THERE is almost no trace of the 20th century in Antigua. For more than 200 years, this tiny town in the Guatemalan highlands was the capital of the kingdom of Guatemala, one of the great centers of Spanish power in America. From its colonnaded buildings, the Spanish conquistadors ruled a rich empire that stretched south to the border of present-day Panama. Antigua was all but abandoned in the late 18th century, but it endured and today it is a living monument to Guatemala's past.
In colonial times, Antigua's plaza was a busy open space used for bullfights, public hangings, and for outdoor markets. Today, it is a garden of giant shade trees and bursts of brightly colored flowers. Old colonial government buildings surround the plaza, their two-story archways and fluted wood columns rippling around the square. Flamboyant decorations are molded into the plaster of Antigua's buildings. Delicate flowers, statues of saints, and creeping vines give Antigua an airy, almost surreal, beauty.
As the sun comes up, the massive whitewashed fa,cade of Antigua's Santiago cathedral begins to glitter in the early light. The town's red-tile roofs and Spanish-style belfries are vivid patterns against the green volcanoes that loom on the horizon. Fountains come to life, and on the edge of town the magnificent ruin of the Church of San Francisco is outlined against the pale blue sky.
Antigua is a town full of monuments, softened by the passage of time and almost undisturbed by daily life. Low, pastel-washed homes hug the town's cobblestone side streets. The thick walls hide a maze of Spanish courtyards that brim with tropical flowers, hanging vines, fountains, and palm trees. Cool mountain breezes, signaling afternoon rain, carry the scent of bougainvillea. Parrots on perches screech ``Hola! Hola!'' as they clean their toes.
In the afternoon, storm clouds roll in over the mountains. The clouds hide the volcanoes and rain drenches the town. The palm trees glisten and the huge, ornate cathedrals - some no more than vine-covered ruins - look even bigger against the gray sky. It is during the rain that Antigua most reflects the grandeur, vitality, and violence of Spain's rule.
Mayan Indians, dressed in their native costumes, cluster in doorways and under archways for shelter. Rich Guates, residents of Guatemala City, on a day's outing rush to their cars. A Hemingwayesque assortment of foreigners packs Dona Luisa's Caf'e: Peace Corps workers, textile exporters, journalists on break from Nicaragua and El Salvador. A soldier, carrying a semiautomatic rifle at his side, casually guards the entrance to the town hall.
In the 17th century, Antigua was home to an elite of Spanish government and church officials. It was a wealthy and cultivated city. It boasted one of the first printing presses in America. It was a center of higher learning, a city in which great painting and sculpture flourished. But colonial Antigua was also torn by conflict. Rival church factions battled each other for power. The non-Spanish merchants clashed with the city's rulers. Earthquakes shook the town. Finally, in 1773, there was a series of tremors so severe that Antigua was abandoned as the colonial capital in favor of Guatemala City.
Today, Antigua is only a serene reminder of its dramatic past. The yellow of the street lights glows warmly in the evening mist. Palm trees rustle in the breeze and the sound mingles with the murmur of voices as Antigua's residents scurry home at the end of the day. A lone woman with a huge basket perched on her head is silhouetted in the lamplight. The churches are locked up for the night and, in the courtyards, families gather for the evening meal.