ANTIGUA, Guatemala -- Founded in 1543 , this city lies in the valley of three volcanoes, Agua, Acatenango, and the smoking, still-active Fuego. It was the colonial capital of the Kingdom of Guatemala (which also included Chiapas, in southern Mexico, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica) until 1773, when most of the city was destroyed by earthquakes and fires following one of Fuego's eruptions. The Spanish king, fearing more earthquakes, moved the capital to the present site of Guatemala City, 16 miles to the northeast.
Thirty-eight monastic orders called Antigua home, building convents, monasteries, and cathedrals, using Maya slave laborers who put their own intricately carved designs on the Baroque buildings.
Today, Antigua remains the best single repository of Spanish colonial Baroque architecture in the Americas. In 1979, UNESCO designated it a World Heritage Site for its civil and ecclesiastical architectural monuments. While many of the city's original buildings have been destroyed by earthquakes and replaced largely by 18th-century reconstructions, Antigua's greatest structures still lie in ruins softened by masses of hanging bougainvillea.
But the remnants of the past are surrounded by the vibrancy of the present.
Single-story stucco houses in pastel shades of pink, yellow, or green topped with red tile roofs hug the narrow cobblestone streets.
Everywhere I went on a recent visit, the sights and sounds of the city enveloped me: uniformed school children playing riotous games of soccer in schoolyards, mothers carrying their babies on their backs in a wrap slung over their shoulders called a "tzute ," and women wearing "huipils ," traditional blouses in brilliant colors with intricate hand- embroidered designs and wrap skirts in a variety of patterns.
At Nim Po't, a textile museum of traditional Maya dress, I learned the history of the skirts, whose patterns represent the wearer's home town. The museum's shop and galleries highlight the creations of expert weavers from all over Guatemala.
This is a city with few washing machines, so twice a week women gather at the fountain outside the Convent of Santa Clara to wash their laundry, hanging it to dry on the convent's fence. During my visit, several women offered to go to my hotel, collect my laundry, wash and dry it, and return it to the hotel, all for one quetzal, a Guatemalan dollar, or about 15 cents. I passed on having my dirty laundry displayed in public, but handed each of the women a few quetzals, for which I was thanked with hugs and smiles .
In the streets and market areas, women and children, their arms and heads piled high with goods, implore shoppers: "Madam please buy. Madam look how beautiful this is." They focus on women tourists, because in their culture only the women do the shopping. These street sellers quote prices in quetzales and US dollars and expect to bargain before a deal is made.
Antigua is a beautiful and fascinating city, easy to get around on foot because it is laid out on a flat grid. I rambled through the city on my own, and communicated easily with my limited Spanish, maps, and hand gestures.
Centuries ago, the palm-studded Parque Central was where the Maya would bring their goods to trade between tribes. Today, it is an excellent place from which to start exploring Antigua's architecture.
Across from the park is the Town Hall, built in 1743. This two-story, multi-arched building houses two museums -- the Museum of Saint James , with its collection of antique weapons dating to Maya times, and the Museum of Old Books , worth a quick stop to see the replica of the first printing press brought to Antigua , in 1660.
Crossing Parque Central brought me to the Catedral de Santiago, the largest church in Antigua. It houses five naves, and 68 smaller chambers. Carved into the façade are sculptures of Saint James (patron of the Conquistadors), the Virgin Mary, Jesus, and the 12 Apostles. Construction started in 1542 and was not completed until 1680. The church was destroyed by the 1773 earthquake and rebuilt the following year.
Next door is the Museum of Colonial Art, which was once the site of the first university in Guatemala, the University of San Carlos established in 1676 . Included among its exhibits are ones depicting life in old Guatemala.
A few blocks north of Parque Central is another historical landmark, the Santa Catalina Arch , originally part of a church and convent built in 1606. Beyond the arch is the church of Our Lady of Mercy, known simply as La Merced.
Finished in 1767 after previous structures had been destroyed in earthquakes in 1565 and 1717, La Merced is the finest example of Baroque architecture in the city. Its Churrigueresque decorations were applied during a 19th-century restoration that included the installation of massive columns and statues of saints filling the church's many niches. (Churriguera was a 17th-century architect and the style of Baroque architecture of Spain and its Latin-American colonies is characterized by elaborate and extravagant decoration.)
The adjacent convent, Las Capuchinas , was founded in 1736 by nuns from Madrid. Despite its elegant façade, exhibits inside depict the rigors of religious life including 18 cells where nuns did penance for their transgressions with prayer and self-mortification.
Besides being the architectural hub of Guatemala, Antigua is a culinary destination. Dining choices range from traditional Guatemalan specialties to Mexican, Italian, Spanish, Austrian, French, and Asian fare.
Although the street food smells tempting, it's best to stick with restaurants. The Posada de don Rodrigo is famous for its chicken Petén with fresh vegetables in a spicy mole sauce. The Hotel Casa Santo Domingo serves flawless seafood, and Las Palmas is where you get great fajitas. Most of the city's restaurants offer alfresco dining on lush garden terraces, perfect for resting tired feet.
The Hotel Casa Santo Domingo is a 16th-century monastery converted into a luxury hotel. At night, behind thick stucco walls, it is a peaceful oasis. The cloisters where friars once prayed and walked are lighted only by candles. A small museum holds exhibits of ancient artifacts excavated from the beautiful grounds and ruins surrounding the hotel.
Contact Fran Folsom, a freelance writer in Cambridge, at firstname.lastname@example.org.