No one comes to Guatemala just to surf. There are far too many other reasons. Even the roads are enthralling; not a trip goes by without something happening. A car melting at the roadside, dripping plastic, evil smoke fuming from every crevice. Tyres exploding, engines backfiring. And how did that truck get there - not just on the wrong carriageway, but with its mangled axles hanging clear off the far kerb? And will that little tow-truck really be able to drag it back? It’s interesting to watch, once you give up hope of arriving on time. Meanwhile carnival-style “chicken buses” (old converted US school buses) festooned in lights, chrome and decals, are facing off in daredevil overtaking lurches gone wrong, while miles of traffic are backing up, and the morning air between the forested hills fills with the cries of countless airhorns.
And even when the traffic does flow, there’s the breath-stopping drama of seeing ordinary people — kids on half-broken bikes, barefoot farmers laden with loads of yard-long yams, women with blanketed babies on their backs, and broad bowls on their heads — ramble nonchalantly along the verges, as if there weren’t 20-ton hunks of steel hurtling past inches away, causing their blankets to flap and hair to jump in the traffic’s wake. The meeting of two worlds, one organic, reaching back into ancient history, the other young, fast: the already-dying carbon age. The roads are a scene unto themselves.
Then there’s Antigua, the former capital, nestled among volcanoes, an untouched jewel of Spanish grace, of courtyard after courtyard watered with fountains, and a lot of 16th-century churches, cloisters, convents, stranded ever since the 1773 earthquake forced the capital to move elsewhere. There’s the “eternal spring” of the highlands, a near-constant 25°C. And most of all there’s the beating heart of the Mundo Maya, the Mayan world — not just the most spectacular abandoned cities on earth, replete with forests of pyramids, temples and stelae, testament to the high culture of the classic Maya, but also the contemporary Maya Indians, who weave the most beautiful fabrics, grow the most enormous vegetables, and make up nearly half of the country’s 16m people.
On the other hand, Guatemala is part of the same long isthmus as Costa Rica and El Salvador, whose Pacific beaches have turned into thriving surf destinations. It has the same swells and pressure systems, and while it may be at the lower end of general infrastructure, everything a surfer needs is here. So when I set out for Guatemala with our 16-year-old son, the prospect of catching some waves made a handy additional allure. I hadn’t been expecting much: heavy, messy swells, well over head-high, totally unsurfable by most, especially rank novices. That’s what the surf sites predicted, and they were right. The first sight was of awesome walls of water that built rapidly upward, seemingly out of a smooth sea, and stood for a moment as if motionless, before tumbling down like the fortifications of an ancient city, releasing a fine hair of offshore spray.
But then we met Efren Aguilar, an 18-year-old competition surfer who came third in last year’s Guatemalan national surf championship, and who grew up in El Paredon, a quiet village on the Pacific shore. He’s hoping to set up his own surf school, and offers lessons through Surf House, one of the village’s four simple thatch-roof hotels. Early morning would be the best time, he told us: the tide would be low, and the surf still scary but manageable, with occasional left and right breaks forming. He was right, too. We met up soon after dawn, and he instructed us: “Not here, down there,” walking us 300 yards down the beach. It all looked exactly the same to me but he knew what he was doing.
“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.
Then we struck east, for the Rio Dulce, which meanders through a forested gorge to the Caribbean coast and ramshackle Livingston, and north into the Mayan lowlands, where archaeologists now believe multiple millions of people once lived, in a huge and densely populated area shared with Belize and Mexico. Our target was the ruins of Tikal, which are so big you’d need weeks to get to know them. By “ruins” they don’t mean trenches and low muddy walls: they mean plazas, pyramids, palaces of hewn stone, soaring 200ft clean out of the forest canopy. Even a teenage thrill-seeker could get next to that.
The day we left there was a commotion up the road. Two motorbikes had collided, not only with one another but with a gringo vendor’s artisan jewellery. Traffic backed up, partly out of curiosity. But this time it wasn’t long before we were easing through, on our way back to the airport and another kind of world.
Henry Shukman is the author of books including The Lost City (Abacus)
This article was originally published by the Financial Times
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016