The evening was not sombre though. Juan and his 13-year-old daughter Melissa sang religious songs and a powerful version of Roberto Carlos’s ‘Amigo’: Gloria breastfed the youngest during the impromptu concert and then got out her back-strap loom. Traditional weaving might be dying out elsewhere, but not in this household. I had a strong sense that they were a solid family committed to their culture. Juan said the cofradia (traditional brotherhood of elders) remained strong in San Juan.
But the Mendozas were poor. After we had our cups of Nescafe the next morning, Juan went off to harvest beans for the premium coffee roasters of the rich north.
On Golden Hill
It was after my homestay that I went off to climb Volcan San Pedro. Hector was the best kind of guide: he let me hike at my own pace – somewhere between sloth and tortoise – for the three-hour ascent. We rested regularly, took in the views, spotted birds and squirrels. I slugged plenty of water.
The walk took us through coffee plantations; shade was provided by avocado trees, which were generous with free fruit. Then we entered a wilder, transitional forest. We met some young, fit-looking people coming the other way who had given up and turned around. Their guide said it was too steep and the altitude was getting to one of the group.
Towards the top, we were in cloud forest. The trees had broader bottle-green leaves, lianas snaked around mossy trunks, hummingbirds squeaked in the lower trees – and the cloud came in. In fact, from the summit I saw nothing at all.
The descent was a classic knee-jolter, but we took it slowly. I had a rudimentary walking pole to take some pressure off at least one knee at a time. When we came back into the sun and saw San Pedro la Laguna down on the lakeside, I was glad l’d made the effort.
The next day I climbed a smaller hill – the Cerro de Oro, a lava dome at the foot of Volcan Toliman.
This time Hector led the way, up a steep path used by workers. We passed a 7m-high stone used by shamans and near the top he showed me a pothole thought to be the dwelling place of a Mayan god.
“Kukumatz is the feathered serpent, our equivalent of the Aztec’s Quetzalcoatl,” Hector said. “Local people believe Kukumatz lives in this cave, which connects to a tunnel under the lake that runs to Quetzaltenango [Guatemala’s second-largest city, 84km to the north-west]. When the serpent moves, there are waves on the lake.”
The Cerro de Oro – Golden Hill – may get its name from a Spanish attempt to mine the volcano, which, Hector told me, resulted in a disaster that killed many miners. No doubt this was the serpent showing his wrath. But Hector was a rationalist and said the name may also allude to the way the hill glows in the dry season, when the sun rises on its yellowing foliage.