Convento de Las Capuchinas, Antigua Guatemala: Visitors Guide

Iglesia y Convento de las Capuchinas, Antigua Guatemala

Iglesia y Convento de Las Capuchinas is one of Antigua Guatemala’s most visited ruins and a popular wedding venue. It recently made international news as the stage for the union between American actors Dulé Hill and Jazmyn Symon. Learn the history and visiting information for this interesting attraction.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BiHj1MkgV9n/?taken-by=jazmynsimon

Hill and Simon at Las Capuchinas circular tower

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Iglesia y Convento de Las Capuchinas

Iglesia y Convento de las Capuchinas, Antigua Guatemala

Iglesia y Convento de Las Capuchinas, Antigua Guatemala

Visiting Info

Address: 2a Avenida Norte and 2a Calle Oriente

Hours: 9 am to 4 pm, Monday – Friday

Entrance Fees: Q5 for nationals, Q40 for foreigners

The Religious Order

The Clarissine Nuns got their start in 1522, when founder María Lorenza Longo established a hospital and monastery for prostitutes in Napoli, Italy.

From there, their influence grew and in 1538, Pope Paul III granted them the status of a religious order. They became known as “Orden de las Hermanas Clarisas Capuchinas“. They were an offshoot of the Saint Francis order (“Franciscanos”, or Franciscans), which was already established in the city by the time the nuns arrived, and that had founded San Francisco Church.

Saint Francis followers were characterized by their vows of extreme poverty and a relentless obsession with death. Their adherents, among them Hermano Pedro, were known to keep skulls (known as a “memento mori”, or “reminder of death”) at their bedside. The skulls helped them remember to endure trials and hardships as only temporary. You can see Hno. Pedro’s memento skull at the Hermano Pedro Museum behind San Francisco Church in Antigua.

It’s not known if the nuns at Las Capuchinas kept skulls of their own around, but that may not have been necessary – they had sculptures like these laying around.

skull and bones sculpture at las capuchinas convent

Sobering skull sculpture

Construction of Las Capuchinas

During colonial times, many religious orders sought to expand their reach and establish a presence in the New World. Clarissine Nuns were a relatively late coming to the city, arriving in 1726.

The nuns wasted very little time in finding and funding construction of their new church and convent. King Phillip V approved the construction of the complex in 1725.

Capuchinas convent courtyard

Courtyard, Capuchinas convent – the fountain is not the original

The official name of record for this church and women’s convent is a mouthful – Convento e Iglesia Nuestra Señora del Pilar de Zaragoza. Locals and tourists, however, refer to this former religious complex simply as “Las Capuchinas“, which is also the nickname of the founding religious order.

santa ines fountain at capuchinas

The fountain at the convent was recovered from former Santa Ines church, which is now mostly rubble

The convent’s exterior was built in the distinctive, rugged Reinassance style favored by architect Diego de Porres. He started construction in 1731 and finished in 1736. Las Capuchinas was the last women’s convent founded in the city.

Capuchinas Church main nave

Iglesia de las Capuchinas (Capuchinas church)

One of de Porres architectural innovations was the technique known as earthquake baroque, which he began using after the 1717 earthquakes that leveled most buildings in the city.

This type of architecture featured very thick walls and lower ceilings. This is the reason why many of de Porres buildings (such as Escuela de Cristo, Santa Clara convent, and Palacio Municipal) are still standing.

earthquake baroque construction

Earthquake resistant architecture

The Famous Circular Tower

For a long time, historians have proposed many theories regarding the famous circular tower behind the complex.

Capuchinas circular tower exterior

The circular tower at Las Capuchinas

Some argued that it was designed for spiritual retreats, others that is was an asylum for older nuns suffering from dementia, or the most popular theory, that the cells in the circular tower served as a torture chamber for carrying out penance.

Circular cells at las capuchinas

Circular cells, las Capuchinas

Historian Alberto Garín – the curator at Casa Popenoé, has put forth the theory that the tower was, in fact, a water storage facility and a sanatorium. As evidence, Garin points to the side entrance from the street to the tower as evidence.

A side door, he argues, would have allowed a doctor to make discreet house calls without breaking the oath of convent resident nuns, who were forbidden to leave the convent or be seen by outsiders.

cells for nuns at Capuchinas

Display of what a cell at Las Capuchinas might have looked like in colonial times

There’s also a circular underground room next to the tower, which historians claimed was used by nuns to either store food, practice their singing, or to pray while walking endlessly in circles. Garín proposes that instead of that creepy theory, the circular underground room was actually a water cistern and the purpose of its windows was to collect rainwater.

Capuchinas cistern

Underground cistern, or a torture chamber?

Architect de Porres was respected for his engineering knowledge of water delivery – he also built the fountain at Parque Central, so this theory appears to…

wait for it…

hold water *rimshot*.

Life at Las Capuchinas

This convent is relatively small and was limited to 25 nuns. Unlike other convents in the city, the nuns admitted were not required to pay an admission fee (dowry).

