Antigua wasn’t the Spaniards’ first choice for a capital city. The first place they tried was in Iximché, which was settled in 1524 in order to keep an eye on the Kaqchiquel, with whom they had an uneasy truce. Things got uneasier in 1527 when the Kaqchiquel rebelled, so the city was moved to present-day Ciudad Vieja on the flanks of Volcán Agua. That didn’t work out, either – the town practically disappeared under a mudslide in 1541 and everybody packed up and moved again. And so it was that on March 10, 1543, La muy Noble y muy Leal Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Goathemala, the Spanish colonial capital of Guatemala (for the time being), was founded.
Antigua was once the epicenter of power throughout Central America, and during the 17th and 18th centuries little expense was spared on the city’s magnificent architecture, despite the fact that the ground rumbled ominously on a regular basis. Schools, hospitals, churches and monasteries sprang up, their grandeur only rivaled by the houses of the upper clergy and the politically connected.
At its peak Antigua had no fewer than 38 churches, including a cathedral, as well as a university, printing presses, a newspaper and a lively cultural and political scene. Those rumblings never stopped, though, and for a year the city was shaken by earthquakes and tremors of varying degrees until the great earthquake of July 29, 1773, destroyed the city (which had already suffered considerable damage). In 1776 the capital was transferred again, this time to Guatemala City. Antigua was evacuated and plundered for building materials, but, despite official decrees, it never completely emptied of people, and began to grow again around 1830, by then known as La Antigua Guatemala (Old Guatemala). Renovation of battered old buildings helped maintain the city’s colonial character. In 1944 President Jorge Ubico declared Antigua a national monument, and in 1979 Unesco designated it a World Heritage site.