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Guatemala, 1541. The two Mayan kingdoms, the K’iche and the Kakchikel, have been defeated by Spanish forces fighting under Pedro de Alvarado, a veteran of the conquest of Mexico and one of Cortés’ top lieutenants. The Spanish construction of a capital city in Guatemala is well under way, and Ciudad Vieja is shaping up nicely on the gentle slopes of a majestic mountain.


With a thunderous roar, the supposed mountain upon which they’ve been building blows its top. A watery mudslide buries Ciudad Vieja, killing thousands and giving the volcano its name: “Agua,” or “water.” The surviving inhabitants started over a few miles away, laying the foundations for a new city they named Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala. This name was a bit too cumbersome, and before long the city was commonly called Antigua Guatemala, or, more simply, Antigua.


Antigua has worked hard to retain its colonial identity and heritage. It was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1979, and local ordinances make it impossible for stores or restaurants to use garish signs or obstruct anyone’s view of the marvelous colonial architecture. Even the McDonald’s is low-key and almost invisible without its trademark bright colors.


One of the best ways to see Antigua is simply to wander around. It is a very small town, and it is difficult to get lost. Because of its history—a mixture of Spanish colonial accented by frequent earthquakes—there are a number of very interesting colonial-era ruins within the city. One such site is the Santa Clara ruins, where the visitor can wander through tranquil gardens and marvel at the toppled masonry of what was once a convent. There are many more, and usually the entrance fee is quite low.


Antigua is a must-see for any visitor to Guatemala. It is popular with travelers and ex-pats for good reason: it is a pleasant, beautiful, relatively safe city bursting at the seams with things to see and do. There are good restaurants and bars, lively nightlife, and many activities. The mercado central has excellent Guatemalan handicrafts as well as a picturesque local section full of fruits and vegetables. Numerous bookstores and cafes make it easy to pass a pleasant afternoon lounging, while three of the surrounding volcanoes—Agua, Fuego and Pacaya—are conducive to more active days hiking and trekking.


Antigua is also famous for Spanish schools. There are literally dozens of schools, which vary greatly in quality, price and accommodation. If you’re interested, a number of these schools have web sites, but that isn’t even really necessary: almost all accept walk-ins, and the city is plastered with advertisements. Several even hire local children to pass out fliers to passengers on arriving buses.


Majestically towering over the narrow streets, Agua Volcano still keeps an impassive watch over the city. Agua has been dormant since that fateful day in 1541, but its two siblings, Pacaya and Fuego, occasionally roar at each other across the green valley. Antigua disdains them all: the city has made its sacrifices to the Volcano Lords already. These geological beasts can spit smoke and sputter all they want; colonial charm and quiet side streets still dominate the character of Antigua.

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