Upon entering, nuns were required to renounce all material possessions and agree to live a relatively harsh, cloistered life. Poverty was assured, as they were required to live off donations. Fasting was a requirement as much as it was a forced choice. This is an interesting contrast to the many lavish weddings and receptions that are now held here almost every weekend.

The nuns were famous in town for their singing talent. In order to participate at services without being seen by the public, the nuns entered a special choir area, high above the church’s nave. They did so via a private door that was connected directly to the convent.

Capuchinas choir

Entrance door to the choir area

Aided by a screen, they sang at every service. The convent was limited to 25 nuns.

capuchinas church nave from choir area

View of the church nave from choir platform – the wooden door is the entrance to the church’s crypt, where residents were typically buried.

Las Capuchinas Is Abandoned

The convent was repaired after the 1751 earthquakes. When the city was abandoned in 1773, the Clarissine Nuns abandoned it and left for Guatemala City to build a new church. The nuns sold the complex in 1814. Its grounds were used to dry coffee beans and grow crops.

capuchinas outdoor grounds

The beautiful grounds outside the convent

Capuchinas ruins

Wander around the peaceful ruins

las capuchinas window

The ruins are a great place to play hide-and-go-seek

Restoration of Las Capuchinas

Restoration work began in the mid-1950s. The fountain at the convent is the one that was previously at Santa Inés.

Today, Las Capuchinas houses the offices of Consejo Nacional para la Proteccion de La Antigua Guatemala (CNPAG), the organism tasked with the preservation and restoration of historical monuments and responsible for approving new developments and construction city-wide. Someone has to make sure the Wendy’s Restaurant across Parque Central is historically accurate.

Museo de Capuchinas

The convent has a permanent colonial-era art exhibit on the convent’s second floor. Photos are not allowed. If you’re interested in seeing pictures of the museum’s interior, you can visit CNPAG’s page here.

Museo de Capuchinas, Antigua Guatemala

Be careful if you have young children, as there is no railing on a few sections on the second floor (see the courtyard photo at the beginning of this post).

Capuchinas convent roof

Convent roof

view from the Capuchinas roof in Antigua Guatemala

Great views from the second floor

There are also a few interesting sculptures throughout – these are slowly being restored.

Weddings at Las Capuchinas

Antigua’s convent ruins and churches are very popular wedding venues and can often be booked months in advance. If you’d like to book your wedding at Las Capuchinas, it’s recommended you plan early, as this is one of the most requested venues in town – bookings are made a minimum of two months in advance. You can obtain contact info for CNPAG here.

Upon booking, you must also provide a deposit (Q4,000), which will be refundable eight working days after the event has passed. The deposit is not refundable if the event doesn’t take place.

The prices listed below are for the different venues within Capuchinas. These fees are in addition to the deposit and due at least three days before the event.

Capuchinas Cloister (roof) – Max Capacity: 250 – Cost: Q9,000

Capuchinas Church (roof) – Max Capacity: 200 – Cost: Q6,000

Capuchinas Garden (outdoors) – Max Capacity: 100 – Cost: Q6,000

Capuchinas Circular Tower (outdoors) – Max Capacity: 50 – Cost: Q6,000

The fee entitles you to use the reserved venue for a maximum of 5 (five) hours and the activities have to end by 11:00 pm. You can use the venue for an additional hour for a fee of Q3,000.

These fees are only for the use of the venue. If you need decorations, or you’re hosting your reception there, you’ll need the services of a local wedding planner – there are a few in town. Do your due diligence before signing a contract and speak to references that can answer questions about the services that will be provided by the planner.

Should the wedding planner/catering company need additional time to set up, you can book an additional hour prior to the event for Q500, provided you notify them at least 48 hours ahead of time.

If you’re not holding your event at Las Capuchinas, but would still like to have your wedding photos taken at the venue, you can visit during regular visiting hours. Permits for a photo shoot cost Q500.

*****

Have you visited

Las Capuchinas yet?

Holy Week Museum, Antigua Guatemala: Visitors Guide

incense burners, semana santa

Are you visiting Antigua Guatemala and are bummed out you won’t be here for the world-famous Holy Week celebrations? No worries! The next best thing you can do to experience it is to stop by the “Museo de las Tradiciones de Semana Santa Sor Juana de Maldonado“! Which, by the way, I’ll refer to as the Holy Week Museum the rest of the article, or we’ll be here all day.

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Quick Facts

Holy Week Museum

Location: 4a Calle Oriente #45A, Barrio de la Concepción, Antigua Guatemala

Hours: Monday to Friday – 9 am to 5 pm, Saturday & Sunday – 9 am to 3 pm

Cost: Q15 Tourists, Q5 National Visitors

Phone Number: (502) 7882-4789

Email: museodelasemanasanta@cnpag.com

Las Delicias Fountain

While heading to the museum, check out the nearby fountain, known as “Las Delicias” (“The Delights”). If you’re wondering about the fountain’s curious name, it might be helpful to know it was a popular meeting point for young couples looking for a little alone time. Though it may not look like it now, this neighborhood was on the outskirts of the city during colonial times and didn’t have a great reputation as a safe place to be in at night.

