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Under the Shaman’s Spell
by Neil Geraghty
A journey around Central America reveals a hidden world of sorcery and ancient traditions.
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We’d better hurry, the rainy season begins at two”, said Arturo my chirpy Guatemalan guide. We’d just arrived at the Mayan Biosphere Reserve in the steaming jungle lowlands of Guatemala’s northern Petén province and were having a quick breakfast before setting off on a 10km hike to explore the magnificent Mayan ruins of Tikal. The sky was an eggshell blue speckled with tiny powder puff clouds and slender scarlet winged Helicopter Butterflies were hovering in the early morning sunbeams.
“It’s such a beautiful day, are you sure?” I replied, lingering over my coffee and doubting his precise meteorological expertise.
“Oh yes”, he nodded with that sage look that middle aged weather forecasters have the world over, “it reached El Salvador yesterday and will be here this afternoon”.
Sure enough at 2 o’clock sharp just as we scurried back to the cafe the first fat raindrops began falling and ten minutes later a thunderstorm of biblical proportions broke out sending groups of bedraggled tourists shrieking from the jungle for cover. I felt thankful to have the canny Arturo as my guide.
Petén is an exciting place to be an archaeologist. Over 200 ancient Mayan sites, some dating back 3,000 years have so far been discovered and many of them remain unexcavated. How such a great civilisation came to flourish in this inhospitable terrain and why it suddenly collapsed in the 9th Century are two of history’s greatest enigmas. Recent movie blockbusters such as Apocalypto and 2012 have sparked a worldwide interest in the ancient Mayans and there’s no better place to experience the full grandeur of this mysterious civilization than at Tikal.
Tikal’s allure lies as much in its pristine jungle setting as in the spectacular ruined temples and as we entered the Bioreserve, Arturo was hopping with excitement. This was his favourite place in Guatemala and he kept a detailed record on his digital camera of all the wildlife he encountered on each of his visits.
“Look what I saw last week”, he said, excitedly as he scrolled back the photos.
A giant tarantula popped up on the screen and I almost jumped out of my skin in terror. A few minutes later a park ranger called us over. He was holding open the fanged jaws of a juvenile boa constrictor and its body was writhing around his arm in annoyance.
“Isn’t he beautiful”, cooed Arturo stroking the diamond patterned skin.
“Go ahead you can touch him”, said the beaming park ranger.
“Thanks a lot” I muttered sarcastically and with gritted teeth reached out and briefly patted my second worst nightmare (the first being tarantulas). Phobias notwithstanding, Tikal is a wonderful place to spot wildlife and it’s worth bringing along a strong pair of binoculars to get a more detailed look at the toucans, macaws and howler monkeys that transform the dense forest canopy into a colourful menagerie.[/three_fourth_last]
[three_fourth_last]The steep sided temples at Tikal are not merely an archaeological theme park. Indigenous Mayans travel here from all over Guatemala to make offerings to their ancestors. In front of the towering Jaguar Temple we stumbled across a Highland family dressed in intricately striped huipils (traditional loose fitting tunics). They were standing around a stone circle watching a shaman chant prayers and throw alcohol onto a crackling fire. We’d encountered similar scenes in front of churches throughout the Guatemalan Highlands where the Mayan’s descendents still adhere to many of their ancient beliefs.
Lake Atitlán lies in the heart of the Mayan speaking Highlands and its rich culture and breathtaking scenery justifiably make it Guatemala’s most popular tourist attraction. It’s one of the world’s most beautiful natural sights. Three perfect volcanic cones, all over 3,000 metres high sweep up from the reed fringed shore and in the afternoon, squally winds blowing in from the Pacific known as xocomil send mysterious patterns flickering across the surface and are believed to cleanse away sins.
One of the most enjoyable ways to experience Atitlan is to hire a water taxi and cruise around the lake visiting the fascinating Tz’utujil and Kaqchikel speaking villages that dot the shoreline. The villagers are renowned for their colourful textiles which are woven on portable back strap looms, a technique which dates back to the ancient Mayans. Each village has its own distinct traditional dress and at the jetty in San Juan La Laguna we were greeted by some smiling Tz’utujil girls wearing green and purple zigzag patterned huipils.
“The zigzags represent snakes, the Mayan symbol of the sky”, the encyclopaedic Arturo pointed out. A fisherman in a sombrero was handing the girls large silver bellied crabs from his rectangular wooden boat which they were dextrously tying onto long poles. These they then slung over their shoulders and carried up the hill to the market like crucifixes.
