Guatemala, Part II: Port-Hopping on Beautiful Lake Atitlan
“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”
Lake Atitlan, the deepest lake in Central America, is one of the other most popular tourist destinations in the country. Several volcanoes and towns ring the lake. The largest of these towns is Panajachel, where we would be staying for the next several nights.
Or just Pana for short, is an example of a more typical Guatemalan city. It’s not super historic, super touristy Antigua, and it’s not big, modern Guatemala City. You will see trucks with a dozen people packed into the bed. There will be bands of stray dogs roaming the streets. Security guards with shotguns will stand outside most banks and larger stores. But you will also see a lot of friendly banter going on in comedores (cheap but tasty sidewalk diners). There is a strong Mayan presence alongside tourists of all stripes. Fish, such as roasted morra, is a popular dish here, owing to Pana’s proximity to Lake Atitlan. As usual, everyone and their dog seems to own a scooter or motorcycle. These compete with the tuk-tuks for dominance of the roads.
We checked into the Casa Elefante Dormido, a very nice three-story hotel. It’s difficult to find because the entrance to it is tucked into a very narrow corridor off the main road. The sign is also tiny. Just be sure to mention to your driver that it’s right across from the “Mundo a Tres” store. Everyone knows where that is and they’ll get you there.
Olga, the owner of Casa Elefante Dormido, was a wonderful host. She and the other indigenous staff running the hotel made us feel right at home. There are a number of restaurants and street food vendors within walking distance, as well as a Dispensa Familiar grocery store. Dispense Familiar also has indoor ATMs.
Walk down Calle Principal and you’ll see vendors selling a diverse array of crafts. I bought a cool shirt and some ground coffee, and Kristen bought a light jacket. And don’t be afraid to haggle; Kristen saved about 45 quetzals on her jacket. Haggling is not hard, and actually quite fun.
Our favorite bar in Panajachel was Pana Rock, which offers great two-for-one happy hours. There is an Institute of Anthropology and History and various cultural sites to explore. During Semana Santa, ofrendas, or altars, line the street. Traditional culture blends perfectly with the modern era in Pana.
Of course, the real jewel of the region is Lake Atitlan.
Formed by a crater 80,000 years ago and ringed by volcanoes, Lake Atitlan is gorgeous. Some even call it “the most beautiful lake in the world.” It certainly has the potential to be. It is a gorgeous, gorgeous part of the world. People flock from all over the world to kayak its waters and hike its perimeter. Operating under the constraints of time and budget, we booked a four-hour boat tour that would take us to four separate towns. You can find these boat tours at a number of travel agencies around Pana. They typically cost Q150 per person, and they depart at 8 in the morning.
I mentioned earlier that Lake Atitlan is the deepest lake in Central America. This means that it’s capable of some decent-sized waves, and all the motorboats zipping across it create some large wakes. Any ride on a boat on Lake Atitlan has the potential to become very bumpy.
I’ll summarize each of the four towns we visited:
Our voyage did not start out promisingly. I feel compelled to channel my inner Paul Theroux here because expats had simply overrun the little town. Expats who seemed happy to have found some foreign nook in which to let themselves go. It’s worth noting that the locals, who don’t usually have much, seem to dress their best. The men wear pants and leather shoes, and the women wear beautiful dresses. The expats–who were probably not hurting for money–went far in the opposite direction. The coffee shops were expensive and too bougie for my tastes. I may come across as harsh, but you have to realize that we were expecting Mayan communities. That simply was not our experience in San Marcos.
San Juan la Laguna
Luckily, San Juan la Laguna was a different story. 95% of the population is Tz’utujil, and there are very many Mayan shops and co-ops. At one such co-op, run by 35 local women, they treated us to a presentation on Mayan weaving.
Their style of cleaning, threading, dyeing, and weaving cotton has been handed down throughout the generations. The all-natural dyeing process uses local plants and makes the cotton completely colorfast. We learned that the indigo plant actually produces two different shades of blue. While it usually produces a pastel blue, nights with a full moon bring much darker shades.
Using the backstrap loom process in the above photo, it typically takes 80 hours to weave a dress or scarf. She emphasized the importance of concentration while working on this process, even while kneeling on a reed mat.
There is a long, very steep main road that runs from the dock up to the top of a hill. At the top, you’ll find a 16th-century church. From there you can get a good view of Lake Atitlan, and the mountains that ring it. It really is a gorgeous view.
San Pedro is larger and has a character that approaches that of a city. The tuk-tuk drivers will mob you hardcore the moment you step off the boat. I would recommend politely but firmly pushing your way past them. However, if you know exactly what you want, haggle with one to take you up to the mirador (lookout point). We were pretty hungry by then, so we opted to take it easy and get some food.