Fuente de las delicias, barrio de la concepcion, antigua guatemala

Fuente de Las Delicias, Barrio de La Concepción

A lot of legends and ghost stories sprang up about this place and other secluded spots, hoping to (unsuccessfully) keep local teenagers away from here. This barrio is also home to the annual “burning of the devil” tradition. Coincidence?

As you head towards the alley to the right of the fountain, keep an eye out for the museum’s signage. The museum isn’t hard to find, though you wouldn’t know that it’s there unless you were actively looking for it.

Entrance to the Holy Week Museum in Antigua Guatemala

Entrance to Museo de las Tradiciones de Semana Santa ‘Sor Juana de Maldonado’

The Building

Even without the exhibits, the building housing the museum is interesting. The museum is located inside a restored Spanish colonial-era residence that was once part of La Concepción Convent, which was the largest in the city.

cisterns, antigua guatemala

The see-through glass lets visitors see the original cisterns

pila, antigua guatemala

Original pila (washbasin)

Like a typical Antigua residence, the museum has many rooms, most of which are laid out around a central courtyard. The small fountain at the center of the courtyard is thought to be original to the house.

courtyard, museo de la semana santa sor juana maldonado

Courtyard fountain

fountain relief details, holy week museum

Fountain relief detail

There’s also a beautifully ornate bathtub – now restored, with interesting plumbing that was used to supply hot water from outside the room.

Restored colonial bathtub

Original bathtub

The Museum Exhibits

Characteristic of the better museums in Antigua, the signage throughout the Holy Week Museum is in Spanish and English. For visitors that have never seen Antigua’s famous Holy Week “alfombras” (sawdust carpets), the museum offers visitors the opportunity to check them out up close. The alfombras on display are not as big as the typical Lenten season alfombras, but their patterns are every bit as elaborate.

alfombra - sawdust carpet, holy week museum, antigua guatemala

Alfombra (sawdust carpet)

There’s also a number of traditional garments on display that was previously worn by the procession participants. The elaborate costumes on display are special garments designed for each statue that was paraded in a procession (a special robe is sewn and donated every year by the faithful – the competition can be fierce).

processional robe, holy week museum

Robe used for processional religious image

There’s also a video presentation running on loop showcasing some of Antigua’s biggest processions. You’ll also have the opportunity to listen to Antigua’s traditional procession music, which sounds a lot like the funeral marches you may hear from New Orleans during the Lenten season.

tambor y tzicolaj, museo de la semana santa, antigua guatemala

Traditional instruments used to announce vigils (drum and tzicolaj – Mayan flutes)

There’s also a number of liturgical instruments on display that are commonly at Lenten Season and Holy Week, such as incense burners.

incense burners, semana santa

Incense burners

Sor Juana de Maldonado

No discussion of the Holy Week Museum would be complete without mentioning its namesake and likely resident in colonial times, Sor Juana de Maldonado y Paz.

Sister Juana, also known as Juana de la Concepción, is one of the most colorful characters in Antigua’s colonial past. Tales of her life were so unbelievable that, until relatively recently, modern historians thought that Sor Juana was a fabrication of Thomas Gage, the somewhat unreliable travel writer, and globe-trotting English Dominican friar.

Juana was an orphan who was adopted by a judge, don Juan de Maldonado y Paz, and his wife. From the start, Juana received special attention due to her beauty and intelligence. Being an only daughter, her parents took the unusual step of providing her the best education available – the sort of education that was usually reserved for boys. She soon developed a talent for poetry, singing, painting, and playing musical instruments.

The Controversy

Sister Juana always seemed to be the hot topic of conversation in town – even at a young age.

One of the city’s best painters, Francisco de Montufar, painted a religious portrait in which Juana was portrayed as St. Lucy, her father as St. John the Baptist, and her cousin as St. Stephen. The painting was subsequently moved to a church, venerated, and paraded around the city in processions.

The religious community was in an uproar over the painting and it caused enough trouble that Juana’s father was brought in front of the Inquisition Tribunal to answer for the heresy. Eventually, Juana’s father was able to escape punishment.

As options for limited for young women at the time, and to atone for religious anger over the painting, Juana decided to join La Concepción Convent. The added benefit was that it also allowed her time to pursue her artistic interests.

Once at the convent, her father was influential enough that she was able to build her own home inside the convent. Her residence is thought to be the Holy Week Museum, though some argue that the actual residence was the Sor Juana Hotel next to the museum.

kitchen, Spanish colonial home, antigua guatemala

Original kitchen and oven

At her private apartment – staffed with servants, Sister Juana was free to receive and entertain visitors – and many obliged. Sister Juana routinely hosted parties for important friends in the artistic community. It’s said that she had the best collection of musical instruments in the city at the time.

