Founded in 1543, Antigua quickly became one of the most important Spanish settlement on the American continent, surpassed only by Mexico City and Lima, Peru. Magnificent palaces, churches, monasteries and private homes gave testimony to Antigua's role as the political, economic and religious center of Central America.
Antigua's glory came to an abrupt end when the city was struck by a disastrous earthquake on July 29, 1773. So many buildings were destroyed or severely damaged that the colonial government – with permission from the Spanish Crown – decided to move the capital to the nearby Ermita Valley, where present-day Guatemala City was founded in 1776 and became the new capital.
Subsequently, Antigua was mostly but not completely abandoned. Those who stayed behind, however, lacked the resources to rebuild and simply occupied whatever houses or parts thereof where still habitable. Time seemed to stand still until Antigua was rediscovered in the early 20th century.
Some buildings still lie in ruins, many others have been painstakingly restored according to original construction plans, giving Antigua a unique historic ambience that makes the town one of the most attractive and charming in Latin America.
Antigua was declared a National Monument by the Guatemalan government in 1944. In the 1960's, the Council for the Protection of Antigua Guatemala was established, which has wide powers to restrict construction and other activities in town in order to protect Antigua's unique colonial heritage. Finally, in 1979, UNESCO recognized Antigua as a World Heritage Site.