Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Cerro de Oro

Chico invited me to climb Cerro de Oro with him, Monday, departing at 5 am, before sun-up, the air fresh and cool.... He duly picked me up, a little late, but ready to head off across the lower slopes and up the mountain, Cerro de Oro, a giant lava dome that towers 400 metres aboe Lake Atitlan. It was dark when we left with daylight peeking over the crater rim to the east. At first by torchlight, we meandered along paths, mostly ancient, through red-beaned coffee groves and dry-stalked corn fields. The coffee groves are shaded by huge, ancient avocado and jocote trees. Chico has his two dogs and a machete. Farmers we pass have just machetes and greet Chico in Kaqchikel, *xseqër k'a!*,then me in Spanish. *"Buenos dias!"* As the sun appears over the horizon behind us, we see Cerro de Oro bathed in orange dawn light up ahead. The mountain is steeped in Mayan mythology; legend involves an elephant, a serpent, and a giant. One legend continues that Antoine Saint-Exupéry came to Lake Atitlán where he saw Cerro de Oro: the “hill of gold” became the model for “the boa constrictor digesting an elephant” on the first page The Little Prince. He said when the Spanish first came to Lake Atitlán, they looked for gold hidden by the Maya in the caves and tunnels under the hill where they became lost and never returned. Other legends say the tunnels run all the way to Tolimán volcano, and that the Tz’utujil people hid from the Spaniards in the tunnels. The colossal steeped mound has the look of a crouching beast with a bristling head, lit up now in its fiery morning glow.

And a beast she was to climb. Not that high, but steep, on very dusty narrow trails, with sheer drop-offs down arid, dry-season-denuded slopes. At a cluster of massive boulders which serve as a ceremonial altar, the slope eases, winding like the snake around a wooded glade to the rocky, treed summit. The views are magnificent over Lake Atitlan, from Santiago, to San Pedro, to Panajachel, all the way round to San Antonio. The air is hazy; the sun glistens over the little peninsula of Pachitulul, where we have come from, way down below. The morning sounds of traffic and activity from the strung-out village of Cerro de Oro drift up on the pleasant breeze. At 8 am, the sun is already hot and our time of rest, re-hydration and contemplation is most welcome. Chico tries to assure me that this climb is good for the heart, legs, and soul. To him, the elephant swallowed by a boa constricor seems sacred and hallowed. 

His world stretches before us - Lake Atitlan in all her glory. He says that when he was a youngster, the lake lapped at the feet of the now giant amate tree at Casa Pitaya where we regularly sit on a hillock with the lake some thirty feet below! The fields he farms today were, back then, under water and this whole shoreline is reclaimed. He says the lake level goes up and down in 45-year cycles, suggesting that another rise is due. As we gaze from this eagle's nest some thousand feet above the lake, anywhere near a thirty foot rise over the breadth of this vast expanse of water seems unthinkable, but the twenty five feet drop in recent years is indicative of the possibility. It would certainly upset more than a few foreigners who have built homes and businesses perched close to the water's edge. The locals know better, of course.

Back home, a refreshing swim in the tranquil waters of the bay washes away the dust of the trail. Later on, Chico cut a fabulous bunch of a dozen ripe bananas and delivered them. A fruit salad of fresh-picked bananas and lemons, with sweet pineapples and mangoes from the market drizzled with local mountain honey was so juicily delicious.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

San Lucas Toliman, revisited

Market days are Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday. On these days, several streets are closed to traffic and thronging with vendors, their produce, and customers. The vibrant colours of Kaqchikel Mayan women in their *trajes* and the fruit and vegetables on offer, comined with the hubbub of banter create a boisterous and lively atmosphere. A large proportion of this food is locally-grown on small plots of land and brought fresh to market. We have never experienced anywhere else the depth of intense flavour of the beets and carrots, mangoes and melons of the markets around Lake Atitlan.

On non-market days, these same streets look desolate and unkempt. Any number of *tiendas* sell mostly packaged junk food in a sea of plastic. Any number of *farmacias* sell pharmaceutical drugs, largely to medicate and treat against this junk diet. Sugary carbonated drinks and salty snacks made using industrial-strength glyphosated GMO corn and soy doused in unhealthy trans-fats help to fuel malnutrition, obesity, and diabetes rates.

The view from Hotel Toliman, towards San Antonio Palopo

Apart from a handful of hotels, including the lovely Hotel Toliman, this town of 17,000 inhabitants, 90 - 95% of them Mayan, barely caters to tourists and travellers at all. One cafe, Cafe Jade, offers free wifi and freshly-ground coffees. The restaurants and fast-food eateries in town service mainly locals. Hotel Toliman sits on a knoll overlooking a swimming pool, beautiful gardens, the bay and the open waters of Lake Atitlan beyond. The far view takes in San Antonio Palopo on the shore and Agua Escondida further along, up on the crater rim. The accommodations look delightful and the cuisine is sumptuous, making full use of fresh ingredients from their one-acre organic garden, fresh fish, and 100% grass-fed beef. What could eclipse this?