- The Washington Times - Friday, January 20, 2006

YAXHA, Guatemala — It’s hot in Yaxha — sweaty hot, jungle hot — as we pause by a green lake, watching the bony backs and bulging eyes of a pair of crocodiles snoozing in nearby reeds.

We pass the raised camping platforms, open to the air but covered with thatch to keep out the afternoon rains, frequent occurrences in El Peten, the humid lowlands in northern Guatemala.

Our guide motions us to keep walking along the dirt path, which is thick with vines. At 1 p.m., it’s too steamy even for the howler monkeys. Asleep in the branches of the ramon trees, these agile climbers will wake the rain forest at first light with their throaty crescendo of screeches.

As we hike to the twittering of birds and the trilling of cicadas, we’re beginning to sympathize with the cast members of “Survivor,” who trekked, schemed and camped at Yaxha in the hope of winning $1 million.

Our goal is more modest, the East Acropolis where Temple 216 rises above the tall mahogany and gumbo limbo trees. Along the way, we pass a ball court where the nobles played pok-ta-pok, a game in which they used their hips and thighs to bounce a ball off slanting walls in order to angle it through a suspended stone ring.

Here at Yaxha, the stakes were high. The winners — not the losers — were sacrificed because, the guide explains, you give your best to the gods.

Because much of Yaxha remains unexcavated, we walk by huge mounds covered with grasses and sprouting trees. Along the way, we encounter just a handful of other visitors. That’s one of the bonuses of visiting this off-the-beaten-path ceremonial site, unlike the better known Tikal, which, like Yaxha, also is part of the 8,000-square-mile Maya Biosphere Reserve.

Tikal impresses us with its size — 222 square miles — and its scores of unearthed structures. Although the Maya populated this major city in 200 B.C., many of the excavated pyramids date to around A.D. 700, part of the classic period.

Some archaeologists estimate that at one time, Tikal and its surrounding areas had a population of about 100,000. Because of its vastness and the fact that it lies deep in the rain forest, Tikal, despite busloads of tourists, still retains a junglelike feel. Palm, cedar, mahogany and other trees, many laced with twisted vines, line the pathways to the plazas. Spider monkeys jump from branch to branch, and an occasional toucan careens onto a tree limb.

Standing in the Great Plaza, anchored by the Temple of the Jaguar and the Temple of the Masks, it’s easy for us to imagine nobles strutting through this area, talking politics and plotting war. The reward for climbing the steep staircase alongside Tikal’s tallest temple, the 231-foot Temple IV, is a panoramic view of the gray pyramid peaks rising through the thick, green forest canopy.

Another top Guatemalan site is Chichicastenango, often shortened to “Chichi.” It has the country’s biggest native market. Every Thursday and Sunday, about 300 Maya vendors from all parts of the country flock to the highland town to sell their goods, as they have done for more than 100 years.

We arrive here on twisting mountain roads that take us through hamlets where fat pigs and well-feathered turkeys stand in yards in front of tin-roofed houses. Around a bend, the view opens to reveal a sweeping valley of apple orchards and cornfields under low-hanging clouds.

It’s Wednesday night. A pickup truck packed with families cuts in front of our van. Along the road, Maya women wearing red and white huipiles, or tunics, hold the hands of their children as they walk toward Chichi.

As soon as we arrive at our hotel, Victor Manuel Gonzalez greets us. A licensed guide, Victor is just 12, but he has been escorting visitors through Chichi’s market for two years. With his father and older bother dead, Victor helps support his mother and sisters. He leads tourists during the morning and attends school in the afternoon.

We follow Victor through the maze of wooden stalls the men have hammered together for tomorrow’s market. The aroma of grilled chicken, fried potatoes and sweet plantains fills the air, punctuated by the quick slap-slap sound of women flattening tortillas between their palms. Three-wheeled motor taxis, called “tuk-tuks” after the sound of their horns, weave through the crowd, causing several thin brown dogs to scurry out of the way.

On Thursday morning, before we browse the market, Victor takes us to one of the ceremonial-mask workshops, where Ricardo Ignacio, 20 and a fifth-generation carver, patiently whittles a wooden horned creation for a ceremonial dance.

Next, we follow a dirt path up a hill. At the summit, a shaman with a weathered face lights candles on an altar and kneels in front of Pascual Abaj, a smoke-blackened rock that is said to be the only shrine in all of Guatemala to the Maya Earth god.

