My country is enduring its second lockdown since this nightmare called COVID arrived to ruin both our sleep and our time awake. Every day a new world record is beaten: the highest number of deaths, of new cases per 100.000 inhabitants. We are the dark champions in mortality and incidence of the disease, with new variants of the evil virus emerging directly from hell every minute. All caged again, me and my friends brainstorm unrealistic escape plans to exotic destinations that, in the parallel reality of our deepest wishes, are COVID-free. ‘What about Central America?’, says the last WhatsApp notification on the locked screen of my iPhone. Instantly, my mind drifts away. It travels to the last time I felt truly free and at peace in that continent. And that place was Guatemala.
The colourful colonial city of Antigua, with its perfectly interweaved parallel avenues and perpendicular streets forming a waffle pattern so accurately designed one could swear it had been made with the help of a giant ruler, was carefully restored after being destroyed by an earthquake in 1775, which makes it possible to still admire today the architecture of its glory days. Colourfully-decorated American school buses cruise the streets in a chilled pace.
Antigua emanates good vibes, through the colours of its buildings and the sound of latin music in every corner. I was lucky enough to be there in a particularly enchanting time of the year for a Catholic city like this one: Easter. During the Holy Week, everyone is celebrating the passion and death of Jesus Christ, through processions that step over wonderful multi-coloured carpets of natural flowers that pave all the main streets.
Both from Cerro de la Cruz lookout and (luckily) our Boutique Hotel terrace it was possible to admire the nearby Pacaya volcano. Shyly, it gave us a glimpse of its action by coughing up a small cloud of dark smoke after a prelude of hesitant, albeit loud, calls for attention.
Just 2 and a half hours away from Antigua by car (already considering the frequent endless road works that slow down the traffic in this region) is the biggest market of Central America, in Chichicastenango. This colourful market, that every Thursdays and Sundays brings locals from the surrounding villages to sell their textiles and fresh produce on stalls lined on the streets, is both magical and stressful. Kids run free, the strong scent of incense makes you feel dizzy and chaos is the leitmotif of the place.
Lake Atitlán – Santiago Atitlán and San Juan La Laguna
Staying in Santiago Atitlán is a privilege. The outstanding view from the lake, the wooden huts hidden in nature and the feeling that time stopped, are reasons more than enough to wish you could simply stay there forever.
Scorpions in Atitlán
Completely ignoring the abundance of (not deadly, but still harmful) scorpions in this region, I almost stepped on one, in what I considered a near-death experience at the time. Coming out of a steamy shower in my wooden hut, not wearing glasses nor my contact lenses, and confidently relying only on my 11-diopters-weak vision, I was thiiiiiiis close to put my foot on the black flip-flop that suddenly moved. I kept my foot in the air, rapidly grabbing my glasses and putting them on my face only to find out that the blurred black flip flop I could swear had moved, was in fact a giant scorpion that looked like a black lobster with a thick needle in the end of its curved tail, pointing at me! I froze in panic for what seemed an eternity and when I was finally able to move, I could reach one of my hiking boots which I used as my only weapon to bravely (yet hysterically) fight that creature. After a tough combate (since it moved fast and its shell was damn hard), I won. I turned it into a million pieces. Just in time to hear my aunt cheerfully informing me from the other room “There was a mosquito in here! But don’t worry, it won’t bother us, I have just killed it!”.
In 1959, with a rise in national pride in their Mayan heritage, the Bank of Guatemala commissioned a search to find the most beautiful Mayan woman whose profile would represent the beauty of the Mayan culture on the nation’s 25-cent quetzal coin. Concepción Ramírez, known affectionately among her neighbors as Doña Chonita, was selected among thousands of Mayan women when she was only 17 years old. Doña Chonita continues to live in Santiago Atitlán and people travel from around the globe to visit the woman whose portrait has influenced Guatemalan history. This smily lady spends her days sitting outside her house in a rocking chair, living her celebrity life of taking endless pictures and selfies with foreigners every day. Her wrinkled face retains the beauty that was once coined in the Guatemalan valuable small circular metal piece.
Maya God Maximón
A scenic boat ride across the lake took us to San Juan La Laguna, a small Mayan village where locals were so friendly that soon were telling us all about their mixed Maya and Catholic traditions.
But as we all know words are sometimes not enough to fairly describe and clarify spiritual beliefs, and since our broken spanish provided them strong evidence that we were not really “getting it”, they decided to show us the Maya God Maximón, a folk saint whose mundane and highly relatable character seems to be a blend of not only Mayan mythological figures, but also historical and biblical personalities, like Pedro de Alvarado and Judas Iscariot. This god is said to be a trickster who represents both light and dark, through the contradiction of being simultaneously a womanizer and a protector of couples. Although his appearance varies greatly by location, the Maximón I was introduced to was the statue of a man in a suit, wearing several colourful scarves and ties and a hat.
This Maya city, founded in 1463 (less than a century before the arrival of the Spaniards) and the capital of the Late PostClassic Kaqchikel Maya kingdom, played a decisive role in the Spanish conquest of Guatemala. I walked under a burning sun through the pine forest of this archaeological site for an entire day, discovering, little by little, traces of this city: four cerimonial plazas with their pyramidal temples and a ball-court in the centre where human sacrifices used to take place. Although the ruins of Iximche are a Guatemalan National Monument I did not find it the most exciting part of my trip (blame it maybe on the almost 40 degrees that accompanied me during my entire visit and that almost caused me a heatstroke).
Yaxha National Park
Now here is a walk that would be worthy even under the worst weather conditions. Embraced in an exuberant tropical forest, with howling monkeys swing on the tree branches anchored only by their long tails, you can climb the Mayan temples for breathtaking views that will make you feel light and free.
Tikal National Park
Similar in structure to Yaxha, although more touristy, Tikal hosts what was the most important city in the Mayan world, now a place that mixes nature and archeology. This Mayan forest with abundant wildlife hides majestic temples, which were silent witnesses of the birth, splendour and collapse of one of the most important civilisations in the planet.
Nitun Natural Reserve – San Andres, Peten
The Nitun Natural Reserve in San Andres homes hundreds of plants and animal species, including a huge diversity of colourful birds. In an attempt of having a good look at these birds, and to finally see the Quetzal (the Guatemalan national bird and the most important national symbol), we left our accommodation in the early morning, took a ride on the back of a pickup truck, wind blowing on our faces, until a good spot on top of a hill to do a bit of birdwatching. Needless to say, we failed terribly at it, we were not able to see the Quetzal and only saw a few other not-so-important birds. But it was definitely worth it for the ride and the amazing sunrise we were able to contemplate from the top of the hill.
Guatemala may sound like a dangerous country, and truth is I did not stay in Guatemala City even for a night (for that same reason), but my experience was far from that. I felt safe, welcome and free. I felt a connection with its people and its nature. And this is absolutely priceless.
Wishing everyone safe travels,