Guatemala is a land that doesn't forget. Those hiking its remote villages and lakes will discover a world where the rituals and ways of the Maya never truly went away...
Across the car park, shamans weaved their magic. The blood of a luckless chicken was sprinkled on to one of a trio of fires and the air was filled with acrid smoke and the competing aromas of tobacco, incense and pine.
Inside the simple candlelit temple, believers waited patiently in line to climb the stairs to the effigy of Maximón (aka San Simón) to put in their requests and deposit their offerings of alcohol, tobacco and food.
Depending on who you speak to, this hard- drinking, heavy-smoking deity – a moustachioed man in a smart black suit and hat, often with a cigar clamped between his teeth – is either a saint or the devil.
He may share his temple with more traditionally dressed saints but the walls, plastered with everything from yellowing drawings to marble plaques, are devoted to Maximón’s generosity.
“The Spanish imposed Catholicism on the Maya but they didn’t lose their own beliefs,” my guide Mario said. “They just mixed them all together.”
While the Maya civilisation, including its jungle-clad cities, had all but collapsed by the 9th century – historians still can’t agree why – its age-old traditions have endured, surviving the Spanish conquest and, more recently, a brutal civil war.
Today, around 40% of Guatemala’s population is indigenous, the majority of which are descendants of the Maya, divided into more than 20 groups with as many distinct languages.
The temple in San Andrés Itzapa was just the start of my journey across Guatemala, on a new three-night glamping trek.
Over the next few days, it took me from Antigua, up, down and along ancient Maya trails, to Lake Atitlán, dropping off the tourist trail and in on remote rural communities in search of a civilisation that seemed far from gone.
The city of Antigua was half-an-hour’s drive and a world away.
This postcard-perfect colonial jewel was once the region’s capital; brightly painted houses topped with terracotta tiles sat next to imposing Spanish-built churches and monasteries, many of which lay in atmospheric ruin.
Along its cobblestone streets, antiquity blended seamlessly with charming boutique hotels, cosmopolitan restaurants and stylish shops selling Central America’s finest crafts.
Yet, whether I was people-watching along the colonial arcades of the Plaza Central, dipping into the shade of the Iglesia de la Merced or shopping for luminous Guatemalan jade or one-of-a-kind weavings, the omnipresent gaze of the volcanoes Agua, Acatenango and the still-smoking Fuego followed me.
It was a horizon that would become familiar over the next few days, as I set off on the trek to Lake Atitlán. Out of the city, we left Maximón far behind and began to wind our way up a broad dirt trail until we reached the cloud forest.
One moment, shafts of sunlight pierced the dense canopy, the next we were surrounded by an impenetrable mist that swirled around the lofty trees.
The higher we got, the more otherworldly the landscape became, with branches festooned with old man’s beard and sprinkled with water- loving bromeliads, while luxuriant ferns threatened to overtake the trail.
I half-walked, half-skidded down a shoulder- width muddy track until I emerged at the edge of a village and found the Terra Camp – a row of spacious safari-style tents with a circle of colourful deckchairs set around the campfire.
After a hot shower – ingeniously attached to the truck that carried our gear – our group of six, plus our Guatemalan guide, ‘Super’ Mario, sat down to a convivial dinner and discussed the ups and downs of the following day, then I fell into bed, complete with an inflatable double mattress, hot-water bottle, duvet and marshmallow-soft pillows.
It’s a challenging trek, covering 11km to 15km a day and a few thousand metres in elevation (2,745m at its highest). There were, mercifully, no dawn starts or dusk finishes, but our route also took us through some of the most remote rural communities in the region.
The second day was the hardest, but we were bolstered by a hearty breakfast – fresh fruit, granola and eggs, all washed down with Guatemalan coffee – before heading down steep stony paths flanked with endless avocado plants and panoramic views over Acatenango.
Further down, we traversed the forested slopes of the La Vega river valley, crossing the gorge Indiana Jones-style by a hanging bridge and then climbing up through small family farms until we reached the village of La Pila, before the final push to Fuego Camp.
