LIVING LIGHTLY IN THE HEART OF DARKNESS
Seven discrete retreats in Guatemala and Belize where the adventures range from underground paddles to lost-city forays
In 1934, Aldous Huxley wrote about Guatemala's Lago de Atitlán, a caldera millions of years old that's surrounded by three volcanoes, and called it "the most beautiful lake in the world." A fissure in the lake's bottom caused strange weather patterns for centuries; today, many indigenous residents believe it's a vortex that strangely affects a
person's mind and still refuse to travel the lake at night. Others maintain that it is one of the most powerful places on earth.
Tapping into the power are several lakeside villages: Santiago Atitlán, San Pedro, Panajachel, and San Marcos la Laguna. At this last is Las Pirámides, or The Pyramids, a meditation retreat consisting of nine small, palm-thatched cabanas in the shape of—you guessed it—pyramids. The nondenominational lakefront compound also
encompasses two tree houses, a bathhouse, a sauna, a huge herb and vegetable garden, and a large pyramid used for yoga and meditation sessions.
The activities are optional, but I found myself happily adapting to the schedule: Rise at dawn, attend a yoga session in the big pyramid, breakfast on banana pancakes and herb tea, laze around the dock and swim in the lake until noon, take a hike or ashtanga yoga class, eat lunch, nap, swim, take a sauna, meditate, then enjoy an incredible vegetarian
meal. I'd arrived skeptical, but left in better shape and more relaxed than I'd felt in a long time. But it wasn't just the beauty of the lake, the healthy food, and the yoga/meditation regime that made me reluctant to leave. Upon my arrival I had visited the dock, where nearly a dozen women lay reading or sunbathing in the nude. I willed my heart to a
normal pace as Chati, the owner, nodded slyly. "Yes, at the moment you're the only man visiting our retreat."
Las Pirámides costs approximately $12 per day, including two daily meals, afternoon sauna, and morning and evening meditation. Because there are no phones you can't make reservations, but if the cabanas are full when you arrive, Chati's assistants will find you a room at one of the nearby hotels. Highly recommended is Posada Schumann next door,
with its four two- to six-person lakefront cabanas...and a little café that will serve you chicken and wine should all that purity get on your nerves. —Kent Black
River of Ruins
If exploring the well-groomed ruins of the Yucatán has whetted your appetite for a wilder foray into the mundo Maya, Ceiba Adventures's River of Ruins trip allows you to strike several more archaeological sites from the extensive Central American checklist, while feeding a few Heart of
Darkness fantasies en route. The 12-day circuit begins and ends at Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico, and takes you by foot, boat, mule, and plane to ten ancient Mayan cities in Mexico and Guatemala.
After Stairmastering Palenque's hillside temples, you fly over steamy rainforest to Guatemala and wander the multi-chambered, walled ruins of Tikal National Park, where the dense jungle filled with jaguars, howler monkeys, macaws, and iguanas seems ready to swallow the eerie site back up at any second. From Tikal, you gradually make your way back into
Mexico via the largest river in Central America, the mighty Usumacinta, taking side trips up two of its smaller tributaries, Pasión and Petexbatún. Excursions along the way include a mule ride to the petroglyphs of the ancient Mayan ruin of Dos Pilas, a hike around the fortified city of Aguateca, and a visit to the famous multicolored frescoes
Equally exciting are the jungle critters; while sitting on a temple top at Yaxchilán, a lost city strategically situated at a hairpin bend of the Usu, you can spot pairs of scarlet macaws squawking in the treetops while black howler monkeys swing from branch to vine below.
A bilingual archaeologist accompanies Ceiba Adventures's groups of eight to ten people. Accommodations range from a posada on Lago de Petexbatún to beach camps along the Usu. The River of Ruins trip departs January 14, February 11, and March 17, 2000; cost is $2,450 per person, including accommodations, meals, land and boat transportation, and
flights between Palenque, Mexico, and Flores, Guatemala. Call 520-527-0171. —Granville Greene
Seven miles east of the busy little city of Santa Elena, the roadsides come alive with kids playing, men riding donkeys, and women washing clothes in the milky green waters of Lake Petén Itzá. In these heavily forested hills rich in Mayan history and ruins lies the three-star resort of Villa Maya.
Just a 20-minute airplane ride from Guatemala City, the property stretches along a lagoon surrounded by tropical rainforest and filled with the songs of nearly 180 bird species, including toucans and macaws. Its 17 stucco-and-wood bungalows house 38 units with mahogany floors, beamed ceilings, and brilliant weavings adorning white walls. You can swim in
one of two pools or dine on tostadas and flautas at the open-air restaurant. Then stroll around the 67-acre grounds, thick with yellow crotons and ceiba trees, or take one of the resort's kayaks out on the lagoon. You might spot one of the six resident spider monkeys or even a white-tailed deer.
Day-trip options include exploring the great Mayan city of Tikal (van and driver, $49), about an hour's drive, or booking a guided tour of the ruins at Yaxha ($55 per person per day), nearly two hours away. About 20 miles from the resort, the Cerro Cahuí Wildlife Reserve (about $20 per person without guide) offers two miles of excellent hiking on
gravel and clay paths overlooking the lake, a dozen unmarked trails, plus swimming in Lake Petén Itzá.
Villa Maya doubles are $85, including breakfast; call 011-502-205-1642 or 011-502-334-8139 in Guatemala City. —Stacy Ritz