The gods were not smiling on us that day: the town was without power. We finally found a place that was running off a gas-powered generator, which was good. However, it was also next to a house where they were burning trash (legal in Guatemala). Looking over the menu, I noticed that it was in Spanish, English, and a third script that I didn’t recognize. At first I assumed it was one of the many Mayan languages (there are at least 22), but the more I scrutinized it, the more it looked like…Hebrew. Of course, it couldn’t be. Who’s speaking Hebrew in a small town in Central America? When the waitress came over, a native woman in full Mayan dress, I looked up to see that she was wearing a silver necklace with a star of David.
I’m sorry to admit that we were too hungry and she was too busy to talk about the history of Judaism in the indigenous community. That is something I’m curious to learn more about in the future. There is certainly a population of Jewish Mayans worth noting, as that was not the last time we saw menus or store signs in Hebrew alongside Spanish.
Instead, Kristen and I relaxed on the back porch, taking in this breathtaking view of Lake Atitlan:
Disembarking at this largest of towns around Lake Atitlan, cabbies assaulted us again. Dudes earnestly produced folded white brochures to promote their recorridos, or tours. While we weren’t interested, we kept hearing the word Maximon (many indigenous Central American languages pronounce “x” like “sh”). I thought it was a Mayan neighborhood, and so I told the guy to take us there. As soon as we arrived at the edge of the neighborhood, I saw the dude start to take out one of those folded white brochures. We quickly paid him and got out.
Turns out, I probably should have let him talk. Maximon is not a neighborhood, but a god. He is an important and interesting deity in the Mayan pantheon, linked with Jesus. This is similar to the blending of African religions and Christianity that you see in Santeria. There is a tradition in Santiago where every year they choose a different town to host a statue of Maximon. Being chosen to house the effigy is a great honor. We would have appreciated it more had they not commercialized it so much. The man at the front wanted 25 quetzals to enter the house, and another 10 to take photos. We politely declined.
We walked through the markets for a while, which is probably better if you actually need anything they’re selling. Of course, they’re not there just for our amusement; they’re a part of daily life in that community, and don’t care how interesting we find them. We ended up sitting down at a bar to rehydrate and ponder on this lake cruise.
Is it worth the Q150? I would lean towards no. 50 minutes to an hour is not enough to fully enjoy these places, and in the case of San Marcos, don’t even waste your time. Panajachel does operate boats that go directly to and from these towns, so you may be better off picking one or two and focusing on them. San Juan la Laguna is a must, for the views and the opportunity to both learn about and support the local Mayan culture. San Pedro would be another good choice, as the mirador would afford incredible views of the area. If you didn’t want to spend the money to go the 2km out to the mirador, you can always chill at one of the restaurants with a back patio. At any rate, Lake Atitlan is a must.
Reserva Natural Atitlan
We felt rushed on the tour, and as introverts, we needed to recharge our batteries. As with a lot of introverts, the best way to do that is through nature. It was only early afternoon, so we decided to visit La Reserva Natural Atitlan, a park with hiking trails and wildlife.
We didn’t realize that you had to drive up a steep hill to get there, so we flagged down a tuk-tuk instead of getting an Uber. At one point the Little Tuk-Tuk That Could seemed like it was about ready to start rolling backward, but we still got there safely.
Entrance costs Q70, so make sure that you come with enough time to really enjoy all of it. There are various trails of varying lengths, which you can see on the map above. We spotted monkeys up in the trees and even had a coati (a cute little mix between an anteater and a raccoon) come right up to us. There are a number of bridges and waterfalls, and a butterfly dome to enjoy if you need relaxation, and zip lines and ropes courses if you need excitement.
Rightly or wrongly, our schedule had us leaving Panajachel the next day. Lake Atitlan, for all our regrets, was absolutely stunning. I will definitely be coming back for its outdoor activities, I’m sure of that. For now, our next destination was Ciudad Flores, in the north of Guatemala, and the ruins of Tikal!
To get there, we had to hop on another shuttle and backtrack to Guate, the main bus line hub. From there we would be taking one of the large intercity bus lines, Fuente del Norte, up to Flores. Our plan was that it would be a night bus, thus saving us money on a hostel.
As the old saying goes: “Want to make God laugh? Make plans.”
The ride back started well. We struck up a conversation with a very interesting person. Her name was Jane, and she was an American woman originally from San Francisco, up near Kristen’s neck of the woods. She and her husband and two daughters were coming back from a nine-month tour of Asia. She and her husband had been saving up for 15 years to give themselves and their kids that experience. They had been to India, Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia, and China, just to name a few. Jane spoke of sleeping in Nepali monasteries, high in the mountains, with no heat, having to bundle up as you slept to avoid freezing. She spoke of the dire poverty in south and southeast Asia, but also the boundless compassion she experienced there.
Not only were they trotting the globe, they were also volunteering. Here in Guatemala, Jane mentioned an organization called Children of God, which helped local mothers care for their undernourished and malnourished infants. Despite the name, she said, there was no overt religious affiliation, and that the name was more to signify that all children are deserving of good health. Kristen perked up visibly at the mention of this non-profit, as she loves kids and has been looking for a volunteer opportunity; she wrote the name down in her journal. I talked with Jane about wanting to find employment at a non-profit back home, but not having any luck. Jane would correct me I spoke, urging me to use words like “when” and not “if,” when I talked about my dreams.
