In the 19th-century, scientists began to explore the ruins of Old Maya cities and were stunned at what they found. Great cities built of stone and long-abandoned. The ancient Maya civilization fascinated with its indecipherable language, distinctive art, advanced scientific knowledge and mysterious disappearance.
Guatemala's written history dates from the first century BC, when the Maya carved the earliest, dated inscription found so far in the country. The history left to us by the Maya was carved on stone door lintels, stelae, altars, and staircases or written on paper made of tree bark, records the rise and fall of kings, triumphs in war, and astronomical observations.
In 1524, a band of Spanish conquistadors invaded present-day Guatemala. The Maya Empire had collapsed and virtually disappeared centuries before but the Spanish found their descendents ruling a number of small kingdoms, the strongest of which was the K’iche, whose home was in the central highlands. The K’iche rallied around leader Tecún Umán and met Spanish soldiers in battle, but were defeated, ending forever any hope of large-scale native resistance in the area.
The Spanish founded their new Central American capital (called Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Goathemalan) in 1524 in an earthquake-prone region. It was subsequently destroyed by fire caused by an uprising of the indigenous population, re-established in 1527 and entirely buried as a result of earthquakes and an avalanche in 1541. The third attempt to build a capital, in a nearby valley, was inaugurated in March 1543 and served for 230 years. It survived natural disasters of floods, volcanic eruptions and serious tremors until 1773 when earthquakes destroyed much of the town.
At this point, authorities ordered the relocation of the capital to a safer location which became Guatemala City (Nueva Guatemala), the country’s modern capital. Some residents stayed behind in the original town, however, which became referred to as “La Antigua Guatemala”. Its principal monuments and Spanish Colonial architecture are still preserved as ruins today. The charming town boasts cobblestoned streets and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
La Antigua is noted for its very elaborate religious celebrations during Lent (Cuaresma), leading up to Holy Week (Semana Santa) and Easter Sunday(Pascua). Each Sunday during Lent, one of the local parishes sponsors a Procession through the streets of Antigua. Elaborate and beautiful artistic carpets, predominantly made of dyed sawdust, flowers, pine needles, and even fruits and vegetables, adorn the processions' paths. During Semana Santa there is a procession each day that travels through the town involving hundreds of participants and viewed by many thousands of people each day.
Due to its popularity among tourists and its very well-developed tourism infrastructure, Antigua Guatemala is often used as a central location from which to visit other tourist areas in Guatemala and Central America. The town is famous for their celebration of the arts and visitors enjoy shopping for handcrafted jewelry, jade, handwoven textiles, leather goods, candles and souvenirs.