I sometimes wonder whether I can trust my memory of Guatemala, given the mental health issues I experienced when I was there. In my memory, the sun shines brighter there than anywhere else, the lakes I swam in were more blue and the trees I climbed more green, and everything tasted fresher. My energy level and lust for life were high there, and my need for sleep dwindled drastically. The day after I arrived, following a quick 17 hour stop in New York (just long enough to eat in my favourite vegan restaurant in the East Village) and a 6am flight from La Guardia, I sat on the roof terrace of Antigua’s cafe Luna de Miel, whose sign outside claims the lofty title of “Best Roof Terrace in the World”, and I have yet to find a better one. With one half under the shelter of a wooden canopy painted in bright colours, and the other half out in the sun, it boasts both high and low tables, comfortable sofas and colourful beanbags as well as star-shaped wind chimes hanging from the canopy. Its view is of Antigua’s pastel-coloured streets and Spanish archways leading out of the town, which lies in the shadow of the smoking Pacaya Volcano.
I sat and took in this otherworldly view while sipping on sweet mint lemonade, freshly made. Antigua seems technicolour in my memory and I can still taste the lemonade. I thought that surely no one in the world had ever felt this happy before.
This was the onset of bipolar mania. My condition was as yet undiagnosed, and I had no idea that the immense joy I felt wasn’t natural. While still at this inoccuous level and not yet interfering with my abiltiy to conduct my life, it enhanced my experience of Central America, brightening all the colours and intensifying all the tastes, sounds and sights. It wasn’t until later that I couldn’t keep up with my racing thoughts and started to loosen my grip on reality.
I wandered Antigua’s cobbled streets feeling like I was walking through a Legoland town, waved hello to the Guatemalan women selling tacos and woven goods on the sides of the street, and soaked up the sound of Spanish all around me. Sheltering under the trees in Parque Central, the main square, I walked toward the ruined cathedral on its East side, with its still-perfect ornate facade. Once inside the cathedral, you’re in the open air beneath a clear blue sky. It was destroyed by a series of earthquakes from 1669 to 1773, and now its flying buttresses and pillars but little else remain in the interior, where greenery is left to grow freely among its crumbling walls. The result is a very peaceful and quite unique space to explore or to sit on the grass and read a book or write a diary.
A long bus journey took me from Antigua to Flores, a town set on an island in the middle of Lake Peten in the North of Guatemala. I stayed at the Hotel Maya Internacional, a resort made up of small one and two-storey whitewashed villas with thatched roofs containing simple but pretty rooms, set among winding pathways and palm trees on the edge of the lake. My room directly overlooked the lake, with windows around two sides – a corner room on the end of a block. The view out over the lake as the sun came up, its light seeping in the window and waking me early, was well worth getting up for. The cobbled town of Flores on the island is reached via a ten minute walk across a landbridge.
Flores is the starting point for visiting Tikal, Guatemala’s huge and most famous Mayan ruin site. Tikal is much larger but far less discovered than Mexico’s more famous Chichen Itza. At 576km², it is the remains of a whole ancient city. Fewer than half of its buildings have as yet been uncovered from the rainforest that has taken it over for a thousand years. Tikal’s history goes back as far as 1000 BC, and the city was abandoned by its population around the 10th or 11th Century AD. It was first discovered by modern civilisation in the 1850s. Like many modern cities, Tikal has a central plaza, a palace complex, and numerous temples as well as hundreds (perhaps thousands) of smaller buildings, and many burial sites of known leadership figures in Mayan history. The most commonly found structure in the site is the Mayan pyramid. The largest of the pyramid-shaped temples are numbered, I, II, III, IV, V and VI, with Temple IV being the tallest structure in the city, its peak rising up high above the top of the jungle. It was here that a scene for the very first Star Wars film was shot in 1977.
When standing at the top of Temple IV, the view stretches for miles across the jungle canopy, with the peaks of two other temples visible above the tops of the trees.
There are many uncovered smaller buildings to be seen while walking around the site – these look like huge masses of earth overgrown with trees, shrubs and grass, but underneath are more archaeological discoveries waiting to be made. The excavation of Tikal continues. Arriving there shortly after 6am and sunrise, we beat the crowds and saw the site at its most wild and deserted. On our full day walking tour, we walked over 8 kilometres around its vast landscape. Standing in the middle of the central plaza, the incredible, gigantic structures on all sides would make anyone feel tiny and insignificant.
Close to the entrance to Tikal National Park, and far from the ruins, there is a novel way to see the jungle wildlife. Tikal Canopy Tour is a series of nine ziplines, where a person can climb a tree and literally fly through the forest, stopping to climb higher up another tree and go again. In my heightened mental state I had absolutely no sense of fear, and I gleefully flew up and up, trying forward-facing, seated, and even upside down positions, as the adrenaline pushed me higher. I felt like a bird zipping through the jungle, its shades of green and scents of leaves and flowers whizzing past me as I was eye-level with the real birds, and I took joy in climbing the trees, searching for branches and footholds. The ninth and final line takes the fliers back down to the level of the first tree, where a ladder leads back to the forest floor.
It should be noted that an Australian named Peter, one of the other travellers who came on this high-flying zipline adventure with me, was celebrating his 60th birthday that day. He was living with terminal cancer, but that didn’t stop him from travelling the world and giving 20 year olds a run for their money in the adventure stakes. I clicked on Peter’s Facebook page today while writing this article, to find that he passed away six months ago. Shortly before his death he made a documentary about the incredible 11 years he had lived since his terminal diagnosis, and about his belief that spending those years travelling with his wife Merrie had both lengthened his life and improved its quality. He lived a further two and a half years after I met them in Guatemala, and I think we can all learn something from his attitude. He and Merrie were a joy to be around.
Since Flores is the base from which most people visit Tikal, it can be easy to miss out on what the town and the lake have to offer. Along with two other travellers, I spent a blissful afternoon on a low wooden pier over the perfectly blue lake, halfway between Tikal and Flores, where we swam, drank beer and played music, watching a group of local boys jump in and out of the water.
The weather was beautiful, the sun shone brightly and we sheltered underneath a thatched canopy on the pier in between cooling swims. Although I had already done so many amazing things in Guatemala, that afternoon was probably the time I enjoyed most, totally relaxed.
Soon it was time to head toward the Eastern border with Belize. Along with a few others, I said goodbye to Peter and Merrie, who were staying in Guatemala. On the way to the border, our bus was held up as the road had been closed down due to a shoot out between the army and the drug cartel, and bodies were still being cleared from the road – a reminder that outside the main tourist spots, Guatemala suffers from a high level of crime and violence, and care should be taken while travelling there. Despite this, my head was still in the clouds, where it was to remain as I continued to explore Central America. Belize was calling, so onward we moved.