On the van ride back to the hotel, the driver called out “Muerto!” — pointing out what appeared to be a dead body covered with a tarp on the side of the road. How silly it seemed to care about getting older.
Back at the hotel, as I was lying in the sun on the roof, the hotel housekeepers brought me a piece of caramel-frosted cake with a burning candle and sang “Happy Birthday” in halting English. Later that night, we sat in the rooftop Jacuzzi with cold beers, then walked to the cozy, not-to-be-missed Hector’s, where we turned our back on chicken stew and dined on beef tenderloin with a smoky, tangy blue cheese-chipotle sauce.
We got back into a van the next morning to head to Lake Atitlan, a 50-square-mile, 1,000-foot-deep shimmering blue wonder ringed by three volcanoes and a dozen Maya villages. The lake has risen considerably in recent years, and after a boat ride across the water to the village of Santa Cruz la Laguna, we picked up our backpacks and made our way along a rickety wooden boardwalk above the now underwater path to Hotel IslaVerde.
It isn’t a hotel so much as a lodge with a vertical row of cabins on stilts stacked up the hillside behind it. IslaVerde is an eco-friendly place, with no outdoor lighting, filtered sewage water keeping the garden alive, and an open-door policy for gigantic but apparently harmless wall spiders. It’s not a place for the cardiovascularly challenged, however. Getting to our cabin, with an open-air bathroom and daylight showing between the floor boards, meant going up 150 steep stone steps. But the view out our windows was stunning — all lake and volcano and palm trees. The first night we were the only guests there, the silence broken only by a few dogs barking in the distance.
In the morning we had coffee and smoothies by the water, jumping off the dock when we got too hot. In the afternoon we explored several of the lake’s villages: tiny Santa Cruz, where a group of giggling children caught us in the string they had stretched across the road; and the bigger, grungier San Pedro across the lake.
Our final meal at the lake was the best of the trip: delicate spinach and walnut ravioli topped with a mild carrot sauce, followed by a piece of heavenly banana tart and jasmine tea. It was the only thing on the menu at Arca de Noe, served on a cobwebby, candlelit deck by an Argentinian chef who said he learned to make ravioli from his grandmother.
We were there in mid-October, the end of the rainy season, though there were only a few passing showers, and very few tourists. We didn’t manage to escape Boston completely, however. Near Tikal, we saw a man riding a horse down the road wearing an “I [shamrock] Boston” T-shirt.
Still, we got far enough away, swept up in the wonder of a land of spewing volcanoes, rumbling earthquakes, and vanished civilizations, that turning 40 faded into the background. There’s nothing like seeing how vast and ephemeral the world is to make you realize how small and blissfully insignificant we are.
Katie Johnston can be reached at email@example.com.