Antigua Guatemala is one of our favorite places. Once the Spanish colonial capital of Central America, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With near-perfect year-round weather and a picturesque highland location ringed by volcanos, its natural beauty is unparalleled. However, its beauty comes at a price. Situated close to a fault line, and the city has been plagued by severe earthquakes since its founding in 1532, and it will always be at risk.
After a triple-whammy of earthquakes struck the city in 1773, the Spanish government relocated the capital and ordered the citizens to evacuate, and only the poorest families and a large indigenous population remained. The city's old houses sat undisturbed for the next 100 years, which proved to be a stroke of luck beyond measure, since it no doubt saved many buildings from demolition. Today there are an extraordinary number of old houses intact, and as one gazes up cobbled streets, it's not hard to visualize life in colonial times.
The houses were built in the style of Roman patio houses, and domestic life is hidden behind massive walls over which bursts of bougainvillea spill. Heavy wooden doors are adorned with thick, hand-forged knockers, hinges, and latches, while tall, grilled windows sit on hefty stone sills. Huge cupolas, originally kitchen chimneys, rise from chunky clay-tiled roofs into clear blue skies. The walls are painted in sun-kissed hues that crumble and peel away like a window into the past. Everything is mass, texture, color, and age.
While many of the houses have been converted to hotels and restaurants, private homes still dot the city. Some are restored colonial houses. Others are new houses built with traditional details, though most new fountains are ornamental and cupolas are no longer real chimneys. Builders still use centuries-old materials and craftsmanship, and by and large, the character of the old houses has been preserved. It’s often difficult to tell new houses from authentic old ones.
The city of Antigua Guatemala will always be at risk for earthquakes. But through global awareness of the city’s importance to world culture, the persistent efforts of preservationists, and the use of better building methods, the old houses have the best-ever chance of survival.