“Arriba! Arriba!” he yelled over the crash of the waves, and we’d paddle hard, and suddenly be on our feet, riding a face, not sure how we’d got there, catching a swift ride before mayhem broke out all around, and I’d find myself churned in a roil of warm gritty foam.
The beach at El Paredon seems to stretch forever in either direction. It has to be 32km long. Or maybe 320. Or even 3200. Hard to say. The Pacific coast of Mexico and Central America, from San Diego to Colombia, forms one long snake of beach, occasionally interrupted by cliffs, forests, rivers and cities. The sand is volcanic and grey, but here in Guatemala is quite fine, and the powerful surf fills your pockets with it when a wave tumbles you near shore.
El Paredon, a village of 1500 people, was until the last few years an unvisited place of fishermen, farmers and dirt streets, where cooking happens out in yards, and everyone sleeps under palm-thatch roofs, mostly in hammocks. But the surf culture that has taken hold elsewhere in Central America is starting to appear here: in the evening, off the beach at the end of the main street, a handful of teens can be seen zigzagging up and down the faces like skaters on half-pipes. To look at it you wouldn’t know it, but El Paredon is quietly exploding, so people say. Three new hotels opened in the past 18 months (albeit thatch huts), a few hundred yards of street got paved last year, and the pizzeria (another thatch hut with a mighty earthen oven in the yard, and outdoor tables under vines, run by an Israeli-Yemeni couple) is expanding into large new premises.
The Surf House has bedrooms on stilts, with hammocks slung beneath and lofty roofs to catch the ocean breeze, Crusoe-style. There’s a dash of “glamping” chic here, with a small pool, and a large open-air bar-lounge-dining area. The trick is to live in swim gear, and divide your time between the hammock and the water. That way, the heat is bearable.
Guatemala has long been a major stop on the “Gringo Trail”. Most travellers we met were long-haul backpackers, wandering for months, even years. The gringo scene in El Paredon is no exception. It has even spawned a small NGO, La Choza Chula, working to help locals benefit from the increased tourism. Staffed mostly by young westerners, they’ve built a library for the village primary school, an entire secondary school, complete with a computer lab, and offer classes in English and basic business skills. If tourists are coming, at least the locals should see some of the revenue, they argue. Gap-year students and Surf-for-Life volunteers (another NGO) come down to help. Surfers, travellers, indigenous villagers, even the now-protected turtles that lay their eggs on the vast beach: everyone benefits.
At night, the surf drums a reminder into the primitive brain: there’s a richer life outside of suburbia, and you can still taste it here. But still, we couldn’t come all this way and only surf. Guatemala has culture like nowhere else.
When Carl Jung visited the US and was asked what the national demon was (every country having one, he believed) he is said to have answered “addictions” and to have proposed that, instead of psychotherapy, people might cure themselves by walking more and taking up handicrafts. On that basis, the Maya highlands of Guatemala must be as addiction-free as a populated place can be: people walk everywhere, dressed in gorgeous fabrics woven by their own hands. “Weaving is our medicine,” says one elder. Foot loom, back-strap loom: wherever you go you see people at work in them, or else clad in their products.
First stop was Lake Atitlán, ringed with volcanoes and the little towns at their feet: San Pedro, San Lucas, Santiago, Santa Catarina, with red clay roofs and white churches, filled with Mayan women in magnificent clothes and men who still worship Machimon, the old local god who found his place alongside Jesus and Mary in the 1500s, until the church evicted him in the 1930s, since when he has been sheltering in makeshift shrines, tended by “fraternities” of serious men who ply him with aguardiente and cigars. In San Pedro, gringos congregate in the cafés, bars and yoga studios. In nearby San Marcos, they mellow out in meditation gardens or jump 30ft into the lake below: a nice morning thrill for a teenager (who even hazarded a headfirst dive, for extra adrenaline).
At night the volcanoes across the lake fade into murk, while the birds, frogs and insects start up their own weaving, an aural quilt of chirping and chirring. Politically, Guatemala may be a story of vampirical dynasties and genocidal dictators but the core of the country, its several million beleaguered Maya Indians, offers a vision of a happier society: people rooted in the soil, in an ancient culture. Talk of a “simpler” life misses the point; nature-based life is vastly more complex than the stark suburbs, embedded as it is in a web of a million life forms. A trip here reminds you of that, and it felt good to expose a teenager to it.