Lake Atitlan: Guatemalan Paradise


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Published: December 2nd 2011EDIT THIS ENTRY

Mayan people in pickup truckMayan people in pickup truckMayan people in pickup truck

Mayan families returning home after fiesta
Think Itay's Amalfi Coast, Lake Garda or Lake Como, without cars/roads and you have some idea of how this place looks. Add a few picturesque volcanos for a spectacular backdrop and the Mayan people and culture for colour and interest. The result is a place that is not only beautiful but completely unique.

We have been driven to Lago de Atitlan by Jose, from Antigua and the drive has been longer than anticipated - somehow we were given the impression this was a 90 miin drive - this is not so. But we pass through lovely countryside and then towns specialising in reindeer decorations made from twigs for Xmas celebrations.When we reach the unposted turn off to reach Solola and Panajachel, where we catch our boat, we cannot believe the almost vertically steep, narrow, windy road ahead. Getting back up this mountain will be a challenge. As we near the large township of Solola, the traffic stops and we witness the returning of hundreds of Mayan people from some sort of festival or celebration in the town. They are either walking past, crammed into the back of pickup trucks or on chicken buses festooned with balloons. Most of the people,
Chicken bus unloadingChicken bus unloadingChicken bus unloading

The drivers of these buses are seriously scary - they stop for nothing, except a customer.
especially the older ones, are in their traje typico - the formal dress of their town, making for a fascinating spectacle.

Finally the traffic moves and we make it down to Panajachel and stop for groceries at Pana Super, the largest supermarket in town, though not nearly as well stocked as La Bodegana in Antigua (and also considerably pricier). The patient Jose then drops us to the ferry where Axel from PanaSuper, on the request of our hosts, negotiates a private boat to take us and our luggage to Los Elementos, at Santa Cruz La Laguna.

Lee is waiting for us at the casita and shows us around. Taylor (and maybe Piper) were due to sleep in the Boathouse as the Casita only has beds for 3, but in October the Lake rose more than 3 metres past its normal levels, meaning their boathouse and quite a number of absolute waterfront buildings on the lake have been inundated. Fortunately they can sleep in a lovely room in the main house with two double beds, bathroom and kitchenette - more glamorous than our rustico casita, but it suits us all better for them to share that space.

Santa
Boathouse under waterBoathouse under waterBoathouse under water

This is where the boys were supposed to sleep - now under water and partly demolished
Cruz La Laguna is a small hamlet on the lake, below the fairly ordinary main town of Santa Cruz,which sits on high above. There are several places to stay - both small hotels and self contained cottages/casitas some of which also have restaurants. The cheapest place to eat is Iguana Cafe which is at the front of backpacker style accomodation, right at the main Santa Cruz boat jetty. We mostly cooked in the outdoor kitchen at the casita but had a truly memorable night as Nicole's first ever customers on her newly built lounging/dining platform, at Casa Rosa, the hotel her mother has run for 17 yrs. The setting was perfection - the four of us seated on cream cushoned day beds, framed by muslin curtains blowing in the breeze, as we watched the sunset over the lake. As the only people there we felt like movie stars as we were waited on by the lovely Nicole and her young helper, with our four course fixed price meal of the freshest salad, homemade bread and vegetable soup, spaghetti bolognaise (vegie version for me) and crepes with jam, chocolate sauce and cream for desert. All this, including the view for 90Q
Jetty view - Lake AtitlanJetty view - Lake AtitlanJetty view - Lake Atitlan

The view from our jetty at Los Elementos, Santa Cruz la Laguna
per person (about $12).

After a couple of days of kayaking, swimming and reading in the lovely outdoor areas of the casita, we joined Lee for a day tour he had organised with a young American couple. Lee is an excellent guide and knows the Lake and its villages intimately. Unfortunately, on the day of the tour our eldest son Taylor awoke feeling awful - and we were unsure if he could complete the quite rigorous 3 hr hike home. Lee advised us that if we needed to we could send him home by boat, so we all headed off on the public boat to the lakeside town of San Juan la Laguna.

San Juan is a delightful town on the lake with a strong tradition of art/artisan practises. Lee takes us into a couple of local painters studio galleries where we chat (via Lee interpreting) with the artists. One of the first things you note about San Juan is the clean streets and abundant murals. This is clearly a village that the locals are very proud of. They have also developed womens co-operatives where the traditional skills of spinning, dyeing and weaving of locally grown cotton are
Dinner at Casa Rosa  Dinner at Casa Rosa  Dinner at Casa Rosa

First ever customers at the beautiful dining space at Casa Rosa - Santa Cruz la Laguna
taught to the younger women and girls. Myself and the other woman in the group get to try on the traditional dress -which looks especially glam with my hiking boots and socks!

