The Parks, Churches and Ruins of Antigua
Antigua, located in the central highlands of Guatemala, was settled as the third capital of Guatemala in 1543 by Spanish conquistadors after indigenous uprisings took place in the first capital and after a volcano destroyed the second capital over a 20 year time period. Upon suffering from multiple earthquakes and severe destruction in 1773, the capital was ordered to move to Guatemala City by the Spanish Crown.
During its time as capital, Antigua became home to many religious orders that constructed several churches and convents near the main square and parks. As a result of the earthquakes, the colonial city, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, features many ruins as well. Famous for its Spanish Baroque influenced architecture, Antigua is a wonderful place to visit in Guatemala.
The Parks and Active Churches
Next to every park, of course, is a church. I was in Antigua during Easter and many locals, tourists, and vendors enjoyed the parks and activities in the surrounding squares.
Parque Central is surrounded by magnificent colonial structures, restaurants, and artisan markets. Tourists shop from local vendors while locals get their shoes shined in the shade of the surrounding buildings’ colonnades. Most of the Easter processions pass by this central location, so without knowing the parade schedules, it is easy to rest on the park benches and wait for the spectacle.
Cathedral of Saint James San José Parish
On the park’s east side is the Cathedral of Saint James San José Parish. Construction began in 1545 with rubble brought from Guatemala’s previous capital, but it was hampered by frequent earthquakes. A second sanctuary was inaugurated in 1680 and the church obtained its cathedral status in 1743.
Tanque La Unión
Tanque La Unión is a colonial site for laundering clothes. Locals still come to this park and use the public wash tank. Vendors may also be found here selling food and artisan wares.
San Pedro Hospital
Next to the park is San Pedro Hospital (and Monastery) which was founded by the monks of San Juan de Dios congregation in 1636. I passed by this area several times as it was on the route to my hotel. The Saturday night Easter mass, complete with a fire lit outside the door was definitely the highlight.
Parque de Belén and Church of Belén
Parque de Belén is located in the southeast corner of town. Each night I walked by this park, granted it was Easter weekend, I found food vendors lining the street and locals relaxing beneath the trees. The area was the resting place for the floats pulled during one of the Friday afternoon processions, thus I could take an up close and personal look.
Next to the park is the Church of Belén which was founded by Pedro of San José de Betancurt in 1653. The humble church was used to care for the sick and homeless. I briefly visited it during the Saturday night Easter Mass as well.
Parque La Merced and Iglesia La Merced
Construction on La Merced began in 1749 and was completed in 1767. The bright yellow church with its ornamental columns and two bell towers is located just north of the iconic Santa Catalina Arch. Inside the “pay portion” of the church are the ruins of its old monastery. The biggest and most important procession during Santa Semana leaves from this church on Good Friday.
Next to the church is a small park filled with local vendors selling food and artisanal wares. It was very busy throughout Semana Santa.
San Francisco Church
San Francisco Church is one of Antigua’s oldest churches. It suffered severe damage from the ongoing earthquakes between 1565 and 1773. The church was abandoned for almost 200 years until it was reconstructed between 1961 to 1967. I visited the church during Semana Santa and was blessed to see a spectacular carpet in the nave of the worshipping area.
Adjacent to the church are the ruins of the old Franciscan convent as well as a special chapel that houses the remains of Saint Hermano Pedro de San Jose de Betancur who is credited with many miraculous healings. The chapel with its lovely, small courtyard is considered very sacred.
In the church parking lot, there is a small permanent market which expands significantly to multiple food vendors throughout the Holy Week.
La Recolección is a former church and monastery of the Order of Recollects located just on the outskirts of the western side of Antigua next to a lovely park. In 1685, two missionaries came to Antigua and after more friars from their order arrived over the next ten years, they asked permission to build the complex. The City Council denied the request based on the fact there were not enough friars in their order. In 1700, they appealed to the Real Audiencia which ordered construction by Royal Decree. The complex was built over the next 17 years.
As with many of the buildings in Antigua, it suffered damage from the 1717 and 1751 earthquakes and was later devastated by the 1773 earthquake. Throughout the years, pieces of the structure have been taken to build a soap factory, a sports complex and other outside construction. The ruins, arches and fallen debris were quite interesting to explore. The entry fee is 40 Quetzales (only $6 though the government hesitates taking US money) and is worth a visit.
Santo Domingo Monastery
Originally one of the most important and largest monasteries in Antigua, Santo Domingo Monastery was destroyed in the 1773 earthquake. The ruins are now part of the Hotel Casa Santo Domingo. Along with the ruins, visitors may also see some crypts and other museums.
While interesting, I liked other ruins better. In addition, I suspect I still hadn’t gotten enough of the Easter carpets at the time, so I felt like I wanted to be admiring those temporary masterpieces rather than the paintings and jewels inside the museums. Having said that, the hotel with a pool and spa (and I think rare A/C) looked fantastic, and I think I would have really enjoyed it if staying there as a guest. The entry fee to the ruins and museum for non-guests is $12.
Hermitage and School of San Jerónimo
San Jerónimo was planned as the College of St. Jerome by the Order of Mercy and construction began at 1757. It was closed down in 1761 by King Carlos III and ordered to be destroyed as it was built without authorization. Due to its well built structure, there was opposition to the demolition, and at the request of Captain General Ferández de Heredia it became Royal Customs.
The building was destroyed by the 1773 earthquake and the ruins are now part of the Consejo Nacional para la Protección de Antigua Guatemala. Admission is 40 Quetzales or $6, though it is best to have Guatemalan currency on hand. I enjoyed these ruins, though my favorites were La Recolección and Santa Clara.
The Convent of Santa Clara
I must have passed by the non-descript entrance of Santa Clara at least twice before realizing the ruins could be visited when I saw someone inside through an old archway! This complex, with a lovely gardens surrounded by corridors, is often used for weddings. The $6 or 40 Quetzales fee is worth the price of admission. These may have been my favorite ruins, perhaps due to the element of surprise given the façade of the church is on the inside and hidden from the exterior view.
The convent was established in 1700 by the nuns of the Order of the Poor Clares. Its roof collapsed during the 1717 earthquake, and the structure had to be abandoned during the 26 year reconstruction period. The new convent was inaugurated in 1734 only to be completely destroyed by 1773 and 1834 earthquakes. I really loved seeing all the archways at these ruins which also included a lovely courtyard.
The Church and Convent of the Capuchinas
The Church and Convent of the Capuchinas was the last convent to be constructed in Antigua. It was approved by King Felipe V in 1725 upon the arrival of the Order of the Capuchins and consecrated in 1736.
Somehow, I managed to walk by these ruins a few times, but never noticed that they were open to explore. Instead, I only noticed the many vendors selling their artisan wares outside it walls. While I am not a shopper, I do like snapping photos of markets, so perhaps I was focused on this rather than the entrance to the ruins. Also, generally I was only in this area later in the day and the ruins in Antigua close at 5pm.
I really enjoyed visiting all the parks and churches in Antigua, though I particularly liked the ruins. ETB