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It was an honor for me to have my photographs illustrate a story about La Antigua Guatemala in the magazine SilverKriss from Singapore Airlines.


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    Astonishing physical beauty, colonial splendour and cultural charm Tan Keng Yao parts the mists over Antigua to discover why Guatemalas former capital is described in guidebooks as Central Americas most impressive colonial city. Photography by RudY giRon.

    A Maya woman in traditional clothes heads to the market in Antigua to sell fruit. SilverKris 62

    ld-world charm inAntigua

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    t is early morning in Antigua. A young indigenous Maya woman makes her way effortlessly down a cobbled street towards the market, a huge basket of oranges perfectly balanced on her head no

    hands needed. She wears a traditional Maya corte (skirt) and a huipil (a loose-fitting blouse), her clothes elaborately woven with designs that tell a story and identify her village. Antigua in a snapshot for the first-time visitor: colour and culture, against a mesmerising backdrop of three

    capital, and commerce, religion and education flourished, along with arts and architecture. The capital was however shaken by a series of earthquakes over the years, and damaged by a major one in 1773, after which the government relocated the capital to Guatemala City, its current site. >>

    In abandonment, the town was saved. Charming houses were left untouched, because the people left behind simply could not afford to rebuild anything.

    Antigua was declared a National Monument in 1944 and a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. Conservation laws

    ensured the buildings could not be modified, and rows of houses ended up locked in time, all painted in regulation colours.

    But peek through the wooden doors of one of these beguilingly simple structures and youll find anything from shops and residences to hip restaurants,

    Turn a street corner and youll likely see rows of simple stucco houses flanking roads that lead to more remnants of convents, monasteries and the occasional mansion.

    When the Spanish colonised Guatemala in the 1500s, Antigua was established as the third

    CLOCKWISE FROM THIS PICTURE: Antigua with Volcano Agua in the background; the arch of Santa Catalina in town, through which Volcano Agua can be seen; language students taking a break from Spanish classes; a chicken bus, the garishly coloured mode of public transport in Guatemala.

    cloud-embraced volcanoes Acatenango, Agua and Fuego (this last one is currently active).

    Guatemalas colonial past is thrown into stark relief all over the country, but nowhere more so than in graceful Antigua, with its baroque church ruins and classic Spanish-style plazas.

    In abandonment, the town was saved

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    chic inns and art galleries housed inside, reasons which have made Antigua a favourite with travellers seeking modern comforts amid the Maya past.

    Antigua is also known for its Spanish-language schools, reputed to be among the best in Latin America. Students from all over the world contribute to its cosmopolitan feel and cultural mix, as they blend with indigenous Maya people, who make their way here every day from the surrounding villages to flog their wares, from fruit to handwoven textiles.

    absoRbing The sighTs Antigua is a small, compact city, and relatively easy to navigate with its grid-like layout, but if similar looking buildings start to confuse you, get your bearings from Parque Central, a green

    open space in the heart of town. Locals hang out in this small leafy park marked by a fountain of topless women (the sculptor had claimed they were mermaids). This park is surrounded by a former government-centre-turned-tourist-office (the Palacio de Los Capitanes Generales), a former city hall, and a development called Portal de las Panaderas, which is home to cafes and shops.

    Have a tea break here, then hit the streets. Youll see itinerant Maya vendors thrusting gaily coloured necklaces, textiles or potted orchids at passers-by. >>


    On mostly one-way roads, an endless stream of cars, vans and three-wheeled tuk-tuk motortaxis rattles over the cobblestones. A garishly coloured public bus headed for Guatemala City or Guate draws up. The drivers assistant, also known as an ayudante, hops out and bellows Guate! Guate Guate Guate Guate! to waiting passengers, who hop on immediately. These recycled school buses from North America are known as chicken buses here, synonymous with overcrowding and maniacal speeding. Their roofs are stuffed with huge cloth bundles, baskets of goods, even furniture and yes, sometimes chickens too.

    Wandering around Parque Central, youll encounter shops of every kind, crammed with

    handwoven Maya textiles, jade jewellery and coffee, all of which Guatemala is known for.

