‘I’m still in Saigon,’ cites Mr Smith, lying prone on the bed, eyeing the whirring fans and wiping imaginary sweat from his brow. Contrary to Mr Smith’s filmic references, we are not in Vietnam praying for a mission but ensconced in a perfectly cooled room, its location overlooking a shimmering lake in remote Guatemalan jungle, near the mystical Mayan ruins of Tikal.
As if on cue, and by some extraordinary coincidence, a roar snaps Mr Smith out of his ’Nam action movie reverie and from our wooden deck we see a black chopper appear like a blot on the horizon. Cruising past, blades rotating in slow motion, palm trees quivering in response to its incongruous reverberation, we can almost hear Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’.
Impressed by this bizarre chance occurrence, we wonder at how many references we can make to the hotel’s owner: a certain Francis Ford Coppola. Gesturing to the wild jungle panorama, Mr Smith informs me that it was in a setting such as this that the eminent director fell in love with far-flung places. He was filming Apocalypse Now in the Philippines, and despite delays and tribulations that earned the film the title Apocalypse When? his love affair with tropical settings was ignited.
Here in isolated El Peten, Guatemala, the hotel is carved into deep foliage although, thank goodness, La Lancha is much more hip hideaway than Heart of Darkness. Coppola’s third jungle habitation (the other two which are in the misty highlands and on the coastline of Belize), demonstrates his love for the natural environment coupled with colourful local decor and típica food – of course washed down with wine from his Napa Valley vineyard. In admiration of the multi-skilled Coppola, I concur that it seems a remarkable set-up, and like the palm fronds inching closer to the hotel, it rather grows on you.
Settling into late afternoon drinks on our balcony (the miniature cans of Sofia sparkling wine with straws attached are rather irresistible), and with Mr Smith recovered from his homage to all things Coppola, we survey the scene. The hotel is perched on several levels of a densely forested hillside above the enchanting Lake Peten Itza. The calm water dominates the view from our thatched casita, nestled in greenery on all sides. The vista is stunning and quite captivating, certainly from the large stripy hammock strung on our balcony, big enough for two. Inside our casita, the jungle theme continues, with enormous plants in terracotta pots, ornately carved animal masks and exotic Mayan rugs. Our queen-size bed provides the ultimate wake-up view of lake, jungle and sky.
Once night falls, we climb up two sections of forest to the restaurant. Candles and low lamps line the stepped pathway (guaranteed to induce a breathless arrival), leaving the dark night sky with pinpricks of stars. In one corner of the thatched wooden dining room, a fire pit blazes and here a comfortingly robust Guatemalan woman cooks us up fresh doughy tortillas. We try them with barbecued baby onions sprinkled with local white cheese. The charred flavour puts us in the mood for hearty grilled steak, pulverised and rubbed with local salt, and served with vats of guacamole, nachos and home-made salsa. We toast our host Coppola on his excellent vintage – a 2007 Merlot – and vow to visit the nearby ruins of Tikal, to see the mysterious Mayan temples and foliage-clad pyramids majestically visible above the canopy. Back in our cosy jungle cabin, satiated with red wine and red meat, and swathed in colourful Mayan bedspreads, sleep comes quickly.
At 4.46am an ugly noise shakes us awake. It is loud, unearthly and frankly terrifying. ‘What in hell’s name is that?’ I say, clawing at Mr Smith. Both of us upright, and another guttural belch follows a primal groan, echoing around the treetops and silencing the creatures of the forest. ‘I’ll get rid of it,’ declares Mr Smith bravely. Standing tall by the door in his oversized, monogrammed, white dressing gown, Mr Smith challenges the night monster, by flicking our porch light on and off, as though in some bizarre Jurassic Morse Code. Miraculously the sound ceases, and Mr Smith returns to bed, blaming over-active howler monkeys for the racket, and falling into a satisfied sleep within seconds. Awake for longer, I hear the night sounds explode into a dawn chorus with parakeets, geckos and monkeys joining in the morning song. It is an extraordinary din, and the fantastically primitive jungle ritual, leads me to ponder the origins of the natural world.
Soon I drift back into slumber and late morning, Mr Smith gently prods me awake. Swimming trunks already in place, he requests that I accompany him for a pre-breakfast dip in the lake. We trundle down through the woods, navigating steps made from oversized tree roots until a clearing reveals the emerald waters of Lake Peten Itzen. We swim out and watch our ripples forge mini waves in the mirror like surface of the water, behind us glimpses of the hotel barely visible in the thick vegetation.
Above us, a rustling activity is taking place in the treetops, with branches swaying and leaves fluttering to the floor. A family of howler monkeys play and chatter together, running along the precarious line of canopy. Innocent-looking little primates, they nonchalantly munch greenery, as though unaware of their nocturnal seemingly devil-like personas. Not entirely convinced that they’re as indifferent as they appear, we brace ourselves for the climb back up to the restaurant where Guatemalan coffee, tropical fruit and fresh-baked muffins await. Mr Smith pauses, and says, ‘I wonder whether those cheeky monkeys could be persuaded to come back tomorrow at 5.46am?’ I look at him befuddled. ‘Well, it would be great to be audience to their howling performance in time to get us up for our sunrise trip to the temples of Tikal…’