Guatemala feeds lust for a bit of adventure

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      I’m sweating in the jungle at Tikal National Park, and it’s not just because of the humid 33 ° C weather. For the first time in my life, I’m holding a tarantula.

      Even with its legs tucked close to its body, the spider easily covers my left palm. After being gently tipped into my hand by my Guatemalan Tourism Institute guide, it feels surprisingly soft, fuzzy, and passive. The guide assured me it was safe when he caught the tarantula coming out of a hole in the ground. But I’m still on guard.

      The drama is heightened by my surroundings. Beyond the palm and ceiba trees, which emit the ceaseless chatter of cicadas, stands Temple IV, a pyramid built circa AD 741 to honour a Mayan ruler. At 65 metres, it’s the tallest remaining pre-Columbian structure in the Americas. Minutes earlier, I climbed it and marvelled at the sight of other temples looming out of the jungle. George Lucas used that same panorama to depict the planet Yavin 4 in 1977’s Star Wars.

      For decades, Guatemala evoked images of war. Central America’s most populous country (at 15 million) had a grim civil war between the military government and leftist rebels from 1960 to 1996. It claimed some 200,000 lives.

      To Canadians, both the ancient Maya—who practised human sacrifice on a lesser scale than the Aztecs to the north—and Guatemala may still project an aura of danger and mystery. When thinking about vacationing in a Spanish-speaking country, we’re more likely to book an all-inclusive holiday in Mexico or Cuba. Yet I discovered that nowadays, this 1821-founded republic often integrates Mayan architecture, food, art, and beliefs in a palatable, nonlethal way.

      I spent a relaxing afternoon at the Santa Teresita thermal baths, located just outside Guatemala City and modelled on Mayan ruins. The hot springs stem from the Pacaya volcano, one of Guatemala’s three active volcanoes.

      Another day, an early two-hour drive from the capital city brought my tour group to the famous Chichicastenango market. After breakfasting on eggs, black beans, and fried plantains beneath brass chandeliers at the Hotel Santo Tomas, we explored the market along cobblestone streets. Offerings included everything from pottery to wooden dance masks to traditional blankets.

      Local Mayan officials, sporting ceremonial red headdresses and carrying batons, ushered us into the Church of Santo Tomas. It was built in 1545 atop a Mesoamerican temple platform. Here, we witnessed the fusion between Mayan beliefs and Catholicism, which was imported by the 16th-century conquistadors. Catholic prayer candles flickering on the floor were surrounded by white petals, symbolizing life in the Mayan world-view.

      After driving an hour and a half from Chichicastenango to Lake Atitlán, we took a boat tour to visit Galería de Arte Chiya in San Juan la Laguna. This quaint lakeside village hosts a 1992-established artists’ collective of 13 men and nine women. Oil paintings by Antonio Coché Mendoza and Angelina Quic typically feature psychedelic subjects like Mayan peasants facing levitating baskets of ripe melons.

      Guatemala City offered other striking contrasts. In the main plaza, home to both the National Palace and the Metropolitan Cathedral, a religious procession saw black-suited worshippers toting a statue of Jesus, accompanied by a sonorous marching band. Simultaneously, there was a loud beat-boxing competition, with local kids in cutoff T-shirts break-dancing.

      Neither of these events was really my scene. But I dived into the outdoor book fair, seeking an English translation of Men of Maize by Guatemalan author Miguel Angel Asturias. In this classic novel, the 1967 Nobel Prize for Literature winner dramatizes the conflict between traditional Mayan farmers and planters who want to commercialize corn production. (I guess I should have learned more Spanish, as I never found an English version.)

      Leaving the plaza, I witnessed beverage service that Starbucks could never match. A young woman purchased a cup of fresh goat’s milk from a whip-cracking herder with seven goats. It took less than 20 seconds for him to squeeze an engorged teat and deliver the foaming drink.

      I dined well in Guatemala. For instance, a 40-minute drive away in the central highland city of Antigua Guatemala (famed for its colonial architecture and unrelated to the Caribbean island), I made my own tortilla on a hot stove at the entrance of Rincon Tipico, a popular local eatery. I also feasted on spiced pumpkin soup and double-cooked chicken with edamame at the Casa Santo Domingo hotel restaurant.

      Yet my main motive for visiting Guatemala was to feed my lust for adventure. When we took the 50-minute flight from Guatemala City to Tikal, I got what I wanted.

      Holding a tarantula wasn’t my only wildlife encounter amid the monumental Mayan ruins. A troop of more than 20 coatis—Central American raccoons with long striped tails—swarmed in the underbrush, seeking grubs and exploding into squeaky fury when one nipped another. Howler monkeys sprang through the trees. And I spotted a green toucan in a pepper tree, its yellow beak protruding.

      Amazingly, only about 20 percent of Tikal’s 576-square-kilometre area has been fully explored by archaeologists. So far, they’ve uncovered more than 4,000 structures.

      In the Plaza of the Seven Temples, I was shown how to clap my hands and produce a strange echo that sounded like a duck quacking. And I felt dwarfed by the intimidatingly bold north face of Temple V, which I contemplated in near solitude. It was much less crowded here than during my visit to the Mayan ruins of Chichén Itzá on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.

      “I hope you have a little piece of Tikal in your heart,” our guide said as we left the site. Absolutely, but I was also glad the tarantula didn’t have a little piece of me in its fangs.

      Access: The writer travelled as a guest of the Guatemalan Tourism Institute; for travel info, see the Visit Guatemala website.