Iain Stewart, author of 'The Rough Guide to Guatemala', recalls the magic of the place and its people - and the variety of its voluble wildlife
Sunday 20 September 1998
If you are on a souvenir- buying mission, then the market at Chichicastenango is the one to head for. But my personal favourite is the high-altitude affair at San Francisco el Alto. There is nothing to buy (unless you want to take home a chicken or a pig), but the real fun is watching the locals poke, prod and even wrestle with the protesting porkers at the animal market. Pay the church caretaker a quetzal (10p) and he will let you climb up a staircase to the roof. Before you is a seething mass of highland Mayan humanity and, in the distance, the unforgettable sight of the perfect cone of the Santa Mara volcano and the Xela valley.
Best Mayan ruin
Submerged deep within the pristine jungles of its own national park, Tikal (which dates back to pre-Christian times) is the most magnificent of all Guatemala's Mayan ruins. Once a city state with a population approaching 100,000, today, the rainforest that envelopes the towering temples and graceful plazas is home to an astonishing variety of wildlife. Howler and spider monkeys, armadillos, the grey fox, and all the large Central American cats live among the ruins and the jungle's roots and shoots. At sunset, above the 212ft Temple IV, a seemingly endless green ocean is only disturbed by the swoops and squabbles of toucans and kites in the treetops below.
With no facilities to speak of, and the nearest road a two-hour hike away, the Ipala lagoon is hardly the most accessible site for the canvas- fancier. There are no hook-ups for caravanners and there is no swimming pool, only a blissfully peaceful crater-lake rimmed by tropical forest that chatters with the sounds of parakeets. Gringo visitors are thin on the ground, but you may encounter the odd shepherd. The lagoon is on top of the long-dormant Ipala volcano, in Guatemala's eastern highlands.
Monterrico is one of the few spots on Guatemala's largely forgettable Pacific coast that is worth a visit. Behind the village there is a tropical warren of mangrove swamps to explore that are home to some spectacular birdlife, iguana and the odd alligator. Three species of sea turtle nest on Monterrico's beach, including the gargantuan leather-back which can reach 9ft in length and weigh up to 1,000kg. I was lucky enough to see an Olive Ridley, a smaller species, haul herself ashore to lay her eggs one moonless night - a magical experience shattered by the predatory attentions of the local hueveros (egg collectors) who raided the nest as soon as she had finished her labours. Under protest, they later donated a dozen to the beach's turtle hatchery.
It is a tough six-hour effort across a lofty spine of the Cuchumatanes mountains from my favourite village in Guatemala, Todos Santos, to the equally traditional village of San Juan Atitn. The views are mesmeric: from one ridge the dreamy peaks of the Tacan and Tajumulco volcanoes can be seen, even though they are over 60km away. Ethnographically, the hike is equally fascinating. As the trail passes through patches of cloud- forest, you will notice an abrupt change in the dress of the Mam-speaking campesinos. Suddenly, the outrageous candy-striped trousers and flying pink collars worn by the Todosanteros are replaced by the equally arresting scarlet shirts and long woollen tunics of the Atitecos.
It may be Guatemala's leading export, but don't expect a whiff of anything resembling the arabica or robusta bean in most of the country's cafes and restaurants. Guatemaltecos have little enthusiasm for coffee and mostly drink the watery brown slops that the motorway-services user of the 1970s will remember well. If you want a decent coffee, you will usually have to satisfy your craving in a foreign-owned establishment.
Set in a supremely tranquil spot overlooking Lake Atitln, once described by Aldous Huxley as the most beautiful place in the world, the simple rooms at the Iguana Perdida (lost iguana) are fairly unexceptional, but the volcano vistas and the ambiente anything but. The special atmosphere is created by communal dining, where everyone shares a tale or two, and the trusting "tab" system. The owners are Deedle (from Wiltshire), and Mike (from Greenland) who has an inexhaustible database of jokes that all begin with "a polar bear walks into a bar..."
Journey Latin America (tel: 0181-747 3108) is offering return flights for pounds 484 plus pounds 28 tax until 12 December.
Where to stay
To find the Iguana Perdida hotel, Santa Cruz la Laguna, Lago de Atitln, Solola Guatemala, take a bus to Panajachel, where hourly boats connect to Santa Cruz. The hotel has no telephone, but there is a fax number for bookings (tel: (502) 7621196). Book two or three days ahead. Or email the hotel at panmail@ guate.net
The Iguana is also home to ATI divers. For scuba diving in Lake Atitln, contact same address. Prices around $25 a tank or $160 for the PADI Open Water course.
The local bus network is comprehensive and cheap, if uncomfortable. Tourist shuttle buses are more luxurious. The flight to Flores from the capital is US$60 and saves 12 hours over the bus.
EU citizens do not visas to enter Guatemala. Ninety-day stamps are issued on arrival. Guatemala tourist board at 13 Fawcet Street, London SW10 (tel: 0171-351 3042).
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