Antigua rises from the ashes

The Guatemalan city has persisted through its share of catastrophes – from the decimation of the indigenous population to a slew of eruptions – to become the country’s prized jewel.

It was 12 months ago that Volcán del Fuego lit up the sky above Antigua, sending grey ash to blanket the tender leaves of coffee trees growing more than 80km away. As scorching lava rolled 600m down the volcano’s slope, 33,000 people from 17 villages in the Guatemalan highlands were quickly evacuated.

Belying the devastation they bring, volcanoes are bewitchingly beautiful. I was among a small group of travellers who climbed Pacaya – the other active mountain visible from Antigua – six months after it erupted in 2010, prompting President Álvaro Colom to declare a national state of emergency. Though it was calm the morning we ascended, the mountain radiated heat; a small branch dropped into a hole in the crust lit on fire before it landed. Erring on the side of caution, we stopped to admire the panorama several hundred metres short of the smouldering peak, which again resumed its sputtering in January 2013. On the charred hillside below, mangled tree branches jutted out to meet the clear blue sky. To the northwest lay Fuego’s slumbering sister, Volcán del Agua, and just beyond it, in the verdant Panchoy Valley, was Antigua, a colonial town that writer Aldous Huxley described as "one of the most romantic cities in the world".

Entering Antigua for the first time is like stepping back in time. Most power lines are buried underground, and there are no traffic signs or signals. Stucco houses with terracotta roofs dating from the 18th Century wear lion’s head knockers on their doors; each building painted its own sherbet shade of pink, yellow, orange or blue. Bougainvilleas creep over walls and succulents spill out of iron-grilled windows. Three-wheeled tuk tuks zoom down the uneven streets past the Parque Central, where brightly attired indigenous locals peddle colourful textiles, wooden wares and traditional sweets; shoe shiners loiter; and Spanish professors chat over lunch. The city’s original 16th-century design – nine streets and nine avenues organized around an elegant Spanish square – remains unchanged. Wherever you stand, you need only look up to admire one of the majestic volcanoes that surround the town, sometimes feeling precariously close.

Despite the town’s present-day beauty, Antigua has persisted through its fair share of catastrophes, from the colonial-era decimation of the indigenous population  to a slew of disastrous earthquakes, the most recent of which killed 23,000 Guatemalans in 1976. The earliest-recorded tremor hit Antigua only two decades after its founding in 1543; several more in 1773 levelled it entirely, forcing the capital to move from Antigua to its current location in Guatemala City. But like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Antigua was born again in the mid-19th Century when hopeful elites pursuing coffee fortunes rebuilt the city. Since then, it has prospered – even amid a 36-year civil war that killed more than 200,000 indigenous Mayas in the late 20th Century.

Today, Antigua is the prized jewel of a country grappling with crime and corruption. As the anniversary of Del Fuego’s eruption and Pacaya’s recent rumblings remind, the nation’s larger problems are never far from this mountainous escape. Nonetheless, Antigua holds great reward for the adventurous traveller who craves historical intrigue, natural beauty and mouth-watering cuisine. Many travellers come for a day between visits to the Maya pyramids or Lake Atitlán, and are often surprised by the large number of things to do. To truly discover the best the city has to offer, start with the ghostly colonial ruins that won its designation as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1979.

The most recognisable of these is the saffron-yellow Arco de Santa Catalina (5a Avenida Norte), the only remnant of an early 17th-century convent. The private passage within the arch was built so nuns could cross the street without being seen, and it is now a potent symbol of the city’s resilience. Most haunting are the ruins of the Iglesia y Convento de las Capuchinas (2a Calle Oriente and 2a Avenida Norte) in the city’s northeast quadrant. Built in 1726, the church housed the Capuchins, a severe order of nuns from Madrid who emphasised total abnegation. Ascent the tower to explore 18 nuns’ cells converging on a circular courtyard, and then descend into the dungeon where – rumour has it – wayward sisters were tortured.

Not all of colonial Antigua is in ruin, as many surviving cathedrals attest. Perhaps the most fascinating of these is the Iglesia de San Francisco, a massive white-washed structure on Antigua’s southeastern end. Built in 1579, the church now holds the tomb of San Pedro, who was canonised as Central America’s first saint when Pope John Paul II visited in 2002. Today, Guatemalans pilgrims come to light candles and deposit prayers for healing in a glass box near the saint’s sarcophagus. At the opposite end of town is Antigua’s most ornate church, the Spanish Baroque La Merced, whose outer square is ideal for people watching. Seen from above, the 18th-century church is shaped like a water lily, an ancient Maya symbol for power.

Once you tire of nuns and saints, unwind at the serene Cooperación Española, a cultural centre housed amid the well-kept ruins of a former Jesuit church and school that now belongs to the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation. Here, you can peruse books on Guatemalan arts and culture in a modern library, take in an exhibition in its stylish museum or attend an outdoor evening play or classical music concert.

On the western edge of town, the city’s main market is a menagerie of rich sights and smells, selling everything from freshly cut flowers and tropical fruits to jeans and wool blankets. For more authentic handicrafts, Casa de los Gigantes is a well-curated store that supports Guatemalan artisans, while traditional textile shop Textura sells woven bedspreads, table settings and pillows.

Travelling is as much about food as it is about the sights, and you can go a nonstop food crawl in Antigua. Try Doña Luisa Xicotencatl (4a Calle Oriente 12; 502-7832-2578) for an inexpensive breakfast of traditional huevos rancheros, served under a giant palm tree. For a mid-morning coffee, head to Parque Central to sip a cafe negro (black coffee) at Cafe Barista, a Guatemalan chain where the aromatic roast is sourced from nearby farms.

Though it lacks a sign on the door, Hector’s (1a Calle Poniente 9A ; 502-7832-9867) is a local favourite for beef tenderloin sandwiches and carpaccio. But perhaps the best restaurant in town is Como Como (6a Calle Poniente 6; 502 7832 0478), a European bistro that rivals top-notch Parisian dinner spots while maintaining an authentic Guatemala feel. Sip a hot toddy in a cosy room dominated by a rum bar and an old world map, and listen to whatever musicians are performing that day.