Just back from a five-day trip to Guatemala, National Geographic Traveler‘s editor-in-chief, Keith Bellows, shares his shaman search (and a video) with IT:
So you travel to Antigua, Guatemala, with the idea that you’re simply going to hang out. Some reading, a little R & R, maybe even a little pool action. You’re staying at this hotel called Quinta Maconda, which is an authenticity-lover’s treasure trove of Guatemalan artifacts, religious icons, hand-woven rugs, masks, paintings, sculpture, and colonial furniture. Its owner is a chap named John Heaton, who has an accent that’s a mellifluous blend of French, British, American, and perhaps some patois picked up from the countless islands he’s lived on and visited. This was once his home, and is now a breathtakingly intimate gallery of Guatemala where you are welcome to stay—in an atmosphere no chain hotel could ever duplicate—for $200 a night. (He also owns a very impressive convent nearby, which, if you’re inclined to throw a party for, say, 120 would do quite nicely).
You tell him before you come that you really, honestly, absolutely just want to relax.
"Of course, you want to relax," he purrs. "We can do whatever you want." Sure.
"Relax," it turns out, is a curse word in John’s world. And he is a madman. But the best possible madman—the kind that any true traveler exults in. Someone who takes you beyond where you would normally go and entertains you the entire way with magical stories, encounters with locals, and a sense of wanderlust that makes you so happy to be away from home.
It is he who tells me when we arrive that "travel is like a chocolate truffle with layers and flavors you discover and enjoy as it slowly melts in your mouth." He also tells me about the shamans. How he was cured by a shaman who had lost his powers and then regained them. How a shaman shocked a diva photographer whose camera had jammed by simply blowing on the lens and restoring its function.
So, of course, I want to go off in search of shamans. (My wife yearns for retail, but it won’t be until later that we browse Antigua and drop $300 at Nim Po’t on so many indigenous wood carvings, textiles, foodstuffs, ceramics, and toys that we fear customs won’t believe that’s all it cost for so much magic.)
We head out on adventures, rolling through the Guatemalan countryside, by turns littered with squalid institutional concrete-block buildings and glorious ramshackle colonials parked amid underbrush. We drive for hours, sometimes on roller-coaster, jackhammer roads in John’s world-weary pickup truck with a hole where the radio once was, a singing speedometer, and a spark plug that doesn’t always spark. Whenever we stop, John removes the distributor cap—classic Central American auto security. In the town of Sololá, we visit a market with phantasmagorically colored clothing and fresh crabs wrapped in reed fronds. We overnight at Tzam Poc Resort overlooking volcano-backed Lake Atitlán, which Catherine Docter, John’s girlfriend, says is the "locus point of the classic Maya world…this lake and the volcano are echoed in the pyramid and plaza layout of Maya cities like Tikal." We visit a coffee plantation run by Federico José Fahsen, which sells beans to Starbucks and is now in the vanguard of a movement to create regional gourmet coffee appellations that mimic what vintners have done with wine. We take a wild "coffee safari" ride on the back of an open jeep into the heart of the lush plantation that left us shaken if not stirred; hike through primeval bush from which Fahsen also harvests bamboo, honey, and medicinal plants; and visit a rudimentary A-frame that he has built to house scientists who, he believes, can harvest new medicines (and other discoveries) from his land.
But it’s the shamans that beckon. We park on the side of the road overlooking Lake Atlitán and scramble through scree down a slope to a blackened cave 50 feet (15 meters) wide , 40 feet (12 meters) deep, and sloping to three feet (one meter) at the rear. A row of three crosses lean back from bouquets of fresh white and yellow flowers. Chicken heads have been stuffed into cracks in the rock. And several charred fires smolder. The shamans have left. And, eventually, we do too. But we also visit the Shrine of San Simón in San Andres Iztapa, where in an open courtyard we do encounter the shamans. They wear headbands and smoke fat cigars. And they build flaming pyres laden with eggs, wax, incense, herbs, wood, and candles to summon spirits to help their clients banish bad luck. They work their magic by communicating with the flames. They dance with those flames like bullfighters. They coax them into upward spirals. They make them drift this way and that. They inexplicably summon bursts of heat, sparks, fireballs, and twisting trails of smoke. They whisper conspiratorially to their customers, and occasional wand and tap them with herb bundles. Melting wax rivers run between their feet. John tells us that on busy days the courtyard is jammed with shamans and on really busy days they climb ladders to tend more fires on nearby rooftops. "The tour companies would never take you here," John says. "The government thinks it’s terrible. Too dirty." To me it is a glimpse of the true Guatemala, not yet airbrushed by tourist niceties.