This borders one of the poorest communities in Guatemala, where there’s no electricity or running water, and renting the land for the campsite gives some much-needed additional income.
In the fading light, we sat around the campfire with a well-earned cold beer, but the trail had one more surprise for us. Far off in the distance, Fuego boomed liked thunder and began its nightly display of lava pyrotechnics.
School was out and some children came to play around the campsite. The boys spotted my camera and demanded a portrait, while the girls – dressed in traditional huipils (blouses) and wraparound corte skirts fastened with woven belts – were more interested in the tents and the softness of the beds.
The camp borders one of the country’s poorest communities: agricultural workers who live without electricity or running water.
Renting their land for the campsite and working as camp staff and local guides gives them much-needed extra income to spend on medicine and school supplies.
It was already dark and two one-room evangelical churches, each with an outsized sound system, were competing to spread the word when Thelma arrived to show us how to make corn tortillas, a staple of the Guatemalan diet.
She put a clay platter on the fire, patted balls of dough between her hands and created a perfectly round tortilla.
Our attempts were less successful – thick, misshapen but equally tasty when paired with that evening’s pepián, a rich spicy stew.
The following morning, we filed along dusty pre-colonial pathways and through fields littered with the skeletal husks of harvested corn and regimented with rows of snow peas.
People worked their plots with basic hoes while I stood back to let an old man pass; he ran downhill in a cloud of dust and carrying a pile of logs on his back that was almost as tall as he was.
Winding up a narrow ridge to the highest part of the trek, where crops met cloud forest, we stopped to gaze over the distant Pacific slopes and the six volcanoes that materialise on clear days.
After stopping for lunch on a grassy plateau backed by whispering cypresses, we descended between forested peaks and towering sugar cane.
That evening, we visited a women’s weaving cooperative in a nearby village.
Three generations of the same family were making huipils; some were kneeling at backstrap looms, deftly passing the shuttle through a complex mesh of threads, others were embroidering flowers, a Maya symbol of fertility, or spinning yarn.
These aren’t so much pieces of clothing as a part of each community’s identity, with the colours and age-old symbols inspired by nature. Nor are they made in a hurry.
“Complex huipils can take up to four months to make,” explained the grandmother, who’d been weaving for 40 years and could still kneel all day.
The final leg of the trek brought a knee-challenging descent into the Madre Vieja river valley. We walked along twisting narrow tracks that cut through a patchwork of fields, stopping to greet an elderly farmer who wished us well in Cakchiquel, one of the many Maya dialects.
They have been growing coffee around Atitlán for over 100 years, and we stopped off at a small community-run finca. Here, coffee farmer Walfre walked us through the whole organic process, from plucking the ripe red berries, to shelling, washing and drying the beans in the sun.
Our penultimate descent – with a break for lunch – meant crossing the river via another, even more dramatic hanging bridge.
We then scrambled upwards for our first view over shimmering Lake Atitlán, before heading down through terraced fields of flowers and vegetables to the lakeshore, where the group parted and we said our goodbyes.
Set in a vast caldera, Lake Atitlán has seduced many a traveller, including the oft-misquoted writer Aldous Huxley, who always protested that he had never described it as ‘the most beautiful lake in the world’.
Early the following morning, from my vantage point on the terrace of Casa Palopó, as the sun highlighted the velvety green curves of Tolimán volcano and fishermen in rustic boats drifted silently across its cobalt-blue expanse, it was hard to see why Huxley would ever deny such a thing.
The lakeshore is fringed with Maya villages, each with its own distinct character.
The largest is Panajachel (or Pana), the transport hub, with its main street lined with handicraft stalls, bars and restaurants, while Santiago Atitlán has a strong indigenous culture and is home to a roving Maximón, who moves to a different house every year.
Of the ‘La Laguna’ towns, San Marcos is a Mecca for all things spiritual; San Pedro has long been dubbed ‘San Pedro Loco’ for its backpacker party scene; while San Juan is known for its community-based tourism and weaving cooperatives, where you can discover the Maya’s ancient dyeing techniques. There are new and innovative projects, too.
