Guatemala: all things bright and beautiful
A year on a tiny island in the Caribbean had left me needing something other than idyllic palm-tree lined beaches: I dreamed of the hustle and bustle of a city, the freedom of open landscapes, and throwing myself into a different situation. I had a feeling that Guatemala would be a good country to visit, and there I found a treasured and preserved past.
The centuries-old architecture of Antigua blends Spanish and Italian influences. Today, the narrow storefronts along the criss-cross of cobbled streets open out into eclectic, quirky cafes nestled in peaceful green courtyards: think effortlessly chic combined with a dash of adorable. With an increasing number of yogaphiles descending on the city, it will soon be giving classic hippie-hideout Ubud a run for its money.
As in all Latin American cities, Antigua’s Plaza Mayor is the best place to learn about the lives people lead. As days draw to a close, everyone migrates towards the central point. It’s where children can play safely, groups of giggling girls look shyly across at boys standing as nonchalantly as their suddenly-long limbs and hormones will let them, young couples share ice-creams and the elderly watch the scenes of their youth been replayed again and again. The predictability of people the world over is comforting.
Carrying a load on the head that is less than 20% of a person’s bodyweight requires no extra energy and does no damage to the body – although that’s only true if starting the practice as a child.
Entirely by chance, I stayed in an ideally located AirBnB – the Casa de Stela – at the perfect time. Stepping outside early one Sunday morning a few weeks before Easter, there were residents scattering and dampening woodchips and grasses: once smoothed and shaped, bowls of coloured sawdust were being used to make mosaics.
“Someone might want to mention that in a guidebook one day, since what unfolded during the course of the next twelve hours was nothing short of spellbinding.”
Awake since midnight with hands made purple from the dye, this man had been working for over seven hours on his masterpiece. It turns there are ‘practise runs’ for the Semana Santa parades. Someone might want to mention that in a guidebook one day, since what unfolded during the course of the next twelve hours was nothing short of spellbinding.
Every restaurant and shop and cafe and home had people desperate to be part of the honoured mosaic-making crew. Dogs looked on from doorways, vendors walked the streets selling everything from chipped ice to SpongeBob helium balloons (why do these always put in an appearance, at almost any event, the world over?), and bowls of vermilion, turquoise and lime green sawdust were passed hurriedly up and down the mosaics.
A passing decapitated and crudely drawn on mannequin gave a hint of what was to come: the deep violet colour expresses penitence.
“Carried by nearly seventy men – who switch in and out every few hundred yards – the edifice swayed its way across the sawdust mosaics.”
The smell of incense was increasingly overpowering as the parade approached. In the distance, the first glimpse of a giant edifice can be seen; behind them, a brass band marched out music that was evermore tuneless as tiredness and heat took over. By the time I heard them at nearly 8 o’clock in the evening, the sounds were more a determined gesture than a discernible piece.
Carried by nearly seventy men – who switch in and out every few hundred yards – the edifice swayed its way across the sawdust mosaics. Hours of devoted work was destroyed in seconds, the bearers stepping awkwardly through streets covered in artfully arranged mangos and mange-touts, flowers and branches, and even painted ceramic pot lids.
Veiled women rocked their way slowly behind the men. And following them? A street sweeper. It took less than ten minutes for the art gallery to be returned to clean cobbles.
“Today, eerie reminders are dotted around the shore: as the mist rises in the morning, it gives a sinister, uneasy feeling that is hard to shake.”
With the likes of Aldous Huxley waxing lyrical about Lake Atitlan, a trip there seemed essential. All things considered, it’s a jolly nice lake – but I suspect the explorer who claimed the lake was the most beautiful in the world had limited prior lake-experience.
Between 2010 and 2011, the lake rose over 17 feet. The Mayans, believing firmly in the myth of the lake rising and falling every fifty years, had built their homes far up the sides of the volcanoes. Many foreigners wanted to be close to the lake, though, and watched helplessly as homes were destroyed by the slow rise – and eventual fall – of the water level. Today, eerie reminders are dotted around the shore: as the mist rises in the morning, it gives a sinister, uneasy feeling that is hard to shake.
San Juan La Laguna is one of the few remaining truly traditional villages. It also has the cheerfully colourful touch that most stores give a hint of what is inside with murals.
“Accessible only by boat, tourists are few and far between and it isn’t hard to find a hammock spot on a picturesque dock.”
Birdwatching proved to be an addictive occupation, with hummingbirds, cuckoos, and orioles lining up to drink from the drooping banana flowers.
At over 50 square miles, small lanchas ply the lake. The circular road is rumoured to be watched over by banditos but during the day it felt perfectly safe to walk from one village to another and return with a boat.
On the Caribbean side just south of Belize lies the jungle town of Livingston. Accessible only by boat, tourists are few and far between and it isn’t hard to find a hammock spot on a picturesque dock.
“Chicken buses with polished chrome and painted sides belch out their route along highways, and impossible stars and glowing volcanoes light up the night.”
The Rio Dulce gorge joins the sea at Livingston and is one of the most awe-inspiring places I have witnessed. An homage to nature, steep-sided jungle-clad cliffs plunge into still deep waters; the eerie calls of howler monkeys and disarming rustle of flapping herons echo through the stillness.
Guatemala is an irrepressibly colourful country: handicrafts piled high in San Juan, mosaics and violet robes in Antigua, and bright murals in Livingston. Chicken buses with polished chrome and painted sides belch out their route along highways, and impossible stars and glowing volcanoes light up the night. Everything about it is chaotically wonderful, but Livingston is worlds apart from the hippies of Atitlan and tour groups of Antigua: virtually unreachable, it offers the sanctuary of a bygone era and the precious pleasure of retreating into the past.
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