Lago de Atitlan
Of Lago de Atitlan Aldous Huxley once wrote: “Lake Como, it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlan is Como with the additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing.” What can I add to this? Having spent the past ten days parked beside Atitlan I can heartily agree with such sentiment. I must admit, it takes some effort to drag ourselves away. But finally we do. Many come here and never leave, said to be due in part to the mythical lure of the lake. The villages surrounding its waters are awash with legends-of-old and one such tale is from the time of the conquistadors, when it’s said a young Spanish soldier fell in love with a Mayan beauty. Over time all his advances were rebuffed until, in desperation, he sought the council of a wise shaman. In exchange for the soldier’s weapons the shaman gave a gold ring, telling him that if he were to put the ring on the girl’s finger she would no longer be able to resist him. This the soldier did and soon learnt how the words of the shaman were true. Soon, however, the boy’s commanding officer learnt of the liaison. He had the girl executed and the boy locked in the jail, though the gold ring caught his eye and he kept it for himself. Then, before the month was out, he found himself becoming more and more attracted to the boy he’d locked away, which of course would never do. One dusk the man rowed out into the centre of the lake, took the ring from his finger and threw it into the water. Ever since that day the lake has been luring travellers to its side and never letting them go.
Into the green heart of Guatemala
9th August: The road is good. Soon we are climbing into the hills. We pass field after field of maize. In the distance rounded hills of green down seemingly roll forever. Round the next bend a long and thick snake lies in the road. Its head is crushed flat and red by the wheels of the previous vehicle, its tail still scything wildly. There are a lot of government billboards along this route, proclaiming “down with unemployment”, “reduce corruption” and “put an end to the violence”. There are currently 3 kidnappings and 20 homicides a week in Guatemala, the billboard says. The town of Coban is a bustling agricultural town and the large haciendas surrounding it were once the property of pioneering German families, until World War II, when the allies persuaded the government of Guatemala that the Germans should be banished from the country for their collaboration with the Nazis, and so they were. The farmers grow tobacco up here and coffee. After Coban we drop steeply into a valley, rattling along a narrow rocky track to the village of Lanquin, finally arriving at the emerald-coloured pools of Semuc Champey. In a country currently suffering the effects of drought Semuc Champey is like a celebration of water.
11th August: There are roadworks on the road from Coban to Fray Bartolome de Las Casas. The road is open 6.00-7.00, 12.00-14.00 and 17.00-18.00. It is 9.30, so we must wait. A Chevrolet van in bright whirling colours and two surfboards on the roof parks behind us. The van is registered in California. Jason, the driver, is from Australia. He’s travelling with his wife to Panama. A minibus pulls up alongside us. On the roof are two pigs wrapped in plastic bags. They are wrapped so tightly it is as if they are wearing a plastic skin. They writhe and squeal in the burning sun. It’s quite distressing to watch. One of them almost falls from the roof in its struggle to be free. In an act of compassion, or perhaps just good commercial sense, they take it down and release it from the bag. It staggers back and forth with little need for the restraining rope. I can hear chicks up there, too. In a cardboard box. On the map the road to Fray is marked as asphalt. Lonely Planet claims it to be a fast, smooth road, though it’s quite clear the journalist who wrote that has never been here. We travel about 50 kilometres at little more than 15 kph, passing through remote villages. In time we come across Jason, the sump of his engine shattered by a rock. We tow him the rest of the way to Fray, in the hope of finding a mechanic. The mechanic, a burly, jolly fellow, assures him that if the engine is not crushed then he can mend it. ‘There is always a way,’ he says. We’ve dropped in altitude, to a land of palm plantations. The sun here is intense, like a laser burning into your skull. Thunder-heads stack in the direction we’re heading, spitting yellow slivers of lightening. We reach Finca Ixobel as dark descends. The storm has passed.
Tikal in monochrome
15th August: At 5.00 in the morning a chilling howl echoes through the forest. The ferocious barks that rip through the sultry air might just as well emanate from a pack of hideous pre-historic beasts. But they don’t. It is the sound of howler monkeys making their presence known. The ruins of Tikal were discovered in 1848 by Colonel Modesto Mendez and the wonderfully named Ambrosio Tut. Tikal in Mayan means “In the lagoon” but it’s still known as “The place of the spirit voices”. The Maya settled here around 700 BC. By the middle of the classic period (during the mid-6th century) the city of Tikal covered 30 square kilometres and was home to around 100,000 people. Like many dynasties its fortunes ebbed and flowed with the competence of its rulers. Around 700 AD it took King Jasaw Chan K’awiil I, better known as King Moon Double Comb, to stiffen the back of his subjects. After a bout of slaughtering he set about building the city’s most enduring temples. The British diplomat and explorer Alfred P Maudsley was one of the first Europeans to scientifically explore the Mayan sites of this region in 1881.
Listen to howler monkeys in the forest: