Lake Atitlan

Published: February 1st 2015
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KJ and TolimanKJ and TolimanKJ and Toliman

Pretty sunrises and sunsets are the norm here
When the eight Indian women and their chicken got on the boat in San Marcos the water was already within a foot of the gunwales. We hugged the coast barging south through the chop towards San Pedro.

The women, sitting in a huddle in the bow, laughed non-stop. Their mouths opened wide with every chicken punchline they tossed out. Their teeth were rimmed in 24 Karat gold like little tabernacle doors. The white hen rested calmly in a blue plastic milk crate pondering its future.

We're on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. We stuck Atitlan at the end of our trip when we decided to fore-go Patagonia until next year if we can last that long. We had long thought about Guatemala but I guess we put it off because it wasn't a 12-hour flight away. It's a thing.

We landed in Guatemala City on a Thursday. We had been in contact with a good guy here that runs an Eco-tour business. We bounced a few e-mails back and forth. He's ex-military, same age, just wants to do his thing. The pieces fit. He offered us an apartment in his home, set up all of our connections on arrival.
Lake AtitlanLake AtitlanLake Atitlan

Our journeys so far as marked
Turned out to be one of the smartest moves we've made on this entire trip.

Martin was our shuttle driver. 12-passenger van. We paid $25 each for the ride. There was Karen, myself and a native woman returning home to Atitlan. We muddled westward through Guatemala City traffic. Small, blocky concrete buildings. Every fast-food franchise you can think of. Armed guards. Men waving flags in front of gas stations to draw trade. Black-uniformed cops pulling people over. Newer vehicles. Everybody has shoes. Standard of living in the city looks good if not great.

Outside of town we climb and descend hardwood forest ridges. Any spot that happens to be level along the road will have people living there. I see two men repairing body damage on a school bus with an 8-foot pry bar. Things look a little iffy economically. Washed out looking women in cotton shifts sit on folding chairs outside cinder-block cantinas smoking cigarettes. Other women ladle water out of 5-gallon buckets onto the streets to keep the dust down.

Old US school buses are re-painted in brightly colored designs and serve as public transport. They call them chicken buses here. Locals bring their goods
Our First Ride InOur First Ride InOur First Ride In

Boat capacities are calculated as follows (NUMBER OF LIFE JACKETS) x 1.5 = X
to market via these vehicles. I see a yellow bus just arrived in Guatemala. The writing on the side reads 'GOSHEN MIDDLE SCHOOL'. It cost us 4 Quetzales each to ride the chicken buses or about 50-cents. A ride in the back of a Picop (pickup truck) costs the same and offers better ventilation.

Just before we reach Panajachel (the big town for people on Atitlan) we pass through a small city called Solola overlooking the lake. Pretty little park in the main square. Old Spanish Catholic church. Men in cowboy hats wear short wool skirts wrapped around their hips over long pants. The women are in black skirts and cotton blouses embroidered with colorful designs. Yellow birds and scarlet curlicues, pink flowers on emerald vines, geometric scrawls in vivid amethyst. These girls can sew. Beautiful native market in Solola. Not a souvenir operation but the real deal. Men with bull-horns pitch stain removers and home-remedies to small crowds of Indians.

We descend towards the Rorschach-shaped crater lake. Three stratovolcanos squat on the lake's southern rim. We pull up at the Panajachel boat dock. Two wooden piers populated with 30-foot V-hull craft. Seats, overhead cover. Our boat is
Toliman and San Pedro VolcanoesToliman and San Pedro VolcanoesToliman and San Pedro Volcanoes

Picture taken from Santa Cruz
waiting there to take us directly home. Normally the fare you pay is based on the distance you are traveling. Anywhere between 10 and 25 Quetzales. At this time the exchange rate with the US Dollar is 7.65 Q. Private boats are negotiable but don't pay more than 150 Q for any one-way journey. Boats are tricky to get on and get off for newbies. Not exactly handicapped friendly.