Pintando Santa Catarina Palopó is aiming to turn its namesake village into a monumental piece of art, with colours and designs chosen by the community.
They’re literally painting the town in the same vibrant blues, greens and purples and geometric symbols used in their traditional weavings.
It’s a bid to generate tourism and to create an alternative source of income away from farming and fishing, as well as engender a sense of community pride and entrepreneurship.
As I explored its winding streets, I met one family painting their house using a specially developed lime-based paint that’s affordable, durable and won’t pollute the lake – it’s also similar to that used by their ancestors 5,000 years ago – then I made my way to a new family-run cultural centre and Café Tuk, where I was served first-class coffee. I could see positive results everywhere.
From Atitlán, I returned to the highlands and the misty town of Chichicastenango (aka Chichi), where the Thursday and Sunday market is one of Central America’s largest. By 5.30am I was wrapped up against the chill and still bleary-eyed as stallholder Doña Encarnación greeted me with a hug.
“I’ve worked in the market for 27 years,” she said, as I began to help her set up her makeshift stall – bamboo poles, wooden planks and a tarp for the sun. “I’ve watched it grow; there are far more tourists now but there’s still the same sense of camaraderie.”
I helped to hang up her collection of vintage huipils. As I pulled one after another out of the sack, it was like seeing the country mapped out in textiles; the tangle of handwoven threads were a tangible part of Maya history.
When it was light, I left Encarnación to explore, stopping off for a cup of warming atol, a Maya energy drink made from maize and milk spiced with cinnamon. Along the way I had to dodge locals who were squeezing down the market’s narrow alleyways and carrying their wares – sometimes their whole stalls – on their backs.
These goods were wrapped in colourful perrajes, strips of material that women use for carrying babies.
Villagers still come from miles around to buy and sell everything, from fruit and vegetables to still-squawking chickens, and at the market’s heart is the brilliant white façade of the centuries-old church of Santo Tomás, where women congregate on the steps with bundles of white calla lilies in what looks like a Diego Rivera painting brought to life.
At first glance the candlelit Catholic church was like any other here: bathed in the musky scent of palo santo, walls lined with suffering saints.
But the stone floors also had space for Maya rituals, as did the hilltop cemetery where the colourful crosses and tombs symbolise the elements.
That afternoon, I met with spiritual guide and healer Doña Tomasa for my own private Maya ceremony.
She’d covered the ground in aromatic pine needles and sprinkled them with rose petals as an invitation to the spirits.
“I learnt from the ancients and started practising when I was 15,” she told me, as she drew the Maya cross on to a stone circle in sugar, signifying the cardinal points with Mother Earth at the centre.
She laid out candles in different colours: red for the sun, love and protection; white for purity; blue for the sky and water.
Then she lit the fire, feeding it with cusha, an age-old home-brewed spirit made from fermented corn, and banished any negative energy with the medicinal plant chilca, all the while chanting in the hypnotic Maya language of K’iche’.
The ground was covered in aromatic pine needles sprinkled with rose petals as an invitation to the spirits, and bathed in the woody smoke of copal incense, I found myself drawn in to this elemental spectacle.
I felt the weight of her hand on my shoulder as I closed my eyes, took a sip of fiery cusha from her calabash gourd, cast a handful of sesame seeds into the fire and murmured a wish.
Like Guatemala, the ceremony was a heady feast for all the senses. I may have walked in ancient Maya footsteps but I’d witnessed the religious rituals, discovered the crafts and tasted the dishes of a culture that was still very much alive.
The author travelled with Journey Latin America (020 3553 9647) on the 13-day Active Guatemala: Trekking in Style trip, costing from £2,836 per person.
Includes four nights in Antigua, two nights in Lake Atitlán and one night in Chichicastenango on a B&B basis, plus a three-night glamping trek from Antigua to Lake Atitlán on a full-board basis, excursions, transfers and international flights with Aeromexico.
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