Pulling away from Livingston, a ramshackle, painted town on Guatemala’s short Caribbean coast, the captain cut the engine. The tinny percussion of punta rock from a dockside bar and shouts of fishermen cleaning their nets gave way to a cottony silence. The boat drifted into the narrow mouth of the Rio Dulce as if being swallowed whole. We were alone in the jungle, with 27 miles between us and Izabal, the largest lake in a country of lakes.
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Soaring, leaf-shrouded bluffs sprang up on either side. Except for the bellow of a howler monkey in the canopy, everything seemed to hold its breath: the pendulous foliage and thatched houses by the muddy bank, stoic egrets and a fat iguana on a branch, two shirtless men line-fishing from a dugout canoe.
Four centuries ago, when this was a Spanish colonial stronghold, pirates routinely attempted the same stealthy entry to loot Izabal’s caches of gold and jade and cacao, only to be tripped up at the river’s end by a massive chain that was winched out of the water at the fortress of San Felipe de Lara.
As we bobbed under a limestone cliff, its craggy façade morphed into the face of a man, its mouth a yawning cave. The ancient Maya – whose civilisation stretched from the Yucatán Peninsula through present-day Guatemala to El Salvador and Honduras – believed caves were the entrance to the underworld, called Xibalba, ‘place of fear’. Guatemala is rife with such visual trickery, portals that seem to deliver the visitor into a living past.
The Mayan concept of time is famously precise. Based on the number 20, a solar year, or tun, comprises 18 months of 20 days – 360 days – plus an omen-filled month of five days at the end. But their genius was the Long Count, the system used to track eras and epochs in which 20 tuns make a katun, 20 katuns make a baktun, and 13 baktuns complete a Great Cycle, when the universe is destroyed and recreated. The latest one ended quietly on 21 December 2012, despite all the global hysteria.
But time hasn’t smiled on the Maya, whose descendants make up nearly half of Guatemala’s population (the rest are largely Ladino, a Spanish and indigenous mix). After building cities, roads and reservoirs without the benefit of the wheel, the society collapsed around AD900, due to drought, deforestation and overpopulation. Rather than disappear, however, the Maya dispersed.
The arrival of the conquistadors in the 1500s brought slavery and subjugation until independence in 1823, which led to serial dictatorships. A brutal 36-year civil war left more than 200,000 dead before ending in 1996. Today, government corruption and an intransigent power elite keep much of the indigenous population in poverty. Media coverage of caravans of migrants and drug-related gang violence has helped scare away much-needed tourism.
Still, intrepid travellers have long been drawn to the country’s sprawling pre-Columbian ruins, volcanic lakes and cultured cities. One of its staunchest allies has been Francis Ford Coppola. The boat brought me to his just-opened retreat, Cassa Zenda, a cluster of thatched villas surrounded by palms, rhododendrons and orchids on the fringes of Lake Izabal. This quiet region in the south-east is home to commercial fishermen and weekend houses of Antigua families. After dinner I water-skied on the lake, the darkness and warmth blurring the lines between skin and air, water and sky. Listening to the susurration of trees and the cries of jungle creatures, I have rarely felt safer than I did at that moment.
Coppola laid down roots in Guatemala when he opened La Lancha lodge in the northern department of El Petén in 2003. There, cheery wooden casitas hung with traditional textiles sit on a hillside so steep there’s a funicular to get guests to Lake Petén Itzá below. This part of Guatemala, the ruined city of Tikal and the astronomical observatory of Uaxactún, draws fanatics: an American teacher I met at the lodge told me she’d been ‘called by Tikal to experience a parallel Mayan universe’. There are also the Star Wars pilgrims, who know the jungle-draped location as the rebel base in the original film. But these sites’ remoteness within the 5.2-million-acre Maya Biosphere Reserve inoculates them from the crowds at places such as Chichén Itzá in Mexico’s Yucatán. The grandest city in the Mayan world, Tikal snoozed under tangled vegetation until explorers discovered it in 1848.
Recently the Pacunam Foundation, an NGO focused on conservation and sustainable development, produced a ground-breaking aerial view of Tikal, using LiDAR, a 3D-mapping tool that revealed 60,000 more houses, temples and palaces under the trees. The discovery suggests a sophisticated civilisation comparable to ancient Greece or China, with highways, irrigation and agricultural terracing that could support 10 to 15 million people – twice previous estimates.
The closest I could get to this god’s-eye view was to climb the wooden scaffold up the pyramid of Temple IV, at 230ft the tallest pre-Columbian structure in the Americas. The forest was pierced by five more temples, their crumbling roof combs reaching into clouds the colour of steel wool. From here, astronomers calculated the rising and setting points of the sun and moon.
The Maya buried their dead with maize in their mouth – food for the journey to the underworld and a symbol of rebirth. One afternoon, I was taken to a dig behind Temple IV, where a team of young Guatemalans caked in white limestone were gingerly tapping away through layers of history, one edifice built on top of another in cycles of 52 years, said to be the life expectancy for royalty. ‘To die was not the end, but a transition,’ my garrulous guide Antonio explained as we crossed the grassy main plaza, where indigenous visitors still use the ceremonial fire pit. The spirit, he added, was thought to descend underground to the sacred ceiba tree, then rise up to the sky. To do what? ‘To feed the stars to keep them guiding new generations. Under that philosophy, you are never alone. It’s very common to see people at night outside their houses, looking to the sky and talking to those who are one step ahead. This is one way you get to understand how people living with not too much in this country always smile.’
