Guatemala: Scared lakes, Mayan culture, Boiling waterfalls

On arrival into Guatemala we were greeted by road signs riddled with bullet holes, in front of stunning volcanic scenery. Most of Guatemala has this uneasy combination of the beautiful and the dodgy, and we felt fortunate to mostly see the beautiful. One of the most magical places was Lago Chicabal, a sacred Mayan lake hidden high in the mountains. It’s reachable only by a 2.5 hour near vertical hike OR (if you’re lucky and shamelessly lazy) a kindly pickup driver, one of whom gave us a ride to the top on the back of his truck. It was a challenge trying to wedge ourselves in as we bounced over rocks up the 45 degree slope, playing ‘dodge the machete’ which zoomed around the truck with us.

In the early morning, the lake is a bright green colour but around mid morning it suddenly turns dark silver, then disappears as clouds pour down from the crater lip to obscure it totally. In Mayan legend, this is the lake being spirited away into the clouds by Mother Nature as a reminder to treat it with respect. While we were there, 3 local women were performing a ritual by the water’s edge. They knelt with their heads covered in traditional woven cloth and sang long haunting notes over the lake in jarring harmonies. It was a very otherworldly experience watching the clouds spiraling down over the near-deserted lake, and listening to the echoes of the song across the water.  Further along the shore were shrines filled with flowers and an elderly lady deep in a different ritual, clutching a handful of feathers. There are rumours of westerners coming to kidnap local children in the more remote villages here, and as we passed a father and his young son, he grabbed the child and held him close until we had passed. By the time we left the lake it was almost completely hidden in the mist.

In Quetzaltenango we visited the largest market place in Central America which begins at 4am, although we didn’t arrive until much later! We also saw a candle-lit parade through the streets at dusk. It featured an oom-pah band (of course) and dancers wearing many different coloured cloths around their bodies, necks and faces, as well as deer masks with antlers on top of their heads. I should point out this was in an eerily beautiful way rather than a creepy Wickerman one, and hilariously no-one in the crowd had the foggiest clue what the multi-robed deer costumes were about. We hugely enjoyed the novelty of being tall in relation to most people here, and were able to get a clear view from the back of the crowd for once!

As you can never see too many sacred lakes, we spent a week at the famous Lago Atitlan, a huge volcano crater lake surrounded by Mayan villages. At our favourite village of Santa Cruz we did yoga overlooking the lake, swam, stargazed and got completely lost on a hike into the mountains where we ran into a tiny old man bent double to carry his own body weight in sticks. We also tried our hand at traditional Mayan weaving, with tutorial given by a local woman in broken Spanish, (most people speak traditional languages instead of Spanish). We managed to communicate well enough to work out the basics and got to work in her tiny house as her two young sons zoomed around pretending to shoot each other with sticks. We are now the proud owners of two exceptionally wonky striped belts, which are precisely the wrong size to ever be worn.

After manfully braving the cold in the Mayan heartland (the temperature inside our room in Quetzaltenango was 1 degree!) we returned to humming birds, river houses and palm leaf roofs on the Caribbean side of the country. On the way we met a brilliant chap called Ramon, who passed the journey cheerfully recounting the ‘great experience’ of sneaking over the US border illegally some years back. We stayed in a hostel only accessible by boat, raised above the River Dulce on wooden stilts. Nearby was a natural hot waterfall, breathtakingly beautiful and surrounded by trees at the head of a winding green river. It forms a natural spa as the hot water cascades down rocks and splashes into a cold pool, creating clouds of steam that turn into rainbows in the sunlight. It really is that magic. For most of our visit we had the entire place to ourselves apart from the guard who pointed out a way of climbing tree roots to the views high above, and later some locals who showed us hidden caves below the waterfall rock, only reachable by a dive underwater. Shortly afterwards we headed into Belize, but zipped through north Guatemala one final time to visit Mayan ruins at Tikal.

Hasta la proxima!

More of both of our Guatemalan photos here

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