Saturday, 3 March 2012

Guatemala

Sunset over Lago Atitlán.
It may be another of the C-4 countries, but just like the others, it has a personality of its own, where ancient Mayan temples meet modern cities and stunning scenery.

We had taken a collective minibus to the border at Las Chinamas and had passed the formalities relatively quickly, walking across a lonely bridge spanning the River Paz which separates the two countries. The Guatemalan authorities cleared, we fended off the usual money exchangers with their rigged calculators and tried to find a bus to take us on to the capital. Or any town whatsoever. There weren’t any but, according to a couple of unsure men, might be one that evening some time. Great.

Sitting on the side of the road looking at the zero traffic crossing the border, we wondered how we might get out of there. As we were contemplating the idea of staying up with the border guards a man approached us. “I have a truck,” he told us. “You can come with me to Guatemala City.” Perfect!

The three of us sat talking in the cab of his lorry as we meandered slowly towards the capital along the twisty mountain roads. He told us how much he loves his job because he doesn’t like sitting still. (My Spanish wasn’t good enough to explain how relativity would suggest that from his vantage point there was no difference between the two sedentary lifestyles.) He was a thoroughly nice man and, though we had to wait with him on the outskirts of the city before oversized vehicles were allowed in at 8.30pm, made us feel very welcome to the country. We arrived in the refreshingly cold into a surprisingly modern city, where sushi bars and large hotels line clean, brightly lit streets. This was Zona 10, though admittedly other parts of the city are very different indeed. We were to see more of this upon our return, a few days later. For now, we stayed the night in a quiet hostel and enjoyed the luxury of needing to use thick blankets.

The next day we took a local chicken bus to the old capital, Antigua. Its cobbled streets and old buildings speak of a town with an ancient history, though in truth much of that was wiped out in the earthquake of 1717 from when the capital was moved to what is now Guatemala City. However, the town is still a gem and retains a relaxed but busy atmosphere in which locals rush about the market and myriad tiny shops, and at night dance salsa in the dimly lit cafés.

We took a minibus out of the town and up into the volcanic hills in order to climb Pacaya. As with all my volcano expeditions, the view from the top was, well, white. Absolutely nothing to see whatsoever. If they’re not omitting smoke, they’re shrouded in mist, is my experience. Still, we got to walk around the active crater and roast marshmallows by the heat of the rocks. The grey, bleak landscape was lunar-like, though with more mist. And marshmallows. And a weird hive of very sleepy bees. Presumably the heat attracted them there and the smoke keeps them docile. I asked the compulsory guide, a small lady who walked at an annoyingly slow pace, if she’d ever seen lava here. “Only once,” she replied, “when it came through and destroyed my house.” Ouch.

Sleepy bees on the top of Volcán Pacaya.
To the west of Antigua is Lago Atitlán, a large lake surrounded by mountains and villages accessible only by boat. We stayed in Panajachel, a village popular with tourists visiting the lake. It has enough waterside restaurants to ensure ease of finding a quiet table at which to enjoy the bright views across the placid waters, and great fish. Another good way to get away from the crowds is to rent a bike and cycle to the neighbouring villages, which is just what we did. The roads were steep and the air was hot, but we were rewarded by fresh juice in serene surroundings, the only bother a monkey trying to steal our straws. We also crossed the lake by public boat to San Pedro La Laguna, from where we hopped our way from village to village along the northern shore. It was fascinating to witness brief slices of life in these isolated communities.

A view over San Pedro La Laguna, on the edge of Lago Atitlán.
We took a direct bus back to Guatemala City and spent an afternoon wandering the centre, a rather different experience from our first night there. In the main plaza of the historic centre we met an old man who had what seemed to be a fascination with the origin of words. After asking what my job was, he decided to analyse the word ‘science’, concluding that it was a combination of ‘cien’, meaning 100 and referring to percentage, and ‘ecencia’, meaning essence. Thus it is the percentage of essence. He was, unfortunately, completely wrong, but he was incredibly friendly and entertaining nonetheless, as evidenced by the smiles from others his theatrical ramblings produced. While we were listening, a dodgy looking kid sat behind us. I wasn’t the only one who had my eye on him: the police pulled up, searched him and sent him packing. They shook our hands and welcomed us to the city. We all watched the daily lowering of the Guatemalan flag as some soldiers stood guard and others packed it up into a small, heavy bundle and marched off solemnly with it.

Flag-lowering ceremony in Guatemala City.
We took a night bus to Santa Elena in the north of the country. We arrived early in the already-hot morning and crossed the short causeway to the island of Flores, a pretty little village in the Lake Peten Itza. It’s an attractive destination in its own right, but we used it as a base for exploring something entirely different. We took a minibus straight to Tikal, a large complex of Mayan temples. Its crumbling pyramids and steep-sided structures spread over a huge area linked by ancient walkways, along which priests and worshippers trundled some 2000 years ago. Its size is awe-inspiring place, but what really makes it astounding is its setting: it’s hidden in the jungle. The roofs jut out of the canopy of an endless sea of green, monkeys howling in the distance amongst the chatter of birds and cicadas. Trees struggle with the ruins for survival, their roots tussling with giant bricks. Humans are allowed to walk over many of the buildings, something I don’t see continuing for much longer and of which I feel very privileged.

The incredible jungle setting of Tikal's Mayan ruins.
We left Flores the next morning by minibus for Belize, back on the Caribbean coast, with a very different culture entirely.

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