Another Scandal

One of the most frequent visitors was the city’s bishop, Juan de Zapata y Sandoval, rumored to be madly in love with Sister Juana. The Bishop was so enthralled with Sor Juana’s beauty and charming personality that when it was time to name a new abbess in charge of massive La Concepcion Convent, the bishop appointed a still very young Sister Juana.

Once again, Sister Juana ended up in middle of the most heated controversy in the city at the time. Her appointment caused enough of an uproar that the incoming bishop annulled the election the same year and removed Sister Juana from the post to quiet the rumors of preferential treatment – or worse, an illicit affair between the bishop and the nun.

Sor Juana’s Legacy

Sister Juana’s legacy was her poetry, which is considered one of the best of the period. But as bright as her life was, she died young, which was attributed to a broken heart due to a failed relationship. She was about 40 years old at the time of her passing, though some accounts dispute that and claim she lived until the age of 68.

***

photo exhibit, Museo de la Semana Santa

Photo exhibit

If in Antigua, even during Lenten and Holy Week season, check out the museum. It hosts interesting workshops and exhibits throughout the year, including a well-attended alfombra-making workshop during the Lenten season.

*****

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Agua Volcano Hiking Guide: Antigua Guatemala’s Iconic Landmark

Agua Volcao Hike Guide

Agua Volcano (known as Volcan de Agua), should get credit for making Antigua Guatemala as gorgeous a town as it is. There are other Spanish colonial towns in Mexico and Central America, but none have the towering backdrop that Antigua does.

While I’m not much of a hiker, I knew I’d climb Agua one day, if only to enjoy the view of Antigua from above – which I’ve done twice now.

Agua Volcano - Antigua Guatemala

Stunning Agua Volcano

Here’s how to hike Agua Volcano safely.

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Agua Volcano’s History

There are three volcanoes within view of Antigua Guatemala: Agua (3,766 meters above sea level – MASL), Fuego (3,830 MASL) and Acatenango (3,976 MASL). Agua is extinct (hasn’t had an eruption in recorded history), Fuego is active, while Acatenango is dormant, having last erupted in 1976.

Agua Volcano is sacred to the Mayas and was called Hunahpu, which is also the name of one of the original deities found in their secret text, the Popol Vuh. The “water” moniker comes from colonial times when a mudslide caused by an earthquake destroyed the original capital, which was located in Ciudad Vieja – or more accurately, San Miguel Escobar, as archeological remains bear out.

The common belief is that there was once a crater lake atop Agua – as you’ll see in the pics below. At the time, there was an earthquake, which loosened a side of the mountain, causing the lake to empty out and destroy the capital, burying it in mud, boulders, and uprooted trees. This theory – often taken as fact – doesn’t match geological studies.

In 1895, archeologists Anne Cary Maudslay and her husband, Alfred Percival Maudslay hiked Agua. Their examination of the soil and break in the crater wall showed that if there was indeed a crater lake at the time (which they determined there wasn’t), the water would not have reached the town or caused the mudslide anyway. Their theory was that one of the gulleys could’ve held enough water during a storm to cause the mudslide. This is consistent with the reports at the time that it had been raining heavily for three days when the mudslide occurred.

This theory was proven correct in 2010, when Tropical Storm Agatha swept through Guatemala, dumping copious amounts of rain. It caused a huge mudslide that killed 9 people and buried houses at the site of the former capital.

Hiking Agua Volcano

Agua has a deserved reputation as being unsafe to climb due to robberies. Last year, a 77-year old German tourist, on a hike with his wife, was shot twice during a robbery attempt (the man survived). In 2014, a group of bikers, on tour with Old Town Outfitters, were robbed at gunpoint and hit with machetes.

Now, these are isolated incidents. People climb Agua every week and, with a bit of preparation, the security risk can be mitigated. If you’ve got the cash, the risk can almost be completely eliminated.

The first step when climbing Agua is to notify INGUAT, the official Tourism Organization in Guatemala – call the Antigua offices at +502 7832-0787. They can, in turn, call the Municipal Office in Santa Maria de Jesus, which is the town closest to Agua’s summit and from where all hikes begin.

Agua Volcano as seen from Santa Maria de Jesus

If your Spanish is up to snuff, you can call the Municipal Office yourself at +502 7832-3543. You need to contact them at least three days ahead of time so they can assign you a Police escort through the first – and sketchiest – part of the ascent. You’ll likely be assigned a couple Police officers, who can also go with you all the way to the summit and back – the going “tip” rate seems to be between Q150-Q200 per officer. Additionally, you’ll have to pay a park entrance fee of Q20 per person at the Municipal Office, located near the Central Plaza.

When to Visit

The best time to visit Agua Volcano is during the dry season, which runs from November to April. Though the temperatures are colder, you’ll have a better shot at climbing during a clear day and catching beautiful views from the summit.

If in Antigua during the wet season (March – October), you may take advantage of the “canicula”, a period of a few weeks between July and August when the rain stops and weather gets hotter. Climbing Agua when it rains isn’t fun, as the trail is muddy and the rocky paths make hiking treacherous.

