The former capital of Guatemala, now known as Ciudad Vieja, was the first of Guatemala’s capitals to suffer merciless destruction at the hands of nature. It was built on the slopes of Agua Volcano; an earthquake on the evening of September 10, 1541, unleashed a torrent of mud and water that came tumbling down the volcano’s slopes and destroyed the city.
The new Muy Leal y Muy Noble Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Goathemala, as it would officially come to be known, was established on March 10, 1543, in the Panchoy Valley. The new capital would be no stranger to the ravages of nature, its first earthquake being endured by its inhabitants only 20 years after the city’s founding.
An earthquake in 1717 spurred an unprecedented building boom, with the city reaching its peak in the mid-18th century. At that time, its population would number around 60,000. Antigua was the capital of the Audiencia de Guatemala, under the jurisdiction of the larger Viceroyalty of New Spain, which encompassed most of present-day Mexico and all of Central America as far south as Costa Rica . The Viceroyalty’s capital was in Mexico City, which along with Lima, Peru, would be the only other New World cities exceeding Antigua’s political, cultural, and economic importance.
Antigua boasted Central America’s first printing press and one of the hemisphere’s first universities and was known as an important center of arts and education. Among its outstanding citizens were conquistador and historian Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Franciscan friar and Indian rights advocate Bartolomé de las Casas, bishop Francisco Marroquín, artist Tomás de Merlo, English priest/traveler Thomas Gage, and architect Juan Bautista Antonelli.
Antigua’s prominence came crashing down in 1773. The city was rocked throughout most of the year by a series of earthquakes, which later came to be known as the Terremotos de Santa Marta. Two earthquakes occurred on July 29th. The final blows would be delivered on September 7 and December 13. The city was officially moved the following year to its present location in modern-day [node:27540}.
Antigua lay in ruins occupied mainly by squatters, its monuments pillaged for building materials for the new capital. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that it became once again populated and its buildings restored, in part with the money from the region’s newfound coffee wealth. The city was declared a national monument in 1944 and came under the protection of the National Council for the Protection of Antigua Guatemala in 1969.
It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. The council has done a fairly decent job at protecting and restoring the city’s cultural and architectural heritage, though building code violations are not at all unheard of. Still, many power lines have gone underground and truck traffic has been effectively banned from the city’s streets, greatly reducing noise pollution.