Throughout history, quakes large and small have ravaged Guatemala, a nation that forms part of the seismically active "Ring of Fire" encircling the Pacific Rim. Two major earthquakes rocked Antigua in colonial times, first in 1717, then again in 1773. (Several lesser ones also hit the city.) The latter event leveled many structures—contrary to popular belief, it did not completely destroy Antigua—and precipitated the transfer of the capital to supposedly safer ground in the nearby Ermita Valley, the site of present-day Guatemala City.

Folk wisdom held that the new capital's numerous ravines and gorges would absorb seismic shocks. Unfortunately, this was not so. Earthquakes caused significant damage and loss of life in Guatemala City in 1902, 1917, and 1918, but no one could begin to imagine the tragedy that would strike in February 1976, when a 7.5-magnitude quake hit the capital, killing 23,000 people and causing $1 billion in damage to the entire region.

Seismologists attribute the activity to the east–west Motagua fault, which separates the North American and Caribbean tectonic plates and slices through the center of Guatemala. The smaller Mixco fault runs perpendicular to the Motagua and passes between Antigua and Guatemala City.

In a perverse way, the earth's rumblings and grumblings have benefited Antigua. The ash spewed from nearby volcanoes fertilizes the soil, and has turned the countryside around the city into a lush, fertile agricultural region. Experts say that Guatemala Antigua, some of the world's finest coffee, owes its high quality to that fertile volcanic soil.

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