The beautiful and the damned

Guatemala may bear the scars of poverty and war, but Joan Smith found it captivating

This is not your average Monday morning, I thought to myself as I slipped over the stern of a boat moored off Punta de Palma in the Gulf of Honduras. On my right, just visible in the shimmering heat, were the mountains of Belize; to my left, out of sight behind the circling arm of the bay, was the Caribbean shore of Honduras. And in front of me, as I held my shoes aloft, was the lush tropical rainforest of Guatemala's east coast. A few minutes later I was preparing to climb to the top of Siete Altares (seven altars), a spectacular series of waterfalls which cascade down to the palm-fringed shore, throwing up a fine mist of droplets and forming limpid pools on the way.

This is not your average Monday morning, I thought to myself as I slipped over the stern of a boat moored off Punta de Palma in the Gulf of Honduras. On my right, just visible in the shimmering heat, were the mountains of Belize; to my left, out of sight behind the circling arm of the bay, was the Caribbean shore of Honduras. And in front of me, as I held my shoes aloft, was the lush tropical rainforest of Guatemala's east coast. A few minutes later I was preparing to climb to the top of Siete Altares (seven altars), a spectacular series of waterfalls which cascade down to the palm-fringed shore, throwing up a fine mist of droplets and forming limpid pools on the way.

Balancing on sandstone shelves worn smooth by the rushing water, I quickly realised that I could not make this journey barefoot. My companions, another English journalist, two German travel writers and our Guatemalan guide, Carolina, arrived at the same conclusion and we must have presented a strange sight as we clambered over the rocks in an assortment of trainers, loafers and sandals. I was at least wearing a swimming costume but Carolina was fully clothed, drenched to the skin, and kept enquiring nervously whether she looked like a contestant in a wet T-shirt contest.

Sean, who had also forgotten his swimming gear, bravely made the ascent in his very English Y-fronts, providing a nice contrast to Roland's dreadlocks and colourful underpants. Roland's luggage had disappeared somewhere between Munich and Guatemala City, and Air France's best guess was that it was languishing in some out-of-the-way corner at Miami airport. Markus, whose suitcase had followed him to Guatemala a mere 24 hours after his own arrival from Hamburg, did the climb in new trainers which, when he removed them later, turned out to have dyed his feet a woad-like shade of blue.

We were not, as you will have gathered, a naturally athletic or well-prepared group of travellers. But then we had not been invited to Guatemala to trek through rainforests or plunge into foaming torrents. The highlight of our visit was to be the annual election of the "Rabin Ajau", a phrase which means "daughter of the chief" in one of Guatemala's many Mayan Indian languages.

The contest takes place annually in Coban, capital city of Alta Verapaz province, the country's main coffee-growing region, 140 miles north of Guatemala City. Women and girls in richly decorated tribal costumes parade in a sports stadium on the edge of town in a ceremony which goes on, improbably, for something like six hours.

I originally thought this was a piece of over-enthusiastic scheduling by Inguat, the Guatemalan tourist commission. Even Miss World, with its banal interviews, is over in two. "How long does it take," asked one of our group anxiously, "to say 'I want to be a social worker' in 18 languages?" In the event, the programme was correct and the election of the Rabin Ajau turned out to be a marathon of North Korean proportions. (The Korean ambassador, one of the dignitaries invited to the contest, quietly nodded off. Presumably he had seen it, or something like it, on many occasions.)

The girls, some as young as 15, approached the stage from a long catwalk stretching deep into the auditorium. There was much bowing and scraping and kissing the floor, and one poor girl carried aloft an entire crucifixion scene. Now you don't see that at Miss World. A famous television presenter read out their pedigree - name, age, home town, names of parents, languages spoken - as seven men in silver Lurex jackets played the same phrase over and over again on Guatemala's national instrument, the marimba. The event, essentially a Central American beauty contest, was invented by a local professor only three decades ago. This year, in an attempt to boost Guatemala's fledgling tourist industry, Inguat invited the international media for the first time. The show was shown live on television - "transmitting to the world through Channel 7", as the presenter exclaimed hyperbolically, along with excited cries of "Good evening, Guatemala!" - and it was a textbook example of how not to promote a nation and its culture to the outside world.

Guatemala is a country of quite extraordinary beauty: lakes, volcanoes, cloudforest, rainforest, baroque churches, Mayan temples, colourful markets. But the prospect of a long evening in a chilly stadium, listening to interminable speeches and watching docile young women shuffle along a catwalk, is not going to lure foreign tourists in the numbers the government is hoping for.

On the contrary, the nationalist fervour which accompanied the proceedings had the unintended effect of emphasising the country's problems. Guatemala is being transformed, we were assured, from "a society that is divided to one that is united by diversity". This merely served to remind us that the country has suffered almost 40 years of civil war, ending only in 1996.

