La Antigua Guatemala is the old Colonial capital of Guatemala. It lies in a valley surrounded by three volcanoes, Acatenango, Fuego, and Agua and its history has unfortunately been closely tied and partially determined by geological forces. Although it dates to the 16th century, much of the city was destroyed in 1773 by a catastrophic earthquake. Another earthquake in 1976 added to the destruction. As a result, many of the buildings are in ruins or are still being restored.
However, the city is still charming and shows much evidence of its former grandeur. Its cobblestone streets, fountains, plazas and tropical gardens are a delight to explore. Its multi-colored (primarily yellow, orange, and ocher) one-story buildings are evidence of optimism, not despair. It has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Probably the most vibrant part of the city is Central Park, which is a gathering place for both locals and tourists. It is lined with vendors selling all manner of handicrafts and souvenirs. Its “naughty” Mermaid Fountain is an interesting conversation piece. Nearby are several noteworthy structures. Catedral Santiago dates to 1542, although it has sustained much damage over the years and is still being restored. The Palace of the General Captains, with its stone columns, dates to about the same time.
Several other religious buildings or their remains are worthwhile to visit. La Merced Church has an intricately decorated, Baroque façade in yellow and white. It dates to 1548 and is said to contain the largest fountain in Latin America. The ruins of the Santa Clara Church are wonderful to stroll since the area is well-kept and landscaped. La Recoleccion was once a huge monastery and, although also in ruins, has a glorious setting in the shadow of a volcano.
The former University of San Carlos de Borromeo is a striking Moorish building which is now a museum.
Two of the volcanoes above the city, Acatenango (3,900 meters or 13,000 feet) and Fuego (3,700 meters or 12, 350 feet), are considered “twins” and known jointly as La Horqueta. Agua is a bit smaller, at 3765 meters or 12,300 feet. Brave souls who climb their slopes are rewarded with fantastic views.
The best excursion from Antigua Guatemala is east into the neighboring country of Honduras to see the ancient Mayan ruins of Copan, a one-way trip of about 240 kilometers (130 miles). There is a daily shuttle service from both Antigua and Guatemala City.
The nearest town to the ruins is appropriately called Copan Ruinas and is a charming, small town with cobblestone streets, houses with tile roofs and a friendly, peaceful atmosphere. It is only one kilometer (½ mile) away from the ruins, just a 10 minute walk.
The ruins at Copan are not as large as some other Mayan sites, but they more than make up for a lack of size by their quality. This place seems to be the pinnacle of excellence in Art and probably also in astronomical observation. There are many carved monuments which should be the focus for the visitor.
History tells us that this site is old, perhaps going back to 2000 BC, although the heyday of the Mayan civilization here probably peaked between 465 and 800 AD.
The initial entry point to the complex is near the Ceremonial Court (Court of the Stelae) which is one of the most spectacular sections. A Stela is a stone column, which here is carved with numerous glyph figures that probably memorialize kings or record historical events — they resemble stone totem poles.
Nearby is the Ball Court, a flat area with three sloping sides. Archaeologists do not know how the game was played, except that it was obviously very popular since fields of play are found in just about all Mayan sites.
To the south is probably the most exceptional structure in the complex. The Hieroglyphic Stairway consists of 63 stairs that contain over 1000 glyphs, which may tell the entire history of this civilization. Today, it is protected from the elements because the figures are extremely worn and difficult to read.
The nearby Eastern Court contains what is considered the most impressive temple (Temple 22) of the entire site. Note especially the carved doorways.