At the centre of the lush Guatemalan rainforest in El Peten lies the complex considered the epicentre of Mayan culture Tikal. At its centre is the Gran Plaza, an acropolis flanked by two giant temples. One afternoon in July, a young Mayan shaman prepares the altar facing the acropolis to conduct a rite of prosperity. He has chosen the day carefully - it's the auspicious day of the mono, the monkey. As the shrieks of howler monkeys form an acoustic backdrop, the shaman goes about his duties, setting up four candles at the cardinal points. He seeks blessings for a commercial venture, to bring its promoters the qualities a monkey embodies in Mayan lore - resourcefulness, intelligence, agility of thought and action.
As he wraps up the ritual, I take the opportunity to quiz the shaman about the Mayan long-count calendar, which supposedly predicts the end of the world in December 2012. My interpreter is Miguel Pereira from El Peten. Um Kame explains that the date is merely a reset point, not an end. Says the shaman: "The climate will change." Ah, so this is the global warming predicted by environmentalists? Pereira translates the question with a note of alarm. But Um Kame has good news: "The world will be better." The Mayans believe that the Earth will be at the centre of the galaxy in the next era, drawing positive energy.
Guatemala describes itself as Corazon del Mundo Maya or the Heart of the Mayan World. For a country that is just slightly larger than the state of West Bengal, it packs quite a wallop. The capital's La Aurora International Airport is glitzily modern with its exterior Mayan murals serving as a counterpoint. The wise option on exiting the airport is to identify a shared shuttle that will take you to the original capital of Antigua, about an hour's drive. The fare is usually a flat $10 per person. Dollars are accepted, though an adequate stash of the local currency, the quetzal, is advisable.
The small town of Antigua is the showpiece of Guatemala's Spanish colonial history. Virtually the only public transport within its limits are the tuk-tuks, three-wheelers sold by Bajaj under the Torito brandname. At the centre of Antigua is the Parque Central or the Central Park, bookended by the dormant Volcan Agua at one end and the Santa Catalina arch on the other. A stroll past the arch will lead to the yellow stucco church, Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de la Merced, which looks somewhat like a cake decoration.
Spanish is the predominant language, and while hotel and restaurant staff might manage a smattering of English, stocking up on at least a few Spanish phrases is a good idea. Non-vegetarian fare dominates menus; vegetarians require a stock repetition of "No carne (meat, always beef), no pollo (chicken), no pescado (fish), no huevos (eggs)".
Within a radius of three hours from Antigua lie a clutch of attractions and choices have to be made. We decided to get up close and personal with an active volcano, Pacaya. The climb, spanning about 3 kilometres and somewhat steep, can be daunting. Finally, as we rounded a final bend, we faced Pacaya, its cone bellowing smoke. Pacaya can be horrible at times - in late May this year, an eruption killed three persons. But that afternoon, it was just majestic. There are over 30 volcanoes in Guatemala, five remain active.
After returning to Antigua, a pleasant way to wind down is to walk the stretch of Alameda de Santa Lucia, with the Mercado Central and Mercado de Artesanias markets in the vicinity. The former is thronged by locals for groceries, poultry, clothing and other needs. The artisans' market is for tourists, where you can find stone, ceramic or wooden versions of the Mayan calendar, as well as Mayan figurines, wishing dolls, marimbas or ocarinas, table runners, rugs and T-shirts. Bargaining underlies commerce here.
Another shuttle took us back to Guatemala Airport, from where a TACA Airlines flight deposited us near the town of Flores, the beachhead for Guatemala's prime destination - Tikal. As the shuttle enters Tikal park, various signs declare Precaucion Paso de Animales (Beware, Animals Crossing!), showing pictograms of jaguars, deer, even wild turkeys. The lush rainforest appears to be never ending. In fact, that's what Jose Espinosa, who has guided visitors here for two decades, said: "From here, you can drive on to Mexico, to Belize, without a break in the forest."
There are nearly 300 species of flora in this 600-km natural reserve, headlined by the sacred Ceiba, which the Mayans considered The Holy Tree of Life and the axle of the world. Tikal, translated as the place of the voices, was settled by the early Mayans by 1000 BC. It has nearly 30 astounding structures now in ruins. The most magnificent among them is Temple IV or the Temple of the Two-Headed Serpent. It stands at 230 ft, the tallest pyramid or any building ever constructed by the Mayans.
The Gran Plaza features Temples I and II. Temple I or the Temple of the Grand Jaguar was built around 700 AD by conquering ruler Ah Cacao, or the Chocolate King. The Mayans were among the first to discover the cacao tree. Indeed, Guatemalans have played quite a role in giving the world some of its most welcome addictions - not just chocolate, but also coffee and chicle, which morphed to chewing gum.
As we walked through the Tikal expanse the next day, our trail was blazed by a pair of wild turkeys, while spider monkeys frolicked overhead. The elusive jaguars, locals told us, sometimes appear at daybreak at watering holes, searching for prey.
A natural high
Outside the Tikal reserve, a canopy tour offers an opportunity to get a monkey's eye view of the rainforest. It's an adrenalin rush, and as I found, not easy - getting stuck midway is common. For a little downtime, head to Flores, a tiny island within Lake Peten.
As we took a breather in Flores, we also savoured the local cuisine. One cafÃ© worth visiting is Arqueologico Yax-ha, which offers Mayan dishes such as Yucca with hierba mora, tomato, onions and egg. Flores also offers a chance for spelunking - the Aktun-Kan caves with their natural stalagmite and stalactite formations are a short distance away.
While your hotel may advise you to take a taxi for Q125, a Bajaj tuk-tuk will ferry you there and back, for Q80 or less including the wait.
The last day was spent in Guatemala City. Guatemala City or Guate is divided into two sections the New City is shiny, with wide avenues, restaurants and malls. The Old City provides more history of the colonial variety. But Guate isn't a viable stop safety is an issue. Even the Pizza Hut near the Plaza Mayor had a pistol-packing guard!
The phrase I employed most frequently in Gautemala was "no Spanish", but saying Si to this country came easy.