We stepped off of the dock and into a major chill zone. Beautiful location right on the lake facing the Toliman volcano. No climbing. Get on the boat get off the boat at our front gate. Landscaped grounds. Apartment with kitchen and full bath. Floor to ceiling window right next to the bed. I wake at 3 AM and watch the spread of stars twinkling from my pillow. A thousand diamond studs scattered across black velour. Altitude here is 5,125 feet. Clear skies with minimal ambient light. I do not expect this view to last longer than ten years more. Our cost for the apartment is $45 a night.

We boat the next day to Panajachel. Hereafter referred to as Pana which is what the locals call it. Good
Santa Cruz Town CenterSanta Cruz Town CenterSanta Cruz Town Center

Looks like a set from Peckinpah's 'The Wild Bunch'
central market. Lots of fruits and vegetables. Everything looks and tastes good. We discover that dealing with female vendors in the market is usually a fairer process than dealing with the men. There is a grocery store on the main drag called Chalo's Grocery. Just about everything you could need at slightly higher prices than Florida stores. For produce and fresh meat we shop at the markets. If you need money the ATM's are located in Pana. Maximum withdrawal is 2,000 Q at a time. ATM's can go down at any time so stock up when you can. Most hotel operators expect payment in US currency. Maximum bank exchange for US currency is $200 a week. If you're bringing travelers checks then you really shouldn't be traveling.

Annual income in Guatemala is $3,400 a year. Most of the tourist businesses here are owned by North Americans. Bars like the Atlantis on Calle Principale have an Applebees feel. Except for the locals who work in the restaurants and hotels; Contact between westerners and natives is minimal unless you count the boat rides. You won't see many westerners on the chicken buses nor the pickups. In a land where most folks
Karen Instructs Wealthy Detroiters On How To Thumb A Ride On AtitlanKaren Instructs Wealthy Detroiters On How To Thumb A Ride On AtitlanKaren Instructs Wealthy Detroiters On How To Thumb A Ride On Atitlan

These folks were staying at the Casa Del Mundo and seemed a bit confused.
live on less than $300 a month it is not uncommon to meet tourists paying $200 a night for a hotel. The Indians provide a backdrop akin to the feel you get at the EPCOT Mexico pavilion. Take a photo and move on. It's a small world after all. There are groups of new age hippies doing yoga on luxury hotel rooftops. Crystal gazers, faith healers, ex-wives, fugitives, Evangelicals, drunks, druggies, kids acting out their Facebook personas but few of them have little idea how much the girl making their bed earns. Nor should they. It's not about that after-all. She makes a buck an hour.

Short History of Guatemala

First there were the Mayans. They built pyramids and developed a calendar which made a few doomsayers rich just before 12/21/12. The Spanish arrived in the 16th Century and with the exception of brief bouts of stymied independence Guatemala has been subject to somebody somewhere since that time. Throw in the CIA, death squads, genocide, interrogation centers and a peacetime precipitated more by physical exhaustion than altruism. Karen and I are in that Guatemala.

The physical beauty of the place is the draw. Beautiful blue lake surrounded
Santa Cruz KidsSanta Cruz KidsSanta Cruz Kids

Never take a picture of the locals without asking permission first. Otherwise it just starts all kinds of trouble.
by steep volcanic ridges. Villages appeared wherever there was land flat enough to permit building. We are closest to Santa Cruz. Small dock at base of hill. Half a dozen Tuks waiting to haul people up the mountain to their homes. Foreigners live at the bottom and the locals live at the top. Hikes here are steep affairs with lung searing 30 degree slopes. Town is a jumble of small homes built into hills. Village square holds an old Spanish church, a few tiendas and the ubiquitous Super Fried Chicken food carts. People are very friendly. Everybody says hello. All of them fluent in Spanish. Your ability to speak Spanish is a tremendous help here.

Southwest of us is the town of Jaibalito. Hike along the undulating ridge for 25-minutes. Good views. Tiny pueblo with a small street and a few tiendas parceling out drinks and snacks. High priced hotels draw people here for a few days. Too many barking dogs for those staying in town to get any rest.

