Magic and Mystery, Latin Style!
By John Sherman Mills
Photography by Thomas Petersen
Under the emerald green canopy of a steaming jungle lie secrets of long ago. It was a time when the feathered serpent Kukulcan ruled a people who descended from the sun and the moon. The roar of the jaguar god kept peace among the creatures of the land and the position of the stars dictated the necessity of human sacrifice. Silent stones etched with new world hieroglyphics that still hold secrets of cities inexplicably abandoned. Here in a nearby paradise over looked by most vacationers is a place where one is today energized by a vibrant culture, captivated by spectacular natural settings and mesmerized by intriguing archaeological sites. This is Guatemala.
Guatemala is a small, narrow country about the size of the state of Ohio nestled between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans immediately to the south of Mexico. Its 33 volcanoes, thundering rivers, lush tropical rain forests and miles of sandy beaches give Guatemala its truly powerful scenic beauty. It is a land rich with history and with the mystery of a lost civilization, which once embraced an extraordinary knowledge of astronomy, arithmetic, art, architecture and medicine.
Surprisingly close, Guatemala is less than three hours by air from Los Angeles, Dallas or Miami. A quick air transfer of less than 50 minutes whisked us from Guatemala City to the starting point of our trek, Tikal National Park. My lover Tom and I couldn't wait to experience our first Mayan ruin, to walk where one of the most advanced peoples of the North American continent had it beginnings 2500 years ago.
Hidden deep in the 5400 square mile Maya Biosphere Reserve, lie the well preserved limestone monuments of this ancient Mayan capitol, occupied by the Mayan people between 250 B.C. to 900 A.D. Tikal was at its pinnacle in 800 A.D. when over 50,000 people made it a thriving commercial and governmental center. Although the small artifacts have been removed for displays in museums, the awesome stepped temples stand in stately splendor, the seven most imposing structures towering upwards of nearly two hundred feet. Amazingly, you're allowed to ascend them for the most part without restriction.
Historians even today have not identified the reason why the Mayan people abandoned their great cities in the late 800's. The archaeological excavation of this site continues. Self-guided tours are easy using travel handbooks, however, private guides, something to look at themselves, are readily engaged through the nearby Jungle Lodge Hotel or Tikal Tourist Information Center. The park rangers clear the park at dusk, but one can reenter after midnight to experience the magnificence and mischief of this enigmatic place under the dome of seemingly nearby stars.
We spent two days exploring this majestic Mayan site, then another two hiking in the Cerro Cahui Reserve, a 1600 acre park within a rain forest set aside for preservation of the Peten crocodile and tapir. This is also a sanctuary for spider monkeys, armadillos and a wide variety of exotic birds. Indeed, Guatemala has more species of birds than Canada and the United States together. This is a great place to get an up close look at nature at work within this delicate ecosystem.
Our second stop would be the city of Antigua, which had been the Spanish capitol of Central America from 1543 to 1773. Only when a series of disastrous earthquakes threatened to level the town were the governmental offices moved to a less intimidating part of the country. Today, the presence of smoldering volcanoes like the 13,000 ft. Vulcan Acatenango, dominate the landscape surrounding Antigua.
A Unesco designated World Heritage Site; Antigua retains the grace and architectural beauty of its Spanish Colonial period. The sense of its rich and sophisticated cultural past is omnipresent. It's a small town of mainly two story buildings; the only structures being taller are the ornate churches one seems to find every three or four blocks. You can explore the entire city easily by foot and our regional guidebooks served us well. In addition to seeing the traditional landmarks, be sure to check out the El Sitio Cultural Center, which frequently offers intimate tours of local homes to benefit the Biblioteca Internacional.
Antigua is also a lively educational center filled with young people. There are some 43 different academies for learning Spanish within this city of 45,000. College-aged students from all over the world fill the quaint coffee shops, bars and cafes that have proliferated along its narrow, colorful streets.
Besides enjoying the ambiance of Antigua, shopping awaits for those seeking the region's great bargains. Jewelry pieces handcrafted from rare jade or from silver are specialities of this area. Several of the manufacturers offer personal tours where you can observe artisans completing their painstaking work. Not to be missed would be a dinner or brunch in the restaurant of the spectacular Hotel Casa Santo Domingo, Antigua's unique showplace in a restored 18th century monastery.
Leaving behind the warmest of memories of Antigua, we headed by car high into the Sierra Madre mountain range for Lake Atitlan, formed when rainwater filled a gigantic ancient crater. Reflecting the triangular images of three imposing volcanoes, Lake Atitlan at an elevation nearly a mile high is North America's deepest lake. Here we were delighted to discover one of the most exclusive playgrounds of Central America. Lago de Atitlan has no less than four world-class resorts, whose pristine private beaches and luxury accommodations comprise one of Latin America's most popular hideaways for the elite. Hot Latin men were everywhere. Motor boating to nearby native villages, water-skiing, swimming, sunbathing, hiking through the San Buenaventura butterfly sanctuary and people watching were the mandatory past times of the day.
At night, it's time to be ready for a vacation destination that has justly earned its reputation for being Central America's all out center of drugs, sex and rock and roll. Exciting night life erupts like the volcanos that surround it had done long ago. The numerous bars and restaurants quickly fill with the area's chic international clientele. There's no problem meeting either guests from around the world or the native Ladinos in nightspots like the Grapevine along Calle Santander or the Circus Bar on Calle de los Arboles.
When daytime returns and you're in the mood for some serious...or not so serious... shopping, the nearby municipality of Chichicastenago is a must. Brace yourself for a bumpy, hold on to your hat ride as you endure the roadway that twists and turns its way up and down the craggy mountainsides. Every Sunday during the summer Chichicastenago is inundated with thousands of venders eager to sell everything from native wooden carvings to brightly colored embroidered apparel. Purchases are made using a playful version of the barter system and many great bargains are here for the pleasure!
Guatemala City would be our final destination in this fascinating country. Here we found the usual frenzied life you'd expect in a megalopolis of two and a half million. But amidst the chaos and cacophony of this bustling commercial center exist unquestionably the finest museums, upscale urban centers and hottest singles' scenes of Latin America.
Not to be missed is the Museo National de Arqueological y Etnologia that presents the most comprehensive display of Mayan statuary, jewelry, pottery, tools and masks in the world. The museum features a series of exhibits and absorbing dioramas that sequence the events that have changed life in this land since prehistoric times. The impressive Museo Popol Vuh offers a haunting collection of the ceremonial costumes of the Mayan priests and nobility. Likewise on the campus of the University Francisco Marroquin is the Museo Ixchel del Traje Indigena featuring audiovisual presentations and live demonstrations of the development of Mayan fabrics over the centuries. Take a moment to enjoy the feel of modern college life here at the adjacent Cafe Ixchel specializing in Guatemalan coffees. For visitors with an ardent interest in the geology and ecology of Central America the Physical Science Museum of San Carlos University provides the most comprehensive insight into this volcanically active region.
We took advantage of touring the historic Palacio Nacional with its commanding neoclassical architecture and elaborate furnishings. Just by showing our American passports to a guard at the main gate, we were given our own personal impromptu tour by a handsome young cadet. Afterwards we spent about an hour "window shopping" amidst the large open-air market in the adjacent Plaza de Armas. Two square blocks were jammed elbow to elbow with hucksters flaunting their wares.
We regretted that our sojourner of only two weeks left so much to yet be explored in this warm and gentle land. Guatemala is truly a fabulous and affordable country to visit, offering unsurpassed attractions for all those who heed her beaconing welcome.