Guatemala is nestled between the Caribbean and the Pacific and Solange Hando explores its cultural sites and natural wonders.
Imagine 33 (official) volcanoes, including the highest peak in Central America, rainforest, rivers, and lakes, this is a biosphere hotspot boasting 768 bird species, 250 mammals, 240 reptiles and more. All this in a country roughly the size of Tennessee, squeezed between Mexico, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador.
Given the lay of the land, you can expect hurricanes any time in season (June to November), frequent tremors and volcanic eruptions. Yet the Maya settled here over 3,000 years ago, their ancient cities on the World Heritage List which also includes the third capital, La Antigua, set up in colonial times.
Having crossed the steep no man’s land from the Mexican border, we looked forward to a relaxing place, only 40 kilometres from Guatemala City, the modern capital so prone to violence and crime. ‘But La Antigua is totally different’, the guide assured us, ‘be sensible, that’s all, now look up there…’ Wow, we were in the Highlands after all and at over 3,700 metres, right above the town, fumes belted out from the Fire Volcano which last erupted in 2018, causing death and destruction. It was an awesome sight and as we wandered in the ruined monastery and Church of la Recolección, I could barely keep my eyes away from the mountain.
Yet there was so much to see, Baroque churches, cathedral, arcades, palaces, and the iconic Arch of Santa Catalina hiding a secret passage for the nuns. But best of all, I loved to roam along the paved streets with their pastel walls and hanging baskets. Here a market full of local textiles, there a food stall with the most enormous avocados I’d ever seen and a chocolate shop I couldn’t resist. A fountain glistened on the square near palm trees and jacaranda in full bloom.
‘Tuk tuk, madame? Hill of the Cross?’
Now the whole city was at my feet, a perfect grid planned by the Spanish and the first of its kind in Latin America. Meanwhile, on the edge of town, the lonely Water Volcano popped in and out of shifting clouds. No known eruptions there, the locals call it ‘the place of flowers’.
Just a stone’s throw away, in the Sierra Madre, Atitlan beckoned at 1562 metres, hailed as one of the world’s most beautiful lakes and for the Maya, the sacred place ‘where the rainbow finds its colours’. Set in a caldera, only 84,000 years old, this is the deepest lake in Central America, stretching 18 x 8 km, with access road but none around it. The first sight simply took my breath away, the namesake volcano on the crater’s rim while the other two, San Pedro and Toliman, rose from the water.
So, we were up at dawn, gazing at the golden light rippling across the lake then spreading up the slopes as the birds started to chirp. A lonely fisherman threw his net close to the reeds and Panajachel began to stir; a quaint resort with thatched eateries perched on stilts and a handful of boats bobbing along the rickety pontoons.
We could have strolled all day on the nearby shore but spotting a walking plank and vertical ladder, we jumped on a boat, ready to sail to Santiago Atitlan nestling in a bay between two volcanoes. There, in a house shrine dripping with balloons, streamers and gourds, we watched the locals pay respects to Maximon, a Maya god who glared at us. I could still feel his eerie presence on the way back, when the Pacific breeze whipped up the waves but, said the guide, that was to clear all our sins.
Now as clean as we could ever be, we headed up the nearby hills, fertile and lush, home to squawking macaws, green parrots, and luminous hummingbirds. There were small coffee plantations, orchards brimming with avocados, the favourite fruit, and generous patches of maize, the Mayas’ staple diet and gift from the gods. It was barely an hour’s drive to the ‘Place of Nettles’, now a thriving market town, still isolated, yet bursting with colour from flowers and fruit to ritual masks, fish from the lake, tiny crib figures, crafts to bargain for and hand-woven textiles as dazzling as the midday sun. Tipping scales, rattling coins, chopping, weighing, vibrant shawls and ample skirts, it was overwhelming but most intriguing was the church dedicated Catholic worship and tribal rituals where 18 steps led to the entrance, one for each of the Maya months.
We lingered in the cobbled lanes then walked up the hill to see the pre-Columbian stone carving of the Earth God, promising good harvest and fertility in return for tobacco, food, liquor, and donations. The sky was bright blue, and clouds of incense mingled with the fragrance of pines.
After a brief popover in Honduras, we were back in the ‘Land of Eternal Spring‘, marvelling at the Maya stelae of Quirigua, listed by UNESCO, before an early night, lulled by cicadas and frogs on the bank of Rio Dulce. Next morning, howler monkeys reclaimed their territory, and we made our way through coconut palms and banana trees, north to Tikal National Park and eponymous city. Now smothered in rainforest, it was one of the most powerful capitals in the Maya lowlands.
Tikal reached its golden age during the classical period from 200 to 900 AD when according to historians, prolonged drought forced the people to move. Buildings, causeways, reservoirs, arts and crafts, it reached up to 100,000 residents and some 3,000 structures are still scattered in pristine jungle though only a few have been restored.
‘Don’t wander off,‘ warned the guide, ‘this is a large sub-tropical rainforest… The jaguars may keep away but we have poisonous spiders, crocodiles and snakes, including the lethal fer-de-lance.’
So, in the humid heat, we spent the best part of the day exploring a tiny section of the National Park UNESCO site. Plazas, Acropolis, palaces, ball court, residential quarters, stelae, altars and tombs, pyramids, temples, it was amazing and when you tapped your hands under the sacred kapok tree, voices of the spirits (‘tikal’) echoed all around.
That night, on the shores of Lake Itza, I dreamed of a lost world without end and the little coati, striped tail and all, who followed me through the jungle on our final day.
All images (C) Solange Hando
Tell Me More About Guatemala
Visit Guatemala has more information on the destinations in Solange’s report and other places of interest throughout Guatemala.
United Airlines operates regular two-stop flights from London to Guatemala City
Where to stay in Guatemala
Hotel Las Farolas offers very comfortable accommodation in La Antigua
The Regis Hotel and Spa is recommended at Lake Atitlan
Hotel Camino Real is recommended in Tikal