TIKAL — As my birthday approached this fall, I felt an overwhelming urge to climb into bed and pull the covers over my head. My next instinct was to run, which is how I found myself scrambling up an active volcano in Guatemala the day I turned 40.
My boyfriend, Richie, and I planned the trip at the last minute, picking Guatemala not only because it’s a beautiful country with a rich history but also because it is affordable, warm, and not too far from Boston. And with dozens of erupting volcanoes and ancient Maya ruins to explore, it seemed like a legitimate escape.
Our introduction to the country was a five-hour layover at the Guatemala City airport, helped enormously by a juicy, crispy helping of fried chicken from Pollo Campero in the food court. A quick flight and van ride later, we arrived at the tropical rain forest of Tikal National Park.
We stayed at the Jungle Lodge, a hotel made up of brick-red bungalows built in the 1950s to house the archeologists excavating the ruins at the heart of the park. The beds were hard and the lights were sketchy, flickering on and then off, then off for good around 10 one night. But it was just a short walk from the temples, and there was a pool, and monkeys.
About four hours after crawling into bed, we stumbled into the darkness with flashlights to meet our guide. We had arranged for a sunrise tour hastily over e-mail the day before and didn’t know if we’d find anyone waiting for us at the front desk at 4:30 a.m., but Roxy Ortiz was there, wide awake and bursting with Maya history — and not afraid to pick up a tarantula that scampered across our path.
Stars sparkled above the trees as we walked toward the main plaza, and the forest came to life in a cacophony of clucking tree frogs, roaring howler monkeys, croaking toucans, and squawking crested guans (like a wild turkey with a Mohawk). We climbed to the top of a temple and watched the outlines of other temples come into view above a misty canopy of trees as the sky slowly lightened.
The Maya built the temples to give priests a place to track astronomical events like solar eclipses and address residents of the once-thriving settlement of 100,000 people, which collapsed around 900 AD. They also probably made a great spot for sacrificing virgins.
Much had been made of the so-called Maya “doomsday” predicted for last week, but experts say the prophecy is about the end of a cycle, not the end of the world.
We spent nearly six hours (about an hour longer than Ortiz’s typical tour) traipsing through the park, with the patient, knowledgeable Ortiz explaining how the courtyards and living quarters were carved out of massive limestone blocks with flint axes — without horses or oxen to do the heavy lifting. Many structures remain covered by mounds of earth and vegetation.
Spider monkeys swung through the trees above us, using their question-mark tails as a fifth limb and spitting out green breadnut husks as they went. A raccoon-like coatamundi nosed around the base of a temple looking for food, and I managed to get a few feet away by offering up a sacrifice of my own: a fat, squirming grub.
Our next destination was the former Spanish colonial capital of Antigua, where we spent a few days exploring churches ruined by earthquakes in the 1700s and trying to catch a glimpse of the three usually cloud-covered volcanoes that frame the city. We got our first and only look at the active Fuego right as we arrived, smoke spewing out the top in an innocent-looking puff. It wasn’t so innocent the month before, when Fuego shot a massive ash cloud in the air and a cascade of lava down its slopes, causing thousands to evacuate.
The earth is alive in Guatemala, and we’d been there for less than an hour when we felt it move. At first, from our perch on our hotel roof deck, it felt like a massive truck rumbling down the cobblestone street, until Richie saw the building sway. It turned out to be just a tremor, but a few weeks later a violent earthquake off the Pacific coast about 100 miles away killed more than 50 people.
No natural disasters occurred during our visit, thankfully, as we explored old monasteries and sampled bowls of pipian, a traditional chicken stew slathered in a pumpkin seed sauce in the city’s beautiful courtyard restaurants. Each morning on the roof deck of D’Leyenda Hotel, looking out at Agua Volcano, we drank coffee and ate artfully arranged platters of papaya, mango, pineapple, and watermelon.
On my birthday, which seemed considerably less dreadful than it had just a few days before, we made an early-morning ascent up the apocalyptic landscape of Pacaya Volcano. Steam rose out of the charred, rocky ground as our guide toasted pink and blue marshmallows in an oven-like opening in the ground. It felt better up here — more like I was conquering a milestone than fleeing from it. Yeah, world, I’m 40, so what?
On the van ride back to the hotel, the driver called out “Muerto!” — pointing out what appeared to be a dead body covered with a tarp on the side of the road. How silly it seemed to care about getting older.
Back at the hotel, as I was lying in the sun on the roof, the hotel housekeepers brought me a piece of caramel-frosted cake with a burning candle and sang “Happy Birthday” in halting English. Later that night, we sat in the rooftop Jacuzzi with cold beers, then walked to the cozy, not-to-be-missed Hector’s, where we turned our back on chicken stew and dined on beef tenderloin with a smoky, tangy blue cheese-chipotle sauce.
We got back into a van the next morning to head to Lake Atitlan, a 50-square-mile, 1,000-foot-deep shimmering blue wonder ringed by three volcanoes and a dozen Maya villages. The lake has risen considerably in recent years, and after a boat ride across the water to the village of Santa Cruz la Laguna, we picked up our backpacks and made our way along a rickety wooden boardwalk above the now underwater path to Hotel IslaVerde.
It isn’t a hotel so much as a lodge with a vertical row of cabins on stilts stacked up the hillside behind it. IslaVerde is an eco-friendly place, with no outdoor lighting, filtered sewage water keeping the garden alive, and an open-door policy for gigantic but apparently harmless wall spiders. It’s not a place for the cardiovascularly challenged, however. Getting to our cabin, with an open-air bathroom and daylight showing between the floor boards, meant going up 150 steep stone steps. But the view out our windows was stunning — all lake and volcano and palm trees. The first night we were the only guests there, the silence broken only by a few dogs barking in the distance.
In the morning we had coffee and smoothies by the water, jumping off the dock when we got too hot. In the afternoon we explored several of the lake’s villages: tiny Santa Cruz, where a group of giggling children caught us in the string they had stretched across the road; and the bigger, grungier San Pedro across the lake.
Our final meal at the lake was the best of the trip: delicate spinach and walnut ravioli topped with a mild carrot sauce, followed by a piece of heavenly banana tart and jasmine tea. It was the only thing on the menu at Arca de Noe, served on a cobwebby, candlelit deck by an Argentinian chef who said he learned to make ravioli from his grandmother.
We were there in mid-October, the end of the rainy season, though there were only a few passing showers, and very few tourists. We didn’t manage to escape Boston completely, however. Near Tikal, we saw a man riding a horse down the road wearing an “I [shamrock] Boston” T-shirt.
Still, we got far enough away, swept up in the wonder of a land of spewing volcanoes, rumbling earthquakes, and vanished civilizations, that turning 40 faded into the background. There’s nothing like seeing how vast and ephemeral the world is to make you realize how small and blissfully insignificant we are.Katie Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.