 🙂 It was a bit tough to persuade some of these photos to work as squares but I’m glad I gave it a go as I think the galleries look neat! I hope you do get to South America one day but just for info, Guatemala is in Central America, not the South. Having said that it has the colonial Spanish past in common with many South American countries 🙂

  • CliffClaven

    Well, that brought back memories! 1980 was only a few days old when I braved the traffic of Guatemala City and drove my rental Datsun through the hills to Antigua. I wish I had had a good camera – and your talent – so that I could have captured and now remember some of the sights. Thanks to your photos, I can now…..

  • Gradmama2011

    Wonderful post. I never made it to Guatemala, so I’m pleased to read your descriptions and see your great photos. I am especially interested in cathedrals. I visited Mexico several times, noteably San Cristóbal de Las Casas, in Chiapas. My doctoral dissertation (which I never completed) deals with the conversion to Christianity by selected mendicant orders in 1540. Although I did not complete the dissertation, I have incorporated some of the information into a novel that I am writing, and plan to publish parts of my research into my blog. I really need to rescue some of my languishing photos from the cathedral in San Cristóbal. The history of the Spanish conquest is pretty much the same throughout Mexico and Central America, etc.

    I really appreciate your work, and enjoy the photo essays and historical writings. thanks 🙂

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much for the positive feedback 🙂 I’ve never been to Mexico but would very much like to. I’ll be very interested to read about your research when you add it to your blog!

      • Gradmama2011

        I really enjoy your site. Mexico is a many splendored place all right. My husband and I made three or four trips there. The last time he went was when I went to Chiapas…he declined the invitation, and instead met me in Mexico city at the national airport. We were really into the archeological sites,

        I did three trips with Global Exchange in the 1990s, It was so good to meet real people up in the villages, and it was a great thrill for a bookie like me to have the chance to study the 16th Century books from the Cathedral…just touching them was exciting 🙂 I have photos from all these places…I really should post them so others can enjoy them. I willl I will I will…. 🙂

        • Sarah Wilkie

          Wow yes, touching those books must have been amazing! I’m another bookie (and former librarian) and I always get a thrill from very old libraries and incunabula in particular 😀 Do post those photos!

          • Gradmama2011

            I remember being a little girl and pretending that I was reading before I could actually read. 🙂 The mere sight of a bookmobile still gives me a thrill and makes me feel like I’m 10 again sitting on the steps of the bookmobile that came to our town once a week before there was a branch library there.

Do share your thoughts, I'd love to hear from you! And please include your name in case WP marks you 'anonymous' - thank you