Thousands of people perished, casualties of bitter fighting between mostly military governments, leftist guerrillas and right-wing death squads. Rigoberta Menchu, a Mayan civil rights campaigner, won the Nobel peace prize in 1982 after publishing a harrowing account of the effects of the war on the Indians. The presence of the local military commander, in fatigues, at a lunch in Coban for the Rabin Ajau contestants was a sign of how important the army continues to be in Guatemala. The current President, Alfonso Portillo, is widely regarded as a front man for Efraim Rios Montt, the army general who seized power in 1982 and whose government was accused of killing 9,000 people in four months. In a recent opinion poll, almost a third of the respondents thought that Rios Montt, a character straight out of Graham Greene - he is an evangelical Christian who used to appear on TV to lecture the population about the evils of sex and alcohol - was still running the country.

Crime is rampant - "crime sector reports growth" was the unironic headline I spotted in an English-language newspaper - and guidebooks warn travellers to be on their guard against armed robbers. This applies even to the ravishingly beautiful ascent at Siete Altares, although the only strangers we encountered were other European and American tourists. How seriously the authorities take the threat was demonstrated when we arrived in Chichicastenango, a market town in the department of El Quiche, where the Mayans assemble on Thursday and Sundays to sell a huge range of textiles, wooden masks and beaded jewellery.

The town has a stunning Catholic church, with brightly decorated effigies of Christian saints, but we also wanted to visit the shrine of Pascual Abaj, a Mayan deity, on top of a nearby hill. Catholicism runs in tandem here with indigenous religions, kept alive by a wide variety of shamans; the day before, in the lakeshore town of Santiago Atitlan, we had visited the shrine of Maximon, a Mayan saint with a terracotta face, Western clothes and a fat cigar. (Sadly, on this occasion, he was not wearing his trademark Ray-Bans.) Visitors have been robbed on the winding route to the shrine of Pascual Abaj and when we checked in with the police in Chichicastenango, they promptly provided us with an armed escort. This is how I came to find myself standing on a hilltop in front of a blackened stone, where local people sacrifice chickens, accompanied by two cops with pistols and shades.

In April this year a Japanese tourist was murdered by villagers in Todos Santos Cuchumatan in the north-west highlands, along with a local guide who tried to save her. Such events have been connected with rumours of child-stealing by foreigners - a trade which undoubtedly exists in Guatemala, according to a UN report. Six years ago, an American journalist was beaten and narrowly escaped death in another village in very similar circumstances. Lynchings and kidnappings are far from uncommon and the government's response has been to introduce capital punishment by lethal injection.

This is not, as you will by now appreciate, a straightforward tourist destination. It is a country of extremes: wealth and poverty, competing religions, and bewildering weather - Guatemala has 16 micro-climates, from the Alpine clarity of the mountains to the mosquito-infested tropical forests of the Caribbean shore. In a single day, we travelled from the cool green peaks of cloudforest below Coban, via a scorched archaeological sight where 1,300-year-old Mayan columns stand in the baking sun, to a swish country club at Puerto Barrios where Guatemala's élite meet to sail, eat and relax.

The latter was in stark contrast to the hotel in Coban, where the first room I was offered was stale and damp, with electric wires protruding alarmingly from the wall, and the toilet had no seat. This is bad news if you have just passed an entire night, as I had in Guatemala City, bent double with stomach cramps and racked with diarrhoea. I protested and was given another room which did at least have all the usual bathroom accessories, although with the same mouldy smell and potentially lethal electrics. The following night Carolina arranged for me to stay with a local family who were tremendously hospitable, if somewhat baffled by the arrival of this uninvited guest who did not speak a word of Spanish.

What all this suggests, I'm sorry to say, is that Guatemala does not yet have the infrastructure the country needs if it is going to expand its tourist industry. This is a pity because Guatemala has almost unparalleled natural resources, along with a dazzling blend of European and Central American culture.

The day I spent climbing the waterfalls at Siete Altares was one of the most blissful of my life, except for the bit where I had to go to hospital. (I slipped on the way down, got thorns embedded in my hand and had to go to the infirmary in nearby Livingston, to have them cut out under local anaesthetic. I am thus able to tell you that the Guatemalan health service is free, and doesn't involve waiting hours as you do in a British casualty department.)

When my hand was sorted out, we climbed into a fast motor boat and sped along the Rio Dulce, gazing in wonder at the unfamiliar trees which rise hundreds of feet above each river bank. Pelicans and herons circled overhead, iguanas basked on mangrove branches, and I forgot about stomach cramps and men with guns. On the map, further inland, was a place with the evocative name of Finca Paraiso, but it seemed to me that I had already arrived in heaven. Getting thereJoan Smith flew to Guatemala courtesy of Journey Latin America (tel: 020-8747 3108; net: www.journeylatinamerica.com) using a combination of British Airways and American Airlines flights from Gatwick via Miami. Return fares cost from £541 in September. Journey Latin America (tel: 020-8747 8315) can also tailor-make the 10-night "Rabin Ajau" journey that Joan Smith took, with prices starting from £1,513 per person, based on two sharing, including all flights, land transport and excursions.

Further informationGuatemala Tourist Board (tel: 020-7349 0346; fax: 020-7349 0331; net: www.guatemala.travel.com).

Travel advice is available from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (tel: 020-7238 4503; net: www.fco.gov.uk) or BBC2 Ceefax, page 472.

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