Antigua Guatemala is an outstanding example of preserved colonial architecture and of cultural value. The religious, private and government buildings bear exceptional testimony to the Spanish colonial architecture in Antigua.
Built 1,500 m above sea level in an earthquake-prone region, Antigua, the capital of the Captaincy-General of Guatemala, was founded in the early 16th century as Santiago de Guatemala. The conquerors chose this location as the previous capital had flooded in 1541 and the valley provided an adequate source of water and a fertile soil. Antigua Guatemala was the seat of Spanish colonial government for the Kingdom of Guatemala, which included Chiapas (southern Mexico), Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. It was the cultural, economic, religious, political and educational centre for the entire region until the capital was moved to present-day Guatemala City after the damaging earthquakes of 1773, but its principal monuments are still preserved as ruins. In the space of under three centuries the city, which was built on a grid pattern inspired by the Italian Renaissance, acquired a number of superb monuments.
Much of the architecture today dates from the 17th and 18th centuries and provides us with a colonial jewel in the Americas. The construction of the Palace of the Captains-General was begun on the original building in 1549 and completed in 1558, but the building has been repeatedly reconstructed following damaging earthquakes. In 1735 the Casa de la Moneda was inaugurated in this large complex, but most of the structure was destroyed in the 1773 quakes. On the east side of the Plaza de Armas stood the cathedral, inaugurated in 1680, after 11 years of construction. The cathedral was laid out with three aisles and salient transepts in a cruciform plan. Bays off the side aisles contained chapels. The present day church is a reconstruction of a small portion of the front of the cathedral. In the centre of the Plaza stands the Fountain of the Sirens, designed in 1739 by architect Miguel Porras. On the north side of the Plaza stands the Ayuntamiento or City Hall dating from 1743 which was little damaged by the 1773 earthquakes.
The Universidad de San Carlos was built around 1763, when the university, founded in 1676, was moved to this site. By the end of the 18th century the building required extensive renovations. The present portal was built in 1832 when the building was turned into a public school, the university having been moved to Guatemala City where it remains today.
Among the masterpiece of religious architecture, one of the most fascinating colonial sites in Antigua is Las Capuchinas (the Capuchin Convent) completed in 1736 under the direction of Diego de Porres, the chief architect of the city. Today the convent is partially intact and partially in ruins. The present church of La Merced was finished in 1767; the facade is one of the most beautiful in Antigua, featuring intricate and ornate patterns in white stucco on a yellow background. The church has short squat bell towers different from the churches built in seismically less active Mexico during the same epoch. The monastery attached to La Merced was totally destroyed by the Santa Marta quakes, and never rebuilt. Another very special ruin is that of the convent of Santa Clara founded in 1699 by the arrival of five nuns and one legate from Mexico. The convent's first church was completed in 1705, but destroyed in 1717. The remains standing today are those of a new church and convent started in 1723 and finished in 1734. The church of El Carmen, completed in 1728, is the third to occupy this site. The main facade of the church is ornate Baroque, and unique in Antigua with its triple pairs of columns set on podia projecting forward from the main wall in place of the niches and saints usually occurring here on Antigua's churches.
Religious and government buildings do not hold a monopoly on Spanish colonial architecture in Antigua, however: colonial architecture and modern construction in colonial style is found throughout Antigua in mansions and in humbler homes.