Founded in 1543, Santiago de Guatemala (now known as La Antigua Guatemala, or simply Antigua) was the capital of Spain's Central American confederacy and the fourth most important city in the Americas (after Mexico City, Lima and Zacatecas) in the 1500s.
Antigua was devastated by an earthquake in 1773, which, combined with damage from earlier earthquakes, persuaded the government to relocate the capital to the site of present-day Guatemala City. That seeming misfortune turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
Isolation and longtime neglect served Antigua well. More than two centuries of underdevelopment left the town with a treasure trove of dilapidated but historical structures, many of which have been rehabilitated into chic restaurants, shops and hotels.
Antigua can be seen on a day's excursion from Guatemala City, which is 28 mi/45 km to the east, but it deserves more time. Some visitors prefer to use this colonial gem as their base for touring the country (instead of the capital). It has a large English-speaking community, a wide range of accommodations, upscale and medium-priced restaurants, espresso bars, delicious baked goods, literally dozens of language schools, plenty of galleries, and for nightlife, jazz clubs and discos.
Antigua is also one of the best places to go in Guatemala if you want to learn to speak Spanish. About 75 schools in town offer intensive classes. But be sure to check ahead of time to know exactly what you'll get, as not all of these schools are on the up-and-up. Some courses include lodging with Guatemalan families.
Visitors also can study various arts and crafts (backstrap weaving, drawing, painting, ceramics, photography and so forth) at the Art Workshops in La Antigua Guatemala. It's not a fully Guatemalan experience, however, as a group of U.S. for-profit artists operates those workshops, not the Guatemalans themselves.
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