Finding adventure with kids in Guatemala

Colorful masks greet visitors at Coppola's La Lancha Resort near Flores, Guatemala. Photos by Michael Mundt

Colorful masks greet visitors at Coppola's La Lancha Resort near Flores, Guatemala. Photos by Michael Mundt

     The last thing I expected while staying in a remote Guatemalan resort was hearing a cacophony great enough to rival any earsplitting noise of a large city.

     But there it was—the insistent, otherworldly sound of an animal so loud to conjure images of Godzilla roaring and trampling through an unwitting metropolis of city dwellers. Or, in this case, a tiny cluster of casitas set in a steep hillside of lush rainforest, housing a smattering of some very startled, confused guests.

     “We have three different howler monkey families fighting for territories here,” said Santos, one of the waiters at the main lodge, where many of us had ascended toward the source of the commotion.

     The territory in question was a ramón tree, which roughly from January to April yields the ramón fruit or Maya nut, a chocolate-flavored delicacy that the monkeys covet when available. “They prefer the tree closer to the hotel because it’s small and it’s easier to reach the fruit.”   

     Nothing out of the ordinary at La Lancha—“boat” in Spanish—Francis Ford Coppola’s rustic retreat located in Guatemala’s northernmost (and largest) region, El Petén.

     Aptly named, La Lancha’s casitas (10 rooms in all) are huddled against a hillside looming over the splendid shores of Lago Petén Itzá, the country’s second-largest lake. With endless nearby natural and Mayan wonders, La Lancha is a perfect “launching” pad to all the unique sites the region has to offer.

     In particular, my husband, Michael, and I wanted to revisit Tikal, one of the country’s largest and most revered pre-Columbian Maya archeological sites. Named in 1979 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we had visited the national park on a 1998 Central American getaway during which he’d proposed.

     Some 16 years later, we returned as parents of two boys, ages 5 and 7, along with Michael’s longtime friend Kevin Norris and his wife, Lora Salfi. Ever the “up-for-anything” couple, they travel with us frequently and are happy to accommodate the whims of our kids.

     For starters, understanding that visiting said Mayan ruin on our first day of vacation would undoubtedly elicit from them whining protests. We chose instead a 45-minute boat ride from the hotel to the nearby island of Flores, a popular town among Tikal visitors located on Lago Petén Itzá.

     Years before on our first trip there, we felt like we had traveled off the beaten path. The tidy cobblestone streets were virtually empty save for our Belizean tour guide and a few tourists.   

     What little evidence I have of human presence is a photo I took of two young girls at a sleepy souvenir shop dressed in traditional Mayan dress: a huipil (wee-PEEL), the customary blouse; a corte or skirt; and a faja or belt.  

     So Michael and I were astonished to disembark onto a bustling street dotted by the festively painted restaurants and shops typical of many Colonial cities in this part of the world. In a word, the city was more vibrant than before.

     “It seems so much more developed and geared toward tourists,” Michael said.

     Backpackers and travelers of all color and age lined the waterfront, resting on the steps that led to a shallow swimming spot where young locals waded in their street clothes. Many others sat and ate plain picnic lunches of fried chicken and Coke.

     Our boys watched from the second floor of Capitan Tortuga’s, where we’d stopped for lunch, captivated by a teenage boy who’d dragged his dirt bike into the water.

     “That dingbat is trying to ride his bike in the lake!” marveled our oldest son, Brody, who could scarcely stop long enough to eat before jumping into the water to witness the fruitless activity up close. 

    But the real action was in nearby Ixpanpajul (ish-PAHN-pah-hool) Natural Park, a private nature preserve that’s less than 2 square miles packed full of adventure. And with an offering like the Tarzan zip-line tour, it was a no-brainer for the kids.

     For me, however, it feels antithetical as a mother to send my kids zipping from one massive tree down a thin line of cable on a metal carabiner toward yet another massive tree. Oh, and there were no helmets.

     Don’t get me wrong: The tour operators were careful to fit our harnesses properly and clip us into the safety mechanisms at each platform. In fact, they were far from reckless. But we’re so conditioned in America to sign release forms and follow safety protocol that it felt reckless.

     My point? Simply that sometimes we moms have to throw caution to the wind, particularly on vacation, and just let our kids be kids—waiver forms and helmets be damned.

     I knew we were all safe (relatively, anyway, with giant trees whizzing past our heads). Plus the boys were expertly following the guides’ instructions—hold on, legs straight, toes up—with each platform approach.

     Their joyful giggles as the guides bounced their lines, and as they watched Dad and Kevin fly face forward a la Superman, allayed my anxiety. And the “Jane” mannequin hidden among the canopy on a platform just off the main path was a special touch.

     I was decidedly less anxious once we headed to the Sky Way, a hiking trail that includes a series of suspension bridges perched across gaping valleys of verdant canopy.

     Of course the boys ran with pure anticipation of what awaited on the other side. But we adults—Lora and I mostly—were careful to walk opposite one another to avoid tilting the planks and the consequent sensation that we might go flying over the handrails.

     I wasn’t sure if I felt better or worse when I noticed a sign indicating the bridge held a maximum of 10 people at a time.

     “Is that 10 Americans?” I joked.

     “Twenty Guatemalans, 10 Americans,” said our guide, Abel, laughing.

     The next day we trekked to Tikal, about a 45-minute drive from La Lancha. En route we picked up our guide, Antonio, who skipped polite introductions and jumped right into his tutorial on All Things Tikal. Kevin later told us that Colin at one point declared to him under his breath, “I don’t want to hear that guy talk anymore.”

