I have spent the last 10 days in Guatemala and I finally found the time to write a bit about the country the day before I leave for Honduras at 4 a.m. According to the Lonely Planet, Guatemala is the most dangerous of the Central American countries, barring the Darien Province of Panama, with Guatemala City being the most dangerous city in all Latin America – and that´s saying something seeing its competition. Throughout the 1990s and early noughties, there were numerous attacks on tourists, especially on the sites and attractions that I am writing about, and although still not a walk in the park, there is a larger police presence today and the country is waking up to tourism.
We entered Guatemala by crossing the Belizean border near San Ignacio and drove straight to Flores four hours away, a town situated on an island in the middle of lake Peten Itza. Our reason for going there was that it is the closest town to the huge ruins of the Mayan city of Tikal, the largest of the Classical era.
Meaning ´site of the voices´in Mayan, Tikal is a huge site covering 60 square kilometers, with over 45 buildings still remaining of up to 60ft in height. All are choked and enveloped by the jungle, and with winding paths through the undergrowth it is very easy to get lost, especially when some temples are a 25 minute walk away from the last. It isn´t recommended that you visit the site alone, or even as a couple as there have been cases of rape and worse in some of the more remote temples, but we didn´t encounter anyone hardly, tourist or potential rapist, even though it is Guatemala´s number one tourist site.
It has rained every day in Guatemala barring today, and as we finished lunch and prepared to start walking the huge site, it began to pour down, naturally, so that we were soaked by the time we even reached the first temple. Our guide led us around and told us many fascinating stories and showed us the giant, Temple of the Grand Jaguar. As with most developing countries, we were able to walk all over the ruins, so we climbed right to the top of one in order to look out over the other temples poking out through the jungle. The whole time we were surrounded by the sounds of the rainforest, including the eerie roar of the howler monkies in the distance that sounded more like a jaguar´s roar. We also saw a huge number of exotic animals which wander the site including many troupes of wild monkies, indeed the drive up to the site itself sports such photogenic signs as Coati Crossing and Jaguar Crossing. Unfortunately we didn´t see the latter, although the park is apparently home to at least 7 of these majestic cats, and our guide Julio said he has seen them frequently, as they often break into the staff kitchen to steal food. We did manage to see two wild coatis however, snuffling their long probuscuses through the undergrowth and allowing us to come exceptionally close. I will add the videos when I get the chance I took of them, with their long ringed tails stuck straight up in the air, as if in greeting.
Next we travelling along to the sleepy town of Rio Dulce, also situated on a lake. Our hotel, another eco lodge called Tijax, was a boat ride accross the lake from the main town, which was frustrating when it came to trying to leave as the boats weren´t at all frequent. Set on marshey land and in amongst the trees, you would be forgiven for not even knowing it was there. To get to our cabinas, we had to walk along wooden walkways, raised 2 or 3 feet above the ground, which was hazardous at the best of times, but even moreso during the heavy rains, which would also cause all the electricity to fuse. I am surprised I didn´t manage another spectacular break.
The only activity I partook in in Rio Dulce was, crazily, a 5 a.m. morning kayak to watch the sun rise as was kayak through the jungle. Unfortunately it was cloudy and by the time our guide showed up the sun had already risen. It was a pleasant morning excursion however, and we also came accross a baby owl which fell from a tree and broke its wing. Our guide scooped it up and put it in his kayak, in order to take it back to the eco lodge to be nursed back to health there. Once again, I will post photos once I manage to upload them!
We have also visited the vast markets of Chichicastenango (a mouthful, I know!) and travelled up to Pacaya, also situated on another lake, this time Lake Atitlan. We took a boat ride over the lake to all the different small towns nearby, including Santiago, where I had one of the most bizarre experiences of my life, I felt like I was in a BBC documentary.
Our reason for stopping in Santiago is that it is the home of an anachronism, in the shape of Maximon (mok-shoo-mon), a Mayan god still worshipped in the country in odd conjunction with Christianity. The idol passes around the town from household to household of it choice, chosen every year on the 9th May. The local who is chosen is expected to open their doors in order for people to come and visit the god, and give him offerings.
As we were led down a small back alley, we had no idea of any of this as we entered a random Guatemalan´s house, and paying 2 Quetzals, we were given permission to enter into the dark, dank concrete room where he resided. My nose was immediately filled with the strong smell of burning inscence, and as we first looked around a number of our group found it so strange and disturbing they had to walk straight out again.
Hanging from the ceiling were hundreds of brightly coloured streamers, like the sort bought for a child´s birthday party, and a number of plastic fruit and large root vegetables, tied up with string. To my right was a large see through coffin of perspex, filled with a red and gold blanket covered shape, and a 6ft Christ on the cross, both covered in reels of twinkling fairy lights and swathes of large flamboyantly coloured plastic flowers. All the while, the whiney, piercing tune of Santa Claus is Coming to Town eminated from an ancient Christmas decoration in the corner which sounded like it needed its batteries changing. Covered in many colourful scarfs, and wearing 2 large rimmed hats, the wooden model of Maximon stood right in the centre of this chaotic scene, about 4 ft in height, on, of all things a bugs bunny bathmat. Before him were many lit candles, and his offerings, which included a silver pot for money, which we gave grudgingly, prompted by the two Guatemalans sat on either side keeping a close eye (as the god had chosen them, they got to keep any such offerings he was given, conveniently.) On either side of the idol there was an ashtray filled with dogends, as tobacco along with cola, is a traditional offering to the god. Such a strange mix of new and old in many ways, I can understand why some people find his chamber a little uncomfortable, but I personally found this fascinating.
Pictures cost an extra 10 Quetzals per photo, so I have piked one from another website again.
All in all, a very bizzare experience!