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A walking holiday in Guatemala & Honduras

After her recent adventures in Guatemala and Honduras, Jo, Head of Product here at KE, gives us an in-depth insight into the breath-taking encounter... Read more
A walking holiday in Guatemala & Honduras

After her recent adventures in Guatemala and Honduras, Jo, Head of Product here at KE, gives us an in-depth insight into the breath-taking encounters she experienced during her trip through a land full of culture, mystery and truly magnificent sights. From the welcoming locals to the picturesque temples, greenery and wildlife surrounding them, Guatemala and Honduras are undoubtedly unique, and will satisfy anyone who desires a thrilling and epic adventure.

Green. Everywhere. Light greens, dark greens, grass green, forest green, bottle green, petrol green – greens so dark they’re almost black and so bright they’re almost luminous – this is the great joy of a country that has wonderfully fertile volcanic soil, a year round temperate climate and enough rain to pull it all together to produce cloud forest, jungle, dense foliage that displays the largest spectrum of green I’ve ever seen – and living in the Lake District, I know green!!!! Both Guatemala and Honduras are incredibly beautiful countries, something that perhaps I didn’t really expect and was, very, pleasantly surprised to experience.

Once you have got over the abundance of green hues, you suddenly realise that there is a vibrant riot of colour that greats you at any street or market place, with shops and stalls selling the most beautifully embroidered dresses, blouses, shirts, shoes as well as wonderful woven scarves, hammocks, hanging chairs and blankets. Every possible shade of blue, red, orange - bright and clashing in the very best of ways. As a bit of an ex hippy festival chick, it was insanely difficult not to spend my time buying all the wares that took me back to my days of festival jumpers and woven trousers – what I would, even now, refer to as “happy” clothes! One of the great things about Guatemala is that the women of the country still, predominantly, wear the colourful woven garments that you see on sale and bring such a blast of colour to everyday life you cannot help but smile.

But what of the regions I visited in particular – Flores/Tikal, Antigua and Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, Copan in Honduras? Tikal is everything you expect it to be, and more. To get here most people, and we were no different, fly to Flores from Guatemala City and then travel on to Tikal. Flores itself is a lovely little town, Colonial style and full of friendly smiling faces and great restaurants and bars – so much more than just the stepping off point for Tikal and definitely worth spending some time here to explore. The drive to Tikal is quite short from Flores, but the change in environment is dramatic – you leave behind a vibrant, lake side town to enter jungle – bumpy roads, humidity and exciting glimpses of piles of fallen temples, taken back by the jungle plants and forest. The Tikal site is huge and only partially excavated. Everywhere we went our guide pointed out hills of overgrown foliage and jungle life – underneath which were more temples and ruins, more than could ever be rediscovered and very quickly covered over by this lush environment in which the Mayans built their city.

Keeping my eyes peeled for any Rebel Forces or the Millennium Falcon landing on Temple IV, we explored the fascinating and so impressive, site. The “well known” temples – Temple I or the Jaguar Temple and Temple II; Temple of the Masks are amazing. Massive, imposing structures facing each other across a lush green field, giving us a glimpse into how stunning this Mayan city must have been when it was in its full glory. Coati Mundi (the resident, bit like brown racoons, mammals) are everywhere, rummaging around in the undergrowth looking for grubs and scavenging for any picnic bits people may have dropped as well as, spider monkeys, toucans and other tropical birds glimpsed flying around in the canopy – you could easily spend a few hours at Tikal ignoring the archaeological and historical significance and concentrating on the wildlife that it houses.

Tikal is so much quieter than any other, well known, archaeological site I’ve visited, once we move away from Temples I and II we barely see another person. You can easily lose yourself in a Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Lara Croft style fantasy, exploring the, jungle hidden, ruins throughout the site. Sadly, our time comes to move on and we have an uneventful flight back from Flores to Guatemala city before heading to Antigua.

“Welcome to my home town!” exclaimed our guide as we stood atop the Cerro de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross) looking out across the beautiful, colonial, city of La Antigua, Guatemala and the imposing sight of Volcan Agua opposite. Fiercely proud of where he’d been born and brought up, this was where Helmuth, our Guatemalan guide, was clearly at home and had been the moment he’d been waiting for since our trip started.

