Antigua in Guatemala claims to be one of the most picturesque colonial towns in Central America - I won’t dispute that. It’s set in a beautiful valley between three volcanoes: Agua, Fuego and Acatenango. There are churches, colonial buildings and museums as well as markets, shops and street hawkers galore Antigua has been repeatedly destroyed by earthquakes, but it has a shabby chic beauty and its one of those places where there’s a surprise round every corner. Another church tower, a carving, a glimpse of one of the three volcanoes.
It’s the week before Santa Semana and Passion Sunday processions are taking place. The gaudy, bewigged saints, Jesus and Mary, have been removed from their dusty niches in the cathedral and are out parading the streets, hauled by struggling youths in purple Ku Klux Klan style hooded robes. The strain shows on their faces and the air is heavy with incense wafted by those who drew the easier jobs. The girls’ role is to fill the many churches with the most intricate of floral arrangements and produce the most gorgeous elaborate carpets of flowers in the streets. These are trampled and left in total disarray as the processions pass. I am more distraught at the destruction than the carpet makers seem to be. It’s all utterly fascinating.
Set within pine forests the ruined city, once the capital of the Cakchiquel Maya, (founded in the 15th century), was once believed to be home to some 10,000 people at its height, until the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors resulted in its eventual destruction
Panajachel sits on the shores of spectacular Lago de Atitlan and there are excellent views of the volcanoes on the boat trip across the lake, itself is an old caldera. Panajachel is an old Spanish settlement, but one of its most important tourist sites is the wooden effigy of Maximon, a god/saint (no-one is quite sure) of the Mayan religion.. He has a large cigar in his mouth (one of many donations or bribes) and numerous ties round his neck (also donations). Maximon is interesting. A sign says that petitions should be accompanied by gifts of alcohol, cigarettes, and cigars. Legend has it that one day while the village men were off working in the fields, Maximón slept with all of their wives. When they returned, they became so enraged they cut off his arms and legs. He is also known, more peacefully, as St Simon. It's a good eexcuse for Bozena to buy a cigar and pose with it a la Maximon.
Chichicastenanga is an obligatory visit from Antigua. It has a world famous open-air craft market and an indoor food market, both bustling and infinitely colourful. It’s also a hotchpotch of indigenous Maya culture and Catholicism. The 16th-century Santo Tomás Apostol Church are used for both Catholic worship and Maya rituals. Herbs, petals, wool and wood arranged in careful symbolic patterns emit plenty of smoke as I clamber up the steps. There’s also the Maya shrine of Pascual Abaj picturesquely situated on a hilltop to the south. There’s a lot more smoke there.
I’m warned not to go there!
This is the iconic Mayan site. It is huge and impressive and well worth the effort, though it’s tiring (and dangerous) climbing up the many stairs for the (worthwhile) views. The roads are terrible and there’s plenty of earthquake damage evident- huge rents in the tarmac. Over the border and into Belize.
Ambergris Caye, Belize
San Pedro, Belize
My car arrives safely at Belmopan Airport after navigating more jungle roadways. From there I’m soon winging out to the largest of the Belize cayes - Ambergris. The main town, San Pedro, is packed with Americans driving golf carts through streets thronging with tourists dipping in and of out the many restaurants, cafes and bars. Not so long ago it was a sleepy fishing village, only granted the status of a town in 1984.
San Pedro's inhabitants are known as San Pedranos and most of them originally came from Mexico. The town claims that it was the inspiration for Madonna's song La Isla Bonita, which begins with the line "last night I dreamt of San Pedro.
My hotel is a very American self-catering apartment too. A couple, of nights there (rather too many loud families with children) and then I’m off to more peaceful climes, via a motor boat taxi.
Now I have a thatched cottage with a gaily tiled bathroom on the beach. This is a blissful end to the trip. Snorkelling trips to tentatively stroke the rays in Sting Ray Alley (they tickle when they waft past) and marvel at the tropical fish. Belize has the second largest barrier reef in the world. Pressganged into kayaking cautiously out to the local reef by some (fortunately) energetic fellow sunbathers, who don’t mind doing most of the paddling. Lounging in the sun on the whitest of sand. And a massage or two.