I’d be lying if I said that Jane’s hyper-positivity did not irk me from time to time. Indeed, I had been feeling a sense of low-key bitterness for a while now. Things like my financial situation not being what I’d hoped, the uselessness of my college degree, etc. I was used to a world where you could send out positive vibes all day long and still not get what you wanted.
On the other hand, I only had to look out the window to remind myself that I was in a foreign country, on the way from one adventure to another. Right beside me, pressed up against my arm, was an incredible and gorgeous woman who was eager to go on these adventures with me. I reminded myself to check my privilege and quit my bitching.
The shuttle passed on through the Guatemalan highlands, dropping passengers off in Antigua and other small towns on the way back to the capital city. We said farewell to Jane and her family at their hotel. Wherever they are, whether at home or abroad, I hope they’re still volunteering and enjoying life.
I don’t remember actually arriving in Guate. I don’t remember there being a big skyline to rise up and greet you as you crested a hill or rounded a corner, like the times I’d driven into Las Vegas or Kansas City. It was just more and more traffic until before you knew it murderous chicken bus drivers and suicidal motorcycle riders were swarming around you. In the book American Gods, the character Shadow describes the drive into Chicago as “starting like a headache,” and that pretty accurately describes our return to Guatemala City.
Eventually, Kristen and I were the only two passengers in the shuttle, and we got to talking with the driver. A native of Antigua, he seemed all too happy to finally finish his shift. He began to tell me a lot about the history of Guatemala City, which I translated for Kristen. How the main road lined up perfectly with the landing strip at La Aurora International Airport, helping to guide airline pilots.
There is a tower that straddles this main road, the one crudely resembling the Eiffel Tower, called La Torre del Reformador, or Tower of the Reformer. It was constructed by a “crazy president” named Jorge Ubico back in the ’30s (he really was crazy; more on him in Part IV). The driver pointed out a tall bridge that had seen a number of people tragically end their lives by leaping from it, including one woman who took her young son with her.
Finally, as night was falling, we pulled up to the crowded Fuente del Norte bus terminal, on Calle 17, in Zone 1. The driver, as upbeat as ever, helped us get our travel backpacks out of the back. I slipped him a bill as a tip, making very sure not to let anyone on the street see me do it. I’d traveled enough to know a sketchy area when I saw one, and Kristen let nothing show, I knew that she did, too. Our bus was set to depart fairly soon, but we needed to get something to eat, and so I asked the driver if it was a good idea to walk to a restaurant around here.
The driver, still in good spirits, said this to me: “Bueno, si andas por aca por la noche, seguro que te asaltan. Hay muchisimos ladrones. Que le vaya bien!”
That translates to: “Well, if you walk around here at night, you will surely be assaulted. There’s a lot of thieves. Take care!”
And then he got back in his shuttle and drove off.
The interior of the bus station was even more crowded. The woman at the counter, from behind bulletproof glass, told us that the 6:30 bus was sold out, and the next available bus did not leave until 9:30. Frustrated, we found the one empty corner of the building to set our bags down and collect our wits. This was not easy because we were right next to the bars that served as windows, and an unkempt vendor decided to stand outside in the gathering dark and whisper “amigo…amigo…”
Kristen made it clear that she did not feel safe there, and for that matter, I didn’t, either. So, we decided to bite the bullet and call an Uber. We would find someplace to stay on the way, and once there we would figure everything else out. For right now we just needed to go.
We eventually found a homestay with decent reviews, not far from 4 Grados Norte. At first I couldn’t tell if the couple running it was well-meaning but without any sense of how to make a place feel welcoming, or if this was going to turn in a scene from Hostel. The bedroom had a sliding metal and frosted glass door that made me think it used to be a storeroom of some kind. The walls were bare and so thin that you could hear drunk people having a conversation out in the street.
On top of that, we kept hearing someone yell something loud, monotonously, over and over again. I went out to look through the barred window of the reception area to see what this bullshit was: it was literally two dudes driving slowly in circles around the intersection, with a loudspeaker on top of their car. They were advertising their business. The couple said that this would go on for a few hours.
Despite all this, the price was right, and we both decided that we did not get a bad vibe from this couple. They were genuinely friendly, and so we decided to stay. I’ve learned over the years to trust my gut.
We flopped down onto the bed, listening to the drunks yell and laugh outside, our stomachs rumbling, our plans messed up.
It’s times like this that you can either complain or you can laugh. We chose to laugh.
We ordered Chipotle-sized burritos on UberEats and Kristen played a funny show on her tablet. Our bellies full and our heads clear, I called, emailed, and Facebook messaged a number of bus companies with service to Ciudad Flores. I finally got ahold of Fuente del Norte, who told us there was plenty of space on their early morning bus.
We joked about the situation we found ourselves in before turned in for the night. Tomorrow is always a new day.