What to Wear

For most of the year, and depending on your level of activity, you should be fine dressing in a couple layers. A windbreaker or light jacket will suffice. I also recommend wearing hiking boots or something that provides ankle stability. Though I did see somebody attempt to hike it with dress pants and dress shoes. Go figure.

If you’re climbing at the end of the year, be aware of cold fronts coming from North America, especially if you’re thinking of camping at the summit overnight.

Last year, I didn’t bother checking the weather before climbing – a mistake. There was a nasty cold front coming from Canada, which brought freezing rain and a sudden temperature drop that I was not prepared for. It was so cold my lips turned purple, and my daughter and I had run back down after 20 minutes because we couldn’t take withstand the low temperatures.

Unfortunately, some people did hike Acatenango Volcano that same day for an overnight stay, and most were ill-prepared. The next day we found out that six hikers had died at Acatenango Volcano after their tents flooded and they got lost trying to head down at midnight to avoid temperatures as low as -6F degrees. Dress in layers and you’ll be fine.

How Long Does It Take?

Hiking Agua can be done in one day. Most people take 4-6 hours to climb, less time to climb down. I left with a group at 7 am, Caminata Familiar, and was back at around 6 pm. This was at a very slow pace, with numerous stops, and a half-hour stop at the summit.  Oh, and my wife hurt her knee halfway down, which slowed us considerably and delayed us a good two hours.

By the way, the Caminata Familiar (Family Walk) is held yearly, on the first or second Saturday of the year. The cost is only Q40 per person and there’s military and police presence throughout, along with first responders – as safe as you can get climbing Agua. This year, around 500 people made the hike to the summit.

The Actual Hike

We arrived at the main plaza in Santa Maria de Jesus at about 6:30 am. To get here from Antigua, take a Santa Maria-bound microbus (“Santa” they call it) at the bus terminal. The trip costs Q4 per person one-way and takes about 45-55 minutes. The buses will drop you off a block away from the plaza.

Plaza, Santa Maria de Jesus

Agua Volcano at dawn, Santa Maria

Listening to instructions from the guide

Starting the hike

Soldiers accompanied the group throughout the hike

The first part of the hike is pretty straightforward. For the most part, the path is well-worn and easy to follow. There are signs pointing the way – there’s no sign that marks the official entrance.

“To the crater”

There’s small chapel at the foot of the mountain. It’s from here, I was told, that a religious procession is carried out to the summit of Agua, culminating at feet of the Black Christ (Cristo Negro de Esquipulas) statue at the summit (pics below).

Small chapel

Police looking over hikers

Volcano Cross

There are a few crosses spaced out along the way. From what I understand they are procession markers, used for religious purposes. I counted five, but there may be more.

Farm fields

At the slopes of Agua, the land is very fertile, so it’s used to grow crops. These fields are burned at the end of the harvest, contributing to the hazy air over Antigua in the month of February.

“Come on buddy, you can do it”

During the walk, there were a couple designated rest stops and makeshift stores. The first stop was 2:00 hours away from the plaza.

Hikers resting for a spell

Makeshift “tienda”

Just a few minutes from the first stop is a lookout point “Mirador”, which has rickety lookout tower. There’s a latrine and a flat camping area.

Mirador (Lookout point)

An hour and a half later we arrived at the second rest stop, or halfway point, known as La Olla (The Pot). Apparently, there’s a family that lives here and that has a small store where you can get instant coffee and cup-o-noodles.

Arriving at La Olla

Tienda at Agua Volcano

A few minutes from the second stop is La Quebrada (The Ravine), a dramatic spot and the most memorable feature of the hike apart from the summit. The path occasionally gets destroyed, making it treacherous and sometimes impossible to reach the summit. For the most part, the path is kept in shape.

La Quebrada (The Ravine)

Treacherous path if raining heavily

Outstanding view from here

On the day we climbed, about a dozen riders in dirt bikes made the trip as well. They also have been victims of robberies, so I don’t blame them for tagging along, even though they did annoy climbers because of all the dust they kicked up as they went by.

Dirt bike mountain climbing

While the climb is shorter at Agua than other volcanoes, it’s often considered tougher. The path is full of rocks, making the hike a bit more technical.

Narrow paths

We arrived at the summit after six hours, which was slow, though we definitely were not the last ones to climb.

Hikers taking a break at the summit

Cross and cell phone towers atop the crater walls

Agua’s crater is big enough to accommodate a soccer field. There’s a structure with a chapel at the center and two empty rooms on either side of the chapel. Trash surrounds the structure.

Chapel and crater

Fog makes for a scene out of a horror movie

Black Christ

Soccer goal

On a clear day, the views are outstanding. You can see Antigua and surrounding towns, though I couldn’t quite make out specific buildings. Lake Amatitlan is clearly visible from here.

Antigua Guatemala as seen from Agua Volcano

Panoramic view of Agua

I climbed Agua a second time because I couldn’t enjoy the view the first time. Mission accomplished on the second try.

