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Colonial Antigua as a Port Stop

On our January 2023, Panama Canal cruise, one particular port stop was Puerto Quetzal in Guatemala. It was not high on my must-see places, and with absolutely zero knowledge of the country, I set about deciding what I wanted to do. With only one day in this location, I vacillated between three different shore excursion options:

1. a day trip and climb up the Pacaya Volcano;

2. a Guatemala City tour (with museum visit); or

3. a day trip to Colonial Antigua.

I finally decided that a trip to Colonial Antigua in the highlands of Guatemala, would be the best option for me. A UNESCO heritage site, it had that lovely historical offering that I always enjoy and the one-and-a-half-hour drive to the old city would provide me with an opportunity to see the countryside. My research had indicated that one of the country’s active volcanos would be visible to us as we were on route and I found that prospect intriguing.

I originally booked a private tour (which is usually my go to option). However, once I reserved the tour, communication with the trip operator became nonexistent and several e-mails I sent with questions, remained unanswered. Increasingly worried about the quality of the tour and the integrity of the operator, I finally cancelled the booking and reserved through the ship. I am not a huge fan of ship organized tours but having cancelled the private trip, my options were limited.

I chose a tour with a medium activity level but found that what the ship tour considered a medium level, I would consider to be a very light and easy level. I walked about 8,000 steps on the whole tour and although it was mostly on uneven cobblestone, it was all flat walking (no hills). The tour was not taxing and the pace set by the guide was quite leisurely. I subsequently felt that I should have booked the ship offered transportation to Colonial Antigua and just walked the site on my own. I would have covered significantly more ground, seen more buildings, and been able to examine certain architectural gems at my leisure.

Before talking about the town itself, I will share information about the drive to the site. Those sitting on the left side of the bus (as you face the driver), were able to see the active volcano spew smoke. I was on the right-hand side of the bus and became worried that I would not get a clear view of the volcano on the return trip as clouds usually move in around the crater during the afternoon. Fortunately, as you can see from my photo, on our return trip the clouds cleared enough for me to get a good view and a few good pictures. I was lucky. My pro tip to you, is if you are going to Colonial Antigua, sit on the left-hand side of the vehicle enroute to the old city, so that if the weather is clear, you will see the volcano. In the afternoon, I am told the view is more often than not, obscured by clouds.

Our guide was quite informative and told us that sugar was the number one crop in Guatemala and tourism was the second most important industry. Coffee and bananas came in as the third and fourth largest industries. There are 22 provinces and 23 different dialects. The information given was interesting and the guide kept up a steady stream of facts during our drive. The road was not smooth and can best be described as bumpy. Some of the views of the agricultural cultivation are worth a look.

Once we arrived at Colonial Antigua, we had to switch to smaller buses as the larger buses are not allowed into the old city’s center. Friends who booked the ship organized transportation only, said they had to walk from the large bus drop off point, into the old city.

Colonial Antigua was the capitol of Guatemala from 1543 through 1773 until an earthquake destroyed large portions of it. Apparently, Guatemala had a few issues with the selection of city locations as we were told the previous capitol had been destroyed in a mud slide caused by volcanic activity.

The buildings are interesting with many displaying typical Baroque style features. The Spanish influence on the city square is evidenced by the architectural layout of the government buildings and the construction of those buildings around the perimeter of a central square which is centered by a fountain. The government buildings are arched and painted yellow and white. Most of the buildings have today been converted to shops and restaurants. If you visit the park, have a look at the Diego de Porres designed Mermaid fountain which was created in 1737 and is beautiful.

There were a number of street vendors around the square who approached all the tourists. A polite “No thank you” worked for some but others were more persistent. One woman followed me for four blocks getting in my way, grabbing my arm, and talking constantly. I did not want to be rude but clearly a firm “No” was not effective. Finally, I bought a runner for $25 just to get rid of her. I recognize that it was not a good precedent to set as it just proved to her that being persistent is an effective selling strategy and I am sure she will employ it again much to the annoyance of her next victim.

On one side of the square, there was an artisan market tucked within the interior of the buildings, so it was not easily identifiable as a large shopping market. I was unable to determine the directions of north, south, east and west when in the market, so my best description as to how to find the shops, is to suggest you stand in the park with the yellow and white arched government buildings on your left. Keeping the government buildings on your left, walk straight ahead and you will cross the street and come to small shops and cafes. Once you reach them, turn to the right and walk along the walkway. You will discover the artisan market by looking through one of the entrance ways. It is marked, but not easily identifiable from a distance. We had about 20 minutes to shop.

