Published: February 29th 2012February 29th 2012
Guatemala has always me think of two things: worry dolls; Those miniature colourful woven cotton handmade figurines kept in matchboxes and purchasable from the shop ‘Evolution’ “to take away your worries” and my friend Tree whose parents spent much of her formative years working tirelessly on human rights for Amnesty International in this part of the world. That’s it. I know little else about Country Number 2 of this travel adventure….
Leaving Mexico behind and crossing our first border took me further East into the isthmus of Central America. We decided to pay for the privilege of a ‘shuttle bus’ from San Cristobal to Lake Atilan as border crossings can be notoriously challenging and with warnings of the dangers of doing it alone, we wanted the easy option. For a few pesos more, the chicken bus could wait for another journey. Yet nothing ever goes smoothly and with a 3 hr delay at the hot shade-less bustling border of La Mesilla, due to landslides on the Guatemalan side, what should have been a 5 hour journey took in the end nearer 13 hours. Having left Mexico behind, the Western Highlands of Guatemalan reached up and out to us and the minivan sped round corners climbing mountains giving us views out over the rugged terrain and then eventually onto the Pan America Highway that bisects the continent.
Our intention had been to arrive in Panajachel on the north-eastern shores of Lake Atilan, and head immediately to the chilled out town of San Pedro La Laguna across the 55km diameter lake – considered by Aldous Huxley to be “the most beautiful Lake in the World” and formed when an explosion blew the lid off a volcanic mountain. However, arriving in the dark and with the last boat having departed some 2 hrs beforehand we were marooned in Pana for the night. Exhausted from a long day we found lodgings in a Guatemalan family home. Chickens ran amok in the yard and for 30 quetzales each (£2.30) we bedded down in a very basic room, the hulking darkened peaks of the landscape and the mighty volcanoes suggesting an exciting view for the morning.
Guatemalan cockerels seem to start their racket early and we were treated to a spectacular, almost choral rendition of “hello day, time to get up everyone” by the 3 resident birds in the guesthouse from about 4am onwards. After a morning wandering the artisan markets of Pana, assaulted by the riot of colour in the hammocks, the bags, the clothes, the shawls for sale, we eventually managed to get across to San Pedro by 2 boats and found a hostale – Hostal Zoola - on the shores of the Lake. Here we did stay for about 4 days as having managed to knock the cold on the head, I seemed to succumb to a dose of Montezuma’s Revenge (the squirts to those not in the know) and thus was bed ridden with fatigue and nausea. It’s not much fun being ill at home but there is something about getting sick when you’re travelling that really sucks. Apart from the sense that you feel you are wasting precious time, it’s no fun being bedridden in a hostale full of stoned arrogant Israelis. San Pedro is over-run with them. Hummus cafes on every corner and this ‘alternative’ hippy vibe going on which bores the pants off me…. I have bohemian tendencies, I’m not denying that but these people were just walking clichés and so supercilious. I hope I can get away with saying (without coming across as a xenophobe!) that it’s a cultural stereotype that the French are arrogant, the Germans organised, the Spanish chaotic etc (and I have to add that stereotypes are there for a reason….meeting many people from the afore mentioned countries on my travels over the past few years, has only reinforced these perceptions – albeit there are exceptions). However, Israelis take the biscuit for being zealously overconfident. It was very tempting to refer to their homeland as Palestine just to wind them up a bit but I refrained you’ll be pleased to hear. As well as contending with the aural assault of Hebrew being spoken all the time (sounds like phlegm being permanently gargled), the amount of weed I must have passively inhaled whilst lying weary and vomity in the hammock can’t have helped my recuperation. But recover I did and in the time we were in San Pedro we explored the dilapidated, hilly town with its bizarre mix of Tz’utujil Mayans and seemingly half the population of Israel.
Having discovered the adjacent volcano we had planned to climb was in fact extinct, we decided to wait for other volcanic possibilities – we want lava and molten rock! We want fire and brimstone! We want to see the Earth spewing its guts out! Hiking at this altitude is exhausting and neither Sandy or I felt like hauling our asses up Volcan Pedro just for the view…. Forgive us. Instead we decided to go horseriding. Having been tour-hustled at the hostale by the toothless Salvador we booked to ride with him for a couple of hours the following morning. His 11 year old son turned out to be our guide and we were presented with poor creatures that looked like really the only thing fit for them would be to be made into dog-meat. They were pitiful looking animals but when in Guatemala…..
Im not sure what was worse on that 2 hour ride through the town , past coffee groves and out to the foot of the Volcano for views of the lake and surrounding mountains – the fact that my poor beast felt it was going to collapse and die under me or the incessant biting through my leggings by the irritating horse-flies which felt like a million continuous pin-pricks. It was one of the most uncomfortable rides I have ever done. May the poor creatures go to horse heaven sooner rather than later so they are not made to carry gringos on treks anymore.
