The city had a peak population of some 60,000 in the 1770s; the bulk of the population moved away in the late 18th century. Despite significant population growth in the late 20th century, the city had only reached half that number by the 1990s. According to the 2007 census, the city has some 34,685 inhabitants.
Antigua Guatemala means “Old Guatemala” and was the third capital of Guatemala. The first capital of Guatemala was founded on the site of a Kakchikel-Maya city, now called Iximche, on Monday, July 25, 1524—the day of Saint James—and therefore named Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Goathemalan (City of Saint James of the Knights of Guatemala). Naturally, St. James became the patron saint of the city.
After several Cakchiquel uprisings, the capital was moved to a more suitable site in the Valley of Alotenango (Rio Guacalate) on November 22, 1527, and kept its original name. This new city was located on the site of present-day San Miguel Escobar, which is a neighborhood in the municipality of Ciudad Vieja. This city was destroyed on September 11, 1541 by a devastating lahar from the Volcán de Agua. As a result, the colonial authorities decided to move the capital once more, this time five miles away to the Panchoy Valley. So, on March 10, 1543 the Spanish conquistadors founded present-day Antigua, and again, it was named Santiago de los Caballeros. For more than 200 years it served as the seat of the military governor of the Spanish colony of Guatemala, a large region that included almost all of present-day Central America and the southernmost State of Mexico: Chiapas. In 1566 King Felipe II of Spain gave it the title of “Muy Noble y Muy Leal” (“Very Noble and Very Loyal”).
On September 29, 1717, an estimated 7.4 magnitude earthquake hit Antigua Guatemala, and destroyed over 3,000 buildings. Much of the city’s architecture was ruined. The damage the earthquake did to the city made authorities consider moving the capital to another city.
In 1773, the Santa Marta earthquakes destroyed much of the town, which led to the third change in location for the city. The Spanish Crown ordered (1776) the removal of the capital to a safer location, the Valley of the Shrine, where Guatemala City, the modern capital of Guatemala, now stands. This new city did not retain its old name and was christened Nueva Guatemala de la Asunción (New Guatemala of the Assumption) and its patron saint is Our Lady of Assumption. The badly damaged city of Santiago de los Caballeros was ordered abandoned, although not everyone left, and was thereafter referred to as la Antigua Guatemala (the Old Guatemala).
Central Park (Parque Central) is the heart of the city. The reconstructed fountain there is a popular gathering spot. Off to the side of the Central Park, the Arco de Santa Catalina is among the many notable architectural landmarks of La Antigua.
La Antigua is noted for its very elaborate religious celebrations during Lent (Cuaresma), leading up to Holy Week (Semana Santa) and Easter (Pascua). Each Sunday in Lent, one of the local parishes sponsor a Procession through the streets of Antigua. Elaborate and beautiful artistic carpets predominantly made of dyed sawdust, flowers and even fruits and vegetables adorn the processions’ path.
Due to its popularity amongst tourists and its very well developed tourism infrastructure, Antigua Guatemala is often used as a central location in which many choose to set up base and from here, visit other tourist areas in Guatemala and Central America. Cruise ships that dock at Guatemalan ports offer trips to Antigua from both the Pacific and Atlantic.
Antigua also holds a sizeable retirement community from the US as well as Europe as its colonial charm has appealed to many who have crossed paths with this enchanting and romantic town.