In Livingston five days ago, on my way up a rocky river bed to some falls, I slipped and bashed my left side. There’s nasty bruising to leg and chest, and a painful enough rib cage to make me think something’s cracked. If so I doubt there’s much to be done and it hasn’t stopped me enjoying myself, just made me feel ancient as I stagger on and off crowded buses, cursing myself for not keeping up with yoga – in which case I mightn’t have slipped or, if I had, mightn’t have slipped so badly or, if I had, mightn’t have smacked into a dollop of lava that petrified a few million years earlier.
The one renunciation I have had to make is that, in the mountains above Coban, I dipped out of a cave tour where you swim in the dark and, more to the point, wriggle and bend through crevices in what even the fit young English couple I met the other day said was a tough two hours. But that’s all I’ve had to forgo in this land of natural wonders. Yesterday I was at Semuc Champey, where a large and powerful river sweeps from the mountains in boils of scary green and thrashing white to scour out an underground course that leaves a canopy above, where a small subset of the current gives a paradise in sunlight and shade of turquoise bathing pools and crystal falls, before the main river resurfaces five hundred metres downstream.
The beauty is mesmerising and there’s a mirador where all can be taken in at a glance. Tripod, camera and gadgets slung over shoulders, I made the stiff climb up to the viewpoint, hundreds of metres above the steep valley.
If I were to add one item to my gadget bag it would be an audio recorder. The sounds – parrots, spider and howler monkeys, shouts of market traders and barkers for the chicken buses – have been as rich as the sights. But the best came here at Semuc Champey. At seven, as the turnstile to the ravine opened, I was the first person in the valley and the first at the viewpoint to take in the entire scene: top river and pools … the point where the main river crashes down through the rock for its subterranean course … the sweep of mountains above and across the valley … the intense blue of skies free of vapour trails (yes, I know) … the dense jungle that might yet escape deforestation … the fact that, as yet, no tourists on the day trip from Coban had arrived to splash and shriek … Then I heard something I’d never heard in the wild: the deep, back of the throat roar, unmistakable and unforgettable, of a big cat, answered immediately by its mate two hundred yards up the valley. For ten or fifteen minutes the call and answer went on. Then it stopped, as other tourists climbed to the viewpoint or bathed in the pools below. There are jaguar this far north but not many. There are puma this far south and, though still not common, the possibility of encountering one is real enough for trekkers to be warned about it.
One last adventure remains. All being well I climb, on Saturday with Annie and guide, the active volcano Pacaya. It’s been especially violent of late so they’re not allowing people as high as usual – and some days they’re not allowing people up at all. Which means it must be scary because things go on all the time here that would send our H & S industry ballistic. The pyramids at Tikal, for example, have nothing to prevent you stepping into thin air fifty metres up. They just assume you won’t do it. Fair enough, but at times it gets crowded up top and there’ll be jostling. Factor in a couple of drunks and things look iffy. And while those pyramids have withstood earthquakes that razed cities and killed by the thousand, I wouldn’t want to be there at the time; flicked from a shivering slab of outsized Maya furniture like a doughball from a spatula.
At Semuc Champey nothing stops you clambering to the point where main river crashes down a vast hole in the rock for its five hundred metres of darkness. I was determined to get good pictures but to do so had to walk the edge of a sheer drop with the whitewater – at this point many fathoms deep, fast as a mill race and studded with jagged protrusions – six feet below and inches to my left. In bare feet I edged along, leaning to my right so a slip would merely plunge me (and kit!) into a metre of poolwater. Slip the other way and there’d be no more worries about cameras, cracked ribs, air miles and climate change or global injustice. Skull and spine would be matchsticks before I had time even to drown. My point being that not in a million years would access be allowed to such a place in the UK. Guatemala is a refreshing counterbalance to our insane levels of protectiveness but there is a price. Tourists get killed every year. I don’t suppose anyone counts up the local fatalities.