Judith Baker goes to Guatemala and discovers an intriguing history and luxury and relaxing accommodation
Rising out of the jungle in the steamy afternoon heat with the shrieks of howler monkeys in the background is a towering black temple; marked by age and worn by climbing feet over thousands of years. This is my first glimpse of the ancient Mayan ruins at Tikal, Guatemala, one of the wonders of the Americas. We stay until sunset as the sky turns pink over the five magnificent temples and return the next morning at sunrise with the toucans, macaws and parrots. I am told that jaguars and ocelots lurk in the surrounding forest, but we only spot a cheeky coatimundi or racoon like creature scurrying past.
Tikal is one of the oldest Mayan sites with the earliest evidence of human habitation here around 700 BC. There are five temple pyramids which soar above the forest canopy, with carve stelae and altars in the central plaza. We spot masks carved in the stone as we learn the history of this amazing place with its stories of rulers buried in tombs with precious jade, human sacrifices and royal palaces which at one time were painted in bright colours.
After a long day getting to know the Mayans, my experience is made even more magical when I head to my accommodation for the duration of my stay. Just a short drive away is the fabulous La Lancha rainforest lodge, tucked away in the rainforest high above the clear waters of Lago Petén Itzá – the second largest lake in Guatemala.
La Lancha is part of the Family Coppola Hideaways group, owned by film director Francis Ford Coppola and his family. He fell in love with the jungle while filming Apocalypse Now in the Philippines. In Belize Francis Ford Coppola established 2 hideaways, one in the rainforest and the other on the Caribbean coast, and most recently a private island off the coast of his beach hideaway, Turtle Inn, called Coral Caye.
It is easy to see how he was captivated by this lush, exotic part of the world where every turn brings breath-taking scenes worthy of the most dramatic movie set and where the monkeys, toucans and parakeets provide the soundtrack.
Ten thatched suites and rooms are dotted around La Lancha. My room is a Lakeview villa – a pretty treehouse filled with Guatemalan artefacts and crafts, from colourful throws on the beds to the animal masks and huipils (traditional Mayan women’s’ dresses) hanging on the walls. The wooden furniture is Balinese in style and, as in all the rooms here, there is a terrace with hammocks and chairs which look out to the calm and beautiful lake. La Lancha is proud of its eco credentials and the spacious bathroom is stocked with handmade, locally sourced toiletries.
Exploring the winding paths around the property I find the two-level swimming pool and the Mirador or look-out deck, complete with huge comfy recliners from which to look over the lake, listening to the birds and monkeys. La lancha has a number of eccentric touches, such as the Shellphone – a pink conch shell which is actually a telephone for guests to pick up and order a cocktail, food or coffee wherever they are in the property. Later its time to detox at the Temazcal, a traditional Mayan sweat lodge or sauna for cleansing and relaxing with copal incense burning.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served in La Lancha’s lovely open-air restaurant under the thatched roof of the Main Lodge with fabulous views over the rainforest to the lake. In the evening meals are cooked on an open parilla or grill. Food is a combination of traditional and Guatemalan dishes including fresh fish from the lake and Suban Ik (‘God’s meal’), a traditional dish containing chicken, beef, rice and spices. Top class wines are from the Francis Ford Coppola Winery in California and drinks are on offer at the rooftop bar and library or down at the enchanting lake-view bar accessed by a quirky funicular.
Adjacent to the Restaurant is an authentic tortilla hut, where local staff make fresh, homemade tortillas and encourages guests to join them in the tradition.
As well as visits to Tikal, the hotel can arrange rainforest experiences including zip-lining, aerial walkways and canoeing or kayaking on the lake.
San Jose, Petén
00 (502) 30450817
How to get there:
La Lancha sits deep in the rainforest above the shore of Lago Peten Itza in Guatemala. The prettiest way to arrive is to cross the lake by boat from the charming Spanish colonial town of Flores (about 45 minutes) but the lodge can be accessed by road from the Belize border or from Guatemala City’s La Aurora airport (about one hour’s drive) which is served by a number of international airlines including American Airlines, Copa and Delta which all have connecting flights to the UK.
La Lancha is about 45 minutes’ drive from the Mayan ruins of Tikal.