History of Guatemala City

Mother Earth Travel > Guatemala > Guatemala City > History

In 1520, the conqueror Pedro de Alvarado, arrived on the American Continent and, from Mexico, was sent by Hernán Cortés to conquer Guatemalan. After much blood-shed during battles with the indigenous people, who lived in the country, finally he succeeded and conquered the land. In 1524, the first capital of Guatemala was founded, called Santiago de Guatemala. The name Guatemala derived from the 'nahuatl' language (language spoken by the indigenous from Mexico who came with the conqueror) which means 'Land of Trees', because of the imposing presence of its beautiful forests.

The first capital was only a usurpation of the city Iximché, founded by the indigenous from the ethnic group Cackchiquel, who lived in the region. After several revolts of the indigenous population, in 1527, the 'Valley of Almononga' became the capital. Near the 'Water Volcano' (a little city known today as 'Ciudad Vieja' Old City). In this second city, large buildings were built made of stone, brick and roofing tiles. But in 1541, a strong storm and earthquakes caused a tremendous avalanche of water and mud from the Water Volcano, this destroyed the city. After long discussions, a delegation inspected various valleys and, finally, the capital was moved to the neighbor 'Valley of Panchoy', near the Water volcano, Fire volcano and Acatenango volcano. The city's official function started in 1543 and in 1566, the city received the name of 'Muy Noble y Muy Leal Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala' (Very Noble and Very Loyal City of Santiago of the Caballeros of Guatemala). In spite of the damage caused by constant earthquakes and volcano eruptions, the city has grow at such a rate that it is now considered the third city of the New World after Mexico and Lima. Santiago of Guatemala was the capital and economic center of the whole Kingdom of Guatemala (today the five Central American countries) where most members of royalty lived. However, in 1773, the destructive 'Santa Marta Earthquakes' ruined the destiny of this important city as a successful colonial capital. There were some people, directed by the Church, who were opposed to the city being moved, but after a long fight, in 1775, a royal letter was written to order the foundation of a new capital. Santiago of Guatemala, known today, as 'Antigua' is a National Monument and it was declared as 'Humanity's Heritage' by UNESCO in 1979. Today, Antigua is the second most visited tourist destination of Guatemala and it offers immense riches of history and culture.

Though the new Guatemalan capital, called Guatemala de la Asunción was founded at the end of the colony epoch (in 1775), it conserved the colonial design and the social separation of the Spanish City's model or pattern. The new urban area was planned to be more spacious and the new Great Plaza is almost double the size of the one built in Antigua, also with wider streets. The architecture of the public buildings was not dominated by the colonial baroque style, but by the neo-classic influence. The secular and ecclesiastical buildings were built around the Great Plaza: the town-hall was located in the north and the Palacio Real in the west side; the Catedral and the Palacio Arzobispal were built in the east. The construction of the public buildings was limited by lack of money and workers, that's why the constructors used some fragments of the Santiago buildings, also the new building's design was identical (with only one storey and arch-shaped porches in front of the building).

Four blocks from the Plaza Central other squares were built, one in each direction. The presence of religious temples was not so predominant as it was in Santiago (Antigua), but nevertheless the Church took possession of 60% of the city's central sector. The particular properties, called 'Solares', were distributed according to the size and location of the ones abandoned in Antigua. The Mudejar style characterized all the central houses, with a physiognomy so uniform that the unique difference between houses was only the size of the property. Commerce took place in the central market at the Great Plaza and in the stores located at the 'Portal del Comercio', south of the Great Plaza. The principal road axis was the Calle Real, between the Plaza Mayor and the Calvario (known today as 6 South Avenue, Zone 1).

After the Independence of the Guatemala (1821), there were not so many modifications in the colonial structure of the city, until the liberals were in power, in 1871.

The Conservative Government introduced, in 1855, the first streets' nomenclature, based on proper names, as for example Calle del Calvario. The names indicated important things about the buildings, characteristics of the epoch's streets or sectors. During this period, the Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala was built, begun in 1786 and finished in 1849 (today in 9 Avenue 9-79, Zone 1). This building was declared a National Monument in 1970 and in 1985, the University of San Carlos began restoration works on the building in order to include the University's Museum, MUSAC, which is still open today. During the Conservatives' time in office, the majority of the ecclesiastical buildings were constructed and for the defense of the city, in times of the Central American civil wars, they constructed two forts. The San José fort was located in the southeast in and built in 1846. This building was demolished and replaced by a modern construction, the Teatro Nacional, today located on Calle 24 3-81, Zone 1. The other fort, named San Rafael de Matamoros, was constructed in 1858 in the northeast of the city (located in 11 Avenue 'B' 32- 46, Zone 5). This building still functions as a military fort today. Another building that represent this era is the one constructed for the Economic Society for friends of the Country, finished in 1855. This building was utilized by the Liberal Government for its Legislative Assembly and it is used today by the National Congress (located in 9 Avenue 9-44, Zone 1).

When the Liberals reached office, they made a lot of changes to the colonial life style of Guatemala. The national economy was orientated towards coffee cultivation, whose exportation still constitutes the principal producer of foreign currency for the country. The Liberals stimulated European immigration, wherefore it was necessary to begin the first phases of urbanization, creating conditions to introduce innovations of European urban life of the XIX century, such as the first banks. The urban area was amplified, creating new suburbs for the new inhabitants. The ecclesiastical wealth were expropriated and utilized as public buildings, which is why the buildings' colonial architecture was modified. In 1877, the street's nomenclature changed. The proper names were substituted by a numerical system, which is still in use today: enumerated Avenidas conduct north and south and the Calles go east to west, subdivided by 8 Calle and 6 Aavenida with their respective parts north, south, west and east. However, in 1890, the president named Barillas commanded the construction of a suburb called 'Exposition', with the Guatemalan Pavilion of the Paris World Exhibition in its center. With this suburb the first diagonal streets were created, today the routs and vias in Zone 4.

The liberal president José María Reyna Barrios (1892 ' 1898) was a typical representation of Eurocentric oligarchy. He decided to ornament the city, taking as an example the Paris Hausmann. Therefore, the urbanization of the southern part of the city began, where the prestigious zones 9 and 10 are located today. In 1892, he decreed to create a public garden in order to hold the proper Central American Exhibition. The new Boulevard 30 de Junio was created, known today as Avenida La Reforma, which is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city. With the construction of the new boulevard, a group of the most prestigious families of the city moved out of the city centre causing a continuous process of moving of the city's important functions to the south. The architectural style of the private houses was also modified, replacing the Mudejar style with other imported styles.

Other construction that modified the settlement of the Guatemalan prestigious families was the North Hippodrome, as lots of houses were built on Avenida Hippodrome. With the posterior construction of the Minerva's temple and park, the central Avenida 6 was also extended north, and became Avenida Minerva or Hippodrome, today known as Avenida Simeón Cañas, zone 2. After the earthquakes in 1971, the Minerva Temple was demolished, but in its garden the famous Mapa en Relieve of the Guatemalan Republic was constructed. It is a unique map which shows the whole country in relief. You have to see it!

In the 1950's, lots of buildings were constructed in a modern style, such as the Centro Civico of the city, where the Public Financing Minister, the National Municipality, the National Tourist Institute (INGUAT) and other institutions are located. The time continues passing in Guatemala de la Asunción and with the city's expansion, new modern architectural styles have been introduced, as you can see in Avenida La Reforma. When you visit Guatemala, you will notice the historical, cultural and natural riches of the capital. Guatemala is a city of contrasts, a cradle of history in an authentic nation.