Guatemala City - Decked out in a faded Panthers & Birds T-shirt, well-worn jeans and weathered trainers on his pitch-black horse, 12-year-old Carlos came darting around the corner in a cloud of dust, his small feet barely reaching the stirrups.
Like a pro, he slipped off his horse and, much to our surprise, announced he would join the band of older men who led our party of six up Guatemala’s Pacaya volcano on horseback during an arduous five-hour trek.
Small but gutsy, the sheer tenacity of the little boy in the cold, windy conditions as we neared the summit completely bowled us over, earning himself a brand-new red jacket from a fellow traveller.
Many more pleasant surprises followed during our week-long Guatemala tour, as each of our destinations proved to be a unique gem, far exceeding our expectations.
Not really knowing what to expect in this small developing Central American country, we flew from Miami on Christmas Eve, arriving in Guatemala City after a brief stopover in San Salvador.
On arrival, our tour operator whisked us off to the enchanting town of La Antigua, completely the antithesis of its bustling, flourishing neighbour Guatemala City.
Steeped in colonial Hispanic history, it boasts enchanting cobblestone streets, horse-drawn carts (mainly for tourists), and the most beautiful collection of doors I have ever seen, leading to an array of splendid old buildings, churches and cathedrals, reflecting the town’s rich cultural and religious heritage.
Nestling in the Panchoy Valley, surrounded by three towering volcanoes, impressive mountains and extensive coffee plantations, it comes as no surprise that La Antigua, because of its scenic beauty and preserved colonial architecture, was declared a Patrimony of Humanity site by Unesco and added to its World Heritage List.
Wandering around the town reminds one of an open-air museum, with countless churches, monuments and impressive ruins, such as the San Francisco church, the Santa Clara convent and the famous cathedral, around every corner.
On Christmas Eve, the town was brimful of locals in traditional dress, adding even more colour to the streets.
Undoubtedly the biggest surprise in this picturesque and historic town was our hotel, Hotel Casa Santo Domingo.
As one visitor aptly noted in a posting on the web: “The hotel was a holiday experience in itself, not so much for the five-star luxury… but for the sheer beauty of the buildings and the gardens.”
Hidden behind an unassuming street facade, the splendid hotel, with a history spanning five centuries, is located in the grounds of the Saint Thomas Aquinas College and Santo Domingo Monastery, once one of the grandest convents in the Americas during the time of Spanish domination.
Besides the lushness of indigenous plants, colourful parrots and many well-preserved historical spots decorating the open spaces, every nook and cranny in the carefully restored 125-bedroom hotel boasts exquisite pieces of art, be it a sculpture, a carving or a painting.
A highlight during our stay was the special Christmas service in the hotel’s impressive open-air Chapel of Our Lady of the Rosary, where, again, past and present sit comfortably side by side.
Although we did not understand a word of the service, it was a spiritual and uplifting experience.
From there, it was a two-hour drive to Chichicastenango and Lake Atitlán in the Guatemalan Highlands – another unforgettable experience.
Located 2 500m above sea level, Chichi (as the locals refer to the town), is most famous for its market on Thursdays and Sundays, when traditionally dressed villagers in a kaleidoscope of colours come to sell their colourful textiles, fruit, vegetables and flowers.
With the help of our enterprising young guide Pascali, who spontaneously offered his services to guide us through the market and negotiate lucrative deals on our behalf, we bought beautiful table runners, cushion covers, handbags, backpacks, you name it.
The colourful selection of handcrafts and textiles on offer is truly astounding. No wonder interest in these products has greatly increased, particularly in the US and Europe. According to the Bank of Guatemala, clothing and textile exports even surpassed coffee exports in 2011.
Then it was an hour’s drive to Lake Atitlán.
Considered the most beautiful lake in the world by English writer Aldous Huxley, the 18km-long lake is surrounded by several towns with religious names: Santa Catarina, San Antonio Palopó, San Lucas, San Pedro, San Juan, San Pablo, San Marcos.
As in La Antigua, the decor at the Hotel Lake Atitlán was the epitome of grace and style. Likewise, the collection of exotic birds and manicured gardens richly complemented the hotel.
Besides more than 50 varieties of hibiscus, arbors of vines, English-style knot gardens and a tropical “heliconia” garden, plus a wide variety of orchids visitors can enjoy, they can also marvel at more than 25 colour varieties of bougainvillea and an dazzling azalea garden.
The following morning our boat trip across the lake to San Pedro and San Juan not only gave us the opportunity to fully enjoy the beauty and scope of the lake and its surroundings, we also had the opportunity to meet some of the local Mayan inhabitants, most of them in colourful traditional dress, hard at work at their “home industries”.
These included a medicinal herbarium, a small-scale textile dying operation and shop, and a coffee production outlet.
Roaming the streets of these small towns either by foot or in tuk-tuks operated by our enterprising young guides, we got a fascinating peek into the local Indian way of life.
Later, it was back to Guatemala City to board a small plane for the island Flores and Tikal in the northern Petén department (province).
Tucked away in the tropical forest in the Tikal National Park and home to the world’s largest and most magnificent Mayan archaeological sites in existence, including the tallest Mayan pyramid, Temple IV of the Double Headed Serpent, towering 70m into the air, Tikal was the first of 23 sites in the world to be declared a World Mix Heritage of Humanity (both cultural and natural) by Unesco in 1979.
The following morning, we spent a fascinating day exploring the impressive ruins and park.
Walking through the forest, wet from the the previous night’s heavy rain and teeming with wildlife, we learnt that the ancient Mayan city of Tikal flourished between roughly 600 BC and AD 900.
Starting out as a modest series of hamlets, Tikal gradually became a great Mayan city-state and capital of a vast Mayan empire with more than two dozen major pyramids.
At its peak in the late classic period (AD 682-909), the city was spread over 130km², with a population of about 100 000. External trade helped fuel its growth.
Recent research reveals that the city’s inhabitants created a sophisticated water management system to see it through dry periods – although it’s hard to believe this lush, tropical region ever experienced droughts.
Climbing the stairs to some of the pyramids requires lots of stamina, but the beautiful vista from the top more than compensates for the exercise.
Arriving back at Flores international airport, we experienced our last, but rather nasty surprise in Guatemala: all flights to Guatemala City had been cancelled due to the eruption of El Salvador’s volcano.
After a rather sleepless night at a Flores hotel, we assembled in the foyer at 5am the following day to contemplate Plan B.
Fortunately, two (desperate) hours later, news came that all domestic and international flights had been resumed.
Interestingly, instead of this final experience in the country, it was the kindness, warmth and vibrancy of the Guatemalan people, the beautiful landscapes and the country’s rich cultural heritage that remained etched in our hearts and minds. - Saturday Star