In Guatemala – Part four: Walking in the clouds.
(continued from Part three: Lake Atitlán.)
The paved road gives way to gravel, which eventually narrows to a rocky path before disappearing altogether. Here, at the literal end of the road, lies a tiny island of Guatemalan cloud forest and the community protecting it. I was to be a guest of both in the coming days.
Step. Stop. Listen. See. Walking through the cloud forest with a skilled guide, it is abundantly clear how much of the ecosystem, teeming with life around you, might go completely unnoticed on a brisk walk. Fascinating plants, animals, and all their beautiful interactions hide in plain sight. Only by tuning in to all of our senses can we notice the sounds, smells, and tracks that serve as clues for us to notice their existence – all of which is intricately connected.
Rogelio, my Mayan guide to this place, led me in walking meditation daily. We moved with slow and quiet steps, communicating beyond language; not only because of the broken Spanish on both our ends that made conversation challenging, but the place itself commanded a certain soft reverence. Moving in such a way touched a similar rhythm set deep in my bones from previous times spent on both meditation and wilderness retreats back in Canada – a peaceful sense of interconnectedness with everything around.
There are two ways to walk: quickly, so as to reach a destination, or slowly, so as to notice all the intimate details along the way. In both the cloud forest and life in general, this is a fact well worth remembering.
The narrowing road is a sign of the overland transition from land shaped by humans to land shaped by nature. Here, on a third long day of travel from the Guatemalan capital city, we are finally mere hours from an isolated island of remaining cloud forest in the Alta Verapaz region.
Alvino navigates the steep roads of Guatemala’s highlands. He is very proud of this old truck – with him behind its wheel, he can get up roads here that newer vehicles cannot.
The road continues to climb towards the clouds.
Where the road ends: at the base of cloud forest and our home for the next little while.
Infinite clouds roll over the forest, offering mere glimpses of the world around – their ethereal aura add a sense of mystery and magic to this place.
Displaced from traditional lands by the colonial Spaniards, Mayans have been pushed into the highlands. To feed themselves, they plant sustenance crops on the slopes of mountains, but unfortunately their staple crops are not successful at higher elevation. As a matter of survival, they clear more and more land in the efforts to grow enough, but this has disastrous effects, as cloud forest ecosystems disappear. These unique high-altitude forests are both the lungs of the land and the source of water upon which all of Central America depends, with their impact filtering down to the lower elevations.
The biodiversity of the cloud forest is astoundingly rich; a remarkable number of plants and animals call this sensitive habitat home.
Looking up to towering trees, searching for creatures and connections here that are oft out of sight and out of mind.
A blue-crowned chlorophonia would normally stand out with its bright colors, but here it blends in perfectly with the environment.
Ferns on ferns on ferns.
Meet Rogelio, the guiding compass to my experience of this place.
Walking slow and with reverence.
Listening first and then looking.
With such density of life, so much hides in plain sight.
Searching the silhouettes of the canopy for something particular…
…while there is visual stillness, we can hear its calls…
…repeating geometry provides camouflage for life silhouetted against the sky in the forest canopy…
…there! A female resplendent quetzal alights from one perch to another high above.
Moments later, a male flits through a window in the canopy with its distinct dragon-like tail.
The male resplendent quetzal is an iconic bird in Guatemala – it is depicted on all of its currency and is woven into the Mayan mythology in many ways.
With a tail twice as long as its body, the male resplendent quetzal is unmistakably iconic.
Shades of the cloud forest.
A mist-shrouded trail through the cloud forest.
The iridescent green tail feather is a symbol for spring plant growth to the Maya, who viewed the quetzal as the “god of the air” and as a symbol of goodness and light.
A clear sunrise in the cloud forest.
There is a rhythm to the weather in Central America. A searing heat enforces a daily siesta along its coasts; the drone of animals in the jungle fades, the relentless equatorial sun thickens the air with the ocean’s vapour, and sweat beads on skin even as one rests. A wind, always arriving from the open sea, exhales inland; its breath riding the contours of the land up, and up, and up, to the peaks of the highlands. Here, vapour becomes visible again in the coolness of higher elevation and newborn clouds infinitely roll over lofty peaks. Accruing en masse as the day continues on, the clouds become heavy and water droplets coalesce on the leaves of thirsty plants; creating a special rain that scatters down from the thick canopy high above every late afternoon with a certain regularity. The sun leaves the sky, drops of water continue to fall, and come morning the atmosphere is quiet once more – seemingly waiting for its cue to play its part in the performance once again.
First light hits the woodpile that keeps us warm through the cool nights.
A male garnet-throated hummingbird.
High above, a spider monkey gracefully moves along the mesh of branches.
A monkey leaps with confidence as it moves quickly through the canopy.
Resting in the treetops.
A baby spider monkey snacking on its favourite fruit: figs.
Howler monkeys howling; their roars echo through the valleys and provide an ambiance that evokes a sense of something prehistoric.
Like clockwork, thick clouds encroach the forest at midday.
Children play in the yard.
The home of my hosts at the base of the cloud forest. They farm, grow their own firewood, and have a small turbine on a nearby stream for a bit of electricity. Life is basic here but completely self-sufficient.
Back in the cloud forest with Rogelio.
Textures of the forest floor.
Critters of the forest floor: snails…
…and all sorts of greenery.
With so much dense diversity, there are seemingly infinite details hiding in plain sight.
Descending from the lingering clouds through what is now farmland.
(continued as Part five: People.)