Guatemala: Land of eternal spring

With a Spanish colonial heritage, Caribbean coast, mountainous interior and Mayan ruins, Guatemala is home to epic tales, traditional people and beguiling charm

By David Whitley
Published 10 Sept 2014, 11:00 BST, Updated 1 Jul 2021, 14:14 BST

The dome of the daintily-restored baroque church — all yellow paint marzipan and white stucco icing — attempts to compete with the surrounding volcanoes. But the crumbling red brick arches and pockets of earthquake-ravaged ruins, left unrepaired since 1773, heighten a sense of lost city make-believe. This is somewhere the protagonists would agree to meet in a lusciously hammy spy thriller.

It's not really a roof — the earthquake took that too — but what remains of La Merced's upper cloister. And it's a spot — a moment — that perfectly captures Antigua's colonial time-warp fantasy.

The city, tightly hemmed into a bowl by the volatile, thickly-forested hills around it, is very much Spanish Guatemala. Before 1773's devastation, it was the capital not just of Guatemala but of Central America. La Merced is one of many convents, churches and monastic complexes — some reduced to free-standing facades, others faithfully restored — that bring knowingly swoonsome grandeur to the cobbled streets.

There's an edgeless, omnipresent charm that can con you into thinking the Spanish conquest of the Americas was all about civilisation and higher purpose rather than rapacious greed for gold and devastating exploitation of indigenous people. Jade jewellery shops, travel agents, leather-specialist boutiques and pan-global restaurants tuck into handsome old buildings that are very much Castillan, not Central American.

The cocooning dreaminess is a joy to succumb to, however, especially if you start poking into courtyards. Saberico, for instance, looks like a deli from the outside, yet venture inside and you'll discover a secret garden of ginger plants and birdsong. Elsewhere, a peek behind a door reveals dozens of young travellers lined up across wooden school desks, stumbling through nascent Spanish with their local tutors.

The language schools mean the gringos are having as much of an impact on Guatemala now as the Spanish did three centuries ago. It's the same story in Panajachel, the main lakeside resort town in the Western Highlands. It became a hippy hangout in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, and many of them are still here, running cafes and trinket souvenir shops. It's an amiably lazy place, all flip-flops and beer in hand, not feigning pretence at anything more demanding.

It doesn't have to, though — the setting does the talking. Lake Atitlán is a rub your eyes and double-take sort of place, accessible only via a precipitous road down through the fortress-like ring of mountains surrounding it. The region's ever present volcanoes dominate the view, with Volcan San Pedro rising from the water's edge.

Lanchas — fishing boats turned water taxis — connect the towns and villages around Atitlán, with a cargo of locals with shopping bags and blissfully contented day-trippers. Just before mooring at San Juan de Laguna, the effects of Hurricane Stan are evident. When it swept through in 2005, the fierce rains and accompanying landslides raised the water level of the lake. The corrugated iron roofs of otherwise submerged houses provide a stark warning about the dangers of building too close to the shore.

Modern day Maya

The majority of people in San Juan are Tz'utujil, one of the 21 different Mayan groups living in Guatemala. The Maya tend to be thought of in terms of temple ruins, ancient calendars and failed civilisations, but the Maya make up approximately 41% of Guatemala's modern day population. It's a catch-all term for a number of indigenous groups with similar culture and languages — along the lines of 'Slavic' or 'Polynesian'.

But it is not a culture that has been pliantly subsumed. Hit any town in the Western Highlands on market day, and it's an assault of colour. The finely-woven, garishly bright traditional clothing is not something donned to give tourists a mock-cultural insight into people who far prefer jeans, T-shirts and globalised modernity. It's everyday wear — a normality in no need of alteration. It's no real surprise, therefore, to learn that weaving is the most prominent craft in these parts, with numerous co-operatives tucked away amongst the mural-heavy streets of San Juan. The Asociacion de Mujeres en Colores Botanico stands out by hand-making everything and using only natural colours from plants grown by the members. Achiote seeds are used for reds, carrots for yellows, indigos for blues. Cristina Cholotio, the co-operative's secretary, throws the recipe for the right colour mix into a bubbling cauldron. "The longer it's left, the stronger the colour," she says.

Elsewhere, the women are thinning balls of cotton into thread or weaving on their knees, the traditional looms strapped to lime trees. But there's more to it than sustaining the old ways.

"There are 48 women in the association — it supports 48 families," says Cristina. "But the women are all widows. Many of them lost their husbands in the civil war."

The end of that war, which rumbled on with varying degrees of intensity between 1960 and 1996, marked a crucial turning point for the Maya. The settlement that brought the conflict to a close included key protections for the Mayan culture, languages and ways of life. Also recognised was the Mayan religion, something the governments and Catholic Church have been attempting to suppress since the Spanish conquistadors arrived and set about enslaving the indigenous people.