A couple asking for prosperity with the man’s new job have brought incense, chocolate, sugar and pastries as an offering to the god. The gray smoke of the incense floats in front of the praying shaman, adding a scrim of otherworldliness.

Unlike the quiet hilltop, back in town, the market is thick with people. Women with stacks of woven tablecloths balanced on their heads elbow through the crowds. Men carry cargo-sized bundles on their backs.

Trios of little girls shove fistfuls of beaded necklaces toward us. Vendors stand in front of their stalls, beckoning us to look.

Chichi is not for everyone, only for those who like local markets and get an adrenaline rush from bargaining. Buyers for large department stores come to Chichi to purchase handmade floral wall hangings, embroidered tablecloths, woven rugs, place mats, throw pillows, leather belts and carry-on bags, many of which sell stateside for five to 10 times the local price.

When we pause at a stall to feel a blue table runner decorated with green, purple and yellow native designs, a group of Maya women gathers behind us. As soon as we step away from the booth, the women unfurl more runners, saying, “Buy from me, lady. Buy from me.”

Another woman steps in front of us, her arm draped with multicolored scarves. Although we repeatedly say, “No, thank you,” she follows us up and down the narrow aisles and even into the locals’ section, where Maya women sell live chickens kept in burlap sacks. Eventually, after much browsing and bargaining, we give in and purchase two scarves from our follower as well as, from others, place mats, a painted ceramic necklace and several colorful huipiles.

The craft market is less intense in Antigua, the former colonial capital, about a 45-minute drive from Guatemala City. Although shoppers come here for the jadeite rings, bracelets, necklaces and even masks sold in stores, the city gains fame as one of Central America’s prettiest. It has cobblestone streets; colonial churches; yellow, ocher and pink buildings; and an inviting town square crowned by a mermaid fountain and shaded by African tulip and feathery jacaranda trees.

Iglesia de San Francisco has the tomb of Central America’s first saint, Hermano Pedro de San Jose de Betancourt, a Franciscan monk who came to Guatemala in 1651 from Spain and established hospitals and services for the poor. Inside the church, a small museum displays his tattered cape and hat.

Photographs, leg braces and crutches sent by the healed who prayed to the saint for help line the walls of a hallway. At his tomb, the hopeful pray. The supplicants, including women in Maya dress, hold candles shaped like hearts, legs or other body parts they wish to have healed.

An area that is healing itself and rebuilding is Lake Atitlan, ranked as one of the world’s most scenic lakes and one of the largest in Guatemala. Lake Atitlan spreads out against a backdrop of three 10,000-foot volcanoes: Toliman, Atitlan and San Pedro. Unfortunately, in October, Hurricane Stan drenched Guatemala and caused disastrous mudslides in this area. Several Maya settlements were covered so thickly that rescuers gave up and officials designated the buried villages as cemeteries.

Although the mud reached Panajachel, the gateway to Lake Atitlan, as well as Santiago Atitlan, one of the larger lakeside villages, Guatemalans are digging out. Many of the small tourist hotels around the lake are once again accepting guests.

Guatemala is a memorable destination. The towering pyramids of ancient Tikal are awesome, the howler monkeys scamper in the rain forest, and the country’s Maya villages prove that these people, far from being extinct, have a vital culture.

Find top hotels for good prices

SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Guatemala is an affordable destination. Rooms in top-rated hotels in Guatemala City range from $140 to $220 per night, while comfortable lodgings in small towns range from $70 to $120 per night, often with breakfast included.

Most of the following Web sites are in Spanish, but translated versions are available by clicking on English.

The Quinta Real Guatemala in Guatemala City offers upscale rooms and service; 502/2420-7720; www.quintareal.com.gt. Rooms from $140.

Casa Santo Domingo, a converted convent that elegantly blends Spanish traditional furnishings with modern comforts in Antigua, has gardens, pools and good food; 502/7820-1220; www.casasantodomingo.com.gt. Rooms from $110 double; meals not included.

Hotel Santo Tomas in Chichicastenango has a Spanish colonial feel, swimming pool; 502/7756-1061. Rates from $76 for two, with breakfast.

Camino Real Tikal, Lake Peten Itza, near Tikal, has a pool and comfortable rooms; 502/7926-0204; www.caminoreal tikal.com.gt. Rates from $110 for two. Meals not included.

Casa Palopo at Lake Atitlan is a charming boutique hotel on the shores of the lake; 502/762-2270; www.casapalopo.com. Rooms from $120 double; meals not included.

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