Say the name Antigua and most people’s minds conjure images of sugar-white sand beaches with a laid back Caribbean vibe. They think of a popular cruise destination or a place to do some offshore banking. What they don’t think about is the possibility that there could be another one—another Antigua that is. But the fact of the matter is that long before Antigua (along with Barbuda in the Lesser Antilles) earned a spot on the jet-setter checklist, the other Antigua, situated in central Guatemala was the only Antigua in town.
If you lived back anywhere between the 1500’s and 1700’s, instead of thinking about the relatively obscure British colony at the mention of Antigua, you’d be thinking of the seat of the Spanish colony of Guatemala, which encompassed most of Central America. For 200 years after its founding in 1543 this was the military center of Spanish Central America until the 1700’s, when a series of major earthquakes devastated much of the city and prompted officials to change venues for the capitol. Today, the historic center retains much of its colonial charm and is a worthy entrant on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
I arrived there late at night after a 45 minute ride from the airport in Guatemala City. In town there are historic boutique inns converted from former mansions that reflect the local flavor—which is about as thick as the morning coffee. From my balcony I could see a wisp of smoke rising from one of the three volcanoes that surround the town, serving as a reminder that as tranquil a setting as it is, there’s a lot going on beneath the surface. After a delicious breakfast in the authentic courtyard, we were off to the main square which houses a shady park centering important buildings such as the town hall and cathedral. The latter also showcases some impressive remains from the even-larger edifice it used to be before the earthquakes. All around are archways and pillars garnished with flowers spilling over the sides. Combined with the silhouette of volcanoes in the background, it has the look of a movie set depicting colonial times. When you realize that this is all real and none of it is for show, that’s when it hits you that this is a truly special place.
For those looking for some luxury, an upscale lodging option is the Hotel Casa Santo Domingo. This five star hotel is a former monastery, and has preserved the original Baroque architecture along with many artifacts that are proudly put on display. Since Antigua is nearby to Guatemala City and a lot more pleasant a place to stay, this is where well-to-do travelers and VIP’s are likely to base themselves out of. As an example, the day I visited the Clintons were in town, though apparently were too busy to join me for lunch.
Given the relative safety (compared to the rest of the country) and pleasant climate, it is not unusual to see many North American and European ex-pats strolling the peaceful cobblestone lanes or enjoying a coffee at the square. I imagine that they too were once tourists passing though until they found this little-known gem and decided to stay. Can’t say that I blame them. Between the enchanting setting, low cost of living and mild climate, there certainly was a palpable pull to spend more time to appreciate all that it has to offer.
So while I enjoy a white sand beach as much as anyone, in my book the Antigua I think of when I hear the name is nestled in the highlands, surrounded by volcanoes and steeped in history. No offense to the other Antiguans (& Barbudans), I’m sure their island is quite lovely as well. But I’m sure even they would be pleased to see the faded glory of the city that shares their name, and would be willing to admit that the world is big enough for more than one Antigua.