Maya books and codices were destroyed, and churches were built on top of existing Mayan altars. They were often done so with rat-like cunning, however, assimilating aspects of the Mayan religion in an attempt to ease conversion. Those churches built over the altars often have 19 steps outside — representing the 18 'months' and one quarter-month of the Mayan calendar. They also have stone crosses outside — another way of luring the Maya into Catholicism. The Maya believed worship should be held in the open, so they stayed outside at the cross (a familiar concept — many Mayan ceremonies involve a shorter, square cross), experiencing the same mass that was going on inside the church.

Few places tell the story better than Iximche, once the capital of the Kaqchikel Maya. The bloodlines first mixed here, with the Spanish setting up their first capital in Tecpan, three miles away. Kaqchikel guide Vicente Cuscun, who was born in Tecpan, says: "They took the stone from Iximche to build the church in Tecpan, then burned the city. That's why it's just the foundations left."

But now Iximche has been recovered from the forest, and a small pathway behind the ruins leads to a clearing where a family is gathered around a small fire, carefully placing in different-coloured candles. Red represents relationships, white is for good health, green for better business.

The ceremony is led by an aj kij (a sort of priest), and this is apparently a popular site for such offerings. "Until 1996," says Vicente, "these would take place in the ravines, in caves or on mountains — out of sight. But they never went away."

Iximche is one of many ancient Mayan sites scattered across the south of Guatemala, but a short detour over the Honduran border while heading east is required to see the most impressive of them. Copán was right at the southern edge of the Mayan world, but from the fifth century to the early ninth, it was a huge power base. The key position between Caribbean and Pacific ensured huge amounts of trade passed through, and that generated huge wealth to spend on egotistical decorative projects honouring new kings.

Huge, photogenic temples and towering stelae telling stories that haven't yet been deciphered show the immediate appeal, but what makes Copán remarkable is how much detail survived. The locally quarried pink-green andesite stone can be thanked for much of it — it's hard, high quality and resistant to erosion. So the macaw heads lining the ball-game court survive remarkably intact, as do the almost camp dancing jaguars of the east plaza. Most remarkable of all is the hieroglyphic stairway, which climbs up 72 stone steps to the top of Temple 26, with over 2,000 separate glyph blocks recounting a history that archaeologists are still struggling to decode.

Yet days can be spent discovering less showy details. Even piles of stone shunted to one side after falling from the top of one of the main buildings bear intricate carvings.

For every answer that Copán gives, a thousand new questions bubble up; you can go into tunnels dug by archaeologists to see earlier temples that have been built on top of by later rulers. It's worth hiring a guide for one interpretation of what everything is: I learn the west court was used as a great reservoir during the wet season, the statues on the first platform thus looking like they were emerging from the sea. But the tales are often fantastical and contradictory. Given that the same applies to explanations provided by archaeologists, however, that's forgivable.

Much of the sense of wonder comes afterwards, that barrage of questions rattling through the head. Why the carved skulls? Was that supposed to be a crocodile or a snake? How and why did the ruling families manage to deform their skulls to be so unnaturally flat?

Into the jungle

Flat is not, until this point, a word that can be applied to the scenery in this part of the world. But heading east, the stomach churning perma-swerving roads and mountain stoicism give way to something altogether more sweaty and languorous. Lake Izabal is larger and less dramatic than Atitlán, but it has the screeching insects and humidity that remind you that you're firmly in the tropics.

On the northern bank, brightly-painted huts mark the Finca El Paraiso, a farm that offers tourist accommodation. It has a rather special waterfall on its grounds too. A three-mile squelch through the forest leads to a swimming hole. Fresh, cool water from the mountains pours in through a narrow gap in the rocks, but it's met by a far more photogenic cascade tumbling over a cliff. Swim against the flow to get under it, however, and it's a warm shower — the fall is fed by a hot spring hidden by the rocks above. It's a simple pleasure, but an utterly joyful one.

Izabal narrows to a bridge that marks the boundary between the lake and the Rio Dulce, but also a more intoxicating divide between land and lancha.

The boat trip from Rio Dulce (the town sharing the river's name) through to the town of Livingston on the Caribbean coast takes a couple of hours. It's not the scenic option — it's the only option. There's no road through, and life in these parts is entirely tied to the boats that buzz from bank to bank. Along the main, wider stretch before it narrows into a tight gorge, cormorants perch on mangroves and manatees regularly pop their heads above the water by tiny islets. Near the reeds traditionally used to make mats, Q'eqchi Maya fishermen paddle along in rudimentary canoes carved out of tree trunks.

