¿Paradise? Antigua Guatemala

Antigua Guatemala

Antigua Guatemala

Antigua, the capital of the Captaincy-General of Guatemala, was founded in the early 16th century. Built 1,500 m above sea-level, in an earthquake-prone region, it was largely destroyed by an earthquake in 1773 but its principal monuments are still preserved as ruins. In the space of under three centuries the city, which was built on a grid pattern inspired by the Italian Renaissance, acquired a number of superb monuments.

Antigua Guatemala (Guatemala) © Silvan Rehfeld
Outstanding Universal Value

Brief Synthesis:

Built 1,530.17 m above sea level in an earthquake-prone region, Antigua Guatemala, the capital of the Captaincy-General of Guatemala, was founded in 1524 as Santiago de Guatemala. It was subsequently destroyed by fire caused by an uprising of the indigenous population, re-established in 1527 and entirely buried as a result of earthquakes and an avalanche in 1541. The third location, in the Valley of Panchoy or Pacán, was inaugurated in March 1543 and served for 230 years. It survived natural disasters of floods, volcanic eruptions and other serious tremors until 1773 when the Santa Marta earthquakes destroyed much of the town. At this point, authorities ordered the relocation of the capital to a safer location region, which became Guatemala City, the county’s modern capital. Some residents stayed behind in the original town, however, which became referred to as “La Antigua Guatemala”.


Antigua Guatemala was the cultural, economic, religious, political and educational centre for the entire region until the capital was moved. In the space of under three centuries the city acquired a number of superb monuments.

The pattern of straight lines established by the grid of north-south and east-west streets and inspired by the Italian Renaissance, is one of the best examples in Latin American town planning and all that remains of the 16th-century city. Most of the surviving civil, religious, and civic buildings date from the 17th and 18th centuries and constitute magnificent examples of colonial architecture in the Americas. These buildings reflect a regional stylistic variation known as Barroco antigueño. Distinctive characteristics of this architectural style include the use of decorative stucco for interior and exterior ornamentation, main facades with a central window niche and often a deeply-carved tympanum, massive buildings, and low bell towers designed to withstand the region’s frequent earthquakes. Among the many significant historical buildings, the Palace of the Captains General, the Casa de la Moneda, the Cathedral, the Universidad de San Carlos, Las Capuchinas, La Merced, Santa Clara, among others, are worth noting.

The city lay mostly abandoned for almost a century until the mid-1800s when increased agricultural production, particularly coffee and grain, brought new investment to the region. The original urban core is small, measuring approximately 775 metres from north to south and 635 metres east to west, covering 49.57 hectares.

Criterion (ii): Antigua Guatemala contains living traces of Spanish culture with its principal monuments, built in the Baroque style of the 18th century preserved today as ruins. Antigua Guatemala was a centre for the exportation of religious images and statues to the rest of the American continent and to Spain during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Criterion (iii): Antigua Guatemala is one the earliest and outstanding examples of city planning in Latin America in which the basic grid plan, dating from 1543, has been maintained. Its religious, private and government buildings are outstanding evidences of Spanish colonial architecture in Antigua.

Criterion (iv) The many churches and monasteries in Antigua Guatemala testify to the influence of the Christian church, during the colonial period, on every aspect of daily life in the city. Barroco antigueño developed in this area, a regional adaptation of the Baroque style designed to withstand the earthquakes common in the region.


Antigua Guatemala has retained the integrity of its 16th-century layout and the physical integrity of most of its built heritage. The relocation transfer of the capital after the 1773 earthquake and the abandonment of the area by most of its population permitted the preservation of many of its monumental Baroque-style buildings as ruins. In addition to vulnerability to natural disasters, including earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and hurricanes, the conditions of integrity for the property are threatened by tourist exploitation and uncontrolled growth. Further concerns on potential erosion of integrity include the illegal construction and gentrification as well as increased traffic through the historic district.


Due to the partial abandonment of the city in 1776, and the regulations prohibiting the repair and construction of new buildings, the city’s 16th-century Renaissance grid pattern and Baroque-style monumental buildings and ruins have survived along with cobblestone streets, plazas with fountains, and domestic architecture.

While some of the original residences have been fully restored, new construction in recent years has followed a neo-colonial or “Antigua Style”, which impacts the conditions of authenticity. Additional concerns relate to new development that has been inserted into existing ruins. For example the modern hotel (Casa Santo Domingo) was constructed within the ruins of the Santo Domingo church and monastery, which also impact the form and function of buildings. Adaptative re-use of historic buildings, driven by tourism development pressures, is also a matter of concern to be addressed through the enforcement of regulations and development of adequate conservation guidelines.

Protection and Management Requirements

Legal protection for Antigua Guatemala was established in 1944, when the city was declared a national monument with the intention to protect it from uncontrolled industrial and urban development. However, as responsibility was not given to a specific institution, the actual enforcement of protective and regulatory measures was minimal. The Pan-American Institute of Geography and History declared it an American Historical Monument in 1965 which took affect four years later with the approval of Article 61 of the Constitution of the Republic of Guatemala, Legislative Decree 60-69 (Law for the Protection of the City of La Antigua Guatemala). The establishment of the “National Council for the Protection of Antigua Guatemala” in 1972 created an institution responsible for this protection and restoration of the city’s monuments.

Modern development pressure and increased tourism in the area have required more protection for the historic area and certain initiatives, at both the community and legislative levels, have been undertaken. These include recently developed tools for promoting local awareness, the participation by the community association Salvemos Antigua (Save Antigua), as well as a public education campaign (with a newsletter, schoolchildren programs etc.) supported by the Japanese government. The revision of Antigua’s Protection Law, which requires approval of Congress, has also been promoted to adequately respond to existing factors and threats. Sustaining the Outstanding Universal Value of the property will require not only the updating and enforcement of legislative and regulatory measures, but also the definition and efficient protection of a the buffer zone and the sustained implementation of a master plan. The latter will need to include provisions for risk preparedness and disaster risk management, particularly in light of the vulnerability of the property. Comprehensive visitor management and clear conservation guidance and policies, will also be crucial for the property.

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