THE LONDON TELEGRAPH
Imogen Stubbs discovers that a trip to Guatemala can colour your view of Latin America
I recently got in a cab with a very unusual driver. He had huge teeth, Eric Morecambe glasses and a Cockney accent. On the dashboard was a book with a jaguar on the cover. During the trip he told me he'd been on holiday in Guatemala when it had been revealed to him that he was a shaman.
Tikal: the most spectacular of Guatemala's Mayan ruins
"Oh yeah. . . Guatemala was the journey to the heart of my indigenous soul."
"You see, that's where I got acquainted with the sublime majesty of the universe and the fluctuant, alchemical miracle that is quotidian consciousness. . . . You did say Streatham High Street, didn't you, love?"
He then made a divination about me. "What I can say to you is this: many opportunities are passing at your disposal, but your abilities is slightly lackin'."
"In other words, ruffle your wings - but don't try for the moon."
I resisted trying for the moon but did take the opportunity to wing it to Guatemala soon afterwards. I also read Secrets of the Talking Jaguar by Martin Prechtel - a fascinating account of his initiation into shamanism. I have a feeling my cab driver had read the same book.
However, when I told people where I was going, spirituality wasn't foremost in their minds.
"Are you mad? I mean, hello! Round-the-clock Imodium. . .. and such a dangerous, violent place. Remember that film with Sissy Spacek and kidnapping and stuff? Here today, Gua-temala."
All I can say is that I had a wonderful time and arrived back to find Heathrow on full terror alert and my children at home sick with a nasty stomach virus. Oh, and that Spacek film was set in Chile.
That said, I imagine much of Latin America is afflicted and blessed by the same paradoxes: hibiscus flowers and machetes; quiescent lakes and erupting volcanoes; raconteurs and people silenced by fear; superstitious rituals and evangelical Christianity; unguarded smiles and bodyguards; temples and potholes; ancient wisdom and contemporary ignorance.
It is a place to visit armed with common sense, diplomacy and ear-plugs - and a commission to make an interior decorating programme along the lines of "Eat your heart out, Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen".
My friend Serena Gordon, a photographer, and I made the 16-hour journey from Heathrow to Guatemala City via Miami, and then went a further hour by car to Antigua - a Unesco World Heritage Site. This exquisite colonial town appears to have been kidnapped from 16th-century Spain and relocated to a hazy tropical setting guarded by volcanoes, seemingly untouched by either past earthquakes or one of the dirtiest guerrilla wars in Latin American history.
It is so colourful that an aerial picture makes it look like a Haagen-Dazs ice-cream counter - with bright yellow churches, and bougainvillea revivifying the blood-red ruins of numerous convents. We arrived at night to the sound of cicadas and a brass band, and the sight of fireworks casting shadows on cathedral walls.
We were staying at the Mesón Panza Verde, situated behind an unpromising-looking door on a quiet road. Inside, we could have been in the Alhambra: this is a ravishingly designed hotel built around a courtyard garden with faded armchairs nestling among the flowers, and a cobalt-blue pool lapping the vaulted restaurant. In unexpected places spiral staircases lead up to a labyrinth of candle-lit roof-terraces, where people lie in large woven hammocks among lavender and thyme, drinking cold white wine and contemplating the smoking volcano in the moonlight. It is a phenomenally peaceful place - no traffic, no planes, no car alarms - although some of the fireworks sounded like mortar bombs.
We ate out in a small Italian restaurant up the road. A man sang folk songs while hot-blooded young couples smoked and drank and kissed and danced. Serena and I felt a little staid and jowly and resolved to learn to dance salsa, and reconsider the joys of botox and fake tan.
We spent the next few days in Antigua drinking coffee in the main square, with its fountains and birds and children with ravishing smiles. We had to go there a lot because the only phrase I know in Spanish is "Where is the main square?" We spent one day riding around a nearby coffee plantation - a lovely experience even for a rider as inept as I am, and it was fascinating to watch how coffee is made.
At night we went salsa dancing in a spit-and-sawdust dancehall. After a few drinks and with superb partners we felt we acquitted ourselves pretty well. As we left we got congratulated on our "bravery".
The town has so many lovely bookshops and bakeries that it started to remind me of a mini-San Francisco. These are patronised by the foreign students learning Spanish at the many language schools. Indeed, with so many fabulous hotels and gorgeous shops it may prove hard to preserve Antigua's authenticity.
However, the main form of transport is still the deliriously bright "chicken bus", packed with people and animals and individually decorated like an entry for a Blue Peter "wacky design" competition. As long as these are still around, and while the street stalls still serve drinks made from hibiscus flowers and cinnamon, Guatemala seems safe from global homogenisation.
From Antigua we were driven to Lake Atitlán. The journey was pretty hairy since there are no road markings or rules, but potholes and pigs at regular intervals. However, buckets of cheap lilies and orchids adorn the roadsides, and the majority of people wear traditional woven outfits that are stunning. Each village has different colours and designs - the women in skirts and intricately woven tops, and the men in stripy trousers under woollen sarongs, embroidered shirts, ponchos and battered cowboy hats. They adore David Beckham in Guatemala, and if he and Hello! magazine are looking for a new look for their summer cover, I think this is the one.
Lake Atitlán is like a Mayan Lake Como, but surrounded by volcanoes. It is home to fishermen, hummingbirds and swimming children. There are thankfully no power launches or jet-skiers.
We were staying at Casa Palopó - another tastefully decorated hotel with astonishing views of the lake from all the balconied rooms, the terrace-restaurant and even our shower. Under a full moon we swam in the small heated pool to the sound of classical music. Then we sat under the stars playing chess and drinking tequila, while night-fishermen bobbed on the lake like fireflies.