    Youll also want to see the monuments that Antigua is famous for. East of Parque Central is Catedral De Santiago (5 Calle Oriente), the magnificent ruins of a cathedral totalled by a 1773 earthquake. Only the facade you see today has been reconstructed. Step inside, look above, and you will see the skeletal frame of the building towering above, reaching up to the blue sky, its roof also destroyed by earthquake. Take a moment to fill in the frames, and >>

    An ayudante bellows Guate, Guate, Guate

    CLOCKWISE FROM THIS PICTURE: Palacio de Los Capitanes Generales opposite Parque Central, decked out for Independence Day celebrations; bags of Guatemala coffee for sale; the fountain in the middle of Parque Central; jade was considered sacred to the ancient Maya, who used it to make masks, sculptures and other items. Today jade products in all forms can be purchased in Antigua.


    In the courtyard of the adjoining monastery is a beautiful stone fountain, 27m in diameter, and reputedly Central Americas largest. Just across from La Merced is 5 Avenida Norte, the street which the arch of Santa Catalina spans. This huge yellow arch is one of Antiguas most emblematic structures and all that remains of the original convent founded here in 1609, which comprised two buildings on either end. The arch was built for nuns to walk between the two halves of the establishment, without being exposed to the outside world.

    Lastly, stay at or just visit the Casa Santo Domingo (www.casasantodomingo.com.gt), the five-star hotel built around the ruins of a 17th-century monastery, and now offering luxurious rooms.

    The hotel grounds and small museums behind are worth a stop. Enjoy fountained courtyards and walkways with flowering plants spilling from wooden lattices above. This hotel plays up its past, with stucco walls and historical artefacts resting in wall alcoves.

    The Cultural Center behind displays a collection of colonial objects from domestic items to fine silver religious artefacts, while the Archaeological Museum boasts a collection of Maya ceramic and stone objects.

    Beyond being a scenic base for day trips to Maya ruins, coffee plantations and the Guatemalan Highlands, Antigua in its spectacular reminders of the past, compels the intrepid traveller to revel in its ever-resilient present. >>

    Merced (1 Calle Poniente and 6 Avenida Norte), a church and a functioning place of worship today. Its the most visually striking one, and one of the best preserved, with its bright white on yellow stucco exterior and ornate baroque facade. On

    this weekday afternoon, more than a hundred children file into the church for catechism class, singing as they move, providing a lively audio backdrop to the solemn interiors of the church.

    Children sing as they file into churchappreciate the former grandeur of this cathedral imagine soaring arched ceilings and cavernous halls, and the people who once worshipped here.

    A monument that did survive the catastrophe of 1773, however, is the Iglesia de La

    CLOCKWISE FROM ABOVE: Casa Santo Domingo is a five-star hotel built around the ruins of a monastery; Iglesia de La Merced, a restored and functioning church today; the magnificent facade of the Catedral De Santiago; simple houses line the streets of Antigua.

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    Deep within the jungles of Peten in northern Guatemala lie the pulsing ruins of Tikal, Central Americas largest and most impressive Maya site.

    Once the heart of Maya civilisation, no trip to Guatemala would be quite complete without a visit to these remarkably intact stone temples, accessible by flight an hour away from Guatemala City.

    Peten, the birthplace of Maya civilisation, flourished for almost 2,000 years between 1,000 BC and AD 1,000, during which time Maya culture had attained great architectural, scientific and artistic achievement. Cities such as Tikal had risen within.

    But towards the end of the Classic Period (AD 250-900), a prolonged drought brought about the downfall of the civilisation. The cities were abandoned, and forest grew over the temples and palaces and buried them. Today, the ruins of hundreds of ancient Maya sites are still in the region, although many remain undiscovered.

    Tikal is set in the middle of Parque Nacional Tikal, a protected area of some 576sq km whose trees are home to hundreds of species of wildlife, including howler and spider monkeys and parakeets.

    The sheer sprawl of Tikal means it can only be properly covered over several days. On a day trip though, focus on its centre, in particular the Great Plaza, the heart of the ancient

    city and the focus of ceremonial and religious activity in Tikal.

    Surrounding the Great Plaza are enormous temples. Temple I, which towers 44m high, is known as the Jaguar Temple because of the feline form carved in its door lintel. The temple was built as a burial monument to contain the tomb of Hasaw Chan Kawil, one of Tikals