12th February 2020
I first visited Guatemala almost exactly 30 years ago.
Heading towards the border from Belize back then in a rickety chicken bus – so called because of the usual cargo they carried – I remember being in a mellow mood. Having spent the past 4 days on a beach surrounded by holidaymakers enjoying their vacation with family and friends, I’d felt cut off, unable to strike up conversations or mingle, and therefore spent most of my time on my own wondering what I was doing there. But the moment I crossed the border and entered Guatemala, all that changed, and with it my mood. Before the bus had reach Flores an hour or so from the border, I had made friends with a group of other backpackers with whom I went on to visit the extraordinary Mayan site of Tikal, Guatemala City, the market at Chichicastenango and Lake Atitlan. And in the beautiful colonial town of Antigua I lived with a local family, where the mother of the house taught me Spanish.
Despite the fact the country was still in the grip of a three decade long civil war I had absolutely loved Guatemala and I stayed for a month. If Belize had been a country for a holiday, Guatemala, with its fascinating history, its truly epic landscapes, its pretty colonial towns and its amazingly friendly and colourful people, was a country for travellers.
And so it is today.
Travelling back to a place after 30 years you’d be forgiven for worrying things might have changed, and not for the better. But I needn’t have worried. Joining our Christmas group departure, I enjoyed a wonderful circuit of the country, starting with three days in Antigua, before travelling to Lake Atitlan, into the beautiful Izal Triangle and from there into the Mayan world before finishing on the Caribbean coast. It was a fabulous itinerary packed with all manner of interesting experiences and reminded me what it is we do so well at Wild Frontiers.
But although these experiences form many of the highlights – climbing the ‘Indian Nose’ above Lake Atitlan, making chocolate in Antigua, swimming in the famous limestone river lakes at Lanquin, taking a boat deep into the mangrove encased Petexbatum lagoon in search of remote Mayan temples, to name a few – as usual it was meeting local people that really sticks in my mind.
On a morning trip out of Antigua, in a public chicken bus, we visited the small town of San Miguel Escobar where we were greeted by an avuncular man called Daniel. Daniel has been growing coffee on the side of Volcano Acatenango most of his life and he was delighted to show us all aspects of his trade. He took us to see the coffee growing, showed us how to harvest it, then back at his house demonstrated how the beans are graded, roasted, ground, brewed and served. All Daniel’s coffee is then exported through a Fair-Trade organisation to the US ensuring that Daniel and the other farmers that work with him in a local cooperative, gain a fair price for their toil. (We all bought a bag or two and I am drinking it now as I write this blog!)
Given that the climb up the Indian Nose (so named because of its shape) is rather steep, some of the group usually opt out, meaning we need a second guide to show those staying behind around San Juan, and this is where Marco steps in. A pretty village on the banks of Lake Atitlan, the place is renowned for its colourful murals, small museums and shops packed with famous Guatemalan textiles. But perhaps more importantly when the climbers return, we all meet up at Marco’s house where he and his wife Juana (and on this occasion, Marco’s sister, also called Juana) give us lunch. Although there are plenty of very good restaurants in Antigua, eating a meal with a local family – especially one as charming as Marco and Juana – not only gives the chance to enjoy a great traditional meal, but also provides a connection and insight into local family and culture.
Living in the old market town of Chichicastenango, Thomasa is a mask maker and her home is a veritable museum of these weird and wonderful wooden face creations. Used in the worship of local spirits, demons and deities, when the imported Catholicism merges with indigenous pagan rituals, these often-ghoulish carvings hold a very important place in local Mayan culture and the walls were covered in them. But the strangest thing here was not a mask but a life-sized effigy of a man wearing a suit and tie, with a Panama hat on his head and cigarette poking out of his mouth. Maximon, as he is known, is the embodiment of a spirit that can make barren women fertile. As such to this very place women come to offer him food, cigarettes, alcohol, even themselves – in quite what form Thomasa did not elaborate – in the hope of conceiving a child. Thomasa was a warm woman with an infectious smile that took us around her home, talked to us about the local traditions and gave us a very fine lunch as well.
But probably the most fascinating encounter we had was with local historian Lucas. Back in the early eighties, the Izal Triangle was at the heart of the country’s three decade long brutal civil war and Lucas’s village of San Juan Cotzal was on the front line between the army and the partisans. At the age of seven, Lucas witnessed the army burst into his home, drag out his 12-year-old cousin and watched from the door as they shot him on the street. Now with expert knowledge in local Mayan languages and culture, Lucas explains to those that are interested in the history of those violent times. He also happens to have the most extraordinary 15th century Spanish mural on his living room wall!
At Wild Frontiers we have a strap line, challenging perceptions, inspiring connections. It was gratifying to see first-hand how much of that was indeed possible on this wonderful tour of Guatemala.