The block long yellow and white two story building with twenty six arches and colonnades easily dominates the southern side of Antigua’s central park. In the middle, above the second floor, flies Guatemala’s blue and white flag, surmounting the royal seal and escutcheon of the “most loyal and very noble City of Santiago of the knights of Goathemala” a charter given by the King of Spain.
Following the Spanish invasion and conquest of Guatemala in the early 1500’s construction began in 1558, along with the other important monuments to Spanish power, the cathedral and City Hall. First known as the Palace of the General Captains (Palacio de los Capitanes Generales), it was also known as the “Audiencia of Guatemala” under the jurisdiction of the Viceroyalty of New Spain and the only seat of temporal power between Mexico City and Lima, in Peru.
The building has served many purposes over the centuries, first as a Royal Tax office, a mint and stables for the troops who provided the swords and cannons to keep the peace. Earthquakes, no stranger to Guatemala, took their toll over the years and what was at first a structure of wood and stone is now slowly being restored to its former glory.
The latest installation, on both levels, is the once removed and newly restored Museum of the Arms of Santiago de los Caballeros. It was previously housed in a smaller building across the park and next to the City Hall, but a leaky roof and the City’s need for more office space (tax collecting) but as of a few months ago the Museum is truly a national attraction now.
The lower level contains an inner courtyard with small cannons scattered here and there: to the left of the entrance are several rooms, some containing interactive computer workstations, all extolling the history and virtues of Don Pedro de Alvarado, Guatemala’s most bloodthirsty and greedy conqueror. He was originally part of Hernan Cortes’ party who conquered Mexico but when Cortes kept all the gold (except for the King’s share), Alvarado was detailed to go south and look for more gold, silver and land. Of the three, all he found was land and natives to work it but he never stopped looking, until his eventual death, when his horse fell on him.
The upper level, from a historical sense of early Antigua life, is more interesting. There are guns, jewelry and large portraits of the central figures of those times. Silver church ornaments, ceramics and incredibly small uniforms illustrate just how diminutive the early Spaniards were. The length of their swords belie their actual height but seen on horseback they were perceived as gods. The eventual triumph of guns, germs and steel spelt the end for much of Mexico and Guatemala (one of Cortes’ servants introduced smallpox to the continent)and millions died, leaving only a few to work the new plantations for their Spanish masters. The Church also had a part to play, introducing the concept of free labor in exchange for religious instruction.
Today, the museum is open seven days a week, Monday-Friday from 9-4 and on the weekends, 10-4. For 30 quetzals or $3.60, it’s a bargain. Don’t miss the chairs upstairs, which use old swords for legs.