Question: Where in the world was a city’s most photographed site actually built to keep people from seeing something else?
Answer: Arco de Santa Catalina, Antigua, Guatemala
No visit to Antigua is complete without a visit to the Arco de Santa Catalina, a lemon-yellow arch that links colonial buildings above a cobbled street, framing Volcan de Agua in the distance. But its builders had the opposite goal in mind: they wanted to hide a view, not create one. Specifically, they wanted to keep nuns out of sight.
By the end of the 17th century, the city of Antigua was home to multiple religious orders, including more than 100 nuns at the Santa Catalina convent. Nuns were divided into two categories: discalced and urban. The former were poorer, with simpler accommodations, and performed the chores; the latter gave up some of their wealth to join, but enjoyed larger accommodations and better treatment. Both groups were held in high esteem, but neither was allowed to interact with the public.
To allow the nuns a tiny measure of freedom, they were permitted a daily constitutional walk along 5th Avenue between 1st and 2nd Streets. But nuns were not allowed to be seen, so the city had to close the street to the public for an hour each day. The locals didn’t like this much, especially as 5th Avenue was known as the Street of Merchants at the time, and the church proposed a solution: building a covered path for them to mask them from view.
Local shopkeepers liked that idea even less, as they worried it would block their street to pedestrians. But the resulting design satisfied everyone: an arched walkway spanning the width of the street but not at ground level. Though its construction disrupted commerce for a few years, when it opened, the nuns had more freedom, business returned to normal below, and the city gained a structure that would become its icon.
In 1773, the Santa Marta earthquake damaged the arch and the city undertook temporary repairs. A clock tower was added in the 19th century, followed by more serious structural repairs in the 20th to ensure the arch’s longevity. Preservation of the arch is currently entrusted to the Santos family, hoteliers and jade merchants who are among Guatemala’s wealthiest people. The nuns are gone now, but the eye-catching Arco de Santa Catalina celebrates its 325th anniversary this year.
Rising and Falling: A Tumultuous Timeline of Antigua
- Antigua, first named Santiago de los Caballeros, was established in 1543 after Guatemala’s first two capitals were destroyed in successive earthquakes.
- It was the capital city of the Kingdom of Guatemala, a vast region which included land that is now Belize, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica, and the state of Chiapas, Mexico.
- The city was planned on the model of the Italian Renaissance, with an orderly grid of east-west and north-south streets.
- To help avoid the fate of the first two capital cities, a new architectural style emerged: Barroco Antigueño (Antiguan Baroque), which employed lower towers, walls both lower and thicker, and decorative elements that masked interior strength.
- Franciscan friars built the first church there, which was destroyed a mere two years later, leading to a decade-long building project that yielded a major religious center, home to theologians, jurists, and mathematicians.
- Jesuits launched a competing institution in 1608, attended by the city’s nobility and the country’s greatest writers.
- Medicine became the focus of a third order of monks, who opened a first public hospital in 1636, and went on to open four more: a second general hospital, one for indigenous people, one for people employed by religious institutions, and a shared mulatto/Spanish facility.
- In 1676 the first General Studies University opened by royal decree, a move opposed by religious authorities who didn’t like the idea of any secular studies or classes led by non-priests.
- The 18th century saw a series of earthquakes that shook the city and the nation’s confidence in its capital; in 1773, after the worst quake in centuries, the capital was moved to Guatemala City.
- The city regained some of its footing in the 19th century as coffee- and grain-farmers moved to the region, but much of the damage from the 1773 earthquake was left untouched.
- The dawn of the 20th century found many of the city’s oldest institutions not yet repaired, with livestock living in some of the original buildings, including the Santa Catalina convent.
- Guatemala repaired and restored its old capital in the following decades, and the city’s efforts to maintain authenticity in preservation were honored by UNESCO, which awarded Antigua World Heritage Site status in 1979 as an “outstanding example” of original Latin American city planning.
Explore the history and beauty of Antigua on your Route of the Maya adventure.