Once-dormant city of Antigua a Guatemala highlight

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View Ken Kiesnoski's slideshow, "Guatemala: Colonial charm and volcanoes."

The charming, colonial city of Antigua has long been Guatemala's top tourist draw, and for good reason. Actually, for several good reasons, including restored, and ruined, 16th to 18th century Spanish architecture; four volcanoes (two active, two dormant); a host of world-class language schools; and a First World-worthy array of sleeping, dining and shopping options.

Antigua was last at its peak prominence in the early to mid-18th century, when as capital of Guatemala it rivaled Lima, Peru, and Mexico City in terms of power, population, prestige and pocketbook.

Avenida NorteTwo devastating earthquakes in 1773 brought an end to all that, and Guatemala's capital was moved to Guatemala City, some 14.5 miles away. That seeming misfortune turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

While modern Guatemala City grew into a sprawling, congested metropolis, isolation and longtime neglect served Antigua well. More than two centuries of underdevelopment left the town with a treasure trove of dilapidated but historical structures, many of which have as of late been rehabilitated into chic restaurants, shops and hotels.

Today a low-key, low-rise city of just 35,000, Antigua is more popular than ever, with Guatemalans and foreigners alike. On a recent three-day visit, I did my best to cover the highlights of the town and some of its surroundings.

Parque Central is a good starting point for explorations. Clean, safe and distinguished by a somewhat risque central fountain, the park is fronted by historical buildings on three sides: the semi-ruined, 17th century Cathedral of San Jose, to the east; the 18th century Ayuntamiento (city hall), to the north; and the 18th century Palace of the Captains General, to the south.

Facing the west side of the park is a row of cafes and shops, including two bookstores, Casa del Conde and Un Poco de Todo, that carry English-language publications such as novels, guidebooks and souvenir coffee-table books.

The main shopping, strolling, dining and drinking street is 5a Avenida Norte, which begins opposite the northwest corner of the park and is spanned a block from its northern terminus by the iconic Santa Catarina Arch. Walking under the arch and turning around to take a photo of it framing the dormant Agua volcano to the south is a cliched but still popular must for visitors.

Another must-do on 5a Avenida Norte is popping into Nim P'ot, a warehouse-like emporium crammed with colorful handicrafts and goods at rock-bottom prices. The textiles, carvings, toys, paintings and coffee beans are all good buys.

After relieving the vendors at Nim P'ot of many of their wares, I lunched down the block at one of the three locations of famed local restaurant La Fonda de la Calle Real. Specialists in authentic Guatemalan cookery, the proprietors are also generous in serving size and value for money. Sitting in the sunny courtyard of the 5a Avenida Norte, No. 5 location, I sampled caldo real, the local take on chicken soup, and a plato tipico of Guatemalan meat-, tortilla- and rice-based dishes. I washed it all down with a glass of ice-cold horchata, a blend of rice, water and cinnamon.

Fuego volcanoAntigua is packed with churches, convents and monasteries -- some in ruins, some restored -- that date to the colonial era, when Roman Catholic religious orders competed for prominence in the city.

Highlights among the ruins include the El Carmen hermitage, Las Capuchinas convent, La Compania de Jesus church and San Jeronimo school. Among the still-active churches, the exquisite yellow-and-white facade and soaring interior of La Merced church is a must-see, while a visit to the 16th century San Francisco church is intriguing as it is a major pilgrimage site.

The latter houses the tomb of St. Hermano Pedro de Betancourt, canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2002. Gaily dressed Maya Indian faithful often kneel in prayer at his glass-enclosed sarcophagus, which is strung with colorful ex votos, or votive offerings, and repeatedly knocked on, three times at a go, by devotees while they pray.

The Agua volcano may loom dormant and picturesque immediately to Antigua's south, but two other local volcanos, Fuego and Pacaya, remain quite active and alive.

Fuego can be seen belching out smoke in the distance from anywhere in town, but Pacaya, closer to Guatemala City, is the real draw. I embarked on a seven-hour excursion to Pacaya, which included a strenuous, three-hour hiking tour of the volcano itself. The journey is well worth the effort, as local guides walk you over still-cooling, day-old lava formations to within inches of hot, churning magma. I got close enough to literally toast marshmallows over lava, although I paid for the privilege with melted sneaker bottoms.

Go to www.visitguatemala.com.

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