Antigua, Guatemala, Then and Now

A bunch of Guatemalan icons in the mural at the local Starbucks: coffee, textiles, quetzals, volcanoes, and hummingbirds.

This week, I’ve been in Antigua, Guatemala with my San Miguel BFF, Suzen. Antigua is one of those magical places that makes you wonder whether this is where you should be living (but I won’t be leaving my San Miguel!). Surrounded by volcanoes, Antigua is green and easy and full of young people. The city’s hill-free flat grid and architecture remind me of Patzcuaro and Oaxaca in Mexico, with single story colonial style buildings in soft colors. Like San Miguel, Antigua has cobblestone streets, a tree-filled plaza full of music, and random fireworks.

The Santa Catalina arch is a famous Antigua landmark. It was originally built to permit nuns to discreetly cross the street from one part of the convent to the other.

I’m sure you want a little background about the country. What is today called Guatemala was very Mayan until the Spaniards took over in 1524. After that, Antigua was the capital of the region that included most of what is now Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and southern Mexico. (Mexican mercenaries who arrived with the Spaniards named Guatemala, which means “place of trees”) In 1841, Guatemala became independent from Spain, but its occupation didn’t end. Because of Guatemala’s temperate climate and rich soil, the country was overtaken by agricultural corporations like the United Fruit Company (now, Chiquita Banana), which stole the land of indigenous people and enslaved them. Starving and powerless for years, in the 1950’s, indigenous communities began resisting large corporations and government. What followed was decades of war and violence sponsored by United States. If you want to read more about the experiences of Guatemala’s indigenous communities, I highly recommend I, Rigoberta Menchu. Menchu won the Nobel Peace Prize for her escape from poverty to become a leader of Guatemala’s civil rights movement.

Antigua has a bookstore with English language books! Here we see its owner, Troy modestly displaying a book about Guatemalan textiles (Huipils) written by San Miguel’s Lena Bartula.

Today, Guatemala is at peace, but its government is increasingly right wing and indigenous communities continue to be exploited. Although the country has experienced impressive economic growth, most of the gains have gone to the elite and corporations. Young Guatemalans are unlikely to accept this path so there is hope — and Guatemalans are proud of their heritage, as well Guatemalan coffee and chocolate. Everything else we’ve sampled here is wonderful, including the food, the folk art, and especially the kindness of the Guatemalan people.

Cool masks on display in a shop window

I would get up in the morning and I would say “How am I going to bother them today?” — Rigoberta Menchu


  1. Oh, you never forget your first visit to Antigua…. You seem to have captured eloquently the spirit of the nation which has the highest percentage of indigenous population in the Americas. (Or is it Bolivia? No, def. Guate.). Enjoy yours travels and keep on taking us with you, Kim!

  2. It looks and sounds like a delightful city filled with good people. And I bet you welcome the more level terrain!

  3. What a great trip you had, and share here with your readers. Antigua is almost a second home for me, and now you must see why. Thank you for carrying my book to Antigua Books, and it’s super fabulous that you found a copy of I Rigoberto. It was the first book given to me on my first trip there, and forever changed anything else I may have thought about beloved “Guatelinda.”

  4. Unusually gentle description of the history of oppressors? Leaves me wanting to know more. Also has me thinking to seek out more info about how Guatemala and it’s people fit into the picture of economic and human rights migration in/through/from Central America now.

    1. Yes, of course, it’s much worse than I could describe in a blog posting. I am reading Bitter Fruit, which is an eye-opening account of some of it. I Rigoberta also describes the trauma of indigenous communities in the 1970s and 80s. Many Guatemalans are indeed heading north because the indigenous communities are now losing their land in the northern part of the country.You probably won’t find an article about that in the NYT but there is more here

    1. The tourism here feels very safe — the problems now are in the northern part of the country. There are tons of young backpackers here. And we just felt an earthquake! Guatemala has tons of them in between volcano eruptions!

  5. I’m so happy you made it there! Sean and I have been visiting Guatemala about every other year for the past 25 years or so. We’ve always loved Antigua and lake Atitlan. We’re in San Miguel now and have commented how it feels like a bit bigger fancier Antigua!

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