February 26, 2024

In Pictures: A city living under an active volcano

(Image credit: Bella Falk)

Antigua is Guatemala’s most popular destination – but the picturesque city sits on an active tectonic zone. Travel photographer Bella Falk captures a slice of life.

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Antigua, Guatemala is a Unesco World Heritage city and the jewel in the country’s crown. Smaller, safer and much less gritty than the capital, Guatemala City, Guatemala City, Antigua, is famous for its picturesque streets lined with rainbow-painted colonial buildings, grand historic churches and convents, and a thriving cafe and restaurant scene.

(Credit: Bella Falk)

The most famous landmark in Antigua is the canary-yellow arch of Santa Catalina, which dates back to 1694. It was built to enable the nuns of the closed order of Santa Catalina to cross from their convent to the school across the street without being seen by the public. Today it is the most photographed monument in the country and an icon of Guatemala.

(Credit: Bella Falk)

Central Park Antigua is the beating heart of the city. Surrounded on all four sides by elegant colonials and 18th century buildings, it is a lively square where locals come to meet friends and relax. Here you will get a clear sense of the fusion of Guatemalan cultures: Native Maya in traditional dress sit alongside denim-clad Guatemalans of European origin and visitors from around the world.

(Credit: Bella Falk)

Until the 18th Century, Antigua, then known as Santiago, was the capital of Guatemala and one of the largest cities in the Spanish Empire. But the city is located on an active tectonic zone near four volcanoes: Agua, Fuego, Acatenango and Pacaya. In 1773, a large series of earthquakes destroyed it, so the government decided to move the capital to its current location and the city was named La Antigua Guatemala (The Old Guatemala).

(Credit: Bella Falk)

One of the hardest hit buildings was the magnificent former cathedral. Built in 1545, it stood for more than 200 years before being destroyed by an earthquake. Today its roof is open to the elements, fallen remains of pillars and carvings pile up in the eerie side chapels and pigeons nest in the arches.

(Credit: Bella Falk)

Now Antigua’s enemies have become friends: the same volcanoes that caused so much damage are a major tourist attraction. The 3,768m high Volcan de Fuego (Volcano of Fire) is one of the most active in the world. It has been erupting continuously since 2002, sending lava bombs and ash clouds into the air about every 15-30 minutes.

(Credit: Bella Falk)

Visitors who want to see the Earth’s unstoppable power can first-hand Volcan Acatenango, which stands right next to Fuego. Here, local tour companies offer overnight camping, so you can stay up late with a front-row seat to the action as Fuego blasts its red-hot bowels into the night sky.

(Credit: Bella Falk)

Another agent of tourist attraction is Pacaya, about 50km from Antigua. Until 2021, it also erupted frequently, oozing sticky lava down its slopes. Today the eruptions have stopped, and guides like Rubi Santamaria take visitors to the freshly dried lava field, where she shows them how to roast marshes with the heat of the volcano.

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