Norman Lewis, the great travel writer, was so overwhelmed by Guatemala he worried the rest of the world would pale by comparison. I don’t know if he was right but they said that this is a place travellers fall in love with. All over the country there are people who came for a week and ended up staying for years.
It helps that it is stunningly beautiful. It may be barely three- quarters the size of England, but it packs in as many landscapes as Africa. There are windswept plateaus, verdant valleys, impenetrable jungles, palm-fringed shores, mysterious cloud forests. The spine of the country has about 30 volcanoes, their colossal symmetries like a child’s drawing of mountains: perfect cones, crayoned with blue, bumping their heads against the clouds.
The intensity of the place comes from the blend of two great traditions: colonial Spanish and indigenous Mayan. Once the capital of Central America, Antigua is the prettiest colonial city in the western hemisphere, with grand churches, elegant plazas, cobbled streets and flower-filled courtyards. The Mayan influence is rather more elusive. The ruins of their cities – once larger than any in Renaissance Europe – brood in vine-strangled splendour in jungles inhabited by howler monkeys and glamorous toucans. Clambering through these sites is fascinating.
And yet Guatemala is one of those happy countries where the indigenous population was not wiped out by the Spanish Conquest, and where half the population see themselves as Mayans first and Guatemalans second. In towns and cities they may be pretty indistinguishable from their Latino neighbours. But up-country the old traditions survive with a richness that is startling.
Photographer: David Crookes