It has been months since I left Malaysia and my hometown of Sekinchan, Selangor. I had to travel to Costa Rica to photograph [celebrated American speaker and author] Anthony Robbins, someone whom I admire greatly and, over the years, have had countless opportunities to collaborate with. It was a smooth journey to its capital of San Jose, despite my having to transit in Singapore and Frankfurt.
I spent 10 days in Costa Rica before catching a short flight of about 1.5 hours to Guatemala where I was hoping to be booked for another job. As luck would have it, I fell very sick on my second day in the Central American country, only to discover later that it was Covid-19. All I can say is that, one month on, the virus is real — it is dangerous and it is frightening.
Adding to the fear of the virus was the fact I was far away from family, friends and home, stranded indefinitely in a country to which I had never been to before. Things were unfamiliar and I was pretty much alone but the fact that I am still happy to be here, months on, speaks volumes about the wonderful country that is Guatemala.
The warmth and friendliness of the people, sometimes referred to as Guatemaltecos, remind me of Malaysia and, all elements combined, made my Covid-19 ordeal bearable. Special thanks must go to my friend Ana Monteros who helped me recover by getting me whatever medication and help I needed during this strange and scary time. Ana is Guatemalan and we met when she joined one of the trips I’d organised, travelling around and discovering Malaysia. She enjoyed herself so much and made me promise that I would, one day, visit her country too.
My slow road to recovery, naturally, put paid to all my other carefully laid-out plans. Instead of moving on to other destinations and other jobs, I had to stay on, unexpectedly, in Guatemala for what seemed like a very long time already. However, it is never my nature to sit and complain. I also never like dwelling on problems. Yes, Covid-19 drastically changed all my plans but complaining doesn’t help you or your situation. So once I decided the worst was over and the doctor confirmed I was no longer infectious, I made it a point to discover this beautiful, exotic country.
Not many of us are familiar with Guatemala but we should be — it is beautiful. It is a land covered with jungle, dotted with volcanoes and is home to some of the greatest Mayan archaeological sites on earth. We usually think of Mexico first when it comes to Mayan history and civilisation but Guatemala is all too often underrated in this aspect. Moreover, Malaysians do not need a visa to travel to Guatemala and it was during this time that I was reminded of the power of our passport.
Once I was fit enough to travel, I made my way to Lake Atitlán, where I spent a month — partly to rest and recuperate but also to explore and soak up this magical part of the country. Lonely Planet has described it as “the closest thing to Eden on Earth” and you cannot leave Guatemala without experiencing it.
Perched in the Sierra Madre Mountains, 1,500m above sea level, Lake Atitlán is vast (130 sq km) and deep (340m, making it South America’s deepest), and housed in a massive volcanic crater. Three volcanoes — Atitlán, Toliman and San Pedro, collectively known as the Three Giants — surround the lake as well as a number of Mayan villages. Due to the elevation, it feels like springtime every day. You don’t get hot and bothered and the weather is always so pleasant. The sunrise here is particularly spectacular and it was a joy for me to be able to photograph it day after day, waking up without fail every day to catch the morning light and the sun’s first rays.
Another wonderful place is Antigua Guatemala, not to be confused with the Caribbean island by the same name. Antigua reminds me a little of Penang’s George Town; both are Unesco World Heritage Sites with a wealth of heritage buildings and a rich colonial past. There is much to see and do here. When you come, you must stay at the Hotel Museo Spa Casa Santo Domingo, a short walk from the centre of town. It dates back centuries to its earlier life as a convent and even has its own colonial art and archaeological museum on site. Another colonial gem worth staying at is the Camino Real Antigua, also centrally-located and mere streets from the city’s Central Plaza. Oh, and if you love coffee, make sure you drink a lot of it as Antigua is one of the best-known coffee regions in the world.
Food, an important topic to Malaysians, is wonderful here. The vegetables all taste deliciously fresh, partly due to the rains and fertile, volcanic soil. One of my favourite things to eat in Guatemala is pepian, which I liken most to our chicken curry but is not as spicy, of course. Another thing to try is kak’ik, a turkey stew iconic to Cobán, a highland town famous for growing cofee and cardamom. You don’t get much seafood, which surprised me, as Guatemala is flanked by both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. If you do want fish, it’s mostly tilapia — served grilled or deep-fried — but it is good. It doesn’t have that usual muddy smell. The flesh is sweet and you can’t tell that it came from freshwater.
