Antigua & Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala

Published: January 13th 2012
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Despite fears about our safety in Antigua, the first three nights we spent passed without incident. We had a moment of panic after the plane touched down when our hand luggage was missing but it turned up on a random seat about 5 rows in front of us. We’d organised a private car to take us from the airport in crime ridden Guatemala City to the tourist mecca of Antigua. Here we found narrow, cobbled streets with scattered ruins and churches every few blocks. The city lies 1.5km above sea level and is surrounded by volcanoes and green hills. Our hostel turned out to be dark and damp with too few toilets and our barred window looked out into the corridor. It did have a rooftop bar overlooking the city and free wi-fi which went some way to make up for its faults. Cafe Colonial across the street fed us most of our meals and introduced us to frijoles (black beans), tortillas and plantains (bigger and not quite as tasty but look exactly like bananas). On our last night we returned to a small ex-pat wine bar (Bacchus Cigar Lounge) we’d found to get a drink. The general election was the next day and all bars, including the hostel one, were shut. We suspected this place wouldn’t be and drank wine served in coffee cups for the evening.

San Pedro on Lake Atitlan was our chosen Spanish school location and on the fourth morning we crowded onto the tiny shuttle buses hostels and travel agencies arrange in Guatemala to ferry tourists around who would rather avoid the sometimes dangerous public Chicken Bus. These buses generally have no leg room, no head rests and the seats are designed for locals, not westerners. The trip down the winding roads around the lake was bumpy but spectacular. We followed a guide to our Spanish school where we signed in and met Juan, our host father. He led us up a steep road to his house where we met his wife Rosalia and sat on their roof top cooling down and taking in the views of the volcanoes and the lake. They were both so friendly and welcoming although had little English so at the beginning we played charades to communicate. Juan is a school teacher and Rosalia bakes big cakes for events like weddings and birthdays.

We settled into a routine in San Pedro quickly. All three meals, six days a week, were in the family house with some combination of Juan, Rosalia, their son Abneer and their maid Stephanie. The food was fantastic. Breakfast usually consisted of fruit and pancakes sometimes with hot chocolate sauce. Lunch is the biggest meal of their day and we’d have rice, veggies, meat or fish, salad, salsa, avocado and the ever-present tortillas and salsa picante (chilli sauce). Dinners were lighter and could range from soup, garlic bread, frijoles, plantains or egg based meals. The conversations got better as the weeks progressed but their patience and interest never waned even when we just stared blankly at them uncomprehending the most basic of questions.

For the first week of school Ash had a teacher named Teresa who was a local Mayan lady in her late 30’s with two children. She was very friendly and kept lectures structured but interesting. Ade had Javier, also a local Mayan with a young family, who was very friendly and professional. Unlike school in the traditional sense lessons were 1:1 with the teacher for 4 hours per day, which was very full on and necessitated a lot of sleep! We studied at San Pedro Spanish School which had property on the waterfront and classes took place in the expansive gardens under palapas (thatch roofed shaded areas). During the rainy season, which ended a few weeks before we arrived, the water level of Lake Atitlan rose a few meters and many businesses on the waterfront were destroyed. Even the town’s docks were flooded. The school lost six classroom areas but construction was underway to build new palapas in the garden close to the cafe to replace some. The school organised extra curricular activities like salsa lessons, Guatemalan movies about the civil war, conversation club, hikes etc. Classes for 5 days plus full room and board for 6 days (just room for the last night) for the bargain price of $160 each.

Fireworks were a big part of the experience in San Pedro. At first we were told they were because of the election or a certain saint’s day but it quickly became clear that these were merely excuses. Nearly every day tens of loud bangers would go off, some so loud we’d jump. Never did they emit colour, just loud noise, and continued till late at night. Stray and local dogs roam the streets at night fighting and kept us awake. Evangelical churches were also a big theme. For such a small town it’s hard to understand how so many churches can exist so close together and still draw the big crowds they do. We had one bright pink church across from our house which had a service nearly every night at 8pm and one each weekend morning. The loud off key singing was interesting but the wailing, screaming and hysterical or suicidal crying into the microphone was a little unpleasant to wake up to on a Saturday morning. The whole town is obsessed with basketball and nearly every night a huge crowd gathers at the court behind the market place to watch local teams play. Between games, quarters and even time outs little kids mob the court playing games in small groups, others throw fireworks and just run around aimlessly. We counted about 300 people the night we went. Around the tourist areas kids sold popcorn and nuts in the bars and on the street and old ladies carrying huge baskets peddled their bread calling ‘Pan de banana’, some of which was quite delicious.

The local Mayan people are generally short and extremely friendly. The women wear long, colourful woven skirts and lacy tops usually in one colour but the men generally wear shirts and slacks. People everywhere are friendly, in shops, restaurants, in the street. It’s hard to believe the country has such a violent past and that the crime rate is still so high in Guatemala. The roads between the villages on the lake are unsafe for tourists even during the day. The volcanoes must be hiked in big groups and the leader is usually armed with a machete at least. In the banks there are armed security guards on the door and in the city we saw a security guard in every truck in the passenger seat holding a rifle. When reading up on the country just before arriving we saw that there are a hundred murders a week and regular attacks on tourists at gunpoint in Antigua. We heard plenty of stories to back this up but luckily never came close to seeing anything first hand.