Would I climb it a third time? I highly doubt it – though that’s what I said the first time. Maybe time for a new challenge instead.

*****

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Christmas Activities In Antigua Guatemala

New Year's Eve Antigua Guatemala

Christmas season in Antigua Guatemala is in full swing right now. There are posadas almost every day and it’s easy to find traditional hot ponches – my wife prefers the more popular fruit version (de frutas – made with pineapple and dried fruits), while I prefer the milk version (de leche – somewhat like eggnog but not as thick and spiked with rum on request). More on Christmas season’s traditional food on a later post, as we’re going to focus on Christmas activities today.

The two big dates remaining on the calendar are Christmas Eve and New Year’s celebrations. Most of the Christmas activities in Antigua happen earlier in the month, such as the Burning of the Devil, Guadalupe Day, and Christmas at Calle del Arco. But don’t worry! You can still catch celebrations in a few different places.

Festival Navideño – Guatemala City

The biggest spectacle taking place is in Guatemala City, at the Festival Navideño, a dazzling display of lights and North American Christmas music. The drawback is that traffic to and from the city is horrendous at this time of the year.

If you’re set on checking it out, I recommend catching an Uber ride early in the afternoon and plan to stay the night in the city and return the next day.

Christmas Concert

This is a late addition, as it was just announced today. As is the custom every year, there will be a Christmas concert at Parque Central. The event will be held Saturday, December 23rd, at 7 PM, and will feature the Bob Porter Orchestra, a big band outfit.

Bob Porter Orchestra

Bob Porter Orchestra

In years past, they’ve typically covered Christmas songs and some standards – great easy listening music. Light show at the show’s intermission!

Convite Celebrations

If you don’t care to head to the city – or don’t have time, then stick around to check out the convite celebrations held in various towns around Antigua. These elaborate parades, along with posadas, are the most traditional Guatemalan celebrations and worth checking out.

Procesion Virgen de Guadalupe Antigua

Convite (parade), Ciudad Vieja – held every December 7th

While convites take place year-round in Guatemala, you’ll have a chance to catch at least a couple of convites before the end of the year.

-Parramos Convite: Held every December 28th, this celebration includes music concerts, beauty contest, and horse and costumed characters parades. Parramos is about 45-minutes away from Antigua and rarely visited by foreigners. Go if you’re comfortable with your Spanish and know your way around. Otherwise, I recommend visiting San Miguel Dueñas instead.

-San Miguel Dueñas Convite: Happening on December 30th. This town is much closer than Parramos to Antigua (about 25 minutes by bus) and their parade is well worth visit. The costumes are elaborate and the music loud and festive – don’t forget your camera.

Both towns are easy to reach via direct buses leaving from Antigua. Antigua’s patron saint celebrations happen at the end of July, but you can still catch a small traditional celebration every New Year’s Eve at Calle del Arco.

Moros y Cristianos Antigua Guatemala

Celebrations at Calle del Arco on New Year’s Eve

Christmas Eve

The most important Christmas tradition is the Christmas Eve dinner. Well, technically, the dinner doesn’t happen until the stroke of midnight (December 25th). At that time, Guatemalans take to the streets in front of their homes to light fireworks, returning inside the home a few minutes for a traditional meal of tamales and fruit ponche (punch) and to open Christmas gifts. What if you weren’t invited by a local family to share in their tradition? As it happens, a few Antigua restaurants offer special Christmas Eve dinners with traditional Guatemalan staples such as “red tuna sashimi” and “crab and coconut cream” (yes, that was sarcasm). Check out:

Las Velas Restaurant at Hotel Camino Real (7a Calle Poniente #33B): Q295 per person for a complete dinner + 10% service charge.

Las Palmas (6a Avenida Norte #14): Q139 per person for a complete dinner.

New Year’s Eve Celebrations

Antigua is a popular destination for revelers from Guatemala City to celebrate the coming of the New Year. Parties start early and most people hit the street to wait for midnight at two locations: Arco Santa Catalina and Parque Central, in front of the Municipal Palace.

Quema de Toritos y Alas New Year's Eve Antigua Guatemala

New Year’s Eve events at Calle del Arco

Having welcomed the New Year at both locations, I prefer the park – it’s less claustrophobic and you get a better view of the fireworks going off in the surrounding towns. But these are by no means the only two places to welcome 2018. Many restaurants in town offer special menus, live music, and a midnight toast, along with a few fireworks. Some restaurants will charge a cover. Make sure to call ahead for reservations, as some of these places will be quite popular.

I need to make a special mention of Cerro San Cristobal, which has an amazing view of the valley – great for catching the fireworks going off at midnight in Antigua. They have live music starting at 6 PM. Check out the video below, taken from the restaurant:

Here’s a list of restaurants offering New Year’s Eve dinners and parties:

Dinners

-Las Velas Restaurant at Hotel Camino Real (7a Calle Poniente #33B): Q290 per person for a complete dinner + 10% service charge.

