We drive for an hour to Antigua, a perfect town nestled in the plain between three volcanoes. We are staying at Hotel Santo Domingo, a massive monastery that was completely rebuilt after the earthquake of 1773 that destroyed most of the town, which has a long history of natural disasters. A mudslide from Volcan de Agua destroyed the first city in the 1500s. They had a series of quakes for the next 200 years. But today it is a beautiful lowrise town with cobbled streets and brightly painted houses. And everywhere you go you can see the volcanoes. At midnight the following day we stood on the hotel roof and watched the whole town explode in a vast 1½ hour firework display. On Christmas day the town still had a carnival atmosphere, with music and fireworks still blasting off periodically. The town is a must for anyone coming to Guatemala. The following day we took a 3-hour drive to Panajachel, stopping en route to visit the market at Chichicastenango (the name means ‘place of the poison oak’), which operates on Thursdays and Sundays. We climb rapidly up a few thousand feet, and the temperature drops noticeably as we negotiate increasingly treacherous ravines and their associated hairpin bends. There is a quarantine stop where we are asked if we are carrying any fruits out of the area. This is their effort to stop the regional spread of diseased crops.
It takes two hours to reach Chichicastenango, and about as long to master its pronunciation. The market wasn’t quite how I imagined it. I had pictured some sort of large square or open area full of stalls. In fact, it was a series of very tight streets, more like Brick Lane, mainly emanating from the obligatory central Catholic church. The local Quiche (pronounced kitsch-ay) shamans are entitled to perform their rituals in here alongside the Christians. Any God will do in a crisis, just like in New Orleans where all the Gods have a Christian saint and an African voodoo name. That’s how the original slaves continued to practice their own religion – by attaching their own paraphernalia to that of the Christian church. Their masters were none the wiser. Bartering is traditional here, and the price of an item is likely to lower as you walk away. We have a pretty clear idea of what we want and manage to get it all: a jade necklace (which passes the scratch test), an obsidian mask-head with conch inlay which will sit happily on the shelf with my moai from Easter Island, a colourful Guatemalan bedspread and some ethnic belts for my daughters. We complete the operation and quit the hubbub in less than an hour, and retire for a well-earned beer.
By an extraordinary coincidence an ex-colleague of mine walks through the bar where we are drinking. “What are you doing here?” etc…. It seems to happen more and more. We leave Chichi, as the locals call it, and drive to Pana (Panajachel) on the shore of Lake Atitlan. We descend to the waterline to soak up the full vista of a large lake flanked by three classic volcanoes. The hotel, the Posado de Don Rodrigo, is nice enough, if a little on the ‘Butlins’ side of things. There is a waterslide linked to the swimming pool, which increases the child screaming volume by 50%, and there is piped circus music playing in almost every corridor. The main street has more than a touch of Ibiza about it, and hippies and backpackers are very much in evidence, as are the hawkers trying to peddle necklaces and fruit juice. We find a reasonably secluded spot to soak up the rays for a few hours, whilst reading and scanning the volcanoes on the far shore. We resolve to climb one of them the next day.
The alarm goes at six, and we are off. The boat across the lake is effectively the local bus, and we make half a dozen shops in an hour before reaching the town of San Pedro, at the base of the volcano of the same name. This is the Guatemalan equivalent of commuting. On the way there are various posh houses with speedboats, which wouldn’t look out of place in Marlow. The difference though is the very steep terrain behind them, a vast percentage of which has been stripped of woods and planted with maize. This renders the whole place very susceptible to rapid erosion and devastating mudslides. In my humble opinion, a bout of heavy rain would be very likely to bring the hills down on these lakeside dwellings.
We stare up at the mountain. It is about 5,000 feet high and we are already at an altitude of about 3-4,000 feet. So if you got to the top, you would be about 9,000 feet above sea level. Our guide sets off at a rapid pace, for a trek that is due to last about 3 hours, to the summit. After 15 minutes we are panting and wheezing or, as a friend of mine would say, “sweating up like a scouser in Dixons”. We plough on for an hour or so, taking more and more frequent breaks. It’s not the legs that are struggling, it’s the gasping for breath. That then makes your head pound. We are reasonably fit and the exhaustion is certainly disproportionate to the effort. This is soroche, or altitude sickness, in a mild form. You are okay if you stand still, but any activity can hurt more than usual. If you fly into La Paz, Bolivia, at 6,000 feet, you are greeted by oxygen tanks at the airport. If you carry your bags up three storeys, as I did, you are wheezing like a good ‘un. I felt slightly pissed the bulk of the time I was there. But climbing a volcano had made this far more unbearable. Half way up, we called a halt. It was 9.30am. The volcano had defeated us in an hour and 15 minutes. We had climbed 2,500 feet and the view over the lake was breathtaking, but so was the effort. Still, we paused to enjoy the view at 7,500 feet above sea level and then enjoyed a considerably more pleasant descent. The boat back was direct, so within 15 minutes we were back enjoying a well-earned beer in Panajachel, technically defeated by topography, but not unhappy. At least we tried, and the view was a significant step up from that of the hotel bar.
