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A Short Visit to Guatemala

Being in a new place can be an intense experience. This is more likely when it represents a marked departure from the things and people I’m accustomed to encountering day to day. Guatemala has provided plenty of opportunities for new sensations.

The place that I’m staying is palatial, with a balcony on each floor looking out towards the volcanoes that lie south of Guatemala City. It has an avocado tree in the yard, and hummingbirds that frequent the bright flowers in the hanging baskets. I adore hummingbirds. They’re impossibly charming; strong yet fragile, fast yet with moments when they appear to hang static in the air, and utterly captivating. They can hold my attention for hours. There are also vultures that sweep by, seeming to glide forever as they traverse the ravine that separates the house from Santa Caterina Pinula. It’s all new, and fascinating for that.

The landscapes are something else too. Not since the Three Sisters Wilderness in Oregon have I hiked through lava fields, but the ones I hiked today are skirted by corn, cane sugar, coffee and avocado trees. The volcan de Pacaya is reasonably active, last erupting in 2014 when the lava flows forming the upper part of the trail were laid down. Activity continues today, and this was evident throughout the day from several rumbles and belches from the direction of the nearest crater.

A very sweet guide, Ruth, led the way by the steep side of the mountain, quieter and prettier than the more usual Corona route. The dark volcanic soils are home to oaks, cypresses and cedars as well as the marimba wood tree that is harvested to make Guatemala’s national instrument. Above the tree line, there is very little, though. The trail becomes a moonscape, or possibly Mordor, were it not for the bright sunlight. 

Ruth was patient as I practised my handstands on the highest accessible plateau. The dust ground into my hands, sharp and gritty, but the inversion gave me an alternate perspective on the imposing peak. It’s good to be able to connect to a place through my hands as well as my feet.

The feeling of connectedness is one I value particularly highly. I become aware of my body and its interfaces with the elements, conscious of the physical reality of the earth and the air. The feeling is deep-seated, almost primeval. It shears away all the trappings of modern life and binds me to the earth. I feel part of something larger, more substantial, timeless.

The trail dropped lower as it neared the main lava flow. Ruth picked up several small rocks, rich in heavy metals, which were too hot to hold in my hands for more than a second or two. Over one of the hot spots, a group of American school children had gathered to roast marshmallows on rough flexible skewers cut from the smallest branches of the nearest trees. I had to join them for at least one.

As the sun sets over Guatemala City, it reveals lightning in the sky that is almost constant. This is a sight I’ve rarely seen; the kind that lights up the sky despite the lack of clouds. Out of the window, the only clouds visible hang low over the ravine, presumably a result of the watery and warmer conditions lower down. The stars are barely visible, the reflections from the clouds of the light from a waning gibbous moon and the city lights making the sky a pale silvery grey. I’ve stayed up to catch the Perseid meteor shower but I’m unable to see anything of it. The only constellations I can see are the brightest ones of the southern sky; Lyra and Ophiuchius. I choose to watch the lightning over the distant volcanoes instead of concerning myself with meteors. I know that there are better opportunities in the future for stargazing.

As a contrast to the otherworldly landscapes of my first day, on my second day I took a trip to Antigua. The old capital of Guatemala has many reminders of the Spanish invasion and Moorish influences, from ornate columns to cupolas on the church roofs. The colours are incredible. Sadly the photos have been lost, but the memories have not. I remember bright squares, gleaming gilding and pale stonework reflecting the intense sunshine. I remember eating 100% cacao at a chocolate shop, and drinking cacao husk tea. I remember looking at the city from a distance at Cerro de la Cruz, the volcano in the far background, and thinking about it imposing on the will and the beliefs of those who built the city in its shadow.

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