2-hours hike beyond Jaibalito is Tzununa. Tzununa looks like the Riviera. Private homes on cliffs with extensive gardens behind tall basalt walls, malicious dogs and nervous gardeners who are politely eager to have you move along. Taxing hike along exposed ridges with fantastic views. Outside Tzununa we encounter a year-old boy sans pants playing with a grapefruit. Most of the people living back here are subsistence farmers with little cash income. Malnutrition rates for Guatemalan children exceed fifty percent. We pass out some penny candy from the huge bag we bought at Wal-Mart back home. In SE Asia we passed out toys. Here they need the calories.

San Marcos is a little jungle clad town loaded with westerners who do crystal and sonic healing for other westerners. Private guitar lessons available. Small central plaza/with a few grocery stores. Road from San Marcos to San Pedro is a potholed, bone jarring mess. Tuk from San Marcos to San Pedro should run you no more than 30 Q per person and it's a long ride. Choppy boat ride between the same towns costs 15 Q.

San Pedro is the low-end, born again, Hippie enclave. Twenty percent of drugs arriving in the US from S. America pass through Guatemala. A lot of stuff falls off of the trucks. A lot of that stuff ends up in San Pedro. The town is chock-full of souvenir shops, hostels, taco stands and wasted young westerners who blew into town for a party and never left. $15 grams, $40 ounces and drool inducing Mexican tar are apparently too good to leave behind. Most of the residential Spanish schools are here. Learn another language in two weeks or not. The taco stands in San Pedro are worth the boat ride. 3 tacos for 12 Q. Try the ones with Chorizo. They rock. Fe Restaurant and the Buddha Bar are much favored as meeting places.

Every ville around Atitlan has a different feel. Every native is unfailingly friendly. We had read much about safety issues in Atitlan but we have encountered nothing that would lead us to believe that we were in any danger. I liked Atitlan when we arrived but this is one of those places like Lake Matka in Macedonia that will suck you right in the longer you stay. We've already extended our time here and will probably do so again leaving a week free at the end of February to visit Flores and Tikal.

Shouts to Noah and Aerin.

To see our Tripadvisor reviews on the places, restaurants and hotels we have visited go to:

Additional photos below
Photos: 37, Displayed: 29


Making BreakfastMaking Breakfast
Making Breakfast

KJ at work in the outdoor kitchen
Our ApartmentOur Apartment
Our Apartment

Going To Pana To ShopGoing To Pana To Shop
Going To Pana To Shop

Never sit in the front row in the afternoon unless you need a shower

We eat a lot of salad here because the produce is so good
KJ at TzununaKJ at Tzununa
KJ at Tzununa

End of a blistering hike from Santa Cruz. San Marcos is just beyond that ridge in the distance
Mike, Pedro and Taco ManMike, Pedro and Taco Man
Mike, Pedro and Taco Man

Taken in San Pedro. Pedro on the left is from Santiago, Chile. Taco Man is Guatemalan but worked as a Taco Man in LA for seven years until he was deported.
The Trail Above Santa CruzThe Trail Above Santa Cruz
The Trail Above Santa Cruz

The altitude here WILL get your attention
San Pedro VolcanoSan Pedro Volcano
San Pedro Volcano

Taken from Jaibalito
Walkway From Santa Cruz To Our PlaceWalkway From Santa Cruz To Our Place
Walkway From Santa Cruz To Our Place

Some of the villages can be reached by walking either along these rickety platforms or via overland trails

1st February 2015

Don't you wish we'd brought the telescope? You capture in words what can't be captured in pictures. Bravo, another great read.
1st February 2015

Glad you are enjoying Lake Atitlan. We have many good memories of this little paradise we found a few years ago and are so anxious to get back there on the 24th of February. Sure wish that you guys were going to be in Santa Cruz when we get there. We have a beautiful place with lots of room for guests.
7th February 2015

Sounds like you've made some good decisions. Martin sounds like a great guy. We may ask you for his details before we go to Guatamala. Sounds like you have discovered some amazing small towns in some beautiful locations. Hope we can see them before they change too much. Really enjoyed your impressions and photos.

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