Vibrant Spaces: Antigua, Guatemala

Guatemala is a mystery destination for many people. In the recent past there were years of civil war that kept it out of the travel list for all but the young and daring back packers. It is still a third world country just finding its way into mainstream tourism. The lure of volcanoes, jungles, high mountain and lowland lakes, river travels, beaches, wildlife and incredible Mayan ruins is attracting more travelers than ever.

As with most large cities in Central America, Guatemala City is not where you want to get oriented with this amazing country, so we chose to go directly to Antigua when we flew into Guat. Its only 45 minutes away and a much nicer landing place. It is set up for tourism, as safe as possible for Guatemala and a perfect atmosphere for a gradual immersion and introduction to the country.

With Spanish colonial architecture dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries it is fascinating and beautiful. It has suffered multiple devastating earth quakes over the centuries but was declared a UNESCO heritage site in 1974. With that a resurgence of reconstruction began, resulting in the restoration of many heritage buildings. One of the great things about a UNESCO designation are the design guidelines and preservation regulations that help preserve the heritage look and atmosphere. These are very powerful rules with many outcomes the average person would not recognize as such.

Urban Design

What made me really think about it was when I noticed a Subway sandwich shop. Yes, franchises are everywhere but this had almost no corporate identity visible. The signage and store front fit with the heritage look of the neighbourhood. That piqued my interest, so I started to look for other familiar franchise companies. Next, I found a McDonald’s, but no massive golden arches here, just a simple metal sign out front, attached to the typical Spanish brick wall. No big glass windows, you must dive through the front door to discover what is behind the solid walls. Once inside it opens up into a beautiful courtyard with a variety of seating options, greenery, flowers and a fountain. Not your regular McDonald’s for sure – in fact, so unusual it is included on the lists of interesting places to check out in Antigua!

The average Central American city could not likely prevent global corporations from imposing their commercialism, but with the power of UNESCO – Wow! It is possible for historic preservation and commerce to co-exist. North American downtowns that want to preserve their personality can learn from this. Even though they may not have the weight of UNESCO behind them, they can create regulations and design guidelines to manage positive growth and preserve their desired vision. Canmore Alberta doesn’t allow franchises in their downtown and Leavenworth Washington enforces Bavarian style design; they have franchises but exterior building design and signage deviates from the corporate brand.

Public Spaces

Antigua is a pedestrian’s paradise. With several public squares connected by pedestrian streets you can wander, shop, eat and be entertained for days. You really don’t want to drive around the central part of the city anyway, the ancient streets are narrow and surfaced with cobblestones from centuries past. They vibrate the vehicles so badly a new car would be a bucket of loose bolts in no time. Perfectly fine for people though! I loved the main central Zocalo, surrounded by the iconic colonial church, former mansions and government palace. The square has a massive central fountain, people sitting around the edges, cobbled pathways fan out from the fountain, fringed by majestic trees, dotted with benches, providing perfect places for people to gather and socialize. A communal heart for the city.

True to the adage that commerce follows the people there are a variety of vendors in and around this park. Food, crafts, shoe shiners and more. Contrary to what some N.A. cities believe, commerce does not detract from the park, it actually makes it more enjoyable, more utilized and more sustainable. It contributes to the activation, safety and vibrancy of the square.

Market Central

Markets are another exciting element in Antigua. Guatemala is ground zero in Central America (C.A.) for the production of artisanal crafts. They produce a huge range of beautiful textile goods that supply retailers and markets from S.A through C.A. and into N.A. it is truly unbelievable. Exploring the maze of market stalls in Antigua, Chichicastenango and Panajachel you walk through row upon row piled high with colourful products. I was excited, inspired and overwhelmed all at the same time. Perhaps the scale is not reproducible in our cities, but the concept of public markets are. It creates another gathering place, a people magnet, an alternate shopping and commercial opportunity.

If you have never been to Antigua, Guatemala I encourage you to put it on your list. There is so much to experience, it is a good starting point for exploring more of this fascinating country. And if you are a place management, urban design professional you could learn enough to write your adventure off as a business trip! Go for it!