Stepping Into Antigua's Past Among Churches and Colonial Ruins

A former Spanish capital, this Guatemala city offers rich historical gems

In the book "After the Bombs," Guatemalan novelist Arturo Arias relates the following national joke: Winston Churchill learns that Guatemala has declared war on Nazi Germany and, cigar in hand, rushes to his atlas to locate his new ally. The great man searches in vain, then finally locates it buried under a little volcano of ashes fallen from his cigar.

Volcanoes and earthquakes have shaped Guatemala's history and landscape, building mountains and toppling cities. The forces that created the rugged beauty of the central highlands have brought down three capital cities, of which the Spanish colonial seat at Antigua is but the most recent.

Modern residents are happy with the way things worked out: While the nearby capital gets more sprawling each year, Antigua's relaxed pace, imposing colonial ruins, and stunning natural setting attract visitors worldwide. Many of Guatemala City's wealthier residents have moved to Antigua, along with scores of foreign expatriates, and hundreds of Mayan Indians from surrounding highland villages.

Three massive volcanic cones surround the city - at least two of them active - overshadowing the view from my hotel. All can be climbed, but after three weeks on the road I instead hiked down wide cobblestone streets to stuff myself with spicy chicken stew and fresh fruit frappes in a leafy restaurant courtyard.

I'd come to see Spanish colonial ruins, and I didn't need a map to find them. Huge earth-shaken edifices appeared around almost every corner, testimony to the awesome power of the 1773 earthquake that forced the Spanish to abandon the city. I wandered through imposing cathedrals whose vaulted ceilings had fallen, leaving 10-foot thick pillars strewn about the nave like parts from an oversized Lego set. A domed church is open to the highland skies, its raised altar the center of an open-air courtyard.

One-hundred-fifty years ago this was the center of Spanish power in Central America - and the remaining ruins of churches, palaces, and monasteries testify to its importance. From here, the Spanish administered holdings from Chiapas to Panama for the 250 years that separated the burial of their previous capital by a volcanic eruption and Antigua's fatal 1773 quake.

The Las Capuchinas convent is perhaps the most impressive of the quake ruins, and the government is in the midst of a conservation project of the vast compound. I wandered from cool meditative chambers, through a restored fountain courtyard, and into a beautiful garden.

A circular building housed the 18 reclusive Capuchin nuns - their individual cells encircling a central foyer in this round tower, each with independent sewage.

The mystery lies underneath. Down an ominous staircase, I found a massive basement supporting the tower overhead by a single enormous pillar. The room has 17 recesses originally set with stone rings, and nobody is sure what it was for. Experts suggest laundry, bath, or even a torture chamber, which seems an odd set of options. The Capuchin order was secretive, its inductees forsaking visual contact with the world outside the convent walls. Food was delivered through a turntable and conversations with outsiders conducted through an opaque grill.

That evening the entire town seemed to have congregated in the leafy central square. Mayan Indian families ate in groups - the women and girls in hand-woven traditional dress, the men and boys in jeans and baseball caps (the Chicago Bulls currently most prevalent). The children wandered through the crowds selling woven and carved handicrafts to city-slickers from Guatemala City or Chicago, while their parents bundled unsold inventory to carry back to the village in packages atop their heads..

Antigua is surrounded by traditional Indian villages, some of which can be reached on foot. Travelers in search of Indian handicrafts usually travel by car to Chimaltenango, an Indian cultural center and site of a sprawling market on Sunday and Thursday; there I was simultaneously offered a richly embroidered blanket, a live chicken, and look-alike Pepsi T-shirts.

It's also possible to climb the volcanic cones for an intimate encounter with plate tectonics. To do this safely, you need to book with a tour group - not so much because of the unlikely risk of a volcanic eruption as the danger of robbery or violent assault in this and other highly touristed wilderness areas. Others move on to volcano-encircled Lake Atitlan two hours northwest - the highlands' other tourist mecca.

Back in Antigua at an unusual shop, a proprietor has assembled a vast collection of Mayan weaving, featuring distinctive shirts and blouses from hundreds of villages. Most Mayan women and some men still wear these vibrant handmade clothes, which identify the wearer's tribe, social standing, and village of residence.

Outside in a nearby square, Mayan women were weaving - their looms suspended between a tree and their own weight. "Want one?" a weaver paused in her work to ask. "They're handmade."

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