When the windows rattled and I felt the floor moving underneath me, my Spanish teacher in Antigua didn’t even look up from what she was reading. “Didn’t you feel that?” I asked in English.
“Ah yes, but we’re used to it,” she replied in Spanish. Or at least I think that’s what she said: these were my first lessons many years ago. A tremor that had me ready to run for the exits or dive under a desk was just another shake of the ground in Antigua, Guatemala. A few hundred years ago a tremor that small would have been a relief. It got so bad in the late 1700s that the Spanish invaders gave up and moved their capital to somewhere more stable.
The volcanoes are always in the background when you stand on the streets of this UNESCO World Heritage city. One of them sends up smoke on a regular basis to remind us she’s not ready to call it quits. A few years ago it buried several villages and a luxury golf resort in hot ash. If you get the angle right you might just get a photo of a smoking peak behind a standing arch in a long-gone chapel. Mother Nature is standing tall, reminding us she’s still the boss in these parts. The conquistador’s churches were no match.
Between 1586 and 1776, nine sizable earthquakes and tremors hit the otherwise peaceful-looking valley where Antigua sits. After rebuilding government headquarters and a cathedral only to watch them tumble to the ground again, the rulers packed up and started over in what is now Guatemala City. Ruined Antigua sat nearly empty for more than 100 years. Since many of the buildings had lost their roofs, the open floors were used by local coffee farmers, who would spread out the beans to dry in the sun. By 1850, the population had only rebounded to 9,000 people.
Over time, optimistic souls rebuilt homes and eventually the government buildings found new life or were re-occupied by provincial officials. The ruined churches of Antigua did not fare so well. Once the institutions and various Catholic orders supporting them moved on, there was no money to take on the monumental restoration jobs-and no congregation to attend anyway once the building rose again. For the churches deemed worthy of rebuilding, the memory of a frustrating past discouraged most potential donors.
La Merced, the colorful yellow church with carved grape vines in front, is an illustration of what it takes for a colonial era church to still be standing today. Two hundred years after opening in the mid-1500s it suffered major damage in a quake. It was looking spiffy after a major reconstruction in 1767, then collapsed again less than a decade later. Money and forces were marshaled to rebuild again, then the roof came tumbling back down in 1855 and required periodic repairs after that restoration. Looking good now, it probably makes the parishioners say an additional prayer for structural integrity each Sunday.
Because it was one of the few Spanish colonial capitals built upon an active fault line, Antigua is filled with photogenic, evocative churches with their skeletons laid bare. In Tikal up north you can wander by Mayan ruins that have been restored to glory. Here you wander by and through the ruined churches of Antigua from later centuries that sit untouched in their fallen state. Some are open to wander through, while others are permanently fenced off. All can be reached on foot from the main plaza in the historic center or in a quick taxi ride.
Antigua’s Original San Jose Cathedral
The original church and rectory behind what was Central America’s original cathedral, right off the main plaza, is a series of walls and arches open to the sky. Many of those original parts have been stabilized to make sure more of them don’t come tumbling down. While the newer bricks may detract from the historic ambiance, they do ensure chunks of stone won’t come tumbling down on the heads of paying visitors.
On the edge of the historic district, this former convent is one that you can pay to walk inside of and clamber over fallen sections of the walls and roof. Completed as a convent in 1701, it didn’t last long since this was the beginning of a century that would see four earthquakes hit Antigua. Rebuilt several times only to turn to rubble again, the friars called it quits after the 1773 quake and the remains have been scattered across the grounds ever since.
Society of Jesus Church and School
Still looking impressive after mostly sitting empty since 1771, this Jesuit school and worship center had already been rebuilt to glory twice before the third time made the backers give up. Some residents fought demolition, hoping for a funding miracle, so it didn’t suffer the fate of some other churches that now have some other building in its place. The front looks halfway normal, with its big wooden door and statues in their resting places, but there’s nothing but clouds through the window openings. The open space inside has hosted a factory and a market in the past, but is now off limits.
Iglesia del Carmen
Retaining one of the most striking façades in the city, five delicately decorated columns on each side of the second level are above unadorned ones underneath. Carmen the building died in her 40s, tumbling down in the 1773 earthquake after opening in 1728. It looks basically the same as it did back then, with a just a few recent plants growing front dirt that has collected in the flat places. It is fenced off to visitors but is a popular photo backdrop when Mayan craft vendors set up in front.
Convent of Santo Domingo and Saint Thomas Aquinas College
You can grab a cocktail or an elegant meal after your visit to this ruined church complex since Hotel Santo Domingo–the city’s most prestigious property–is located on the grounds. Parts of the original convent are now decorative elements near hotel guest lounging areas and the pool. But a set of six small museums spanning archeology, silver, pre-Colombian art, and more is open to visitors inside the original walls.
There are plenty of reasons to visit this evocative city besides the ruined churches of Antigua, but they make an interesting backdrop to your strolls around the city.
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Article and photos by Tim Leffel, author of A Better Life for Half the Price.