Dawn rises over an ancient Mayan temple at Tikal in central Guatemala, and the jungle awakens as we take in a startling vista from above the rainforest canopy. The Temple of the Two-Headed Snake, standing at an imposing 65 metres, is the tallest structure in the massive 500 square kilometre Tikal National Park, and we have walked for an hour guided by flashlight beam and up a rickety wooden staircase to sit in silence at its crown as the first glow of daylight stirs a cacophony from howler monkeys, countless bird species and even a jaguar from the deep jungle that surrounds us.
This is the epicenter of the ancient Mayan world, constructed about 740AD, and although it is hundreds of kilometres from the nearest city and has only two modest accommodation lodges within the park, it’s still surprising that so few people are about – perhaps 40 to observe the dawn, and only a few hundred dotted about the park during the day.
Most Mayan temple hunters go to the more famous and easily accessible Chichen Itza in Mexico, but the cluster of temples and towers at Tikal is grander in scale, more dramatically enveloped by jungle, and more awe inspiring for enabling you to observe it all in such solitude.
This is how it is through much of Guatemala, a lush Central American nation of fascinating history and dramatic landscape that remains beyond the busy tourist trails. If you’re patient enough to traverse the country by road – and the skinny, meandering potholed highways are best negotiated by a driver who can be rented for modest daily fees – you’ll be rewarded with imposing views of mountain-top coffee and tobacco plantations, and have access to a variety of jungle adventures, from navigating rivers that cut through limestone caves, to climbing up the slopes of steaming active volcanoes.
However, as a jarring contrast to the striking physical beauty of Guatemala’s big landscape, the extent of poverty endured throughout much of the country’s central rural villages is shocking. Farm workers’ rickety plasterboard shacks flanking the highway have dirt floors, no electricity, and water is ferried by children carrying pots on their head from the local river. The cruel irony is that these villagers tend extremely valuable crops on magically fertile land, controlled by only a handful of powerful and wealthy Guatemalan families.
Disparity between rich and poor is also pronounced in the central Guatemala holiday playground of Lake Atitlan. The lakeside town of Panajachel was discovered by wandering Californian hippies in the 1970s; now, cashed up Americans are buying land and building multi-story mansions that dominate the most commanding views over the water.
In their shadow lays a string of small villages, populated with crafty local woman forming cooperatives to keep alive their traditional practices of weaving dyed cotton and herbology. This has finally empowered women to work from home and earn an income through selling their crafts direct to customers, although the cooperatives are viewed as both a blessing and a curse. While giving women independent control of their own businesses, they are also overly dependent on a steady tourist trade coming to their village and selecting their side-street shop ahead of many others.
One business making pleasing progress is Casa Flor Ixcaco, a group of female weavers led by Miriam Navichoc in the tiny village of San Juan, nuzzled across the lake from Panajachel. In their small workshop and showroom, the women demonstrate how they spin and dye cotton with natural colours, then weave it into intricate and wonderfully decorative textiles. Still, some visitors baulk at their sensational artisanal work because it carries a premium price – not exorbitant, but significantly higher than mass-produced goods in street market stalls. It’s a challenge for Miriam and her co-workers to advocate the true value of their unique, hand crafted garments.
Other artisans choose to sell their wares at the famous Chichicastenango Market, held only on Thursdays and Sundays. Famed as one of the most colourful markets in Central America, it has grown to take over most of the remote mountaintop township, located about three hours’ drive north of the country’s capital Guatemala City.
Beyond attracting a throng of tourists, this is an essential trading market for locals, with thousands coming from villages hundreds of kilometres away to sell and obtain domestic necessities, from medicinal plants to plastic tubs for preparing batches of tortilla dough, to live turkeys and carpentry tools. Food is a serious focus – the local basketball court is transformed into a heaving farmers’ market, blankets and trestle tables heaped with vegetables and fruits.
While the Chichicastenango Market has transformed greatly since its inception in the late 1960s, when a handful of vendors were contained within the courtyard outside the stark, whitewashed, 400-year-old Catholic Church of Santo Tomas, one thing remains unchanged – a cluster of flower sellers on the church’s steps, providing tributes to the devout whose faith remains unwavering, regardless of the economic hardships facing most Guatemalans.
Volcanoes at Lake Atitlan – Wikimedia creative commons
All other photos by David Sly – All Rights Reserved