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World Heritage City
By Chris Millikan
For Travel Writers' Tales

Cruising through the Panama Canal to San Diego offers us a string of riveting Central American excursions, including a memorable daytrip from Puerto Quetzal to Antigua.

With other early birds, we disembark the Veendam, stream past marimba musicians and through a handicraft marketplace to our waiting coach. "Welcome," greets guide Karen, "Today, we'll visit our colonial capital in the central highlands, heart of the Mayan world." Ninety-minutes of rolling countryside, lush forests and distant volcano views bring us to Guatemala's World Heritage city.

Passing several earthquake-damaged buildings, our walk winds along narrow raised sidewalks and crosses cobbled streets bustling with pedestrians and traffic, including tuk-tuk taxis. Smiling villagers loaded with hand-woven textiles, musical instruments and jewelry approach us to sell their wares.

La Merced Cathedral, commonly called Church of Mercy, was the first in Antigua. Mercedarians helped save heretics from the Spanish Inquisition.

Purple-blossomed jacarandas shade the plaza where Church of Mercy stands unscathed. Two short bell towers flank its white-filigreed, lemon yellow façade. Atop, we sight San Pedro Nolasco, 13th-century founder of this Catholic order. Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy stands in the central niche. Of two saintly figures standing on her left, one holds a rope recalling his martyrdom. To her right, a bishop and the order's first nun.

This was Antigua's first monastery. Inside, we learn Mercedarians helped heretics escape the Spanish inquisition and later supported families of convicts. In turn, appreciative prisoners created the mosaics still decorating stout interior columns. The luxurious sanctuary and cloister were built with wide arches to better withstand earthquakes, such as the one that destroyed 3,000 local buildings in 1717.

Religious sculptures are carried through the streets in processions to celebrate Holy Week, from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday

Heading onward, we notice religious sculptures inside off-street enclosures. "Those are carried during Holy Week," Karen explains. "From Ash Wednesday to Good Friday, a stream of processions parade along this street which is carpeted with flowers and coloured sawdust. Celebrating the Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection, devout worshippers carry Jesus Christ, Mary Magdalene and the saints. It sometimes takes over a hundred men to shoulder some of the enormous floats."

The 17th century Santa Catalina Arch was a covered overhead passageway built to protect reclusive nuns from public view.

We soon pass under the 17th century Santa Catalina Arch, a covered overhead passageway built to protect reclusive nuns from public view. In the central plaza, Karen points out the city hall and governor's palace. "Founded in 1543 by Spanish conquistadors, Antigua served as the military governors' seat for 200 years," she says. "The Spanish colony of Guatemala then included much of Central America and Chiapas, Mexico's most southern state."

Constructed originally in 1554, Saint Joseph Cathedral was destroyed repeatedly by earthquakes. Only this baroque front portion remains

Saint Joseph Cathedral stands in baroque splendor. Constructed originally in 1554 and destroyed repeatedly by earthquakes, only the front portion remains; skeletal ruins behind recall its original immensity and grandeur. Here, we see the tombs of Bernal Diaz, famed diarist of the Spanish conquests, Pedro de Alvarado, Cortez's second-in-command who became Guatemala's first governor and Luisa, his powerful consort-a Tlaxcaltec Chief's daughter. Karen recounts how Luisa protected native communities and points out her underground shrine, where Mayans still come to light candles.

Magnificent skeletal ruins behind St Joseph Cathedral, recalling its original grandeur and immensity as the largest in the Americas.

Exiting past 17th-century university buildings, we enter the grounds of Santo Domingo Monastery founded in 1538. Surviving several earlier quakes, the Santa Marta earthquake devastated this extensive monastery. Abandoned for centuries, it once boasted grand two towers with ten bells. Its fountain survives in the refurbished courtyard. Because much of this city twice suffered similar destruction, authorities moved the capital to Guatemala City in 1776.

Part of the demolished monastery has been transformed into today's Hotel Casa Santo Domingo. Seated at tables amid floral gardens, we enjoy a typical Guatemalan lunch of rice, black beans, chicken, beef, fresh guacamole and handmade corn tortillas.

Part of earthquake demolished Santo Domingo Monastery has been transformed into today's Hotel Casa Santo Domingo; beautiful ruins cleverly integrate into the hotel gardens & grounds.

Restored monastery treasures recovered from rubble fill an onsite Art Gallery. After admiring this collection of religious art and artifacts, we stroll gracious grounds where stands a prominent Ceiba tree. Mayans considered this the tree of life, its magnificent branches forming crosses that 'show the way.' Spanish priests utilized their lore to promote Christianity.

And proving a different delight, the Jade Museum offers visitors an overview of Mesoamerican jade. Here, an archaeologist discusses 3,000 years of its importance to cultures as far away as Costa Rica and southwestern Mexico. She also shows us impressive replicas of famous pre-Columbian jade relics such as the Tikal Burial Mask. In discussing past and present jade cultures, she outlines its varied colours, folklore, deposit locales and value.

While sampling aromatic Guatemalan coffee, we later watch workshop artistes design jade objects. The showroom sells lustrous sculptures, Mayan glyph pendants for birthdays, bracelets and necklaces in dazzling colours…and dazzling prices! I opt for droplet earrings in pale creamy green.

Antigua's picturesque architecture, historic insights, culinary delights and my treasured memento prove a wondrous journey.


" for complete itinerary options

PHOTOS by Chris & Rick Millikan

1a, 1b, 1c La Merced Cathedral, commonly called Church of Mercy
2. Religious sculptures paraded at Easter.
3. The 17th century Santa Catalina Arch
4. Saint Joseph Cathedral baroque front portion.
5. Magnificent skeletal ruins behind St Joseph Cathedral
6. Santo Domingo Monastery ruins

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