There are books that we unwittingly carry in our travel bags. They appear unexpectedly, although not in their printed form. They open their pages in the streets of a city or the faces of its people, in the landscapes and the local stories that interweave all kinds of deja vú and endearing memories. It is as if the dimension of the reader and that of the traveler were perfectly united by a translucent and almost invisible thread; a thread that only appears in situ and under the lights of chance and coincidence.
In Alejo Carpentier’s 1954 novel, Los pasos perdidos (The Lost Steps), the narrator and protagonist of the story—a musician, musicologist, and, to his chagrin, composer of advertising jingles—is invited to undertake a unique journey that will forever transform the meaning of his life. At the request of an old friend who is a curator for the Organographic Museum, he must go up the course of the Orinoco River toward the interior of a virgin forest and find musical instruments from a native culture. His long expedition ends up revealing itself as a journey through time, a regressive “panning” that will lead him to reconstruct significant stages of the history of the continent. On the way, he immerses in the myths and founding archetypes of American cultural identity.
A similar experience awaits travelers who cross the Guatemalan landscape in search of their lost steps. The evidence of a hybrid time—synthesis of the perception of the present and the aura of a historical memory that seems to inhabit the territory—will accompany you in the various stages of your journey. This is true whether you’re stopping in front of the Temple of the Great Jaguar in Tikal's Plaza Mayor, crossing the volcano-flanked waters of Lake Atitlan in an old barge, or strolling the cobblestone streets of Antigua, the country's first capital.
A morning in the colonial city of Antigua—the Very Noble and Very Loyal City of Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala, as Spanish colonizers called it when they baptized it in 1524—may begin with the sighting of the omnipresent Volcan de Fuego (Fire Volcano; or Chi q'aq' in K'iche' Mayan, meaning “where there is fire”) exhaling one of its usual “fumarolas,” as locals call them. These puffs of black and compact smoke that rise unexpectedly to disappear after a few minutes are repeated periodically. They contrast with the serenity of the already extinct and majestic Volcan de Agua (Water Volcano).
These are two of the three stone colossi that, next to the Acatenango, flank and geographically delimit the valley that embraces the city, which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979. Between 1541 and 1776, Antigua was the Captaincy General of Guatemala and an emblematic city of the Spanish Empire in Mesoamerica. It remains today one of the most beautiful places I have seen in Latin America—a human and cultural enclave whose persistence throughout the centuries speaks of the tenacity and resilience of its inhabitants against the whims and cataclysms of nature.
Destroyed or severely affected by successive waves of earthquakes and volcanic spills, the city perseveres, rising after each onslaught of nature. The numerous churches and convents of all orders the city has treasured since colonial times display the scars of this battle of titans. They also tell us about its political and religious importance in the first centuries of the conquest. Semi-destroyed and then partially restored through pure grit, they are still functioning as points of interest for any visitor because of their symbolic power and the architectural beauty of their colonial baroque style, which is typical of the region.
Antigua is particularly predisposed to bring us some kind of surprise, be it historical or related to the imagination of a spirituality that has defined the city and its passions through the centuries. During my visit to the Sanctuary of San Francisco el Grande, I witnessed for the first time the overwhelming spectacle of a Solar Halo, also known as Antelia. This optical and atmospheric phenomenon occurs when the sun's rays hit suspended ice particles in the high clouds, which act as mirrors. That colossal circumference that adorned the sky with its multicolored rainbow edges seemed to crown the bell tower of the church, evoking medieval representations of the divine. For some, it reflects the very aura of Pedro de San José de Betancourt, a Canarian missionary who was canonized in 2002 by Pope John Paul II. In a small and crowded room near his tomb, the objects his devotees have deposited over the years serve as evidence of the urgency of a prayer, or as offerings of gratitude for the miracle of favors granted. The current building dates from 1702, as the first church was destroyed by an earthquake in 1565. During the city’s stint as the Captaincy General of Guatemala, it was also a prestigious cultural center that housed the Colegio de San Buenaventura. The second building was in turn destroyed by other earthquakes and then abandoned until 1967 when the Franciscan order undertook the partial reconstruction of its facilities.
You will be able to witness another close encounter with the history of America in the ruined grounds of what was the first cathedral of Antigua, the Catedral Primada de Santiago de los Caballeros, one of the most lavish of its time according to city historians. Construction of the original building began in 1545 and, like many other sanctuaries in the area, it was destroyed by the Santa Marta earthquakes (1773) and then rebuilt in various stages over the years. A stone plaque located in the center of its main nave marks the resting place of historical figures such as the controversial Don Pedro de Alvarado: founder of the city, adelantado (representative) of Hernán Cortés, "conqueror" of Guatemala, and protagonist of the massacre of Tóxcatl in Tenochtitlán. Or that of Bernal Díaz del Castillo—among others—, appointed governor of Antigua in 1551, and author of the well-known chronicle The True Story of the Conquest of New Spain.
The ruins of the Monastery of Santo Domingo were restored with different expectations. Built between 1551 and 1666, it was at the time the headquarters of the Order of Preachers and the College of Santo Thomas of Aquinas. “This city has famous convents (says Fray Antonio Vázquez de Espinosa, author of The Compendium and Description of the West Indies), and the Santo Domingo convent is very sumptuous and well-constructed, with a grandiose, highly decorated church and cloisters. They are very religious and learned followers, though because of their humility, and the great reform that they observe in their habit and customs, they do not graduate.” Also destroyed by successive earthquakes over the centuries, the monastery grounds went on to have a series of different uses and restorations. They were then acquired by local investors who expanded and transformed them into a peculiar and luxurious hotel, whose contemporary design maintains the elegance and spirit of the original constructions, achieving an attractive combination of architectural codes from different periods. The Hotel Casa Santo Domingo is also a museum that houses an extensive collection of religious art pieces from the colonial period, which are grouped in several rooms or form a direct part of the decoration. An area of the ancient catacombs of the monastery remains open to the public, as part of the many attractions of this comfortable hotel and spa.
In Antigua, the churches are an ideal space for the celebration of the rites of social interaction of the population. Its squares are usual places for family gatherings and relaxation, areas where dozens of informal merchants offer all kinds of products, from the dishes of the local gastronomy to the most varied handicrafts and fabrics of bright colors and impeccable workmanship.
In front of the beautiful façade of the Iglesia de la Merced, a professional photographer was photographing a fifteen-year-old who was wearing an elegant deep blue dress for the occasion. Painted in a striking combination of yellow and white that seems to allude to the verses of the Popol Vuh—“(…) the flesh of man was made from yellow corn and white corn”—, La Merced is profuse in decorative elements of various types. These seem to invade every inch of its surface in a clear evocation of the horror vacui of the local baroque. Through its four sets of double columns run serpentines with ascending floral motifs that seem to burst into the adjoining planes of the building, bordering the niches that support the various statues and the large tympanum on the second floor, which houses the figure of Our Lady of Mercy. Crowning the exterior at the top, and between the two bell towers, is the statue of San Pedro Nolasco, founder of the Mercedarian Order. The building was inaugurated in 1767 and, due to the quality of its construction, it resisted the earthquakes of Santa Marta.
In a similar state of conservation is the elegant church of San Pedro Apóstol, home to the hospital that bears the same name. The building was inaugurated in 1654 and suffered severe damage due to earthquakes. But it was restored and today remains open to tourists and devotees, in addition to the services it provides as a hospital. The need to build structures that would withstand the violent onslaught of earthquakes motivated the talent of Creole builders and architects. Among them, the figure of Diego de Porres (1677-1741), a local mestizo architect, stands out. As a result of his patient observation of the damage caused by the earthquake of 1717, churches began to be built with reinforced structures and supports capable of tolerating seismic movement. Thus, the height of the bell towers began to decrease and the load-bearing walls increased in thickness—measuring between 1.40 and 2 meters wide—, while the roofing solutions adopted the concept of the vaida vault, a flattened version of classic semicircular vaults. The changes in the exterior and interior appearance of these buildings gave rise, in stylistic terms, to what the historian Manuel Lucena Salmoral calls "the flourishing of a seismic-baroque architecture, a properly regional model of architecture attached to the ground to withstand earthquakes."
For the author of La cámara lúcida, the semiotician Roland Barthes, what defines a good landscape photograph is that it not only be “visitable” but also “livable.” Perhaps that is what gives a photogenic quality (or the desire to belong to an imagined space) to so many images that we regularly see of what the first capital of Guatemala was. Antigua is a warm, cheerful, and hospitable city, and not just because of the friendliness and open-minded character of its inhabitants, the chapines, as Guatemalans like to call themselves. Walking through its wide cobbled streets is an experience of calm and inner well-being, a timely escape from the hustle and bustle of the big cities crammed with noise, asphalt, and uniform concrete and cement structures. The city largely retains the charm of its Renaissance checkerboard layout dating from 1543, when it was moved for the third time to the Panchoy Valley after a mud spill from the Volcán de Agua destroyed its second location.
According to professor and researcher Alberto Garín, Antigua was designed with a concept of urban comfort that was very unusual in European cities at the time. Its wide, illuminated, and ventilated streets ensured, from very early on, the comfortable circulation of carriages and pedestrians. The houses that are still standing are mostly from the 18th and 19th centuries. They dress in cheerful shades of yellow, ocher, or papaya orange when they are not painted white. The red tile roofs are a classic of the city's architecture. So are the high windows with small balconies that are protected by iron bars adorned with various motifs. Most of the villas and houses have been restored. Today, they harbor all kinds of businesses: from comfortable hotels—such as the Porta Antigua, which housed us for several nights—and beautiful traditional restaurants, to smaller establishments, whose interior patios boast lush vegetation, while their roofed galleries ensure a fresh space for rest and relaxation.
Touring Antigua and its streets is, without a doubt, a memorable experience. The historic city—an area of just 49.5 hectares—is a grand open-air museum in a geographical enclave of moving beauty. This makes it a highly visited tourist destination, and a fundamental contributor to the country's economy and the well-being of its inhabitants.
The concept of sustainable tourism particularly inspires the Agexport group, a community of local entrepreneurs and producers whose goal is to promote the goods and services that Guatemala can offer the world. Led by their representatives, Anaité Castillejos and Dagmar Moreno, as well as our experienced Maya K'iche' guide, Tomás Morales Saquic, we walked through the corners of a city that vibrates intensely because it has known how to preserve the riches of its historical, cultural, and architectural heritage. Today, 479 years after its founding (March 10, 1543), the Very Noble and Very Loyal City of Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala continues to amaze and inspire locals and visitors from around the world.
The imposing presence of its two great colossi, the Volcán de Fuego and the Volcán de Agua, give us the humility necessary to understand the forces of nature, and perhaps, to try to outline a way of living in harmony with it. And so, among the stately buildings of the city's Plaza Mayor, or in the presence of the Fuente de las Sirenas conceived by the brilliant Diego de Porres, any traveler who unknowingly carries Lost Steps in their luggage cannot but remember Alejo Carpentier's phrase that invites us to understand how "years are subtracted, diluted, and faded in the vertiginous backward movement of time." To visit Antigua is to travel back in time. And to come back, not only fascinated but revitalized by the experience.