Guatemalan Highlands (Lago de Atitlan)


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Published: January 30th 2012
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Today, after two and half great weeks, we finally left Guatemala for El Salvador. I'm currently sitting in my hostel in El Tunco on the Pacific coast, the first time I've seen the ocean since Tulum in Mexico. Due to its notorious reputation and some previous advice, I hadn’t planned to go anywhere near El Salvador but travellers I’ve met out here said it couldn’t be missed. In my first day on the coast I've been greeted by a stunning sunset, friendly locals (who sang British songs to me in a restaurant and invited me to a local festival) and a huge meal for just four dollars - so far so good.

This time last week we (I'm still travelling with Amber and Rob) visited the Guatemalan mountain town of Chichicastenango. Every Sunday they hold a huge market where they sell traditional Guatemalan crafts and clothing. Walking around as the only 'gringos', you certainly felt off the tourist trail and it was a great opportunity to practice some haggling and understand traditional Guatemalan life. The next day we travelled to Lago de Atitlan, firstly to Panajachel and then took a boat to San Pedro, a small town where we planned to spend a week learning Spanish.

Our preferred method of transport was the 'chicken bus', a term for used for local transport due to the 'anything goes' approach regarding livestock owners. Transport in Central America is rarely comfortable but these buses (basically pimped out old US school buses) are something else - it takes real strength to stay on your seat and complete luck for your bags to make the journey with you. As one local bluntly asked, 'Why on earth are you taking this bus?'

San Pedro, and Lago de Atitlan in general, was a chilled out paradise and possibly the best place I've been to so far. In one week I improved my Spanish considerably (lots of revision needed) and had a great time in the evenings with fellow backpackers and the locals, who spend most of their afternoons necking Quezelteca, a strong spirit available at about 30p a bottle, before falling asleep in the street. We also managed to get three nights of accommodation for a fiver, which was nice.

The next day Rob and I climbed the volcano San Pedro which overlooks the town. Rob has spent the last few years living in the Canadian Rockies so found the hike, which started at 5am with a local guide, considerably easier than me. It really showed how a few runs in Cassiobury Park can’t prepare you for challenging hikes at altitude and that I need to get some practice in before the Andes. Fortunately we were rewarded at the end with spectacular views of… a cloud. That evening we had a few deserved beers and celebrated Australia Day.

The Spanish lessons were excellent and a good way to find out about the lifestyle of my Mayan teacher. Perhaps the most shocking revelations were that the Guatemalan government does not allow Mayans to own a passport and that she was currently having to self-treat her son’s broken wrist due to the lack of local hospitals.

After a week in San Pedro we visited San Marcos, also on a lake, known for its ‘spiritual energy’ and meditation – basically just a hippie hangout. The views of the lake and water were better here so we spent the afternoon swimming and cliff jumping before travelling back to Antigua in order to travel to El Salvador today.

The plan now is to try some surfing lessons before heading into Nicaragua via Honduras. I’m a little bit behind schedule and need to get a move on if I’m going to make my flight from Costa Rica on February 14th.

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