Living Through Antigua’s 1773 Earthquake

by Anders Bruihler / Nov 18, 2013 / 0 comments

My Spanish teacher Maria chatters on about the history of Antigua, Guatemala, the wonderful city where we are visiting. We are sitting on a bench in the town square. I zone out as she tells me something about an earthquake. I look around at the locals and tourists meandering through the park. My eyes follow a flock of birds from the roof of the church into the clear blue sky.


Antigua, Guatemala

Photo courtesy flickr creative commons: Le Grand Portage


Maria stops talking in the middle of a sentence. I look toward her in confusion, only to find that she has disappeared. I glance around and see no tourists. All the locals are wearing traditional clothes instead of jeans and t-shirts. There are no cars, and all the modern shops are gone. What happened?

I wander over to one of the newspaper vendors standing around and take a look at a newspaper. It is dated 29 de julio, 1773. “What kind of practical joke is this supposed to be?” I ask the vendor in English. It can’t be the 29th of July in 1773!

The vendor just looks at me with a blank stare. “Como?” he asks.

A woman walks up to me who looks suspiciously like Maria. “Let’s go, Anders!” she says.

“What are we doing here, Maria?” I ask in confusion. “Is it really 1773?”

“Of course it’s 1773, mi amigo. What year did you think it was? Two thousand and something?” A broad smile crosses her face and she laughs. “And my name isn’t Maria, it’s Juana. Let’s go! We have many things to see and not much time.”

“What do you mean, not much time? And how did you know my name?” I ask, but she ignores me and walks away. I follow her.

As we walk, she tells me a little history about Antigua. “More than 50 years ago, in 1717, there was a devastating earthquake. It left our beautiful city in shambles, and we are still rebuilding today. The Spanish authorities considered moving the capital somewhere else, but luckily they didn’t do that. A similar quake today would leave the whole city in ruins. Come along now! Let’s go see the Santa Catalina arch!”

I follow Maria - excuse me, I mean Juana - along the road. The locals haggle over prices for various goods. Cars, tuk-tuks, and chicken buses are noticeably absent from the streets. Instead, people wander around having conversations. Juana leads me a couple blocks north of the square and soon the familiar arch comes into view. I have seen it several times before, but now I take a fresh look at it. She tells me a little more, and the history is more interesting than I would have thought. “The Santa Catalina arch is used by nuns to travel across the street without having to interact with the outside world. When the nunnery outgrew one building on one side of the street, they bought another across the road and built the arch to connect the sections. This is one of the most iconic buildings of Antigua.


Antigua, Guatemala

Photo courtesy flickr creative commons: Dave Wilson


“Now let us go and see the Santo Domingo monastery!” Juana exclaims. I think I remember that name from somewhere, but I can’t recall the details. “Hurry! We haven’t got any time to lose!” I wonder why she said that, but she walks away before I can ask. I jog to catch up with her.

I peer through openings in the white walls facing the street as we pass them. Behind the barriers on the street, there are hidden worlds of green life and bustling people.

Eventually, we get to the monastery. Something stirs in my memory, but I can’t think what. Juana motions for me to be quiet and then opens the carved wooden doors quietly.

We step through the door. A beautiful courtyard is spread out in front of us. Carefully tended flower beds line the side of the path.

“This monastery has many treasures,” whispers Juana. “It is one of the grandest convents in all of Central America.” Nuns and monks walk through archways in the distance. Juana leads me along a cobblestone path toward a small chapel.

She clears her throat and starts to speak. “Inside of this…” Suddenly the ground starts to tremble violently. Screams pierce the air as trees groan in protest, their branches swaying from side to side. My legs shake as church bells ring chaotically around the grounds. I see cracks spreading on the side of a building, and then one wall topples onto the ground. I stay rooted in horror, not able to move. I look around for Juana, but she has disappeared.

Suddenly shade falls upon me. I look up, and watch in horror as the spire of the chapel slowly falls toward me. The bell falls loose from the tower above me and races downward toward my head.


With a start, I jolt upright. Breathing fast, I look around me. Sitting on a bench, I now recognize the Casa Santo Domingo hotel. Now I remember that this hotel was built on the ruins of an old monastery. The ruins of the chapel building from my adventure sit in front of me. Stones are scattered everywhere. Tourists meander through the ruins, and I realize I must be back in modern day.


Casa Santa Domingo, Antigua, Guatemala

Photo courtesy Wikimedia commons


“The earthquake on July 29 of 1773 was even worse than the ones before. Over one thousand people died, and the authorities decided to move the capital elsewhere.”

I look toward the voice and see the familiar face of Maria, my Spanish teacher, once again.

“The city was never completely rebuilt. Today you can see ruins all over Antigua from the earthquake. What used to be the Santo Domingo monastery is today a hotel. This is an excellent place to learn about the history of Antigua.” Maria smiles and gives me a queer look. “History can be so alive sometimes, can’t it?”





Anders Bruihler is a member of the Youth Travel Blogging Mentorship Program



A chance to travel back in time for one teen travel blogger - who narrowly escapes death in the 1773 earthquake in Antigua, Guatemala

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