INTO THE GREEN HEART OF GUATEMALA

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A FISHERMAN LAYING HIS NETS ON LAGO DE ATITLAN.

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.

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HOW ABOUT THIS FOR A PLATE OF FRUIT? LEMON, BANANAS, PAPAYA, PITHAYA (THE PURPLE THING) AND RAMBUTAN (THOSE CURIOUS HAIRY BALLS).

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.

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THE RIO CAHABON CUTS THROUGH THE HILLS NEAR LANQUIN.
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THE POOLS AT SEMUC CHAMPEY AS VIEWED FROM THE MIRADOR.
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THE PERFECT PLACE TO WALLOW ON SUCH A HOT DAY.
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BATHERS AT SEMUC CHAMPEY, WHERE SMALL FISH NIBBLE YOUR TOES.
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ONE OF THE MANY BUTTERFLIES LIVING BESIDE THE POOLS.
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A YOUNG GIRL FROM THE CASA EL ZAPOTE, WHERE WE CAMPED DURING OUR VISIT TO TO THE SEMUC CHAMPEY POOLS.

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.

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THE ROAD FROM COBAN TO FRAY IS NOT THE NICE RED ROAD SHOWN ON THE MAP BUT SOMETHING ALTOGETHER ROUGHER, WINDING ITS WAY THROUGH A SERIES OF MOUNTAIN VILLAGES.
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THIS IS PAUL, AN AUSTRALIAN BIKER, TAKING A BREAK AT FINCA IXOBEL. HE’S ON HIS WAY TO MAKE A TRANS-AFRICA TRIP…VIA SOUTH AMERICA. (http://paulnomad.blogspot.com.au)
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GROWING UP TO 70 METRES IN HEIGHT AND MORE THAN 2 METRES IN DIAMETER THE CEIBA TREE HAS BEEN DECLARED “GUATEMALA’S NATIONAL TREE” BY PRESIDENTIAL DECREE. THE MAYA WORSHIP IT AS THE “HOLY TREE OF LIFE” AND CONSIDER IT THE AXLE OF THE EARTH.
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THIS TREE IS NAMED THE “COJONES DE CABALLO” TREE, WHICH ROUGHLY TRANSLATED MEANS THE “BOLLOCKS OF THE HORSE”, ON ACCOUNT OF ITS FRUIT LOOKING LIKE A HORSES TESTICLES. IT PROVIDES RUSTIC WOOD FOR CONSTRUCTION AND THE WHITE LATEX PRODUCED WHEN ITS FRUIT OR BRANCHES ARE CUT IS USED IN THE EXTRACTION OF HUMAN BOT-FLIES…LOVELY!
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KNACKERED! IT’S HOT AND HUMID WALKING ROUND THE MAYA CITY OF TIKAL. EVEN MY KNEES ARE SWEATING.

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.

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TEMPLE VI
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TEMPLE I. THE TOMB OF KING MOON DOUBLE COMB WAS FOUND HERE. HE WAS BURIED WITH JADE PIECES, BONES CARVED WITH HIEROGLYPHS, PEARLS AND STINGRAY SPINES DESIGNED FOR RITUAL BLOOD-LETTING.
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TEMPLE II. BUILT IN 700 AD BY KING DOUBLE COMB. ACCORDING TO THE GUIDEBOOK THE LINTEL RESEMBLED HIS WIFE, WHICH SAYS LITTLE FOR HIS CHOICE OF QUEEN.
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THE GRAND PLAZA.
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TEMPLE III.
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CENTRAL ACROPOLIS.
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THE GRAND PLAZA.
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SOUTH ACROPOLIS.
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7 TEMPLES PLAZA.
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A RESIDENT OF TIKAL RUINS.

Listen to howler monkeys in the forest:

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4 thoughts on “INTO THE GREEN HEART OF GUATEMALA

  1. How nice ! Except the road to Fray, I will not take for sure! The legend of the lake is nice, and the Tikal site awsome. I learn a lot reading your articles. Thanks James and see you once hopefully one day ont the road…

    1. Hi Catherine. Yes, the road to Fray is not so good but the pools at Semuc Champey are very nice. We are now in Yucatan – very hot! Especially at night in our little van. Hopefully we will meet again early next year, in Mexico or the States. Safe travels.

  2. even my eyes are sweating by reading your exciting Guatemala trip….. good to see you James 🙂 lots of love to Christine, I love travelling with you….

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