A Bit of History

Founded in 1543, the city was christened La Muy Noble y Muy Leal Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Goathemala ("The Very Noble and Very Loyal City of St. James of the Knights of Guatemala"), named for the apostle St. James, the patron saint of the conquistadors. For more than 200 years it administered a region that stretched from Mexico's Yucatán peninsula south to Costa Rica. Along with Lima and Mexico City, Antigua was one of the grandest cities of the Americas.

By the late 18th century the city had been decimated by earthquakes several times. Because it was a major political, religious, and intellectual center—it had 32 churches, 18 convents and monasteries, 7 colleges, 5 hospitals, and a university—it was always rebuilt. Powerful tremors struck again in late 1773, reducing much of the city's painstakingly restored elegance to rubble. The government reluctantly relocated to a supposedly safer site 45 km (28 miles) east, where Guatemala City now stands. The now-former capital became La Antigua Guatemala ("the old Guatemala"), still its official name.

Ironically, it is because Antigua was abandoned that it retains so much of its colonial character. Only the poorest inhabitants stayed put after the capital was moved, and being of limited means, they could only repair the old structures, not tear them down or build new ones. In the 1960s laws took effect that limited commercial development and required what development did occur to keep within the city's colonial character. The National Council for the Protection of Antigua Guatemala was formed in 1972 to restore the ruins, maintain the monuments, and rid the city of such modern intrusions as billboards and neon signs. Restoration projects, both private and public, have transformed Antigua into Guatemala's most popular tourist destination.

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