     Fortunately for us all, though, more activity than boring history lessons awaited us at the Park. Touted as the largest excavated site in North and Central America, it is more than 200 square miles of thick jungle and soaring temples—including six gigantic ones, Temples I through VI—with architecture spanning from about 4th Century B.C. to 900 A.D.

     After navigating through the endless kiosks of Guatemalan souvenirs—colorful textiles, wood-carved trinkets and, my favorite, the ubiquitous, ceremonial animal masks painted in vivid hues—we began our approximately 6-mile trek through the ruins. (I’m proud to say Antonio had never made the whole trip with kids until ours.)

     Greeted by a crocodile, “cocodrilo” pond, curious coatimundis and an imposing Ceiba (SAY-buh) tree—the country’s national tree with silk-fiber-covered limbs that look to me like a tree wearing a feather boa—the boys hardly complained about the long hike. Especially when they realized they could climb on many of the limestone ruins, much to my chagrin.

     “Antonio told me you’re only allowed to climb the first four stairs,” I said, winking to our guide in hopes of discouraging them from scaling steps so steep to make any mother cringe.

     “Why are those people climbing so high?” asked Colin, pointing to a group of nearby tourists in a lofty ascent.

     “Because they’re adults,” I said. “Kids are only allowed to climb the first four steps.”

     I was soon thwarted, however, once me made our way through ancient Mayan palaces, where the kids darted from one room’s passage to another, a young boy’s exploratory dream.

     They became more and more brave, climbing ever-higher structures toward greater vantage points, until I had to relent. They are, after all, boys, whose very job is to constantly test a worrywart mother like myself.

     But it was worth it to let them experience what I recall as one of the most breathtaking sites I’d ever witnessed. In particular, the Grand Plaza, the heart of Tikal that’s punctuated on either side by Temple I—the iconic Temple of the Great Jaguar—and Temple II.

     I recall climbing these structures years before via rickety, ladder-like stairs that challenged my fear of heights. But the newly installed (within the last year or so, said Antonio), two-way wooden staircases with handrails made it easy to reach the top of Temple II.

     Stairs also led us up Temple IV, easily the most famous Mayan structure in American pop culture. “Star Wars” fan or not, a great conversation-starter is telling friends you’ve stood where director George Lucas filmed footage for the rebel base—a stunning view featuring the tops of Temples I, II and II—in the 1977 classic movie. Though, for my kids, it was more noteworthy for spotting ants and making me fret in their pursuit of them.

     With such a long day behind us, our last day at La Lancha was significantly less vigorous. Guided once more by Antonio, we headed in the late morning just outside of Flores to Las Cuevas Actún Kan, also called La Cueva de la Serpiente or The Cave of the Snake. Yet another translation describes The Cave of the Serpent’s Mouth.

     Basically, according to Mayan legend, this is figuratively the home of a giant snake. A dark, claustrophobic cave system that’s sure to house bats (it did) and possibly snakes (it doesn’t)? Sign me up!

     As you can guess, the kids loved sporting headlamps to explore the spectral maze of limestone tunnels that even today remain sacred in Mayan culture.

     For the better part of two hours, we walked among the clay (and, shudder to think, bat guano) from one cavernous nook to another—able to stand up in most places so as not to send me into a claustrophobic panic—while Antonio identified the 30-plus formations of stalactites and stalagmites with names like The Thinker, The Stone Rose and The Elephant Foot.

     Glad to have faced my phobia of tomb-like spaces, I was too happy to leave the Mayan underworld passage for aboveground activities, such as watching the boys play in the small pool back at La Lancha.

     But after an hour or more of watching them float ants on “boats” fashioned from leaves that almost always drowned the unsuspecting insects, we needed to so something else.

     So with a stable of horses at our disposal, our final outing in Guatemala was an easy choice: a sunset horseback ride. Not a typical activity of ours back home in Colorado, we generally enjoy it on our Central American jaunts, largely because it’s anything but dull.

     After all, trail rides in America usually involve tame (read: lazy) horses that are happy to walk slowly and snatch a bite of grass along the way when possible. (Cue “Happy Trails”: bum-bah-dee-dah, bum-bah-dee-dah).

     My experience of horses in these parts of the world, though, is that they are likely to run if given the chance. (Case in point: a ride on a Nicaraguan beach involving a horse that spoke only Spanish and had no use for the word, “Whoa!”)

     Our guide Jairo (like Cairo with an “h”) assured us, “Los caballos son muy agradables y tranquilos,” so I was confident that my kids were safe riding “nice, calm” horses. And that was absolutely true, even on the few occasions where the horses trotted up the steep hills just to expedite their strenuous climbs.

     And as seems typical, Lora and I got the runners. (Kevin, by contrast, rode “Happy Trails.”) In my everyday, “normal” life, I have to follow rules and conduct myself with some level of decorum, deficient as it may be.  

     I mean, I am the mom, aka “Mommy Buzzkill,” as my friend Brett once called me. (Gee, how rude of me not to let Colin peep out of your back window and climb onto the top of your truck!)

     But vacation is all about stepping out of your day-to-day life into something extraordinary. And to me, galloping on a wild horse toward a beautiful, mountaintop sunset qualifies.

     “Mommy, why do you laugh every time your horse runs?” Brody asked.

     “Because it’s fun!”

Continue to Part 2, Beachside in Belize