Colonial Cities of Central America

The Colonial Cities of Central America are among her most beguiling attractions. Here are four gems which keep us coming back for more.

Antigua Guatemala

Nestled in a valley overlooked by three towering volcanoes, Antigua Guatemala or simply Antigua, is one of the country’s most delightful cities.

Antigua was the Spanish colonial capital of Central America from 1543 to 1776. Colourful colonial-era buildings decorate picturesque cobbled-stone streets. With little vehicular traffic, the city is very pleasant to explore on foot. The city is celebrated for its beautifully-preserved baroque colonial architecture and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The canary-yellow Arch of Santa Catalina, surmounted by clock faces and framing the distant Agua Volcano is the most iconic image of Antigua. Of all of the postcard-perfect images taken in colonial cities of Central America, the Arch of Santa Catalina is arguably the most recognizable.

Once home to the Spanish Viceroy, San Jose Cathedral, occupies an entire city block and features an elaborately decorated facade.

The Central Park is the green heart of the city and gateway to sprawling markets, a variety of dining options and shopping opportunities.

A popular time to visit Antigua is during Semana Santa, the week which precedes Easter. In Antigua, Semana Santa, or Holy Week, is celebrated by brotherhoods of the city parish churches between Palm Saturday and Resurrection Sunday. The parade period begins on the First Thursday of Lent and continues until Good Friday. Throughout the week, statues of the saints are erected on heavy platforms, andas, which are then held aloft and paraded through the streets by robed devotees. The parades are accompanied by orchestras of horns and drums performing funereal or festive marches.

Also, during Semana Santa in Antigua, the streets are adorned with extraordinary carpets of coloured sawdust. The motifs displayed vary from images of Roman Catholic saints, to Maya designs and stylized depictions of local flora and fauna.

Granada, one of the most beautiful colonial cities in Central America

Granada

Founded in 1524, Granada was initially registered in official records of the Crown of Aragon and the Kingdom of Castile in Spain. Granada is one of the few enduring original European settlements in the Americas.

Located on the northwest shores of Lake Nicaragua, Granada is the oldest colonial city in Nicaragua. Its colourful colonial buildings and fascinating history make it an important tourist destination. A wealthy city for most of the colonial period, Granada is connected to the Atlantic Ocean via the lake and San Juan River. Given its abundant wealth and easy sea-access, the city fell victim to attacks by marauding pirates on several occasions during its early history.

Granada is home to a significant migrant population hailing from Europe and North America many of whom work in the tourism industry. The city features a developed tourism infrastructure for visitors and holidaymakers.

There are several churches in Granada which showcase a variety of colours and architectural styles:

  • the gothic Cathedral of the Incarnation
  • the neoclassical canary-yellow Our Lady of the Assumption Cathedral
  • La Merced
  • Guadalupe
  • Xalteva
  • San Francisco Church & Museum

La Pólvora is an 18th-century fortress which is open for visitors. Historical exhibits are available on the main floor and the towers afford beautiful vistas over the city.

Lake Nicaragua, also known as Lake Cocibolca, is the tenth-largest freshwater lake on earth. The lake is home to plentiful birdlife which includes cormorants, parrots, hawks and herons. More unique is the lake’s population of Bull Sharks which can survive in both sea water and fresh water. The beach is popular local meeting place and many food sellers set up their shops on the sand to cater to visitors. Tours around the islands are available from Puerto Asese.

The Islets of Lake Nicaragua are home to an extensive fishing community of about 1200 people. Luxury hotels and villas are located on some islets while yet others are uninhabited. Looking to the west, towering Mombacho Volcano looms massively over the lake.

Central Park is fringed by colonial houses and abutted by the Cathedral. Enjoy exploring the bustling city centre or just sit on a bench and soak up the atmosphere.

Suchitoto

Suchitoto is a languid beauty whose attraction is her cobbled streets, art galleries, Santa Lucia Church and colourful facades. The name Suchitoto, means “Place of Flower Bird” in Nahuatl.

Home to a population of over 25,000, this enchanting colonial town celebrates many theatrical and cultural festivals throughout the year and is considered to be the cultural capital of El Salvador.

Since the end of the Salvadoran civil war, the town has flourished to become one of the most important tourist sites in this country due to its well-preserved colonial-style architecture. Together with its cobbled streets there are old-fashioned guesthouses, restaurants and quaint cafes which add to the atmosphere of yesteryear.

In December Suchitoto holds many celebrations in honour of Saint Lucia. For that occasion, in Suchitoto there are various religious and popular celebrations such as Catholic processions, musical performances, a cattle fair, pyrotechnics, traditional food tasting, dances and trade fairs.

The Church of Saint Lucia was originally made of straw and perished in a late-seventeenth-century fire. The church was rebuilt with tiles and calicanto. Today, the Church of Santa Lucia is whitewashed and its façade is decorated in a Neoclassical style featuring Ionic columns and semi-circular arches.

The artificial Lake Suchitlán is a tranquil retreat fringed by verdant gardens on the edge of the city. The lake can be accessed via Puerto San Juan, which offers services for water transport and recreation.

Cerro Guazapa is home to some 200 species of plants and 27 species of birds, mammals and reptiles.  Throughout the region there are vestiges of the Civil War conflict, such as trenches, caves and burial sites.

Los Tercios Waterfall is notable for its unique rock face featuring hexagonal basalt stone.

León

Former Nicaraguan capital, León, was founded in 1524 and mostly destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 1610. Nevertheless, the colonial architecture which remains today is some of the most captivating in the country. Explore on foot the fascinating streets of this historical town. From the summit of the Cathedral you will have a panoramic view over the city centre.

León takes its name from León, Spain. The original city was located near Lake Managua but was abandoned after widespread volcanic destruction. Vestiges of Old León are still visible today and are evocative reminders of Nicaragua’s early colonial period.  León has more churches and colonial cathedrals than any other place in Nicaragua.

León is a university city, full of students. Backpackers, volunteers and other foreigners usually mix with local students. During Semana Santa, locals and foreigners flock to León and nearby beaches Las Peñitas and Poneloya.

The Neoclassical-style León Cathedral is the largest cathedral in Central America and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Crypts beneath the cathedral hold the remains of poet Rubén Darío, among many other notable Nicaraguans. From the roof-top there are stunning views of the city and the volcanoes that surround it.

Central Park is a beautiful recreation area with a fountain and many shady trees, facing the main cathedral. Perfect for people-watching, the park is a place of relaxation which attracts families, youngsters and ubiquitous bike-riding children. On the weekends, many people flock to the park to be entertained by street performers, dancers and musicians.

Located in front of Central Park is the tiny Revolution Museum, home to a modest collection of exhibits and artefacts. Included with the museum entrance is a guided tour in Spanish. A guide will take you through the collection and explain the tumultuous history of the revolutionary era. Many of museum guides were revolutionaries during the civil war and point out photos of themselves as rifle-toting youths.