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At Home in Atitlan

‘Britain… is that in America?’.  The setting for this conversation is, apparently, a very long way from home.  A vertiginous dirt track, switch-backing its way over the brink of a broad, verdant valley in the Cuchumatanes mountains, it seems a long way even from the rest of Guatemala; from the pastel pinks and bisque of colonial Antigua, from the drab mass of Guatemala City, and from the damp, knotted rainforests of El Petén.

He’s smiling at me, or at least smiling to himself, and I can tell that I’m an oddity; a fact further evidenced by the continued polite curiosity.  Eventually, he gestures amiably with his machete and wishes me good afternoon, before pressing on down towards the village that lies in the bottom of this otherwise deserted valley.  Far below, the shadows of clouds ripple over ridges and fields, and the sound of a choking old North American school bus drifts on the breeze.

I came to Guatemala, embarrassingly enough, looking for adventure.  But I was at least partly vindicated when I found it.  In fact, I found a lot more than that: not only is this a land where you can veer off the tourist trail with a minimum of effort and travel for days amidst staggering scenery without seeing another backpack, but it’s also got everything else besides.

I crossed into the country in a flimsy little boat, traversing the languid Usumacinta river which forms the border with Mexico, to the north.  First stop was Flores, an eccentric little town built on an island on Lago de Petén Itza.  Accessed by a causeway, its streets form concentric circles around a dusty plaza, with its basketball court and whitewashed church.  It seems that every second building in Flores houses a budget hotel, a tour operator or an internet café, and the town’s handful of restaurants clearly cater for tourist tastes.  There’s a good reason for all this – the foundation of Flores’ tourist industry, the Mayan ruins of Tikal which lay buried in the rainforest about an hour’s drive from the town, are one of the country’s main draws.

I arrived at Tikal the next morning, just after sunrise, when the air was still cool and damp, and the jungle quiet.  It was a long, lonely walk from the car-park where the bus had dropped us but that only served to help ratchet up the tension so that, when I finally emerged into the first clearing, the sight of the ceremonial Great Plaza couldn’t have had a greater effect on me.  Two skinny stone pyramids, each towering forty metres above the neatly trimmed lawns, stood guard before an enormous, squat edifice, pock-marked with low passages trailing off into thick darkness.  Coatis, like little racoons with long snouts and striped, erect tails, snuffled around in the grass and ignored the few visitors who were dotted about at that early hour.

Around the central plaza, there’s a huge area of jungle which is heaving with other structures, some restored and some currently no more than enigmatic, overgrown mounds.  I found and climbed the biggest, a half-excavated temple that towers sixty-five metres over the jungle floor.  Toucans soared over the canopy, far below, and the mist was so thick that I couldn’t see anything beyond the nearest trees.  But I sat and waited until suddenly, in a matter of ten or fifteen minutes, a breeze picked up and cleared the air, revealing a dramatic sea of deep green stretching off in all directions, dotted with the majestic shoulders of other pyramids and echoing with the cries of howler monkeys.  Sitting next to me, a Guatemalan guide and his American customers conversed in hushed whispers – though there was no one else around, it just didn’t seem appropriate to raise your voice.

It’s a long way from Tikal to the colonnaded Parque Central of Antigua.  In fact, the two places are almost as far apart, in every sense, as it is possible to be within the borders of Guatemala.  Antigua’s main square is an urbane, leafy affair which complements the atmosphere of the whole place – if Disneyland acquired a ‘colonial-era’ zone, this is how it would look.  Nestled between three volcanoes, Antigua has suffered a turbulent history but, for now, it’s about as tranquil as a city ever could be; its gracefully ageing buildings form a ramshackle patchwork of pink and ochre, with arched doorways and wrought-iron bars over the windows, and the laid-back central zone is almost overflowing with overgrown and crumbling monasteries, convents and churches.

Antigua is extremely touristic, and there’s a book-exchange, a language school and an ex-pat at every turn.  It’s pleasant.  Perhaps I would have loved it if I’d been in the right mood but as it was, I wasn’t; and that’s how I came to be on this muddy path, an hour’s walk outside of the village of Nebaj, in the Ixil triangle region of the central highlands.

The Ixil triangle, named after the language spoken by the local Maya population, can be reached in a day from the main tourist highway which runs from Tikal, through Antigua, and up to Lago Atitlán.  It’s a back-breaking journey – those school-buses weren’t designed for adult-length legs, and neither are they graced with the kind of suspension requisite for unpaved mountain roads – but its conclusion is spectacular.  In the summer, at least, the whole region dozes under a blanket of sweet wood-smoke and mist, and pockets of rolling, forested peaks are wont to give way to vast tracts of epic, craggy scenery at any given turn in the track.  Facilities are basic – bus services are supplemented with pick-up trucks, and villages become pitch-dark at nightfall as the few lonely street-lamps lose their battle – but the region is gradually developing to accommodate a growing trickle of tourists, and already the ubiquitous internet cafes are budding up alongside market stalls selling dried chillies and live chickens.

From the genteel architecture of Antigua to the epic isolation of the Cuchumatanes, Guatemala is a country with something to offer every kind of visitor.  It is still in the process of recovering from a horrific civil war and a string of pernicious governments, but the political problems that dog Guatemala these days pale in comparison to those it has dealt with in the recent past and, with a bit of common-sense, the Guatemala of the twenty-first century is a country that can, and should, be visited; no matter what your tastes in travel.

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