At the top of the hill Arturo called over to a group of small boys who were playing football and asked them the directions to the shrine of Maximón, the Highlands’ infamous “evil saint”. The boys dutifully interrupted their game (Guatemalan children are some of the best behaved in the world) and politely escorted us down a dusty alleyway into a dimly lit shack. Here surrounded by flickering candles sat a life-sized statue of a moustachioed European man wearing a ghostly white mask and straw boater with a limp cigar hanging out of his mouth.
Following the Spanish Conquest, the Mayan tribes readily adopted Catholicism but to the exasperation of the missionaries merely mingled it with their traditional beliefs creating a hybrid religion which is one of the most fascinating elements of modern Mayan culture. Maximón is a combination of the Mayan God Mam, Saint Simeon and the bloodthirsty Conquistador Pedro de Alvarado. Locals come here, often straight from church, with offerings of alcohol and cigarettes in the hope that this sinister looking deity will grant them anything from good crops to a happy marriage. Next to Maximón’s shrine stood an exquisite knee high ancient Mayan figurine with an enigmatic smile. The custodian of the shrine nonchalantly told us that he’d discovered it on a mountainside, evidence of the tantalizing treasures that still lie undiscovered throughout Guatemala.
Later in the afternoon we had an exhilarating ride over the lake to the northern Kaqchikel speaking shore. The capricious xocomil winds had picked up sending our boat careering over the choppy waves. At San Antonio Palopo the villagers were celebrating their annual fiesta and the air was filled with the delicious smell of frying tortillas wafting out of street stalls. In front of a pretty whitewashed church a crowd had gathered to watch the Dance of the Conquistadors. To the slow hypnotic tinkling of marimbas, a line of drunken men were staggering around dressed in dazzling scarlet and blue military uniforms. Around their faces they’d tied finely carved wooden masks depicting golden bearded Spanish soldiers while on their heads 16th century style war helmets covered in sequins were sparkling in the sunshine. The dance was introduced by the Spanish to commemorate their colonial victories but in typical Mayan fashion was incorporated into an intoxicated pre Columbian dance that is believed to release the spirits of the dead.
Although it’s possible to swim in Atitlan, the water is freezing and with the Belize Barrier Reef tantalizingly close, a popular tourist route is to travel overland to the Honduran Bay Islands to unwind with a few days’ scuba diving and snorkelling in the pristine Caribbean waters. The route takes you through Copan Ruinas, a delightful highland town with an invigorating spring – like climate. Here you can enjoy horse riding around the hillside coffee fincas and explore the nearby ruined city which has one of the finest collections of sculpture in the Mayan world and is mercifully free of Tikal’s creepy crawlies.
It comes as a big surprise to discover that the Bay Islanders speak a lilting old fashioned English dialect. Known as Garifunas, these English speaking Afro Caribbeans are found all the way along the coast from Belize to Nicaragua and are descendents of rebellious African Slaves and Carib Indians who were deported from St Vincent by the British in the 18th century.
Roatan is the largest of the Bay islands and at the backpacker hangout of West End I hired a scooter for the day and headed out along dusty roads stopping at isolated beaches where the only company I had wee spinytail iguanas basking in the sunshine on fallen coconuts. The Garifunas are famous for their seafood and at the ramshackle village of Punta Gorda I stopped at a beachside café and ordered a spicy coconut fish soup swimming with plantains, king prawns and chilli peppers. On the sand a group of boys carrying sticks were prodding a deadly poisonous purple Portuguese Man of War that had been washed up on the beach while just offshore a fisherman in a wooden dug – out canoe paddled by, idly trawling for Queen Conchs, a popular local delicacy.
That evening a Garifuna dance troop came to perform in my beachside resort. A troop of drummers dressed in white struck up a frenzied rhythm and a group of ladies in Rastafarian coloured skirts began shuffling forward chanting hypnotic incantations. A medicine man dressed in a knee length grass robe began spinning around them wailing and shaking maracas in a scene that transported us straight back to their ancestral West Africa.
During this trip I’d been astonished to encounter similar cultural traditions that have survived hundreds of years of slavery and colonial oppression and it’s this vibrant cultural diversity that makes Central America such a rewarding travel destination. .
For further information on Guatemala, Honduras and other destinations in Central America go to www.visitcentroamerica.com