Our only problem was the barking of a dog, which acted on us like Chinese water torture. The next morning we mentioned this to the manager. Twenty minutes later we heard a gunshot. That night we went to bed mortified by what we had done. At three in the morning a familiar yapping shattered our sleep. We broke into spontaneous applause.
We explored the surrounding area with our guide, a local woman called Dolores. She turned out to have been married to the man who wrote Secrets of the Talking Jaguar. We went to the market town in Sololá - so colourful it is virtually erupting into song. They sell everything imaginable - water melons, goats, candyfloss, plastic owls, nose-pipes, painted masks, spools of vibrantly coloured thread.
I bought a stripy sarong with no waist band, and Serena bought a traditional headdress in aquamarine and orange. It was only when we tried them on back at the hotel that we remembered that we're not beautiful slim teenagers with amazing teeth and cheekbones, but pasty-faced white women who appeared to be dressed in bath-mats. Also Serena never grasped the exchange rate.
"So 7.6 thingies is one and a half dollars which is £1.50 which makes 11.50 to the pound so the headdress cost £83."
"No, about £3."
We travelled across the lake by boat and then canoe, and ended up mooring near the Posada de Santiago hotel, where we ate lunch with its charismatic Californian owner. He admitted the thing he missed most about the United States was people saying "I don't know" when they didn't know the answer to a question.
We walked round the dusty town of Santiago and into the church - not so long ago the scene of a horrific massacre. The funeral of a young girl was taking place and a large part of the community was present singing a haunting lament, while many of them breastfed tiny babies. During the ceremony Dolores's mobile phone went off under her traditional headdress. She answered it. Nobody batted an eyelid.
We visited a shack where about 30 men, women and children were eating, drinking and dancing among large tubs of laundry, and coaxed us into joining them. This turned out to be a Mayan ceremony to celebrate the clothes-washing ritual of their resident Maximón. This is an effigy resembling a sort of alcoholic Guy Fawkes, who is consulted by all believers in a tiny room lit by fairy lights.
Part of the ritual involves placing alcohol and cigarettes into its mouth and drinking the "holy" laundry water. People sit and wait their turn and strangers are readily admitted as long as they leave a donation for the upkeep of Maximon. Owing to Serena's problem with the exchange rate, we left enough to keep him in booze and fags for a good few years.
As we were leaving Santiago I felt a bit shaky, which I put down to jetlag. Later that day we were told we had experienced an earth tremor measuring 5.2 on the Richter scale. No one looked any more bothered than when I had seen flames erupting from the volcano back in Antigua. It's all part of everyday life - along with the sound of ice-cream carts tinkling their bells, and people practising the trumpet behind dusty green shutters.
Next we flew to Flores and the completely different world of the Peten rainforest - home to tropical wildlife, jungle and spectacular ruins. We were staying in Ni'tun Lodge, on the shore of Lake Petén Itzá. We travelled down a dirt track to be met by tame parrots, the smell of home-made bread and a Halle Berry lookalike emerging from the turquoise lake.
This turned out to be our hostess. Her husband, Bernie, has worked with the National Geographic and many famous archaeologists, and has the kind of jungle experience that enables you to put your life in his hands. We stayed in a simple wooden chalet, and swam every day in the warm, crocodile-free water, while little fish gazed at our cellulite in disbelief. Meals were served in a huge open-plan room with everyone eating together, and hummingbirds dive-bombing the plates of papaya and guava.
Bernie took us to a beautiful Mayan ruin close to nearby Lake Yaxha. We were the only people there, and ended up sitting on top of a high burial mound drinking cold white wine and eating Chinese pears while the sun set behind the lagoon and electric-blue parrots and toucans swooped beneath us. All you could see in every direction was jungle, and the only noise was the terrifying sound of howler monkeys - like dinosaurs giving birth.
It was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life, on a par with being alone in Notre Dame - although the walk back through the jungle in the dark looking out for boa constrictors and jaguars was stomach-churning. During the drive home there was an electric storm, and as we stopped to watch it we were sluiced by a cloud of fireflies.
After this, our trip to the spectacular but touristy ruins at Tikal was awesome but less magical. Especially since any exploration of the temples requires a degree of stamina and fitness that seemed beyond most visitors. The jungle echoed with the incessant barking of obese, flip-flopped Americans: "Excuse me! Yes, you in the poncho. . . Where are the goddamn golf-buggies?"
We finished our trip with a brief visit to the main market in Guatemala City with Martha, a textile specialist. She was great, but I think the city is genuinely frightening and there is nothing you can't get cheaper elsewhere. And Serena almost had a nervous breakdown trying to work out the exchange rate on all the prices being yelled at her by ruthlessly competitive vendors.
Also, in Antigua we had found a market that sold antique clothes and fabrics made by generations of indigenous weavers. I bought lots of these to adorn our sitting-room walls in Chiswick. When my brother came round he asked if our drier was broken. I asked him why and he said: "I assumed that's why you've got your washing hanging all over the sitting-room. Either that or you're doing a big turn-out for Oxfam."
Maybe you have to be there to really appreciate that Guatemalan zing.
Imogen Stubbs travelled with Worldwide Journeys & Expeditions
(020 7386 4646, www.worldwidejourneys.co.uk). A 12-day tour, taking in Lake Atitlán, Antigua, Ni'tun Lodge, and Guatemala City, costs from £1,488 per person, including flights, transfers, b & b (full board at Ni'tun Lodge) and four guided tours.