As we walked towards the cathedral, we passed under the Santa Catalina Arch which is also painted yellow and white and has a clock in the middle of the arch. Built in 1694, the arch (also known as Calle del Arco), is attached to the Convent of Santa Catalina and the Convent of the Virgin. Reportedly, inside the arch is a passageway that the nuns once used to cross the street without being seen. They had taken a vow to avoid contact with the outside world and as such, did not want to be observed outside their cloistered walls. The arch allowed them to move back and forth between the two areas. We could not see evidence of such a passage, and I am not sure if it is still in existence or open to the public. The arch is not in the best of shape and the clock was not functioning when we were there.

The Spanish Baroque style cathedral is painted a lovely yellow with white decorative plants entwined around the pillars. It has assorted designs on the archways and at the top portion of the building. I was told that the white plants depicted on the exterior of the building’s pillars are supposed to be grapes but the local artists who completed the work had never seen grapes, so their renditions bear no resemblance to actual bunches of grapes. The original cathedral (built circa 1545), that had graced this site, was heavily damaged in an earthquake so the current structure was built on those ruins in the 1670s and was finished and consecrated in 1680. Another earthquake in 1773 caused substantial damage to the cathedral however the twin towers in the front survived and the cathedral was rebuilt using those towers as part of the new facade. Our guide told us that the four statues that currently grace the front of the cathedral were recovered from the interior of the original building and that the statues were incorporated into the front as part of the rebuilding.

I found the interior to be somewhat plain and not as ornate as the interiors of other cathedrals in Central and South America that were also built by the Spanish. It could be that when the earthquakes damaged the original and second cathedral, the church and populace lacked the will, and funds, to make the rebuild as ornate and resplendent as those found in Spain.

People were taking photos inside the cathedral, and I followed suit not realizing until I was exiting that the taking of photos was prohibited. The sign indicating what could and could not be done in the cathedral had been hidden by a tour group when I entered the building so I did not see it. I nipped back into the cathedral to give a donation as I am normally not one of those people who disregards the expressed wishes against photography (in this case to respect the integrity of historic artwork).

Outside the cathedral, I bought a few bookmarks from a young boy selling assorted items. He gave me his consent to photograph him so I have included his picture in this blog. In hind sight, I should have bought more bookmarks as they are great items to use as "give aways" at book signings.

Following the stop at the cathedral our tour walked the old streets but did not stop at some of the buildings that I would have liked to explore further. For example I came across a building and courtyard identified as Santa Terese de Jesus which had a sign that said it was the “Orden de Carmelitas Descalras 1687”. Our tour quickly passed the entrance so the guide could take us to the Jade Museum and store where Mary Lou Ridinger (one of the founders), gave a little talk about jade before we were told we would have 45 minutes to tour the museum and/or shop in the jade store. This is a typical tourist stop and I was quite annoyed that we missed visiting interesting historical buildings in order to be taken to a place where following the briefest of talks by the founder, we were encouraged to shop in the attached store. I did visit the small museum.

I want to note that I am expressing my personal opinion about this stop and other people had differing thoughts about the value of the stop. One couple, who we sat with at lunch, were delighted with the jade museum and store. They told me that they had been bored with the tour of the historical buildings and enjoyed seeing the workshop and jade museum. This just cements the saying that the quality of a tour is subjective.

The Jade Museum and shop was our last stop before a lunch which can best be described as an underwhelming experience. It filled the hunger gap and provided some insight into the staples of the local diet. There were a few extra charges. Those wanting alcohol had to pay extra which is the norm on shore excursions unless visiting a pub, brewery or distillery. I paid $3 extra to have a bottle of water and this is also the norm for these type of lunches. My favourite part of the luncheon was the look on my husband’s face when he asked for a little milk or cream to put into his coffee. He was told he would have to pay a dollar extra as the lunch included only the coffee. Milk, cream or sugar (to put into the coffee), was extra.

Following the lunch, we were soon bundled on the little buses and driven back to the big bus for our return to the ship.

In summary, the trip to Colonial Antigua was well worth the visit and I would certainly go again. Next time I will visit Colonial Antigua on my own and take a hard pass on an organized tour.


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