Santa Catalina Arch and Volcan de Agua

Santa Catalina Arch and Volcan de AguaThe Santa Catalina arch with the Volcan de Agua (Water Volcano) in the background, an iconic shot in Antigua, Guatemala. The arch was constructed about 350 years ago as part of the Santa Catalina convent to allow cloistered nuns to cross the street from the convent to the school without being seen. Considering its location, it’s a miracle the arch is still standing. Earthquakes are a relatively frequent occurrence in Guatemala, leaving many historic structures in ruins. In fact, the volcano in the photo is called Volcan de Agua because the crater used to be filled with water until an earthquake triggered by nearby Volcan de Fuego (Fire Volcano) in 1541 released the water in a torrent (called a lahar) that destroyed the capital of Central America at the time, Ciudad de Los Caballeros de Santiago de Guatemala (aka Santiago).

Note that the entire region we now think of as Central America (Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala), as well as the Mexican state of Chiapas, was under Spanish colonial rule and was all considered the Reino de Guatemala, the Kingdom of Guatemala. After the destruction of Santiago, the colonial authorities needed a new capital for the kingdom, so they moved it to the site of present day Antigua in 1543 (but again calling it Santiago), where it served as the capital for over two hundred years.

This came to a violent end in 1776 when the Santa Marta earthquake essentially leveled much of the city and killed thousands. The Spanish Crown ordered Santiago abandoned and the capital moved once again, this time to Guatemala City, about 25 miles to the northeast. The former site of Santiago was then renamed Antigua Guatemala, meaning “Old Guatemala” (Eventually the “Guatemala” was dropped, so basically it’s now just “Old”). Although the territory of Guatemala has since shrunk considerably, Guatemala City continues to be its capital. However, the wisdom of selecting that location is debatable. It’s been clobbered by several major earthquakes as well, including one in 1976 that claimed 23,000 lives (that ironically left Antigua relatively unscathed). To be fair, considering that Guatemala has 3 major tectonic fault lines and over 30 volcanos, I suspect there is no “safe” location.

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