-Las Palmas (6a Avenida Norte #14): Q139 per person for a complete dinner. Live music at 11 PM.

-Guat Ik (4a Avenida Norte #4): Q139 per person for a complete dinner. Live music, midnight toast.

-NiFu-NiFa (3a Calle Oriente #21): Live music, midnight toast.

-El Viejo Cafe (6a Avenida Norte #12): Live music.

-Welten (4a Calle Oriente #21): Dinner menu starts at Q308 – beverages not included. Live music.

Parties

-Hotel Camino Real (7a Calle Poniente #33B): Las Vegas White Party – all you can eat and drink buffet dinner. Buy tickets at the hotel in advance.

-Restaurante del Arco (5a Avenida Norte #25): Hollywood New Year’s Party – live music and cover. Midnight toast.

-Door Eleven (1a Calle Poniente #11): No cover. Live music (Spanish rock covers).

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How will you spend Christmas?

Comment below!

San Francisco Church, Antigua Guatemala: Visitors Guide

San Francisco Church is one of the biggest attractions in the city – even Tarzan has paid a visit! But more on that later.

For tourists, Iglesia de San Francisco is an opportunity see a restored colonial church. For locals, it’s a place of pilgrimage – they come to pray for miracles at the tomb of Saint Hermano Pedro de San José Betancourt. Native to Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, he’s the first canonized saint in Central America.

San Francisco Church

Facade, San Francisco Church

This complex houses a church, a museum devoted to Hermano Pedro, ruins of the convent and vendor stalls.

Handicrafts Market, San Francisco Church

Handicrafts Market, San Francisco Church

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Entrances to San Francisco Church

There are two doors from which to enter the church grounds: Saint Bonaventure‘s entrance, which dates back to the early 17th century and is located near the intersection of 1a Avenida Sur and 7a Avenida Poniente. Saint Francis‘ entrance, a late 17th-century addition, is accessible via Calle de Los Pasos.

Main entrance to san francisco church

St. Bonaventure Gate

Side entrance to San Francisco Church

St. Francis Gate

The changing architectural tastes of the 17th century are reflected here, as the Saint Bonaventure door has simpler Doric columns, while the newer St. Francis gate sports Solomonic columns. The Saint Bonaventure entrance featured a replica image of its namesake saint – the original statue can be seen at the Museum of Colonial Art.

Construction of San Francisco Church

The Franciscan missionaries were one of the first religious orders to arrive in present-day Guatemala. When the second capital was destroyed, they were also one of the first to move to the site of present-day Antigua. The first church Franciscans built, in 1541, was located at the current site of Escuela de Cristo Church, which is just a couple blocks south. That church was damaged during the earthquake of 1575.

Atrium, San Francisco Church

For 10 years, Franciscans collected funds to build a new church, which they eventually built at the location it occupies to this day.

Franciscans carried on a heated rivalry with the Dominican friars of Santo Domingo Convent and the Jesuits of Compañía de Jesús, each trying to outdo the other in wealth and political

influence. Franciscans succeeded in obtaining permission from the Spanish Crown to establish Saint Bonaventure College, a prestigious institution where famous painters studied, such as Alonzo de la Paz, Cristobal de Villalpando, and Thomas de Merlo.

Throughout the years, there were many additions and renovations to the church. Master Architect Diego de Porres finished the current Baroque-style church in 1702. It features Solomonic columns and above the entrance, a coat of arms of the House of Habsburg, a two-headed eagle, representing the ruling Spanish monarchy at the time.

Abandoning The Church

Damaged substantially by the earthquakes of the 18th century, the complex was mostly abandoned, though a small chapel was built on the premises in 1774 to serve the needs of the small number of people that refused to move to the new capital.

In 1871, the chapel of the Third Order was rebuilt. Most of the temple remained in ruins, serving as a playground and housing a small number of families.

Restoring San Francisco Church

Inside San Francisco Church

Main nave, San Francisco Church

The church was returned to Franciscan friars in 1960, who began a controversial restoration process, as they focused on rebuilding a structurally healthy church. Historians and architects were up in arms about the approach, which did not place more emphasis on restoring colonial-era details.

The current temple is but a shadow of the opulent temple it once was, and lacking the richness of the artwork the original temple possessed.

Dome, San Francisco Church

Dome

The temple’s north bell tower was rebuilt in 1967. The southern tower originally had a clock, but now remains in the condition it has been since the 1773 earthquakes.

Inside San Francisco Church

At the temple, look for Cristo de las Ánimas, located on the transept left of the main altar – it features a crucifix made out of corn husks, hence the locals’ name of this image as Cristo de Tuza (Corn Husk Christ). It dates back to the 17th century and is thought to be the work of Felix de Mata.

Cristo de las Animas, San Francisco

Corn Husk Christ, by Felix de Mata

Though buried at San Francisco since his passing, Hermano Pedro’s body has been relocated numerous times. His current resting place, Vera Cruz Chapel, is accessible through a separate entrance by the church’s north entrance. Access is restricted to the church from here by a metal fence.