After a few more stops we then take a break for lunch at a very popular local eating spot. It soon fills with local village people - lunch is the main meal of the day - and most of our group choose the golden chicken option, which is delicious fried chicken with the loveliest, plumpest rice, tortillas, guacamale and a slice of lime on the side. 20Q each (or about $2.80) including a cold drink.

Lee then gets us to hop into the back of a pick up truck. We had watched the hordes of locals on the roads near Guatemala City cram themselves into/around these small trucks and had muttered to ourselves at their stupidity - especially those riding on the tailgate or bumper bar as they wove in and out of heavy traffic. And here we were about to do the same! What is it about travelling to far off places that gets you to take risks you would never take at home? Fortunately
Kayaking on Lago de AtitlanKayaking on Lago de AtitlanKayaking on Lago de Atitlan

Michael and Taylor enjoying another great kayak paddle on Lake Atitlan
the ride was not too long - just to the neighbouring village of San Pedro - but it was still pretty scary as the pickup careered around corners and down steep roads. Each corner brought the fear of tipping out onto our heads as we stood in the back, bracing for the worst.

Fotrunately we arrived in one piece at the town and walked down to the San Pedro jetty for the boat trip to San Marcos. Although Taylor enjoyed the pickup ride he was clearly not well enough to do the hike, so he stayed on the boat and got dropped back to Santa Cruz la Laguna for some rest. For the remainder, we began the hike on the mostly narrow path which crossed the edges of the mountains between San Marcos and Santa Cruz. It was a pretty hot and tiring walk at times but we kept up a good pace and completed the 3 hr hike in about 2 1/2 hrs including a stop to visit a local Mayan 90 year old woman in her very simple adobe hut along the way.

When we arrived back at the Casita it was apparent that Taylor was
Sandy in Mayan dressSandy in Mayan dressSandy in Mayan dress

The boots really add to the look, don't you think?
very unwell and we soon worked out he had Giardia. Our plentiful war chest of medicines was opened and within a day he was back to good health again.

The rest of our week at Lake Atitlan included more kayaking, relaxing and playing games at night with the boys, plus a couple of shopping trips to Panajachel for food and the purchase of beautiful bedspreads! How we will get this all home is anyones guess! Our bags now each weigh a ton - so we will need to do some posting of goods home before we are back on the 50lb bag allowances on American airlines.On our last day we also do the walk to San Marcos in reverse, and enjoy curries and pizza at a local restaurant.

I have been wanting to teach the family the Australian card game - 500 - for many years and for some reason have met solid resistance to the idea. But this time I prevailed and Piper in particular, as I expected, took to this game of strategy like a duck to water - even winning our team all ten tricks in our last game. He is now as keen as
Travelling back to PanajachelTravelling back to PanajachelTravelling back to Panajachel

We were a bit worried that our bags would end up in the bottom of the lake - but thankfully they made it!
mustard to keep the competition going, so I think there will be lots of 500 games in the next couple of months of travelling.

The weather while we have been in Guatemala has been warm and dry and today is no exception as we wait for the private boat that Lee has organised to pick us up and take us to Panajachel, where Jose will be waiting to drive us back to Antigua. Next stop - Copan Ruinas in Honduras, by luxury bus. We really had no idea of what to expect in Guatemala - and have been delighted with each place and the friendliness of the people. Along our cliffside walks they all greet us with cheerful "Hola" or "Buenos Dias" - (even with the ubiquitos machete in hand) and seem very happy living here in this very special place. And why wouldn't you?

Thanks also to the terrific books about Guatemala in the casita's bookshelves and Lee and Jose's shared knowledge we feel we know a lot more about this beautiful country than when we arrived. Of particular value to me was the exceptional book by Daniel Wilkinson entitled Silence on the Mountains - (Stories of Terror, Betrayal and Forgetting),which outlines the authors search to learn the untold stories, particularly in the hillside regions of the coffee plantations, before and after the attempted agrarian reform in the 1950's and the subsequent atrocities that came about after the CIA helped oust the president.

Fortunately in the last few years things seem to be improving for the Guatemalan people as a whole - hopefully this stability will continue for a long time to come.

Adios Guatemala. It's been great!

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3rd December 2011

Family adventures
Michael, Sandy, Taylor, and Piper; We enjoyed reading your travel blog about your week on Lake Atitlan. We were honored to have met your family and be your host in this part of Guatemala. We hope the balance of your travels are as much fun. We will keep posted on your journey through Honduras, and your safe return home. Thanks for the dog-sitting while we were away. Warmest regards from paradise, Lee and Elaine

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