GUATEMALA: Secluded Showstopper

Guatemala - GlobalLiving

GUATEMALA: Secluded Showstopper

By Anisha Shah

Global Living – Issue 8 | September/October 2013

Luxury emerging destinations travel journalist Anisha Shah relishes in the mysterious Mayan marvel of Guatemala.

“T’was the perfect day in paradise.” ­­

For an explorative, free-spirited and wildly independent girl who places the highest importance on experience, expression and action, Guatemala is euphoria.

The true beauty of traveling to an emerging destination is the thrill of uncovering a secret. This nugget of information is second nature to this Central America starlet, exposing 37 mighty volcanoes, epic lakes, misty mountains, rugged beaches and authentic colorful towns and markets with ancient Mayan traditions and Mestizos, all within its petite circumference.

Isolated secluded moments in paradise; they’re the ones in which I luxuriate.

Guatemala, the tiny splendor nestled south of Mexico, packs a powerful punch with such opportunity at every turn. Led by the fantastic Guatemala Tourism Board’s ‘star tour guide’, Willy Posadas enhances the creative spirit of exploration in that deeply intuitive and spontaneous manner I simply adore.

Cherished memories often come from deviations in the ‘plan’. Thus begins my impromptu day in Monte Rico on the remote and rugged Pacific Coast, initially no more than a lunch stop.

The moment I step onto the vast, open, hammock-fringed hotel terrace, rustic planks of wood whisk me onto a wide, airy, jet-black sand beach, stretching for miles as far as the eye can see into the milky horizon. It’s Monday. There isn’t a soul in sight; I have my very own stunningly sensual, black powder-sand beach with the rolling waves of the Pacific foaming ashore at my feet. I’m momentarily seized. Traveling solo, the urge to throw myself onto the beach in a Sound-of-Music-meets-Bollywood musical scene, singing, dancing and skipping, is uncontrollable. I could spontaneously combust into flames of newfound freedom! One deep breath of the freshest ocean breeze breathes real life into the fantasy.

It’s while tucking into a zingy fresh Shrimp Ceviche on the barefoot beachfront restaurant that I decide I cannot leave. In this frame of mind, determination dominates. Within minutes, I’ve booked a room for the night. Now, to unwind. It’s late afternoon, with jazz playing in my earphones. I wander onto the beach to feel the powder-soft volcanic black sand in my toes. A semi-wild beach dog accompanies me.

The sense of isolation is surreal. Like stepping into a film scene, the windswept shoreline is barren and undeveloped, dotted only with scattered colorful fishing huts. Entering the Twilight Zone, skies are streaked a rare intensity of pink, creating a moody passionate ambiance. This feels like the perfect moment for a solo dusk swim. With only a fisherman’s family nearby, I play with his children, drawing shapes in the sand, while he maintains a fixed gaze at the crest of oncoming waves. As he flings his net, timed to perfection – casting it into the horizon – the mesh momentarily fills the sky, as time freezes mid-air. Drawing it in, he’s netted an impressive array of catch.

Back at the hotel, where I’m sole resident, my evening meal of lemon-drenched Tilapia is accompanied by a bottle of neighboring Chilean wine and, at that, it’s time for lights out. But I’m not done. With my music gently playing on the overhead speakers, I’m drawn to the night beach. Sensual black sand, black sky, black sea … the allure is captivating. I twirl, smiling, hands in the air, breeze flirting with my hair, caressing my neck and forming an elusive dance partner. (My guide thinks I’m crazy but joins in!) Laughing, I collapse onto the sand, staring up at an inky-black, velveteen blanket studded with entire constellations of Swarovski stars; even the sky is dressed for the occasion in her exquisite evening gown. Like stepping into Narnia, this otherworldly land feels so isolated; it personifies my passion for emerging destination travel.

Early the next day, my guide takes me to a secret spot he himself only discovered three weeks prior. It’s a long shot, but he tracks down a local boat-owner who agrees to take us on his tiny wooden boat into an intricate waterway system less than a mile inland. Within seconds the scene drastically changes. Navigating tiny narrow canyons, we’re cocooned within dense, towering Mangroves, so close their spindly fingers scrape the boat. Little sunlight gets in here. It’s dark, humid and mysterious. “I’m back in Borneo,” I proclaim in utter awe. A biodiversity hotspot, glimpses of Marabou and Iguanas flash past. The waterway links to the sea, eventually. The pleasure of surrendering entirely to nature is exciting, as the engine switches off and we row through shallow waters. Totally off the tourist map and even that of most locals, soul-stirring experiences like this capture my heart in Guatemala.