Visiting Hermano Pedro’s Tomb

To visit, walk past the Esquisuchil tree (scientific name Bourreira Huanita), planted on March 19, 1657, one of several planted by Hermano Pedro throughout Antigua.

Hermano Pedro garden

Hermano Pedro Statue

Adjacent to the tomb are the ruins of Concepción Chapel, housing the Garden of Saint Hermano Pedro, along with a bronze sculpture. A stained-glass window behind the tomb depicts the death of Hermano Pedro and his arrival in Heaven.

Sained glass window, Hermano Pedro

Commemoration of Hermano Pedro’s death

San Francisco’s Prayer Candles

Hermano Pedro's tomb

Hermano Pedro’s tomb

At the tomb, take note of the different colored candles, each representing a specific prayer request. These candles are for sale on the stalls outside the church. Some candles are shaped in the form of the petitioner’s affected body part – ear and eye-shaped candles are among the most common.

Candles for sale at Iglesia San Francisco

Candles for sale on the market

Each candle has a specific meaning, based on the request of the petitioner. Their meanings are as follows:

Red = Love
Blue = Work success
Pink = Health
White = Children
Purple = To overcome vices
Green = Business success
Yellow = Protection
Light blue = Success at school

Black candles aren’t sold at the church and are removed if found out by clergy. What is the prayer request attached to black candles? The destruction of enemies.

Hermano Pedro Museum

Next door the church are the ruins of San Francisco Convent. There’s a small fee of 5Q to enter the museum and convent.

Your first stop should be the small, one-room “museum” – more like a shrine, to Hermano Pedro. The entrance hallway to the museum is lined with crutches and gift offerings to Hermano Pedro, thanking the saint for his answers to their desperate prayers. By the way, photography is not allowed in the hall.

Bell, Hermano Pedro Museum

Hermano Pedro’s bell

After a few steps, you’ll enter the spacious room, which is filled with the earliest known paintings of Hermano Pedro, as well as his personal artifacts. Look for his famous bell, which rang at night as he walked the streets warning the residents to repent and helping those he found along the way.

Also worth checking out are his self-flagellation instruments, to mortify his flesh, as well as the human skull he kept by his nightstand to remind himself of the brevity of life. I get itchy whenever I see the rough underwear he forced himself to use on a daily basis.

San Francisco Convent Ruins

In its time, the Franciscans had one of the largest convents in the city, trailing only in size to that of the Dominicans at Santo Domingo Church. Most of the Convent is in ruins and there’s very little signage, unlike the ruins at La Merced Church’s Convent.

Missing fountain at San Francisco Convent

Missing fountain

The convent’s signature fountain is missing, which was moved to Santa Teresa Convent and served as the bath for prisoners when Santa Teresa was used as the men’s jail cell in the late 1900s. When the jail was closed and moved to Chimaltenango, San Francisco’s fountain was once again relocated to the atrium of La Merced Church, where it sits today.

San Francisco Convent Ruins

Convent ruins – San Francisco

Wander around the ruins, as they’re mostly empty. There are some tables in the back if you’d like to have a quiet time to read or pack a lunch for an enjoyable picnic.

A Place to Meditate

The chapel next door, Capilla de Adoracion Perpetua Anunciación del Señor was established in 2009. Be sure to be as quiet as a mouse, since they strictly enforce silence inside the chapel – chatty tourists and those with photographic cameras are discouraged from sticking around.

Annunciation Chapel, San Francisco Church

Annunciation Chapel

You can visit the chapel anytime – it’s open 24 hours a day. It’s an excellent place to meditate, or if you want to disconnect from the outside world. Fiddling with your smartphone inside is not allowed. Visit and try to sit still, alone with your thoughts, for 15 minutes – you’ll be surprised how unbearable/terrifying and/or enlightening it is.

Tarzan Comes to Antigua

Before San Francisco Church was restored in the 1960s, it served as a backdrop for The New Adventures of Tarzan (1935), a Hollywood film directed by Edward A. Kull. It follows the adventures of explorers searching for the Green Goddess, an idol worshiped by natives “deep in the jungles of Guatemala.”

Filmed in various locations in Guatemala, the movie starred Bruce Bennet, a.k.a. Herman Brix, a silver medalist in the shot put in the 1928 Olympic Games. Brix also did his own stunts.

tarzan movie stills

The New Adventures of Tarzan

You may be surprised to discover that the grunting Tarzan of today bears little resemblance to the well-mannered, almost James Bond-like cultured Tarzan originally created by author Edgar Rice Burroughs. Bennet was praised by film critics for accurately portraying Burrough’s version of Tarzan on film.

This black and white film can be easily found on YouTube, as it’s now in the public domain.

Skip to about the 50-minute mark to see how severely damaged the church was before its restoration. Agua, Fuego and Acatenango volcanoes can also be seen.

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Check out the full list of things to do in Antigua Guatemala, here.

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Ever visited San Francisco Church?

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