Guatemala Gusto

Alexandra Penney

From his exquisite four-bedroom hacienda in Antigua to an extraordinary jungle retreat on the Caribbean coast, John Heaton provides access to Guatemala—by foot, plane, chopper, and riverboat—unlike any other.

ANTIGUA, GUATEMALA, NEW YEAR?S EVE?We are loving it here. John Heaton, who is French but seems very English, is the most glamorous and charismatic of figures, a grand adventurer and raconteur. John came here 20 years ago and never left?unless you call traveling throughout the world "leaving." He and his girlfriend, Catherine, also happen to be global hosts of the most impressive kind?warm, generous, and exciting to be with, people who nurture and shelter you in a very luxurious manner. Today we visited the pagan shrine of San Simón in the town of San Andrés Iztapa, 40 minutes from Antigua. It was fascinating, the locals with their votive candles in front of the altar. A slice of magical realism Guatemala-style. Don?t ask, but at some point we met a local shaman; he invited all eight of us back to his house to see a ritual involving live chickens and a plastic bag of brown eggs. I know, I know. It seems like perhaps an unwise thing to do in retrospect. Who would have guessed that Jennifer, the least likely person in the world, would encourage an impromptu friendship with a mysterious man in black jeans and a T-shirt on a side street of half-finished cinder-block buildings. We followed the fellow a few blocks to his house. It had a tall wooden ladder attached to the side. Up we climbed to the rooftop. A beautiful day?75 degrees, blue skies, and nothing but sunshine; we could see for miles. Everything was fine until one of two men sitting somewhat roguishly in outdoor aluminum chairs on the roof pulled from his pocket a Smith & Wesson .38 and rested it on his crotch for all to stare at in horror. John, in his reassuringly sonorous voice said, "I think, guys, we should be going now.?" And so, slowly and without fanfare, we started backing down the ladder, knowing that the sinister character and his hawk eyes were following our every move. It wasn?t that we didn?t react, but somehow the incident had more the unreal feel of an old movie than it did of brutal reality.

An hour later we were back in paradise, safely sequestered in Casa Lucía, the hacienda we have rented for the week. It?s fantastic?a dining room, kitchen, living room, and two gorgeous bedrooms on the ground floor, with two even more sensational rooms upstairs. All built around a courtyard and garden overgrown with lilies and giant electric-green succulents. The entire property sits right in the middle of time?an old cigar store within a four-minute walk, a bakery where we pick up chocolate-filled breakfast pastries every morning. From the top of the hacienda, we can see the mauve-colored volcanoes surrounded by clouds. Orchids fill the rooms, along with gilded antiques and wonderfully powerful 16th-century paintings of the Madonna and child. The whole terracotta-tiled mansion is laced in branches bursting with blood-orange bougainvillea and turquoise morning glories the size of dinner plates. All set against impossibly blue skies and lemony light. Oh, and the food is great. ?E-mail sent December 31, 2006

The name John Heaton appears in few guidebooks to Guatemala?high-end, budget, or otherwise?despite the fact that Quinta Maconda, the exquisite four-room hotel he owns in colonial Antigua, is world-class. So, too, is Rancho Corozal, his eco-jungle outpost on the country?s Caribbean coast. Getting there involves plane, car, and boat. "Here you will shower by candlelight" is how one visitor perfectly described it in six words. Heaton is, however, no more comfortable with the title "hotelier" than he is with "romantic realtor" of fabulous jungle villas. He would most likely prefer "rebel" or "renegade," but not in the sense of violent Central American politics. Rather, as it applies to one who has traveled the globe on foot, camel, dirt bike, and dugout canoe in search of an authentic world. He?s a visionary who, along the way, has become a savvy and seductive master of travel and luxury.

For a limited few, on a very exclusive basis (and for a price), Heaton will show you his Guatemala. Using Antigua as a base, he hosted our party of eight for seven days. He was our fixer, point man, our eyes to a Guatemala that "seduced him, stunned him, and to which he has devoted the last twenty years," as his partner, the charming and brilliant Catherine Docter, puts it. Heaton fell head over heels for the country?s rawness, wildness, and beauty. He adored its ravishing landscapes and heart-stopping mountain villages; he learned what he could about its powerful indigenous traditions and rituals. All of which, he laments, are getting harder and harder to find. Satellite dishes, electrified signs, concrete housing, and government-financed superhighways have replaced much of that Guatemala. Don?t get him started. "Sometimes I think I?m going to just pack up and get the hell out of this place," he says. "But then I look around me and think, This is the greatest goddamn place in the world! Or should be."

