From Antigua we took a chicken bus, an old school bus from the States reincarnated as public transport here in Guatemala, on to Lago Atitlan. A large crater lake set deep in a depression and surrounded by volcano’s, it’s one of those places in the world that have been unusually blessed, with a perfect spring climate for much of the year and scenery that seems just a little too perfect.
Our first stop was Panajachel, a place that became famous as a gringo hangout back in the 60’s and 70’s when it was filled with travelers, hippies and draft dodgers waiting out the Vietnam war. It was supposedly a pretty peaceful place back then, but nowadays it’s a little too full of traffic and diesel exhaust fumes for our taste. There were quite a few touts and vendors, and the area down by the lake was packed with big empty restaurants staffed by bored waiters standing out front trying to entice us to come in; the vibe was a little strange. Still, it was a stunning view from the edge of the lake and we enjoyed walking around and sampling a couple of the cheap local comedors.
The next day we walked down to the lake and took one of the collective transport boats across the lake to the town of San Pedro la Laguna, a place that had a couple of Spanish schools with good reputations. San Pedro is the current favored traveler’s hangout on the lake, and it’s filled with cheap hotels and restaurants. The locals call the area down by the lake Gringolandia, and it certainly lives up to its name: there’s plenty of white skin on display, with lots of bars and cafe’s (many of them owned and run by expats from the US and Europe). There were dread locked neo-hippies selling their homemade trinkets along the side of the road, and skunky aromas wafting every which-a-way. It’s a dirtbag bohemian’s paradise, and one of the cheaper traveler’s hangouts outside of Asia. A short and steep walk up the hill, though, brought a surprisingly abrupt juxtaposition: San Pedro proper, a real Guatemalan town with a population of around 13,000 and only the occasional tourist to be seen. There was a nice market, plenty of street food vendors to further our quest for cholera, and all the highland quaintness you could ask for.
We checked into a basic hotel down in Gringolandia for $9 us per night with a nice lake view, and spent the next couple days narrowing down who had the best coffee in town- it was the Italian owned place. I don’t care how snobby a traveler you are, you’ll appreciate a touristy area if it has good espresso for less than a dollar- free wifi too. Lago Atitlan is coffee country, and it was fun drinking the brew made from the beans we saw growing all over town.
Our second night in town we found ourselves meeting a group of tourists and a guide at 3am to climb nearby San Pedro Volcano. A couple people we’d met had invited us along the night before and we’d said yes without putting much thought into it, and to be honest we didn’t really know what we were getting ourselves into. The climb was somewhere around a mile of steep vertical rise, and it was a tough trip, especially for those of us who were a bit out of shape and not used to the altitude. Views from the top were sublime, and made us forget all the trouble of making it up; but it all was quickly remembered again during the trip down, which was long and hard on the knees.
Improving our Spanish language skills was the main reason we’d come to Guatemala, home of the cheap language school. There are lots of reputable schools here where you can study one on one with a private teacher for four or five hours per day, five days a week, plus stay with a local family and be fed three meals per day, all for the price of around $150 US per person per week. It’s a pretty incredible value, and a wonderful opportunity to rapidly improve one’s language abilities. We ended up trying two different schools, the San Pedro Spanish School and La Cooperativa, both of which seemed pretty good to us. The dormant grammar rules that had been sleeping somewhere deep in our brains since high school quickly returned, and we soon found ourselves speaking and understanding at a higher level than ever before. We tried both morning and afternoon classes, and definitely preferred the morning schedule for the afternoon freedom it gave us.
We lived with a couple different local families during our time here, and they were all very nice people. It was a lot of fun getting an insider’s view of the local middle class lifestyle, and we had some very interesting conversations while improving our Spanish. Food was just okay, sometimes consisting of almost solely carbohydrates. Some of it was really good though, especially the classic beans/tortillas/whatever meal that we never seem to get tired of. One of our families had a couple of really outgoing kids who liked to hang out with us, and we had a great time in general. When we weren’t in school we spent quite a bit of time studying and walking around town, and hanging our with friends from school. Both schools also had a variety of extracurricular activities, from conversation clubs to movies and salsa classes.
There are a bunch of other towns situated around the lake, and a small pueblo named San Pablo happened to have its yearly town fair during one of the weekends we were in the area. We crammed into the back of a crowded pickup taxi for the forty minute ride from San Pedro, and spent the afternoon walking through crowded streets set up as markets, listening to firecrackers and music and watching some interesting dancers, who wore Spanish conquistador masks and danced out some kind of narrative… we think. To get back to San Pedro we caught a ride in the most overcrowded rickshaw we’ve ever been a part of: Nine people in total, a family of six in the back (two of them smallish kids), with the driver and the two of us up front, barely able to hold ourselves in and having about a quarter of a butt’s worth of seat space each. All of this on a glorified motor scooter.
Another day we took the boat across the lake to the new age village of San Marcos, a small place that according to our host family contained more gringos than Guatemalans. It was a very pretty, very quiet little town with some beautiful cafes and garden restaurants, most of them a fair bit more expensive than we were used to. We checked out some noticeboards advertising all kinds of new age/spiritualist pursuits, from the more traditional meditation and yoga courses up through Mayan astrology, re-birthing ceremonies and then the really funky stuff. It was a really tranquil place, to the point that there just wasn’t enough going on and we were ready to move on after a few hours. But it also seemed like the kind of town where you could make a few connections and while away a few extremely relaxing and pleasant months. Too spiritualist for my taste though.
Before we knew it our two weeks of Spanish school were up, and it was time to travel for a week before heading back to school in a new location. We were ready; even though we’d really enjoyed our time studying in San Pedro, we’d seen very little of Guatemala and were ready to roam a bit and visit some new places. First stop, the famous (or possibly infamous) Sunday market in Chichicastenango.