On the road in Antigua, Guatemala: Red is the colour in this land of rum and lava


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The Independent Travel

I wait by the wall, camera in hand, for someone to walk by. I've always liked walls, and this one would make an especially red backdrop. The early morning sun casts shadows across cracking layers of alternating care and neglect, and I begin to see shapes in the shades: pentimento flames in the gradations of red.

Red is an important colour in Guatemala. Here, in the calm beauty of Antigua, the old capital, three volcanoes loom on the horizon. We climb Pacaya to find red lava spewing slowly and silently, the world slowly turning itself inside out. Near the fissures the grey crust of rock is thin and brittle, breaking underfoot in sharp shards to reveal hot flesh below. This impermanence of rock is unsettling, this nearness to the red blood and flesh of the planet under the soles of our feet is disorientating, troubling; all sorts of certainties are undermined.

To the west, high up in the cooler cloud forest, I visit the Zacapa factory for rum ageing in Quetzaltenango. A man is scorching an oak barrel to bring out the flavours, putting flames and smoke into a drink that already tastes of wood and caramel and chocolate and spice as well as forest fruits and rich volcanic soil.

Rum has a poor reputation in the United Kingdom, but this is a heady, complex, rust-red world of taste away from rum and raisin, rum and Coke. We eat meat seared in rum and desserts doused in rum; we drink rum with everything. Everything tastes of rum and rum tastes of everything.

Trying to get to the heart of the matter, we chew sticky sugar cane in a humid, fertile plantation near the Pacific Ocean. But the magic complications of the drink are not easily detectable in its virgin ingredients.

On our last night in Guatemala we drive through bleak poverty to stay in a modern hotel in Guatemala City. Downstairs there is a casino, loud and glitzless and filled with desperate people losing money. At the roulette wheel I put my chips on black. The ball lands on red.

We stay up all night and drink rum.

Footprint's Central America Handbook (£16.99) and Guatemala Focus guide (£8.99) are available now