A place to get lost in.

Published: April 8th 2005
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Now I understand why people came here in the seventies and never left.

We spent the first night in Panajachel in a little room in a hostal down some random little alleys. Geared to tourists and gringos, this place is hippie and granola central. Every restaurant has vegetarian options, rare in this country, if they aren't completely vegetarian. There are artisan and clothing merchants lining the entire main drag ready to sell you everything from traditional Guatemalan blankets, to purses to jewelry. If you're looking for something, you'll find it here, but the price might be a little steep. Definitely try your luck at bargaining. The best technique I've found being the "walk away". Shoot off your price and see if you can walk off without him agreeing to it. If he doesn't you know it's too low. If he does you can try for a lower price at another booth.

The town is made up of three main streets that meet at a crossroads. Principal and Santander both lead down to the beach where you can catch the "lanchas", small boats that will take you to the other towns around the lake. Los Arboles, the third street leads up the hill and brings to the town square. If you follow this street all the way up and take a left there's a sweet little hospedaje called Villa ...something. I don't remember. Anyway, for the price it was the best thing we found. It's in the Lonely Planet if you really want to know.

There are restaurants of every type, from the cheapie street vendors and local comedors, to the more upscale stuff and a couple of decent looking bars too, although we never tried any.

The next morning we made our way to Santa Cruz la Laguna. A teeny little local village further down the lake to stay at the Iguana Perdida. Chris had been here on the last trip he made to Guatemala and as soon as I got there I could see why. The front deck looks out on the lake and directly across is the Volcan San Pedro, towering up into the clouds. The lake is the clearest blue and once the boats have passed everything is so quiet. Like most smart hostels this place has a tab and honor system where you mark down stuff like food and drinks yourself. Don't try to scam by, they check and find out. Dinner is communal, the great way to meet everyone else. Although we didn't partake, the hostal is famous as a dive centre where you can get your PADI certification (pretty cheaply too) and because you're diving in a volcano crater there are special qualifications for things like altitude diving. Words of warning about this, if you plan on diving there during the day, at least plan on staying somewhere around the lake. They aren't allowed to let you dive and then travel somewhere else lest you get the bends on the bus. Everyone we saw who came back from a dive thought it was pretty cool. Not a whole lot of fauna, but underwater trees and hot mud from the magma flows.

The characters who live at and around this hostal are part of what make the place so great as well. The place is owned by Deedle, a Brit, and Dave, an American. Deedle had friends Will and Jenn running the joint while we were there. They were wonderful good fun. On the first night we met Dave, Barbara and Sara, a family from New England. Dave was a volcanologist who would patiently describe the makings of the Lago and the surrounding terrain to us the following morning. On this night, however, he became my hero my producing a fantastic bottle of Californian Pinot Noire and sharing it graciously along with his huge bar of dark chocolate. Thanks Dave if you ever read this! You totally made my night.

The other couple who made our stay particularly memorable were Bob and Jan. They had lived in Santa Cruz for seven years. Bob was an old hippy who had been to 'Nam and used to live in Conneticut. Jan came from a Christian background, and a family that was apparently none too impressed with her choice in men. They had been together for fifteen years, never married but they didn't seem to think it mattered. I agreed. They were lovely. Chris and Bob had a night of bonding over many drinks during which Bob gave us the dish on all the local residents and some of their stories. The biggest house belonged to a guy named Lord Eric whose grandad was apparently the King of Norway a one time. The owner of Gallo beer apparently had a house there as well and a few others who shall remain nameless for the sake of my safety. Among all these huge houses there was one other guy named Tipee Bob, and you can guess what he lived in, way up on the mountain. Apparently the big boys were trying to run him off his land, but he would have none of it.

While in Santa Cruz we visited the market in Santiago, just across the lake. The climb up the Volcano there is apparently expensive as hell (try $50) but worth it, according to Dave and family. Your guide is a guy named Jim who has gotten himself known for being a nutcase which ensures your security since no one wants to tangle with him He has 26 dogs which he apparently keeps in line by biting their ears and other weird manners of discipline. We never met him, I'm only going by first hand accounts.

We made the three hour walk to San Marcos on the Saturday before we left with two girls from Ireland. If you plan on doing it make sure you're in a group. Apparently people get robbed on that road all the time. San Marcos is the meditation and spiritual hub of the lake. It's most famous for one particular hotel that hosts a famous month-long lunar retreat where guests learn everything from meditation, to chakras, to tarot. They go on week long fasts and spend the final five days in total silence. There's an even longer one called a solar retreat that lasts three months. Very hardcore, but you should at least check the place out if you're there.

The only other town we visited around the lake was San Pedro. This place is backpacker central because it's so dirt cheap, but the whole place gives off this weird sleazy vibe. It's known mainly for it's super cheap dope (coke) and obviously attracts a certain kind of crowd. The people are super friendly, but I would have had a hard time staying there for more than a day or two.

If you are going to stay at the Iguna, try to make being there on a Saturday night part of your plans. This is how we got suckered in to staying there till Sunday instead of leaving on Friday like we'd planned. Saturday is BBQ night, when everyone shows up. All the local gringos come down from the mountain side, guests from other hotels stop in and the place is packed. Make sure you sign up for your grub early. Often they do theme nights and fun stuff like dress up, for which they've got a huge stock of costumes in the back. The party on this particular weekend went on till about 2am, with a good time had by all.

The following day we made our way back to Pana, where I had a ceviche that I'm convinced I never should have. But it was sooo good. Hung out in town, watched a little soccer and left the following morning for Guatemala City to replace Chris' passport. Word to the wise, if you want to get to the capital from Pana, the bus is at 7:00am. The next one is at something like 11:00 ( if you're taking the direct route). We took a 9:30 to Las Encuentros and then another to Guate City because we missed the 7 o'clock.

After running around the shwanky part of the Capital where all the offices and government buildings are trying to get everything stamped and sealed we made our way up town to catch a bus to Chiquimula where we would stay the night and hop a collectivo the next day to the Honduran border on our way to Copan Ruinas.

Chiquimula, in case you were wondering, is really nothing more than a town to pass through because of transport. The town itself isn't that nice and the hotels are even worse. They have a beautiful Parque Central, however, and restaurant that's a carnivores paradise called La Paradilla. If you walk up from the park on the left side of the street you'll find it. Try their platter for two, it comes with chicken, beef and chorizo a soup, rice, beans, salad and a baked potato. Just make sure you're hungry!


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