After one week of intensive lessons we were wrecked. We decided to take a week’s break and retreat to the quiet village of San Marcos across the lake to relax. The boat trip across the lake is amazing. On all sides of the lake huge volcanoes or mountains rise up with little villages dotted on the lakes edge. The village is a lot smaller than San Pedro with narrow dirt paths leading up to the main street. We stayed at Paco Real closer to the water than the town and in the middle of the hippie area. The food here was fantastic and cheap enough although the owner is a bit flighty (it took him 3 hours to check us in and he kept telling customers he’d deal with them in a minute, he was busy putting away the shopping). Our room was big and comfortable but a creature magnet. Each day Ade would have to remove some spiders or unidentifiable beings. The day the scorpion wandered into our room Ash ran to get the owner who swept it away. The girls who worked in the kitchen banged knives on the stone floor next to the stairs it ran under to scare it away apparently. It must have worked as luckily we didn’t see it again. The town is known for its hippie vibe, arts and crafts classes can be taken, yoga is offered in a few places, Mayan astrology can be read and a big draw is Las Pyramids, a sort of hippie school offering month long Moon course, the last week of which is spent fasting and in silence. Surprisingly that didn’t appeal. Ade was going to take a metaphysics class just to see what it was all about but the lady giving information freaked him out. He did get his Mayan astrology reading at the Flower House and found it really interesting. We mostly read, caught up on blogs and chilled out for the week. Twice we ate at Tul Y Sol, a restaurant down by the water owned by a Frenchman. The food and views there were divine.

Back in San Pedro we stayed with Juan and Rosalia again and Ash kept Teresa as her teacher but Ade switched to David, a young guy in his early 20’s but also with a wife and kid. On our second last day the four of us headed up into the local market area to get some traditional food, chuchitos – meat and salsa wrapped in tortilla and a chocolate and cinnamon rice drink served in a plastic bag with a straw. We strolled through the square in front of the catholic church then hired a basketball to shoot some hoops and play 21’s girls versus boys. It was a lot of fun, the girls scored a last minute victory! When we got back down to the school we weren’t feeling very studious and so Teresa suggested we play scrabble in Spanish. It was our favourite day in school!

The following evening Ade played football with some of the teachers and students he’d recruited from a neighbouring school. The game was fast and furious and more competitive than Ade was expecting but still a good laugh. After, we went for drinks at the local cantina with David and Luis, another teacher that hosted conversation club one night. First stop, the Rock Cantina. The place was extremely dark, probably for good reason, and lit with UV lights with torn posters of Jim Morrison and Metallica on the walls. Only litre bottles of beer were on the menu and no women allowed. Foreigners are exempt from this rule, mainly because they hardly ever turn up and are quite a spectacle when they do. Luis and David said we were the only students who ever went to the cantina with them, most students want to go for drinks in Gringoland, which is what they call the strip of bars and shops that tourists go to by the water. At the next cantina, Las Estrellas (the stars), Ade talked to nearly everyone in there. The local policeman and basketball referee came over to talk and have their pictures taken with us. Allegedly a local drug baron was there too sitting at the table right next to the police hiding behind his yellow baseball cap when the camera was out, it was very funny. There was a cement sink in the corner where boys pee in full view of everyone in the bar. Luckily there was a secret toilet around the back that Luis got the bartender to open for Ash.

Thanksgiving fell on the last Thursday we spent at Lake Atitlan and we convinced our small, newly formed (the night before) group of friends (Mark, Sarah, Nick, Clare, Helen & Kyle) to join us at the bar El Barrio for a buffet lunch. We sat in the sun and stuffed our faces with yummy food before retreating inside to spend the afternoon buying drinks for tickets and getting all excited every time there was a draw for prizes. Luckily there weren’t many other people there so Nick won a set of headphones, a random won a mini mp3 player and we won the top prize which was one night in the Earth Lodge (plus dinner), a hostel in the mountains overlooking Antigua that we hadn’t actually heard of. We were thrilled, mainly because we won, but also because everyone else in the group had heard of the place and really wanted to go. We ended up going that weekend and it was fantastic up there, so peaceful and the food is as good as its reputation implies.

Back in Antigua we visited the local McDonalds which had been recommended to us the day we arrived by the taxi driver. It was in a really impressive old building and had seating in a huge garden area with clear views of the volcanoes. We heard after that it was also the home of the Happy Meal. Our shuttle out of Antigua was cancelled due to strikes and road closures in Guatemala so we ended up spending an extra night at a local hostel but did get away successfully the next day. Onwards to Lanquin and the natural wonder that is known as Semuc Champey!

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Departing For San MarcosDeparting For San Marcos
Departing For San Marcos

Via the flooded docks
A Local BeverageA Local Beverage
A Local Beverage

straw optional

13th January 2012

What a fascinating country! Your tales and the photos are amazing! Can't wait to find out more - keep the blogs coming!

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