"A longing for a simpler world, for a glimpse of the past." ?Paul Theroux on why we travel, The New York Times, December 31, 2006

Authenticity has become a sort of Da Vinci code for the mod­ern traveler bored by the Botoxed, the retouched, the over­globalized. Poet Pablo Neruda called Central America the waistline of the Americas. And for years it was overlooked in favor of the continents above and below. The reliable infrastructure and luxury tourism that popularized destinations such as Rio, Buenos Aires, Cuer­navaca, even Acapulco was absent. The politics in the region are still dicey, and only recently have the images started to fade of fatigues-clad guerrillas and revolutionaries headed for the mountains. Costa Rica has become the It spot for ecotravelers and even Nicaragua has seen people returning: Just three years ago GQ ran a story called "Nicaragua?the New Florida?" which encouraged its readers to take a look at the next fantastic hot spot. Yet some, like Heaton, would argue that Guatemala has always been the jewel in the crown.

You wouldn?t believe how beautiful this place was when I arrived," Heaton laments from a second-floor office above Quinta Maconda. "But it?s be­­ing destroyed as we speak?McDonald?s and tour buses and now they?re even bringing in cruise ship passengers from the other side of the country!"

I must say that the first thing I noticed was not the McDonald?s. Yes, it?s there. I saw it, walked by it, but easily ignored it. Instead, I was in awe of one of the most beautiful towns I had ever seen. Seduced by the grandeur, dusty and long faded, of this once important colonial town, I thought of Siena before I thought of McDonald?s. Antigua rests 4,500 feet above sea level in an open valley surrounded by forests and hillsides made all the more enchanting by three dramatic volcanoes. It?s a two-hour drive to the Pacific, five hours to the Caribbean. But despite the near-perfect weather?clear, bright days and crisp, cool nights year-round?one comes not for beach-resort pleasures but for richer pursuits. Before the Spanish arrived, Antigua was part of the Mayan domain of Kaqchikel. The Spanish established the city as the capital of the kingdom of Guatemala in 1543. It was known as the Very Loyal and Very Noble City of Saint James of the Knights of Guatemala, and it flourished until the Santa Marta earthquake in 1773. After that, the capital was moved to what is now the overpopulated and polluted Guatemala City some 40 minutes away. Antigua once ranked in beauty with other Latin cities such as Lima, Havana, and Cartagena. And its architecture is still ravishing?from the splendid baroque theatricality of the Iglesia de San Francisco to gorgeous streetscapes of terracotta-tiled roofs, adobe walls, and façades painted in bright mustard yellows against azure blues.

Heaton lived for three years out of the back of a Jeep Cherokee Chief while traveling through Mexico and taught himself Spanish living with a fisherman and his brood on the beach in Baja during the late seventies, but he also grew up on the Avenue Montaigne. His childhood house is now the Christian Dior boutique across from the Plaza Athénée. His father, an American whose ancestors founded New Haven, Connecticut, hung out with the actress Lana Turner before marrying Heaton?s French mother.

Glamour, as well as heartbreak, seems to be part of his DNA. And that?s exactly what Heaton brings to Antigua where, at the age of 55, he has settled. Casa Lucía, the charming hacienda in which we decamped, is owned by Lucía de Hempstead, a friend of his, like most everybody in Antigua except bureaucrats and corrupt politicians. In the best scenario, one would probably overnight at Quinta Maconda, but it had been booked a year in advance by a Stanford professor and his family. Turns out, they saw a small mention about the property in the BlackBook section of this magazine three years ago.

Built in 1547, Quinta Maconda is on Calle del Arco, half a block from the Central Plaza. (Gabriel García Márquez fans may remember that Macondo is the name of a village in One Hundred Years of Solitude.) Originally Heaton?s private residence, Quinta later became a kind of base camp for him and his gang of worldly friends. From here they explored the cultural outback of Guatemala in 4x4s, bush planes, and wooden fishing boats. Quinta became a museum, a repository for all the wonderful things Heaton collected?not only from Guatemala but also from his journeys to Asia, Borneo, and points beyond. He has an eye for the genuine, whether it be primitive art or rare fabrics. His friends loved coming here, and by word of mouth Quinta evolved into a place Heaton would rent to friends?and later to friends of friends of other friends. He is now so plugged in that these people make up his unofficial network of contacts to call on for access to planes, choppers, and boats and to help customize travel to parts of Guatemala that would be otherwise off-limits.

Mitchell Denburg is one such friend. He owns Mitchell Den­burg Collection, a weaving company that produces beautiful handloomed rugs for decorators such as Peter Marino and high-end companies like Stark Carpet. It was Denburg who flew our party, in his Aérospatiale Ecureuil helicopter, into the highlands of Guatemala, past waterfalls, over the tops of still-active volcanoes and jaw-dropping ravines and rivers. Heaton also arranged for Helicópteros de Guatemala to take us to several extraordinary coffee fincas, or plantations. Founded in the 19th century, they still produce beans for the most delicious coffee I?ve ever tasted. Finca Tarrales and Finca Tak?alik Ab?aj, Heaton believes, are the heart and soul of this agrarian-based country.

