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Published: October 16th 2006
First view across the lake, towards San Pedro and Tuliman Volcanos
I left the lovely city of Antigua, finally and with much difficulty, on a bus headed towards Panajel, on the edge of Lago Atitlan. I fell in love with Guatemala fairly swiftly, as some places you arrive and wish you hadn't, here the reverse happened, I wished I had been here years sooner. Antigua is a cobbled street small town 'city', with a mix of tourists and locals dressed in traditional costumes, old colonial style buildings, and surrounded by 3 volcanoes. After spending a week there doing little more than attempting to improve my Spainsh I decided I had to leave before it becam too late and I ran out of time to visit other areas of Guatemala.
So I arrived at 'The Lake'. Described as one of the most beautiful lakes in the workld, it has a lot to live upto. And most of the time it manages. I had a short debate with a Scot who claimed that there were better lakes in Scotland, and having not fully explored Scotland I couldn't exactly say he was wrong, but I doubt that the lakes there are surrounded by verdant volcanoes, small villages with the locals still dressed in traditional
outfits, a lake of turquoise water and warm weather to enjoy it. Please correct me if I'm wrong...
So why isn't the whole world living here, in an idyllic paradise? Well occasionally whole villages are wiped out by floods when hurricanes strike, the road to the lake is one of those very long winding ones, not all the quaint villages have electricity, and hot showers are a decided luxury... but then there are a lot of people who arrive and find it very difficult to leave.
The first village, where the bus drops you off is definately not the prettiest, with tourist stalls on every street, in front of the numerous bars and hotels. However if you get onto one of the launch boats there is a whole world of different villages to explore, all with different views, different Mayan people and different personalities. I ended up in a small village called Santa Cruz, in a rustic hostel on the lake edge. I arrived just in time to be recruited into a bizarre sort of scavenger hunt - a trial run to get people to explore more of the villages on th lake. We were put into teams,
Carrying wood for cooking in the traditional manner, a giggling 8 year old called Rosa
given a questionnaire sheet and sent off in a launch to explore the villages. Rather a strage idea, but one that ended up working remarkably well...
...First stop was Santiago, home of the local Deity'Maximon'. Still worshipped by Mayans it is advisable to offerings, preferably of rum and cigarettes. With the aid of a local boy we were taken to the house where Maximon is currently living (he changes his address on an annual basis to prevent power build up in one place), and there, with seven coloured ties around his neck was the wooden Maximon, smoking a cigar. In front of him a priest was earnestly requesting blessings for a young man sitting beside him with a large hat upon his head. I donated a bottle of beer, said a short prayer (never neglect the Gods, you never know which one will be playing with you) and stepped outside to talk to the family.
Each different Mayan village has a different coloured dress, a beautifully embroidered shirt and skirt. Each blouse takes about 1 month of work to create, and all are done by hand, complete individual works of art. I innocently inquired if we could see
Local Mayan saint in his current 'home' in Santiago
the local colours, and within minutes found myself being dressed up - something I doubt I would ever had done had it not been for the ridiculous scavenger hunt...
Next stop San Pedro, an eclectic mix of Mayans, travellers, and hippies that visited in the 60s and 70s and somehow forgot to leave. Here you can buy almost any flavour bread you want, (and plenty of other things too including jewellery and pot). Flora was selling banana, chocolate, pineapple, cinnamon, carrot and coconut bread the day we were there, and spent a few minutes trying to teach me to count to 3 in Mayan. Not easy. I can recommend the carrot. Also managed to pick up a bin liner of rubbish (extra points awarded), as there is no real concept of throwing rubish in a bin, there are no bins, and the floor is always closer. But what happens to it afterwards? Most of it is just dumped on a hilside somewhere. After years of burying their rubbish in the land, the people have now got plastic, and it just doesn't degrade (sorry Tim, haven't got over the eco phase yet), so it lies around for future generations to
We asked what the local colours were... this was the reply!
look at in disgust. Not pretty, but there are local efforts to clean the place up, I wish them luck.
The next village rarely sees tourists, and the kids come trailing after looking at us, with a shy hello as we walk past. The walk to the next village gives beautiful views across the lake, and towards a restaurant perchd on a cliffside serving the most delious fruit and food. Quick lunch stop there before continuing on the trail...
The afternoon we take a boat again to the edge of one village, and the source of hot water. A natural fault line runs under the lake, and here the water rushes out of the rocks at an incredible 50C. Pleasant for swimming if only the waves would stop pushing you onto the sharp rocks... so we climb out and hitch a ride to the next village. Not in a car, but in a pick up, when there are no chicken buses, or you only need to go a short way then there are numerous trucks that will happily let you climb in the back and ride for a few quetzals to the next town. I now know how
Most of the women living around the lake still dress in traditional Mayan style
cattle feel being transported to the market.
So the day ended with a drink or two, a night time boat ride and a photo show from everyone. Turned out to be a brilliant way of seeing a little of everything, (if not much of anyting), but more improtantly talking to people and getting a bit closer to the real Mayan people of Guatemala.
I spent only 4 days by the lake, but I understand how people can get stuck there too, leaving weeks later, or sometimes not at all...
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