Dale and I wake to the deep-chested roars of howler monkeys, males marking their territory in the darkest hour of the morning. It’s 3:00 a.m. By 4:30, our headlamps bob through blackness, as we follow our happy-go-lucky, sexagenarian guide, Antonio, through the jungle night of his territory: Tikal. We’re heading back to the place where we left off yesterday, to the top of Temple 4 to watch the sunrise wake the snoring forest.
We’re heading to the top of Temple 4 to watch the sunrise wake the snoring forest.
Along the way, Antonio suggests we pause to turn off our headlamps and look up at the bright constellations overhead, rare diamonds for two city dwellers. Antonio points out the seven sisters known as the Pleiades. He says that years ago he theorized that the ancient city of Tikal was laid out to echo the pattern of the Pleiades. His father agreed the idea had merit, since the writing and artwork of the Ancient Mayans indicated that they saw gods and powers in the stars. But Antonio says that when he shared his idea with archaeologists, they scoffed.
As Dale and I stand amid the ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal, I see why George Lucas chose it for a rebel base in the original Star Wars. This lost city strangled by rainforest bears no resemblance to other cities I’ve seen, living or dead. It’s as if the Ancient Mayans came from “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.”
Our guide, Antonio, grew up in Tikal, and he knows it the way I know the neighborhoods where I used to play. At sixty, he walks like Fred Sanford: maybe his hips are spent after five-plus decades of walking this forest…or chasing women. He shares his knowledge on that topic too. “I’ve learned you have to buy your girlfriend the same perfume you buy your wife,” he tells us.
At sixty, our guide Antonio walks like Fred Sanford. (That’s Dale walking with him, on your left.)
The outside world discovered Tikal in 1848, but Antonio points out, “It was never lost. The local people always knew about it.” His father knew more than most. Antonio Ortiz Senior worked with Guatemala’s Tikal archaeological expedition in the 1950s, and he’s credited with discovering the Temple of Inscriptions.
We walk past Sumpango’s tree-packed central park into the two-story concrete marketplace – our driver César, my husband Dale, and I. Market women wave desultory hands or fans made of sticks and plastic bags over displays of raw meat, homemade soup, and fried this and that – human oscillators scattering flies. We head upstairs to a food court filled with cafeteria-style tables and empty of fast food chains. A friendly mother and daughter make and serve us delicious grilled carne asada, fresh cucumber salad, and rice… oh, and Guatemala’s ubiquitous bland corn tortillas.
A friendly mother and daughter make and serve us delicious grilled carne asada, fresh cucumber salad, and rice.
After a leisurely lunch, we head to the balcony overlooking Sumpango, a cradle of 20,000 Mayan people rocked between mountains and volcanos. Boxy concrete houses climb nearby hillsides. They used to be all adobe, but in 1976 an earthquake of magnitude 7.5 obliterated most of those homes and killed 244 of the people who lived in them. All told, that quake killed some 23,000 Guatemalans. When Sumpango’s grieving people rebuilt, they used concrete and rebar in hopes those materials would hold up in the next major quake.
Sumpango’s homes used to be all adobe, but in 1976 an earthquake of magnitude 7.5 obliterated most of them and killed hundreds of the people who lived in them.
We stroll down the street to the administration building, where César has talked officials into giving us a peek at preparations for Sumpango’s annual Festival de Barriletes Gigantes (Festival of Giant Kites). We find ourselves in a small office where a couple of middle-aged men try to explain the event and try to figure out why we’re here a week before it starts. Poor Dale looks baffled. I’d translate for him, but it’s all I can do just to follow the rapid exchange of three Spanish-speakers.
When we arrive at the Chapel of San Simón in the town of San Andrés Itzapa, it’s as if we’ve arrived at Guatemala’s own Graceland. The difference is that few tourists come here, only believers. Our guide, César, doesn’t speak English, so I have to translate Spanish for Dale. That’s hard enough when I’m not overwhelmed by holy men burning sacrifices and beating me with flowers on my way to a mannequin king. I’ll explain:
It’s as if we’ve arrived at Guatemala’s own Graceland. The difference is that few tourists come here, only believers.
When we park, a small girl waits outside my door to sell me wildflowers. I buy a small bunch, assuming I’ll lay them at San Simón’s altar. We walk down an alley lined with small shops and street vendors, selling tortillas, candles, plastic saints, and other votives. César buys two red tapers and hands them to me.
A converted flatbed takes us on a 15-minute drive outside of Antigua to the oldest coffee plantation in Guatemala. Finca Filadelfia (Philadelphia Plantation) is a pretty, well-ordered farm and resort, where sun-warmed green trees and saffron ranch houses fill a slender pocket between rolling hills and three volcanoes. Volcán de Fuego puffs in the aftermath of his recent eruption, while his brother Acatenango holds his breath. Agua stands alone in a coronet of clouds that spin in a convergence of Pacific and Caribbean winds.
Our caffeinated guide, Roberto shows us pretty red coffee beans as jewel-like as cranberries.
We buy tour tickets for 18 dollars each – steep by Guatemalan standards – and meet our effusive, caffeinated guide, Roberto. Then we climb into another truck for a two-kilometer drive deeper into the plantation. The property comprises 900 acres and 400 workers, if you include the 200 migrant workers who come here from November to March, handpicking pretty red coffee beans as jewel-like as cranberries.
Right before I wake, I dream that I walk out of our hotel and see an armored truck full of armed men driving down the street. One of the men jumps out and executes a woman, point blank. The shots blow her head back, spraying blood onto the wall of one of Antigua’s colorful colonial buildings. When I wake, I tell Dale, “I must be more stressed about traveling here than I thought.”
I walk a couple of blocks to one of the banks around the Parque Central.
While he dresses for breakfast, I walk a couple of blocks to one of the banks around the Parque Central, or Central Park. When I turn the corner, I almost barrel into a man who steps out from behind an armored truck cradling a black semiautomatic rifle. He’s simply transporting money for the bank. Still, it’s an unsettling moment, following on the heels of my dream.
Dale and I are not trying to mark the end of an age. When I planned this trip to Guatemala, the Mayan calendar’s expiration date of December 21, 2012 wasn’t on my mind. I just hoped for a safer alternative to our favorite budget destination, Mexico, and its off-putting drug war. And Guatemala was the only foreign alternative where I could use my frequent flyer miles.
Guatemala was the only foreign alternative to Mexico where I could use my frequent flyer miles. (Photo: Antigua)
During our flight, my seatmate has me questioning my choice. Maricarmen, a real estate agent, is returning from Florida. “It was nice to drop my guard and relax in America,” she says. “There’s a lot more violence and trouble in Guatemala, so I’m always…” She hesitates.