The beautiful city of Antigua in Guatemala has been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1979. Its full name, “Antigua Guatemala”, means Old Guatemala, and here you can see preserved ruins and colonial buildings dating back to the 16th century when it served as colonial capital of the captaincy general of Guatemala (also called the Kingdom of Guatemala), an administrative division of the Spanish Empire. Antigua Guatemala’s horizon is dominated by three majestic volcanoes, Volcan de Agua (“Volcano of Water”); Acatenango Volcano; and Volcan de Fuego (“Volcano of Fire”), duly named because it is a low-level constantly active volcano, issuing steam and gas almost daily.
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To the Kakchikel Maya, Volcan de Agua was—and still is—called Hunapu. However, the Spanish named it the Volcano of Water after its 1527 eruption caused lahar (volcanic mudflow) to flow down its slopes and destroy the original site of Antigua Guatemala, then called Santiago de los Caballeros. The city that was reestablished was named Ciudad Vieja, “Old City”. Another capital called Santiago was built nearby, but was destroyed by an earthquake in 1773. This prompted the creation of a new centre, Nueva Guatemala (“New Guatemala”). Nueva Guatemala became Guatemala City, capital of the captaincy general of Guatemala in 1776 until it became the capital of the independent Republic of Guatemala in the 19th century. The old city became Antigua Guatemala.
To begin your tour of Antigua, Guatemala, you can head straight to the former colonial capital from Guatemala City Airport via private car, taxi, or chicken buses. Brightly coloured chicken buses (modified buses) ply the roads of Antigua, and you can board one for your journey from the airport. The ride would take around 45 minutes. In Antigua, a guided or free walking tour will take you through the amazing monuments such as the Santa Catalina Arch, once part of a 17th-century nunnery, and the Captain General Palace (Palacio de los Capitanes Generales) located in the Central Square of Antigua Guatemala, which now serves as the headquarters of the Guatemala Institute of Tourism and other departments.
You can also use Antigua Guatemala as a base to discover other destinations in Guatemala on a day tour or overnight trip. From your hotel in Antigua, head to the coffee plantation of San Miguel Escobar, to learn about coffee production and also take part in coffee picking.
Go on a scenic drive through the highlands to the town of San Juan Comalapa, which became famous for its indigenous Kaqchikel painters. Kaqchikel painter Andrés Curruchich (1891–1969) made oil paintings depicting village life and traditions, and gained international renown. He then decided to teach a new generation of Kaqchikel artistsTake a tour of the town’s local market, which also display paintings and murals of the local artists.
Continue on to Lake Atitlan (“between the waters”), located in the Guatemalan Highlands, the deepest lake in Central America. It has been renowned as the most beautiful lake in the world, surrounded by volcanoes and wildflowers. The lake is surrounded by villages wherein Maya culture remains strong.
The town of Santo Tomas Chichicastenango (“city of nettles”) is also a worthy stop for a walking tour. The town is the centre of K’iche’ Maya culture–a huge majority of the residents belong to the K’iche, who speak both their indigenous language and Spanish. Chichicastenango hosts market days twice a week (Thursdays and Sundays) where traders from all over Guatemala sell their goods. Take part in this vibrant atmosphere and see the textiles, pottery, and flowers, among others, on display.
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