After being unwittingly stranded here, it is also the people of Guatemala that have already made me start planning my return trip. Everyone has been friendly and welcoming to me, a traveller from so far away. I made many new friends and even had a stranger pay for my meal once. He saw me doing a video at a restaurant, got to chit-chatting and took my bill before I had a chance to protest. I remember him saying to me, “You come to my country, you are a guest. Have fun and enjoy.” I guess I have always found it easy to connect with people from all cultures. I arrived in Guatemala only knowing two people. Now, I have so many new friends from all walks of life, including hoteliers and even a horse-breeder.
I met Christian Moll, who flew me by helicopter to his hacienda. His stable is prestigious and it is said he owns some of the best horses in Latin America. He even gave me the honour of naming a baby horse. What did I call it? Ninja, of course, as many know me as Zung the Ninja Photographer, a nickname that stuck after Tony Robbins remarked how I always moved around stealthily, capturing images of him.
I have been busy pushing myself creatively here as well. I’ve been learning to fly a drone and working on a lot of travel videos, focusing on food and people. I always want to capture the spirit of a place, be it through photographs or videos — and Guatemala has proven so inspiring that I want to create an experiential trip back here for like-minded people in a few years’ time.
I really want to show a side of Guatemala no one has seen before, with every item on the itinerary personally curated by me. And it won’t just stop there. I would like to do this also for other parts of the world, including the Arctic. I like to think my unexpected extended stay here is the starting point for the next part of my life and career. There is a saying: “Life changes very quickly, in a very positive way, if you let it.” I guess I’m living that truth right now.
GUATEMALA’S GREATEST HITS
Inspired to make the long journey to this Central American charmer of a country? Well then, here’s a little crib list to help you plan the trip.
Mention a trip to Guatemala and, inevitably, Tikal’s name would be mentioned. And why not? As far as Mayan ruins go, Tikal, in the country’s north and near the Belize border, is one of the most spectacular and awe-inducing. Imagine the pinnacles of steep, ancient pyramids peeking above the dense jungle as a chorus of whoops by spider monkeys greet you upon arrival. Tikal is also a national park and biosphere reserve, so be sure to bring along your books, notes and binoculars if you are a David Attenborough wannabe.
Once the hub of classic Maya civilisation, Petén suddenly collapsed around the year 900, with the Maya moving north of the Yucatan Peninsula. One of the country’s most sparsely populated regions, Petén remains vast and wild, peppered with Mayan sites and surrounded by tropical rainforest teeming with wildlife. Nature enthusiasts come to marvel at ancient ceiba and mahogany trees or perhaps to bird-watch, one of the region’s highlights. If you are lucky, you could perhaps spot tapir, ocelot and jaguar.
One of Central America’s most beguiling cities, Antigua Guatemala (often abbreviated to just “Antigua”) is a delightful mishmash of jaw-droppingly beautiful scenery, complete with volcanoes looming in the distance, colonial charm and baroque architecture. Come for the food, the museums and the coffee and be sure to spend at least a few days here to wander the cobblestone streets in search of touristy treasure. If you are after treasure of the real sort, be sure to visit all the local jewellery stores in search of local jade — considered sacred and precious to the Mayans for centuries, symbolically associated with life and death.
LAGO DE ATITLÁN
It has been described as the most beautiful lake in the world. But don’t take our word for it — take Aldous Huxley’s. After all, it was none other than the great English writer of Brave New World fame who penned the following lines: “Lake Como, it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing.” Deep blue water framed by volcanoes and ringed by villages, many of which are only accessible by boat, Atitlán is a destination in itself.
A town famed for its markets, be sure to pick the right day(s) to visit if you are not staying for a while. Those with magpie tendencies would delight in the colour and variety of all the wonderful things on sale, including bright and beautiful local textiles and weavings, herbs freshly foraged from the jungle, traditional bric-a-brac and all manner of street food and local treats. Be sure to pop into the Iglesia de Santo Tomas before you leave, though. Although its name sounds Catholic, Santo Tomas, built in the mid-1500s, actually sits atop a pre-Columbian temple platform, with the 18 steps leading up to the church symbolising the 18 months of the Maya calendar. Mayan priests still use the church for rituals today.
Hidden deep within Guatemala’s lush jungle is Semuc Champey, which offers a series of stunning natural limestone pools. Its remote location means that it’s quite a trek (or a bumpy 4x4 drive) to get to but those who have been assure us it is well worth it. Photography buffs would love capturing the pool’s myriad hues of green while the sweet, fresh water is revitalising to plunge into after a steamy hike. Spelunkers may be tempted to explore the caves — submerged and above ground — or enjoy a fun spot of tubing down the Cahabon River.
This article first apppeared on Oct 4, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.