"The authenticity of an old farmhouse is usually far more elegant than a five-star resort. Only it impresses fewer people. However, usually the right ones." ?John Heaton

Authentic is a word Heaton never leaves alone for long. "I want people to understand I am not a guide," he emphasizes, instead referring to himself as someone who "crafts" experiences for a special few. He knows Guatemala inside and out, historically and geographically like few others, and wants to share his own experiences. For him a viable Guatemalan future is possible only through saving the country?s past. Quinta Maconda is a good example, and Casa Oriente is an even better one. It was built as a monastery in 1732 by Diego de Porras, the leading architect of the day, for Antigua?s Capuchine order and its priest.

Heaton bought the property?a pile of near ruins surrounding a courtyard?in 1992 and immediately started a painstaking restoration, this time as a private residence, which he rents for special occa­sions and recently put up for sale. When he referred back to the monastery?s original footprint for a historically accurate reconstruction, the workers were confused. It was not that they minded the job itself; after all, they were being paid by the hour. But why, they wished to know, would anyone want all this "old stuff" when there was now shiny new Formica and plastic and glistening satellite dishes instead of hand-painted majolica, battered antique wooden doors, terracotta pavers, hand- carved stone fireplaces, and colonial wrought-iron grillwork?

Then there?s Rancho Corozal, where one can see Heaton?s true visionary spirit. A jungle retreat to experience indigenous Mayan life, it?s a five-hour drive from Antigua along impossibly horrible roads. A much better alternative is flying by private bush plane to Río Dulce, where you?re picked up for the 40-minute boat ride. This part of the river is fragile and ancient; it is home to the shy manatees, waterbirds, orchids, medicinal plants, and iridescent butterflies. It is also where we saw the fer-de-lance shimmying across the water. The most deadly snake in Central America, it is more commonly known as the two-step. "Because," explains Heaton, "you have only two steps to take after you?re bitten."

In 1998 Prince Michael of Greece visited his friend Heaton here and wrote about the experience for Architectural Digest: "One day, Heaton decided to explore the wild territory along the Caribbean coast. At the Río Dulce outside Antigua, he launched an inflatable boat and in the space of a few hours he had passed from high plateaus to the tropical rain­- forest. Threading his way through the maze of estuaries and lagoons, he discovered a small tributary called the Río Tatín. As he sped past Indian huts, he came to a lagoon at the foot of a steep mountain." It was here at this very point that Heaton felt he had found the paradise he?d been searching for. It was a small, 15-acre plot of land, owned by a Q?eqchi? Mayan named Sabino, who would later help Heaton build his dream and now serves as Corozal?s caretaker.

It?s an extraordinary place?the sort of primitive jungle tree place that every young boy dreams of. In fact, the first Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movie was filmed nearby in the early thirties. Corozal was meant to consume little energy and built, he says, "to make a very gentle footprint" on the environment. There?s no electricity; at night the compound is lit with torches and hurricane lanterns. Rainwater is used for showers. A suggested list of supplies to bring includes binoculars, sturdy shoes, good books, and bug repellent. It was, at first, the only house on the riverfront of the Río Tatín?now there are perhaps 15 homes. "Therefore," Heaton has written, "you will hear other people from time to time; you will see boats passing by the house each day. And some neighbors have generators, so you may hear the hum of a generator in addition to parrots."

In addition to?parrots? Heaton is a purist, determined to save Guatemala from the sound of generators. He believes that today?s greatest luxury is to experience places "inspired by a deep sense of purpose or faith." As Sabino, who?s also our river guide, pushes our boat away from shore to begin our journey back to the real world, as others call it, I take a last look: Rancho Corozal is too beautiful. The remoteness of it all. The river at our fingertips. Hammocks in which to sleep, perchance to dream away the afternoons. I?ve never been any place quite like it. Jennifer, my wife, on the other hand, says she has found the day "absolutely enchanting, but I can?t imagine spending the night!" Why, there?s no electricity, no hot water, nary a venti grande with soy milk for hundreds and hundreds of miles?just suf­fo­catingly beautiful vegetation, endless little crawling creatures. All that is precisely what brought Heaton here."But always remember," he says, "paradise found is just as quickly paradise lost."

John Heaton?s properties in Guatemala include the four-bedroom Quinta Maconda residence (rented in its entirety as a private home for up to eight guests, from $1,000 to $1,500 a day) and, off the Río Dulce, the Rancho Corozal jungle villa ($250 a day for two, transportation not included). Heaton also custom-designs individual itineraries throughout the country. For a consultation and prices, call 866-621-4032 or e-mail info@quintamaconda.com. Also, it?s important to note that Quinta Maconda works with the most reliable air services in Guatemala: Helicópteros de Guatemala and Aéreo Ruta Maya.