Livingston's isolation is only part of what makes it feel such an anomaly. Its heart belongs to Africa rather than America, the islands rather than the highlands. It moves to pounding drumbeats, not marimba rhythms, with dog-eared beachfront bars blasting out the thundering punta rock that has become the inextricable musical symbol of the Garifuna community.

The Garifuna (or 'Black Caribs') speak a magpie-esque creole of European, African and Amerindian languages, and follow a mix of Catholic and animist beliefs. They also have a convoluted history far removed from that of the Maya. At the base of the Siete Altares — a series of seven pools stepping down to the sea — Hector Baltazar Arzu attempts to explain it. "In 1635, two Spanish ships carrying people from what's now Nigeria were shipwrecked on St Vincent. The Spanish, Nigerians and Kalipuna (indigenous Caribs) intermarried.

"But they were never slaves, and the British colonists on St Vincent couldn't accept a free black population among their slaves." The Garifuna were thus relocated, first to the island of Roatan off Honduras. From there, they spread along the Caribbean coast of Honduras, Belize and Guatemala.

"The Garifuna have been feared and discriminated against," continues Hector. "We've been accused of devil-worship, polygamy and voodoo. But the 1996 settlement finally recognised the Garifuna community's importance."

If the Caribbean coast is stickily humid, the vast and largely uninhabited northern department, Petén, is a giant jungle steam room of mosquitos and thick rainforest. Yet poking above the trees are the ancient world's skyscrapers, the temples of Tikal — Guatamala's main tourism calling card.

While Copan dazzles with detail, Tikal does so through power and scale. The Gran Plaza, flanked by the remnants of burial chambers and a royal palace complex of 100-plus rooms, is designed to make visitors feel small. Tikal was the greatest city of the Classic Mayan period, and its humbling centrepiece lets you know that in no uncertain terms. Again, expert opinion is divided on how many people lived there (anywhere between 100,000 and a million) and how large the city was. Six square miles that would take 22 days to visit properly are among the infinitely debatable guide-provided numbers. Smaller stone structures are continually being found in the jungle-consumed hinterland.

The last big construction projects were in the ninth century, and by the 10th Tikal had been abandoned. War and environmental disaster spurred on by overintensive agriculture are the most likely reasons for the civilisation's collapse, but the full jigsaw of the story has yet to be pieced together.

A wheezing climb up mercilessly steep steps leads to the top of Temple IV — at over 200ft, the tallest in the complex. The peaks of the other temples poke through the canopy and howler monkeys let rip with cacophonous T-Rex-like roars. But, despite their best efforts, it's a contemplative perch in the heavens. The same sensations that swirled around on top of La Merced in Antigua return. Feverish curiosity. A glimpse of a million epic tales that will never be told. And, most overwhelmingly of all, undiluted awe.


Getting there
No direct flights from the UK. Fly via Madrid with Iberia or via the US with American Airlines to Guatemala City.
Average flight time: 15h.

Getting around
The only domestic flights are between Guatemala City and Flores.

Notable companies operating shuttles between key visitor centres include Atitlan Tours and Adrenalina Tours.

Linea Dorada and Fuente Del Norte offer scheduled, high-quality bus services.

Metered taxis are only available in Guatemala City — pretty much the only place you'll need them. Day tours are generally booked via travel agents a day or two beforehand. Travel agents will also sell tickets for scheduled boat trips in Atitlán and Rio Dulce, although it's easy to haggle for a private lancha ride at the jetty.

When to go
December-April is peak season — when Guatemala is coolest and driest with temperatures in the mid- to high-20Cs. Hurricane season is September-November.

Need to know
Visas: UK citizens don't require a visa.
Currency: Quetzal (QTQ).
£1 = GTQ12.85. US dollars are widely accepted.
Health: The NHS advises anti-malarial tablets. Also check with your GP with regard to jabs. Don't drink the tap water.
International dial code: 00 502.
Time: GMT –6.

Places mentioned

Where to stay
Casa Encantada (Antigua).
Hotel Posada de Don Rodrigo (Panajachel).
Hotel Marina Copán (Copán).
Hotel Marina & Yacht Club Nanajuana (Rio Dulce).
Villa Caribe (Livingston).

More info
The Rough Guide to Guatemala. RRP: £14.99.

How to do it
offers an eight-day Guatemala — Maya, Magic & Mystery Tour, including flights from Heathrow, from £1,959 per person.

Journey Latin America has the 19-day Highlights of the Mayan Empire, visiting Antigua, Lake Atitlán, Chichicastenango, Copán, Tikal and ruins in Mexico. From £3,546 per person, including flights, transfers, B&B accommodation, most meals and excursions.

Published in the September 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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