02 October 2006

Antigua

The city of Antigua was part of a run of bad luck of colonial capitals. The original capital, now known as Ciudad Vieja, was founded in 1527. When Volcan Agua erupted 14 years later, it deluged the town with rocks and mud, leaving little standing but the church. The second capital, humbly named La muy Noble y muy Leal Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Goathemala (now Antigua), remained the capital of the Spanish colony from 1541 to 1773. Though the three volcanoes that surround Antigua (Agua, Fuego, & Acatenango) provide a beautiful vista, they don't provide safety. Antigua suffered several earthquakes in the 1700s, and an enormous earthquake in 1773 toppled what was left. The capital was moved about 30 miles east and named it La Nueva Guatemala de la Asuncion (now Guatemala City). Mother nature doesn't consider 30 miles a significant move, however, and earthquakes in 1917 and 1918 rocked the capital. An earthquake in 1976 rocked the entire region, killing 23,000 and leaving over 1 million homeless. Politicians have since given up moving around and have accepted the fact that the whole country is a tectonic disaster area.
After being deserted and scoured for parts to build Guatemala City in 1773, some Antiguenos remained in the city and it flourished again in the 1800s. In the last half of the 20th century, it was recognized as a major heritage site for Central America. In the past 30 years, Antigua has made its name as home of the best schools for foreigners to study Spanish. Ironically, this has resulted in an influx of tourists and a city where anyone speaking English can get around fine.
As most tourist towns, Antigua can be divided into two parts: one for tourists and one for locals. Naturally Antigua's prices are much higher than the rest of Guatemala -- one can buy a bottle of water for Q10 in one part of the town and for Q1 in others. This generally is credited to the fact that most tourists think of costs in terms of their own currency, and therefore condier US$1.50 acceptable for a bottle of water, even if that's ten times the going rate in the country. Antigua hosts dozens of great restaurants of every ethnicity you can imagine (also at American price levels), Internet Cafes, guided tours, museums, as well as crafts 'tipicos' (meaning typical to Guatemalan culture). The arts & crafts sold in Antigua are absolutely beautiful, but are not necessarily typical. As is the case in most countries, its people have all Westernized much more than tourists ever want to think.
The other side of Antigua is closer to the bus terminal. As in most Guatemalan cities, the bus terminal has a nearby open air market where you can buy almost anything. Though foods and crafts expectedly dominate the open air market, kitchen wares, watches, cellular phones, house decorations, clothing & shoes, radio antennaes, and CDs are all available there as well.
All in all, Antigua provides a nice respite when you just want a burger and speak English, but be prepared to spend in a day there what you spend in a week anywhere else.

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