He was right to be proud of Antigua, what a gorgeous place to spend time. With a main square or plaza, housing fountains, shady trees and children playing and surrounded by old colonial style architecture – Antigua truly was a joy to behold. Although tuk tuks and taxis are in abundance, the streets don’t seem busy and the town has an altogether much more laid back feel to it. There is the most colourful of markets and an opportunity to try some of the best, freshest coffee available. The cathedral and churches give you an opportunity to see how Catholicism has infiltrated and guided the Guatemalans for centuries and it is truly beautiful to sit at the back of the church and listen to the melodic tones of the choir singing their Sunday morning hymns.

Something I never knew about the Mayans is how much they used Jade, one of many links to ancient China that seem to crop up mysteriously throughout my new learning about their culture – along with dragon carvings and the world carried on the back of turtles (a slight nod to Discworld I feel too – but perhaps Terry Pratchett was a secret studier of the Mayan world?) It is in Antigua where we see a lot of Jade, beautiful jade jewellery, trinkets and larger ornaments. The work is exquisite and clearly there are some very talented jade workers in Antigua. I try my hand at cutting and polishing some jade – it’s not the best! Thankfully they can still use it for smaller pieces and I haven’t made a complete hash of their most precious stone!

Again, and all too soon, it is time for us to leave the sunshine dappled square of Antigua and head up and over the mountains (the difference in temperature is phenomenal – brrrrrr) then down to the shores of Lake Atitlan. Arriving in the dark, I wonder what this little town, Panajachel, will reveal to us the following day – what it does reveal (around 5.30am with jetlag still a problem) is a beautiful vista out of my bedroom window – Lake Atitlan and the stunning volcanoes of Atitlan and Toliman, peaking out from under the early morning cloud. As the morning progresses and the coffee is consumed I watch the cloud slowly lifting to reveal more and more of these magnificent peaks looming over the lake. We take to the lake by motor boat and zip along, enjoying the cooling spray and beautiful lakeshore, dotted with little villages, one of which, Santiago de Atitlan is our destination for the morning. Santiago is, once again, a riot of colour, but, avoiding buying too much this time, we make a visit to Maximon, one of our main reasons for visiting this village. Maximon is a Mayan god, he smokes he drinks and he is visited by the local people for blessings or healing. There is a regular stream of visitors to Maximon, some tourists, some local, the room is dark, hot and pungent with smoke and no photos are allowed without a donation to Maximon himself!

Such a short visit to Guatemala, packed in so much but I had to leave this amazing country as there was another green haven on my visiting list and that was Honduras. From Guatemala City it takes around a three and a half hour drive to get to the border of the two countries. The border crossing takes place in one building with the first window being your exit from Guatemala and the second window being your entry into Honduras – such simplicity at a border isn’t often found and the transition from one country to the next was wonderfully easy! Copan is a mere 17miles from the border, so before long we were in another gorgeous colonial style town with terracotta walled houses emblazoned with vibrant purple and pink bougainvillea. The sun is shining, the humidity is high and the town square gives us our first introduction to Copan with a highly informative museum and a brilliant photographic history of the excavations in the town hall. Copan archaeological site itself is another real treat. Quiet, a chance to get back into our jungle adventure, and with some stunning artefacts, very different to Tikal. Copan is smaller and doesn’t have the imposing temples that Tikal has, but it does have the amazing hieroglyphic stairway and the stunning underground Roasalila temple, overgrown by the jungle and covered up by centuries of earth, that can be visited via tunnels dug out by archaeologists. Constantly distracting you from the archaeological remains are the squawking flashes of colour of the scarlet macaws that have been recently released around Copan. Rescued by a local bird park, these beautiful birds are rehabilitated and then released back into the wild to repopulate the Copan area, an ongoing success story that gives yet another reason why visiting Copan is such a special experience.

My time in Central America was all too fleeting and I can’t wait to go back. The colour, the people, the wildlife, the history and the Zacapa all make Guatemala (and Honduras) a definite must see for anyone and I, for one, will definitely be back.

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