This story appears in the September 2017 issue of NG Traveler magazine, Israel edition.

Guatemala, Ancient meets tradition

Story by Idit Elnatan   Photographs by Eddie Gerald

The Nature of Guatemala

"If you hear animal roars, don't panic, They’re not jaguars, only howler monkeys," says the hostess of Las Lagunas, a boutique hotel nearby Flores, Guatemala, as she leads us to stilt houses perched above the tranquil Quexil Lagoon. I nod with a knowing smile. I have already been to this region and am familiar with the monkeys and their cries. She opens the door of a fancy suite, with views of the placid lagoon cove from every window and a huge Jacuzzi on the porch outside. Just as I think how calming and luxurious this place is, she picks up the flashlight that was resting on a big wooden table. "And take this when you go out at night," she says as she goes towards the door. "And please," she adds in a serious face, "don't swim in the lake. It's teeming with crocodiles."

In my previous visit to Guatemala, I experienced this sort of disjuncture:   smiling faces, picturesque views, pampering hospitality on one level, and the untamed wildness and sheer danger of the place on another. On that trip I visited the most popular tourist attractions, including Tikal, Chichicastenango and Atitlán Lake. This time I wanted to explore into  less well known territory, especially in the northern Petén area.

This is April, and the temperatures climb to 40 degrees Celsius or even more. In the city of Flores, children and teens find refuge from the heat in the blue waters of Lake Petén Itzá while tourists retreat to the restaurants on the beach. The colorfully painted town's houses are decorated with palms for Palm Sunday, the first Sunday before Easter. In the church next to the main square, religious artifacts are being prepared for the processions of the Semana Santa, the holy week in which the last week of Jesus is reenacted.

​Our respite is found in the towns of San José and San Andrés, along the northern bank of the lake, that enjoy a breeze that cools the torrid heat. These towns, populated mainly by the Itzá people of Mayan lineage,  draw few tourists, and our walk between the colored houses is accompanied only by the cheers of the children playing in the lake.

In San José, said to be the last community that speak the ancient Itzá language, people are preparing for the holiday as well. Children are decorating the church, and a statue of Jesus Christ is being prepared for the processions that are going to take place during the week. Celebrated across the world, Palm Sunday and other Chrstian holidays around Easter have in Guatemala a unique flavor due to the Mayan culture.

The Mayan tradition is important for Reginaldo Chayax Huex, the head of the local community. Reginaldo, who won't tell us how old he is, founded the Bio-Itzá Association in order to preserve the language and culture of the Itzá people as well as the local forest culture – a respectful attitude towards nature and the ancient knowledge of medicinal plants and herbs. Sitting in his turquoise house between hammocks and black and white photos from his younger days, Reginaldo treats the insect bites that Eddie, my photographer, is suffering from. He cooks leaves from a native plant that grows in his yard until they are bubbling and then squeezes the extract onto the bites. "We feel connected to the past," he says, and nature is a part of us."

Zoo on the porch

Guatemala is famed for having one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. While taking a boat ride in the Pasión River we see abundance of endemic water birds; In Crater Azul ("the blue crater" in Spanish) we sail among dense water lilies and go diving in the limestone crater that has been painted by minerals over the centuries into a beautiful turquoise blue. But the most impressive spectacle is to the north, the biological station Las Guacamayas in Laguna del Tigre, situated in the biggest national park in Guatemala.

We sail to the park along the San Pedro River, water birds and giant colored butterflies show us the way. As we reach the docking area and the captain cuts the engine, we drift the final meters in silence. Our guide, Melvin Rivera, suggests that we rest until sunset and then go out when it cools off. For now, the heat is suffocating and all I’m dreaming of is turning my room AC on high. But as I enter my room I realize that there is no air conditioner and just a ceiling fan, which isn’t working anyway because the electricity is out. 

I head out to the porch and gaze gloomily at the still waters of the river. Nothing can move in this heat. "Use the pool," says a worker passing by, pointing to something that looks more like a bath filled with stagnant water. "You can dangle your legs there, it may cool you off." I sigh in despair and plop down on a chair.

Suddenly I hear a rustle of leaves. As I look up, I spot a spider monkey overhead. It shakes the tree and throws tree branches at me. A minute later, I see another monkey, and then still more sitting in the treetops. Another strange noise from a bush in front of me gets my attention. A squirrel is running. I follow him with my eyes as I turn my ear toward a new sound, a drone-like buzzing: few humming birds are collecting nectar from flowers. Now Jesus lizards dart around my legs while geckos are chirping from the walls. I feel like I've gone to the zoo, only it’s all on my porch. Meanwhile, the spider monkeys keep shaking the trees and throwing more and more branches to make me go. But I’m not going anywhere. I’ve forgotten the heat and am newly absorbed in this Jungle Book brought to life all around me, wondering what's going to happen next.

​When it gets dark we re-board the boat for a night tour of the river. Melvin lights the water with a searchlight. The flying insects look like sparks. Soon enough two bright eyes appear nearby. A marine turtle emerges from the dense tangle of tall grasses and branches. Suddenly, the intimidating silhouette of a gigantic crocodile appears in the water. As we move on, more and more pairs of eyes peep out. The crocodiles are everywhere. As Melvin turns off his lamp, we enjoy the night darkness in its natural form, uncontaminated by electricity and light pollution, moving in its sheer wonder.

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The village of Paso Caballos near Rio San Pedro Martyr river located in the Laguna del Tigre area of Peten