Travel: Captivating journey to Guatemala and El Salvador

The ruins of the Mayan city of Tikal in Guatemala
The ruins of the Mayan city of Tikal in Guatemala
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From ancient Mayan rituals to vibrant street food, Guatemala and El Salvador in Central America are a feast for the senses, writes Neil Geraghty

When it comes to modelling clothes the elderly generation in the Guatemalan highlands are world class professionals. Immensely proud of their beautiful indigenous costumes, they never tire of posing for the cameras. In front of a pretty whitewashed colonial church in Santiago Atitlán I run into Magdalena who is giving an xc’op tying demonstration. With her silver hair neatly parted in the centre, high cheek bones and large expressive eyes, her photogenic face can be seen on postcards throughout Guatemala, and her xc’op tying skills are legendary. An xc’op is a cotton belt up to 20 metres in length which is wound tightly around the head to form an elegant wide brimmed hat. She throws the belt onto the paving stones and with her left hand takes one end and holds it tightly against her head. With her right hand she takes up the slack and with lightning precision twirls the belt around her head. It takes barely a minute to finish and after tucking in the end she steps back and poses for the cameras with all the grace and poise of a socialite at ladies day in Ascot.

Lake Atitlán, a magnificent lake surrounded by three volcanoes, is the heartland of the Tz’utijil people, descendants of the Mayans whose culture is a fascinating blend of Catholic and pre-Colombian traditions. One of the most intriguing examples of this cultural fusion is the cult of Maximon, a deity who combines attributes of the ancient Mayan God Mam, St Peter and Judas Iscariot. He is represented by an effigy of a moustachioed western man smoking a cigar. Each year, a brotherhood of shamans moves the effigy to a new shrine and people travel from far and wide to pray for good luck and to undergo cleansing rituals.

From Santiago Atitlán’s busy quayside, I jump into a tuk tuk taxi decorated with a painting of Jesus, his arms stretched out protectively. His protection is needed as the drive is terrifying; the driver speeds over the pot holed road at breakneck pace, swerving violently to avoid pedestrians and stray dogs. I hold onto the seat for dear life to avoid being tossed out into the street and arrive at our destination a nervous wreck. Maximon’s shrine is located at the end of a Dickensian alleyway lined by houses stained black by wood smoke. The alley opens out into a scruffy courtyard where a man sits around the embers of a fire puffing a cigar and chanting prayers. I pay a small fee and walk into the shrine where the air is thick with pungent incense. The effigy of Maximon sits in front of an arc of flickering candles where a shaman chants incantations. A woman sitting next to him is undergoing a cleansing ritual and the shaman takes Maximon’s hat and a tiger striped shawl and holds it over a bowl of smouldering incense. When they are filled with smoke he places them over the woman’s head totally enveloping her face. She stifles a cough and the shaman waves his hands over her head muttering mysterious spells. His performance has an intoxicating appeal and I could easily imagine the ancient Mayans sitting around fires taking part in similar rituals.

The next morning I’m on a dawn flight to Flores in the northern Guatemalan lowlands for a tour of Tikal, one of the most spectacular archaeological sites of the ancient Mayan world. Once a flourishing royal city of 90,000 inhabitants, the city was abandoned in the 11th century and was quickly reclaimed by the jungle. Archaeological excavations begun in the 1950s have unearthed several pyramids and royal palaces and a hike to the site through pristine jungle teeming with wildlife is an unforgettable experience. From the visitors’ centre we take a track leading into the forest and the animals are quick to make an appearance. A russet coloured coatimundi, a tropical raccoon, crosses our path sniffing the ground for insects and fallen fruit. Shortly afterwards our guide points to the treetops where a family of black howler monkeys are slowly swinging through the canopy. Later on as the magnificent pyramids come into view, he stops at a tree root and points out a nesting tarantula. He assures us that they’re quite harmless as we stare goggle-eyed with fear at her hairy legs coiled around hundreds of glistening eggs.

The six countries of Central America are compact in size and most tourists visiting the region typically include two or three in their itineraries. One of the most overlooked is El Salvador, a country of dramatic volcanic landscapes and wild Pacific beaches. During the weekend, residents of the steaming hot capital San Salvador like nothing more than to cool down in the delightful “Route of Flowers’”, a collection of pretty villages and towns located in the western highlands. Outside the town of Ataco I stop at Celeste’s Garden, a popular restaurant which, true to its name, is set amongst gardens ablaze with tropical flowers. The restaurant specialises in El Salvadorean classic cuisine and I order chicken loroco, a creamy stew flavoured with the flower buds of the loroco vine. The flowers have a fresh taste reminiscent of purple sprouting broccoli which perfectly complements the subtlety of the cream sauce. For dessert I order a coconut pie which is light as a feather and surprisingly not too sweet.

A short distance further along the Route of Flowers I stop at El Carmen Coffee Finca where, during a tour of the estate’s coffee mill, I’m surprised to discover a vintage piece of Scottish engineering. The mill dates back to the 1930s and in amongst the machinery I come across a sturdy coffee husk eliminator which is still used and was built in Aberdeen by William Mckinnon & Co, a reminder of how Scottish engineering once penetrated even the most remote corners of the globe. I arrive in Ataco in the late afternoon and feel as if I’ve been transported back 30 years in time. Vintage cars from the 80s line the streets and the local shops offer fascinating glimpses of traditional life. I wander into a corner shop where old fashioned sweet jars line the counter. Two ladies walk in carrying tubs of corn kernels and after paying 15 cents to the shopkeeper, they pour the kernels into a grinder and collect the cornmeal to take home for the evening’s tortillas.

The next day I drive to Suchitoto, a beautiful colonial era town in northern El Salvador where in a cafe under the colonnades that line the central square I order some pupusas, delicious stuffed tortillas and El Salvador’s favourite street food. With fillings of savoury beans, cheese and spinach and spiced ground beef there are flavours to suit every taste. When the waitress brings over my plate there’s a clap of thunder and the heavens open. There’s a mad rush for shelter and within seconds the colonnades are packed with locals taking refuge from the storm. Everybody seems to know each other and the air soon fills with laughter as old friends catch up with the latest gossip. It’s an infectiously happy atmosphere and conjures up all the warmth of this friendly off-the-beaten-track country. n

Fact box: Journey Latin America (020 8600 1881, journeylatinamerica.co.uk) is the UK’s leading specialist in travel to Latin America. A 15-day holiday to Guatemala and El Salvador visiting Antigua, Lake Atitlán, Tikal, Ataco, “The Route of Flowers”, Suchitoto and the Pacific Coast starts from £3,445 per person. The price includes flights, transfers, good-quality, mid-range hotels, excursions and breakfast; www.visitcentroamerica.com