My lovely friend Michelle adored San Pedro – I was less than enamoured but that could be because I wasn’t on form and so as soon as I was healthy enough to travel we booked a shuttle to take us to the town of Antigua, considered the colonial centre of the New World. Our minivan creaked and groaned its way from Lake level , snaking round hairpin bends climbing up and up to get over the top of the mountains encircling the Lake and down towards the city. A touristy but beautiful colonial town in ochre and pastel colours, shadowed by the presence of 3 cone shaped volcanoes and chokka with ruined churches and buildings destroyed by the numerous earthquakes over the years. What I loved about Antigua – apart from the continual Guatemalan tortilla slap…women making tortillas in random shops and street corners – flapping the dough between their hands , shaping it into small pancakes, was the wonderful delights behind the colonial facades. Gorgeous courtyard gardens surrounded by ballustraded arched porticos. Fountains and flowers – all hidden behind the unassuming front doors. It was enough to simply wander through town ducking off the cobbled streets into open doors to see what delights were hidden within. I climbed Cerro de Cruz – the wooded hill overlooking the town and the triangular peak of Volcan Agua for stunning views .
Unfortunately, our second volcano climbing attempt was thwarted because Volcan Pacaya though active, has stopped disgorging lava. We decided against just climbing it for the view and so all expectations we were going to finally hike close to runnels of magma came crashing down. Toasting marshmellows on the Earth’s juices will have to wait until Nicaragua now but we are determined to do it….goddamit…we will! Close encounters with an active volcano and swimming with whale sharks are still on my “Bucket List” and you know me…when I put my mind to something……
From the rainbow of colour that was Antigua, it was time to head back towards the lush lowland jungle of the North and an overnight bus ride all the way to Flores to visit the extensive Mayan ruins of Tikal. Again, for simplicity and safety we booked an organised shuttle to take us to Guatemala City (an insalubrious capital) where we caught the ‘deluxe’ connection bus. I think I must be getting old as I find overnight bus journeys really tough going these days. We had paid for the ‘luxury’ seats – ($40US) filthy leather recliners in the lower deck but the fumes of exhaust and dodgy air conditioning vents made breathing less than pleasurable. The driver seemed to be overly amorous with his breakpads and not much sleep was had by either of us. Sandy remarked that I didn’t snore that night. I suggested that it was because I was not actually asleep…at all! She maintains I got more shut-eye than her…..meh!
We arrived in Santa Elena in the region of Peten in the far North of the country at 6am and took a tuk-tuk across the bridge to the island of Flores in the middle of Lake Peten Itza . The sun rose over the jungle and shore of the Lake and immediately we knew we were back in warm tropical climes. The latter part of Mexico (San Cristobal) and much of Guatemala so far has been at quite high altitudes with notably chillier temperatures. Im not talking London in the bleak mid-Winter but enough for a jumper at night. Sandy and I have been craving heat, sun and the tropics so a sense of relief descended on us as we started to break a sweat at 8am believe it or not.
Flores is a world away from the colonial South, it has a Caribbean vibe to it with the brightly coloured houses with their tin rooves. In fact, the Peten region was covered in such impenetrable jungle, the conquering Spaniards didn’t manage to get their grip on the indigenous Itzas until relatively late in their mission. Up here, the land is abundant with Mayan ruins hidden in the sub-tropical rainforest. Some take days of trekking to get to. Much as it would have been an adventure to try and do the 6 day trip to El Mirador, it was prohibitively expensive ($420US) so we made do with a day trip to the skyscrapers of the Mayan world: Tikal. Pyramids hidden in the jungle in varying states of unearthing (interestingly the Chinese have now got involved in paying for further excavation).
Steep steps lead you up to ceremonial chambers and views down on the plazas and ball-courts. Considered, mega structures of the Mayan age, these temples are shrines to the dead and were spectacular in their design…their alignment with the constellations and use of the solstices and equinoxes to control the common working classes. We decided to take a guide for what will be our last Mayan ruin on this trip (we are both in agreement that we have seen enough now ) and it definitely added to the experience (albeit with the 28 other people in the Group – urgh). This was not just for the history of the structures but for the nature side of the 7hr walk.
We started off at 430am to get to Tikal for sunrise but with low cloud cover, the temples were cloaked in a grey foggy embrace. By about 11am, the sun had burnt away the ethereal mist and a cloudless blue sky soared above. Our guide pointed out red backed tarantulas, toucans, the wattled occelated turkeys with strange orange looking warts over their faces, coatimundi (related to the racoon), and of course the ever present roar of the black howler monkeys – most haunting when heard above the treetops. Sitting at 70m high, the Temple of the Double Headed Serpent takes you above the forest canopy. In the distance, the tips of other Temples peak above the treeline and all around is the verdant jungle of the region – wonderfully undestroyed. Here the sounds of the howlers echoed through the air.
So with 10 days in Guatemala under our belt….it means a lot more to me now that just little worry dolls. It’s a hauntingly colourful place and although the men are all still really diminutive (like Mexico), the women in their traditional brightly patterned clothes all have arses the size of shire horses. I will be happy never to eat a tortilla again…. that slapping sound is burned into my consciousness. Christ, we miss the food of SE Asia….a girl can never get tired of Pad Thai and Green Curry but eating rice n beans and frickin tortillas is as good as it gets here so I’m sure our arses are on the way to becoming horse-like ourselves. It is not the terrifying dangerous place that the guidebooks lead you to believe. On every other page of my Footprint Guide, warnings abound of robberies and theft and caution. We have not felt threatened or unsafe at all.
So much so, we decided to take the hard option in our onward journey to Belize and do it by chicken bus….but that’s for the next blog! Watch this space.