Parque Central is as old as the city, but while everything in the city suggests that for once time stood still, this park continues to evolve. Today, it’s one of the best places to people-watch and a favorite meeting place for locals and tourists alike.
Central Park, Antigua Guatemala
From the city’s inception, the plaza was designed to be the center of social life. For a long time, historians have thought that Italian architect Juan Bautista Antonelli designed the layout of the city – historical records cast doubt on this assertion – Antonelli never traveled to the Americas. In any event, the founders conceived the capital in the classical colonial Spanish design – the main plaza at the center of a grid layout.
Parque Central, as it’s most commonly referred to nowadays, has had many other names. It was known from its inception as Plaza Mayor (Main Plaza), which denotes its importance to all other plazas, and also known as Plaza Real (Royal Plaza) because official celebrations and announcements took place here as well as public punishments and executions by hanging – later by firing squad. Headquartered at the Palace of the Captain-Generals was a royal regiment was known as the “Dragons,” consisting of 100 soldiers or so – the plaza was a convenient location for military exercises and parades, hence the name Plaza de Armas (Armaments Plaza).
The name Parque Central was a 20th-century designation when the local government changed the plaza into a garden-like setting, reminiscent of those found in Europe. The park once had statues of Greek goddesses placed throughout – later removed and some set in a small park near La Candelaria Church.
Fountain of the Sirens, Antigua Guatemala
Though a bit hard to envision now with all the trees surrounding it, try to imagine it as it was, almost 500 years ago. Just a barren, all-purpose dirt lot – no fountain (added later in 1617), only a water reservoir for horses and men alike off in the southwest corner (tank added 1555). The plaza at the time was a hub of activity, as sellers from all regions came to offer their wares in the newly established capital. Even in the post-colonial era, the plaza served as the city’s market well into the 20the century and as the main bus terminal. Wisely, both market and bus terminal relocated to the outskirts of the town in the later part of the 20th century. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Architect Diego de Porres began the process that remade the was commissioned to build a new fountain, which he finished in 1738. De Porres installed the fountain at the center of the plaza. Named “Fuente de las Sirenas” (Fountain of the Sirens), it earned praise for its design and craftsmanship. Reportedly, Porres was inspired by the Fountain of Neptune in Bologna, Italy. While his first choice was to incorporate dolphins into the fountain’s design, he settled for water buffaloes instead – the architect wasn’t familiar enough with dolphins, and Google Image Search did not yet exist. You can spot the water buffaloes partly submerged under each siren. Get a full view on weekdays, when the fountain is emptied and cleaned.
Original sirens, Captains-Palace Museum
The sirens now adorning Antigua Guatemala’s Parque Central were replaced in the mid-20th century. To see the original sirens in person, you’ll have to visit the museum at the Palacio de Los Capitanes-Generales, south of Parque Central.
The market mentioned earlier was located on the plaza’s northern edge, facing Palacio del Ayuntamiento. Crude stalls, called “cajones” – literally “big boxes,” sold all manner of produce, fruit, meats, and housewares – regatonas (female adjective for someone who haggles), manned these stalls. They made their money wheeling and dealing with merchants at the entrance to the city and reselling goods at the plaza.
The plaza continued to be the hub of commercial activity, especially after the earthquakes of 1773, when many buildings around the city were heavily damaged. The market grew so unwieldy and busy that it obstructed the circulation of carriages and laws were passed to address the situation.
New sirens, Parque Central
In 1912, the market had moved a block away to the then-abandoned convent of Compañía de Jesús, which they occupied until the earthquakes of 1976 made the building unsafe. The park was also the main bus stop for Guatemala City-bound buses until they were moved to the edge of town. In the early part of the mid-1900s, a kiosk, in the style of traditional Mexican plazas, was erected atop the fountain, later removed due to complaints from residents.
Easter decorations, Parque Central
At the park, look for the plaque honoring Quirio Cataño, on the southwestern corner, one of the city’s greatest sculptors of religious imagery. On the side of the park nearest to the cathedral, look for a plaque – installed in 1946, commemorating the Antigua Guatemala – California avocado connection, as avocados were imported from here to give birth to California’s avocado industry.
L. Ron Hubbard plaque, Antigua Guatemala
The latest addition to the park is an oddly out-of-place plaque paying homage to L. Ronald Hubbard, Scientology’s founder. Hubbard, as far as I know, never made it to Antigua. I also feel like mentioning – I’m sure it’s totally unrelated – that the Mayor of Antigua at the time, Adolfo Vivar, is currently in jail due to corruption and money laundering charges to the tune of almost $3 million dollars.
Why Lactating Sirens?
It’s common to find sirens used as decorative touches on fountains, doors and even church facades in Antigua – architect Diego de Porres was fond of them and popularized their use. However, the lactating sirens of Parque Central are said to have roots in Mayan folklore.
According to local legend, in this valley once lived a Mayan chieftain, Ataví Pamaxanque, – a fair and wise ruler according to his people. One day, as Pamaxanque made the rounds, he noticed a few babies crying. Inquiring as to why the children’s mothers weren’t tending to them, he learned that said mothers were refusing to breastfeed them. Enraged, he ordered the four women be tied with reeds, taken to the springs in the valley – where the park is now located, and be left to die as punishment, forever to serve as a warning to other mothers who dared refuse to look after their children’s well-being.
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