Back at La Lancha I paddled out on Lake Petén Itzá until the guests drinking sundowners on the thatched jetty were the size of worry dolls. From my canoe I watched the sun sink into a mountain on one side and a nearly full moon rise on the other – yesterday and tomorrow held in momentary balance before the Long Count plunged the lake into darkness.
Guatemala means ‘place of many trees’, but it’s also a place of many volcanoes: 37 of them. This topography rises up to greet you when you fly into Guatemala City, the entry point to the rural western highlands. The roads out of the capital are smooth yet choked by traffic and chicken buses, old US school buses repainted like spaceships and decks of cards. Along the Pan-American Highway, the commercial strips soon yield to volcanic farmland of sugarcane, coffee, squash and, most significantly, bananas. This is the cornucopia that the American-owned United Fruit Company controlled for decades. When, in the 1950s, Guatemala’s president attempted a more equitable land redistribution, the CIA deemed the move to be a Communist plot and instigated a coup, unleash- ing the civil war, whose effects were felt most deeply in this region.
I spent the night at a temporary camp, Beyond Expeditions, on a cliff above Atitlán, a stunning crater lake that is the deepest in Central America. Cows nibbled at the grass behind the airy white tents decked out with woven blankets, lanterns and wood-fired stoves. Children came from the village to try out their English. Across the lake the notched silhouette of Volcán de Fuego, one of three active volcanoes, puffed ribbons of smoke.
The operation is managed by Noé Carrillo Vasquez, a 40-year- old local with shining eyes and an athletic build. At 10, he left his highlands village and travelled more than 1,000 miles to the USA, where he found a job as a cleaner in Georgia. He earned a college football scholarship but missed his family and returned home, working for an ecotourism company, which has allowed him to put eight of his 11 siblings through school. ‘Everyone here has a story like it,’ he said with a shrug. The small tented kitchen is run by his sister Carolina, who is studying for a business degree. Wearing a woven huipil shirt and ikat skirt, she wordlessly prepared her mother’s pepián, a cold wind hammering the tent as we devoured the stew of tomatoes, potatoes and corn, thickened with ground sesame and pumpkin seeds and spiced with dried chillis.
Rather inevitably, the traditional way of dressing is vanishing. In the village of San Juan La Laguna, whose neat streets are lined with trippy murals and leafy cafés selling Atitlán’s famed coffee, there’s a movement to preserve this ancient craft and harness it for economic empowerment. Here, in a kind of female creative Arcadia, are dozens of women-run weaving co-ops using organic cotton in colours squeezed from indigo and cochineal, the insects that produce carmine. The sale of the gorgeous artisanal textiles steers profits back into the Tzutujil community. Across from a chocolate maker, a collective of herbalists, midwives and bonesetters operate a small medicinal garden, selling soaps and supplements.
In Antigua, the one-time Spanish capital with UNESCO- protected cobblestone streets and colonial façades of ochre, pink and umber, the past and present collide. The scars of many earthquakes are evident – the Cathedral of Santiago, destroyed in 1773, is a haunting shell of archways and pillars. The high-ceilinged residences with leafy courtyards have attracted many expats, who can be spotted sitting in tiled cafés sipping matcha lattes and mezcal, or browsing at La Nueva Fábrica contemporary-art gallery.
Above the city, on a 150-year-old coffee farm, a modern glass box houses Luna Zorro, a weaving enterprise where San Francisco expat Molly Berry advises young artisans. One morning two sisters from a highlands village were working on backstrap and foot looms; they’re also learning about management and accounting while supporting their family back home. ‘Textiles are the heart and soul of Guatemala,’ said Berry, who moved from Panama City with her Guatemalan husband and children six years ago. ‘By helping women understand how much it’s valued, and that they in turn are valued, I hope more will decide to stay with it.’
On my last afternoon I found the streets around Parque Central blocked off. Ducking the crafts vendors, balloon hawkers and marimba players, I spotted a procession carrying a carved painted Virgin on an enormous platform borne by older women in red skirts and lace headscarves. As they shuffled along to the strains of a brass band, they swayed in unison, stopping every few minutes to allow a team of young men to lift the weight off their shoulders. Like their country, they were moving forward, with patience and persistence, to the steady tempo of the Long Count.
WHERE TO STAY IN GUATEMALA
Family Coppola Hideaways now runs a circuit among its Central America hotels. Start in Placencia, Belize, at the laidback Turtle Inn (doubles from about £255; thefamilycoppolahideaways.com), before heading to Cassa Zenda (from about £2,700 for eight people; cassazenda.com), a cluster of four thatched-roof cabins and outdoor lounges right in the middle of the jungle.
La Lancha (doubles from about £140; thefamilycoppolahideaways.com) has 10 hillside bungalows on Lake Petén Itzá, the gateway to Tikal National Park. It is a short flight to Guatemala City and a three-hour drive through the mountains to Viaventure’s Beyond Expeditions (doubles from about £570; viaventure.com), a temporary tented camp that creates jobs for the villagers and leaves no trace when broken down.
Across the water, Casa Palopó (doubles from about £230; casapalopo.com), the country’s only Relais & Châteaux, has 12 stylish rooms. In Antigua, stay at smart Hotel Palacio de Doña Leonor (doubles from about £130; palaciodeleonor.com) or Las Cruces (doubles from about £160; lascrucesboutiquehotel.com), a former private home filled with 17th-century silver and oil paintings.
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