The volcano in question is one of seven that surround the lake, some dormant, some active. There are many theories about their origin, which are recorded at the local Lacutre Museum, or the lack lustre as we christened it. Inside is a lot of pottery excavated from the Lake. Either it was part of their religious ceremonies to chuck it all in, or they were simply throwing it away. There were also detailed descriptions of tribal feuds and movements. The English translations descend into farce when outlining the “revolting quiche” and how “great amounts of quiche attacked their neighbours”, which I suppose is a form of culinary excess. But the most helpful explanations concerned the history of the volcanoes. Basically, the whole area of the lake used to be one massive volcano about 15 miles across, called a cauldera. After a massive eruption extruded so much material, it eventually collapsed under its own weight and formed the lake by diverting the three local rivers to pour into it. Remaining magma then had to find its own route to the surface, resulting in the surrounding volcanoes.
The result is a lake that humans have been attracted to ever since. Whether they will be good guardians of it is another matter. Erosion and environmental pollution are running out of control, and there are now 100,000 people living on its shores. High rise developments are springing up, and tourism is adding to the pressure. One disaster already occurred in the 50s when predatory black bass were introduced for sport fishing. In a move as short-sighted as the introduction of rabbits or cane toads to Australia, the bass promptly ate all the chicks of the flightless Atitlan Grebe, thus rendering the species extinct. The lake nevertheless remains a thing of great beauty, and a perfect place to sit for twenty minutes with a beer and watch the dramatically shifting sunset against a volcanic, watery backdrop.
Next we drove for three hours to Guatemala City to take a short 45 minute flight to Flores, in the North. The road transformed from mountainous dirt track to the Pan American Highway (37,000 miles long – it runs from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego), and finally motorway, as we approach the City area. It’s a simple enough internal flight and after touchdown we drive to Lake Peten Itza, the biggest in the Country, on which the town and island of Flores sits. On the northern bank is La Lancha, one of three lodges around here owned by the film director France Ford Coppola. The venue is excellent, with a great aspect and cheery staff. There is, however, a faint whiff of Planet Hollywood commercialism about the place: it has its his own brand of wine at dinner (American-style prices), all the glasses have logos on them, and the gift shop sells mainly nasty branded golfing shirts for middle-aged preppies. There is a precipitous path down to the shoreline and it is very peaceful – reminiscent of the vast watery expanses of Kerala in India. We dig in for the day and enjoy a Sundown cocktail as we listen to the primeval grunting of the howler monkeys drifting around the lake.
The most dramatic thing to see round here is Tikal, an absolutely vast former Maya city that used to house 100,000 people. Trade routes used to connect this place to the monstrous Teotihuacan (pronounced tay-otty-wakan), and much of the architecture reflects the style of their soaring pyramids on plinths, stepping up to the sky. Its height is over 200 feet. We will visit Teotihuacan later to compare notes, but for now we take the 45 minute drive into the Tikal national park. Road signs alert us to the presence of deer, jaguar and snakes, but there are none to be seen. When we arrive at the site, a massive 16km across, it is easy to work out why. There are literally thousands of people here, making such a racket that no wildlife in its right mind would come anywhere near. We are not remotely interested in a five-hour tour with twenty other people. After a bit of negotiating we engage the services of Hugo, a sprightly Guatemalan, who agrees to take us round on our own and sets off at a cracking pace. We climb temple 4, 230 feet high with no guardrails. At the top astonishingly is an Italian woman in stilettos posing coquettishly for the camera. From up here you can see all the other temples poking out of the jungle, but almost nothing on the forest floor. The complex took shape over 1,500 years between about 600BC and 900AD, when the whole empire collapsed. They would add bits every couple of years or so. A thousand years later, the jungle had reclaimed the whole shoot, and they are still nowhere near uncovering the full extent of this metropolis. We dodge the screaming hordes at the top and make a slow descent because Manuel the Mexican, incredibly, is videoing himself walking down the 200-foot ladder at a 60o angle. There are many other wonders to see and climb, many of then a 10-15 minute hike from each other. El Mundo Perdido, the Lost World, forces you to climb huge steps with no handrail and stand exposed on a small platform 150 feet up. Health and Safety regulations would never allow this in Europe, but what a pleasure it is. Given the braying millions scaling this thing, it’s a miracle no-one has fallen off.
On to the next spectacle. A gang of American teenagers are taking photographs of themselves swinging off a monkey vine and making Tarzan noises. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you”, says their guide. “Why not?” “Because the needles are poisonous”. We bludgeon our way past further throngs of tourists treating the place like Disneyland or Thorpe Park – venues that would suit their approach infinitely better. I note with dismay a number of discarded plastic water bottles tossed off the path into the jungle. Twenty people are crowded under a tree, slack-jawed at the sight of a solitary monkey. If you lot shut up for a few minutes you might see some more! Going up and down these structures will certainly test-drive your vertigo tolerance, particularly when there is nothing to stop you plunging over the edge (there are no rails here at all). We scrutinise the seven temples that are ingeniously orientated to line up with the sun’s shadow and thus accurately reflect the seasons. Some areas are under restoration and there is so much to be done that it would certainly be worth a return visit in 10 or 20 years time, because there would be twice as much to see. We finish up at the Central Plaza and acropolis, where it takes very little imagination to feel what the place might have been like 2,000 years ago, painted red and bustling with Mayans.