Already, it’s a huge contrast to my first few days spent in UNESCO-designated, Spanish colonial Antigua. Pastel-colored low-tiered buildings line cobbled alleyways through the town’s organized maze. The former capital is a majestic landscape of crumbling facades – earthquake legacies. And the result is strikingly beautiful, namely Colonial Baroque churches and ruins. Filled with elaborate, sumptuous boutique hotel conversions, Antigua is a tourist magnet. But I rise at dawn for a solo stroll. At this hour, people are sparse; early-risers go about their daily business, two-table coffee houses are set up, old men with sun-worn, wrinkle-engulfed faces ride by on bicycles, beaming as they sing out “Hola” to greet me. The sun is just rising, casting a radiant golden glow on the vivid town, warming it with life.

I return to the decidedly upscale El Convento boutique hotel for breakfast on the intimate, stylish terrace with views of surrounding volcanoes (which you can choose to trek). By nightfall, El Convento’s stone walls and walkways are filled with candlelight and floating petals, lightly perfumed with manicured flashes of bougainvillea, creating the feel of a converted monastery. My well-appointed, spacious suite is adorned in plush Mayan-crafted furnishings, adding exclusive touches of authenticity.

Flashes of the interiors are mirrored later at the sensational Casa Palopo, my tranquil Late Atitlan home-away-from-home. A villa conversion built into surrounding hills with a breathtaking open-face trio of volcano views, the setting is enriched by luxurious interiors, resulting in a very authentic yet Italian-inspired designer home. Be it brunch or a gourmet evening meal, the colonial colors of the restaurant and bar are picture-perfect postcards, monopolizing on the epic volcanic lake views. I struggle to leave this residence.

But leave I do, aboard a private Lancha speedboat for the day, visiting the ribbon of traditional Mayan lakeside market towns. The frenetic chaos of some is in stark contrast to the peaceful, laid-back atmosphere of others. As I fearlessly meander deep into the web of stalls, where sprightly hand-woven handicrafts vie for attention alongside local jade jewelry, I lose any hint of tourists. Submerged beyond recognition, lost even, I delight as I begin to see entire generations acting out their lives together, stall-side. Children play in the dirt, elderly folk are half-asleep on rickety wooden chairs, and colorfully-clad mothers gossip a gaggle of chatter and hackled laughter, while earning a living in a united community spirit.

Guatemala’s markets ooze endless vibrancy, the spectrum of color attacking all the senses. The most famous is found in Quetzaltenango. Chichicastenango is an indulgent, immersive riot of color, steeped in tradition and infinitely local. The market spans an entire town where you can find everything, including fresh foods, homeware, jewelry and even a long-lost aunt! But it’s the lesser-known working vegetable market of Almolonga that catches my eye, retaining my fascination for an entire morning. Beguiling in its frantic pace, work halts for nothing as blood, sweat and tears are drawn. Locally-grown vegetables are uncannily humongous, owing to fertile lands, which creates a huge demand for local markets and export.

Driving back to the signature suite of my mountain-clad private residence conversion, Las Cumbres, I spot a startling cemetery in Zunil. Seemingly infinite, it crowns its own hilltop. Encased in creeping fog, the atmosphere is befitting. At the summit, I’m startled by the sight: an ocean of fresh flowers and a rainbow-palette of gravestones make the cemetery heart-stoppingly vivid. A chirpy local lady tells my guide the profound reason for the flowers: Father’s Day. I amble through; dumbfounded by the staggering beauty, care and attention that Latin Americans pay to loved ones lost. The end is not the end.

While international flights land in Guatemala City, it’s the reverse of the usual capital. ‘Guate’, is a series of shantytowns disguised in every shadow, and most people prefer to stay away from it. Considered unsafe by locals, it’s not a city to explore alone. But with locals, I head out by night to sample its superb gastronomy and nightlife scene. And it doesn’t disappoint. The young, wealthy and educated reside in surrounding hills in exclusive enclaves and enjoy an elite quality of life, with upscale international bars, restaurants and clubs.

No trip to Guatemala is complete, however, without a short flight from here to Tikal, a sprawling pre-Colombian Mayan archaeological and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Temples, altars, stelae and burial sites seen today are the result of decades of dedicated excavation.

Guatemala induces a subconscious desire. Much in keeping with the Latin-American reputation, this fondness appears out of nowhere but possesses a fiery grip. The precision of the unexpected is magical, the absurdity of spontaneous moments, whimsical. A mock love affair expressed as an entire country. Overlooked, no more, Guatemala is a hidden haven for the well-traveled seeking fresh and unparalleled inspiration.

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