Antigua is reminiscent of an old colonial city in Latin America, with the Spanish-Baroque buildings set in a valley between three volcanoes. The town has experienced multiple earthquakes, frequent floods, and a number of devastating fires over the centuries. It was the country's capital until 1776 when, after sustaining severe damage in a series of earthquakes, the capital moved to the present day Guatemala City, 25 miles (40km) away.
During the height of its popularity as a colonial outpost, it was the headquarters of Central America's most important administrators, as well as a religious centre in the region, with over 30 resident monastic orders. Today it is a fascinating journey into the past down the quaint traffic-free cobbled streets, past multi-coloured buildings and mansions, magnificent churches, monasteries, and convents.
Plazas, inner courtyards and fountains are all well-preserved remnants of the Spanish legacy in the Americas. Indeed, the town is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a popular destination for visitors. Buildings of interest include the Iglesia de San Francisco, La Merced, and the Las Capuchinas ruins.
Antigua becomes extremely busy during the Easter celebrations of Semana Santa (Holy Week), when people from all over the region flock to see the colourful street processions. The rest of the time, it has a relaxed and convivial atmosphere with a strong indigenous culture, prevalent in the Sunday market. It is also a popular place to learn Spanish at one of the many language schools, and most students are able to stay with a local family as part of the learning experience.
For the more adventurous, the three volcano peaks offer superb hiking opportunities and views, and many tour operators in town offer trips to the surrounding countryside, as well as excursions to Volcán Pacaya, one of two active volcanoes in the region. Villages nearby, like San Antonio Aguascalientes, offer visitors a closer look at indigenous life and are centres for beautiful hand-woven textiles.
The ruins of Las Capuchinas, the biggest and most remarkable of Antigua's convents, are the best preserved and most beautiful in the city. The convent was founded in 1736 by Spanish nuns and is now a museum dedicated to religious life in colonial times. The nuns who lived here followed a strict daily routine that focused around fasting and praying. Their tiny cells can be found in the walls of the round tower, which has good views from the top. There are also fountains, gardens, and several lovely courtyards within the compound.
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