After a few days in Antigua visiting with Denae’s mom, Allison, the three of us caught a morning chicken bus on to Panajachel, the original tourist town on Lago Atitlan. It has lots of artesenia shopping opportunities which Denae and her mother took full advantage of. Pana isn’t our favorite town in the world- it’s oddly full of loud traffic for it’s smallish size and exhaust fumes can be pretty bad, there are too many touts and people bugging you to buy stuff, and in general it feels semi-ruined by tourism. Still, we enjoyed walking around for a while and it has some of the best views of the lake from it’s waterfront area. We stayed overnight in Pana because the next day was Friday, market day in nearby Solola, a mostly untouristed town just a few miles up the hill from Panajachel. The market there is pretty famous and we were excited to see it.
Friday morning we caught a bus up to Solola, where we found a large and fun market in full swing. We’ve seen a lot of markets in Guatemala and elsewhere, and this was one of the better ones. It was a warm and beautiful day, and we spent the next couple hours wandering through the stalls checking out the variety of things for sale, from chicken paws and medicinal herbs to bootleg shampoo and music CD’s burnt straight from the seller’s computer.
The best part of the market was seeing all the people in their traditional clothing or traje; a high percentage of both men and woman wear their traje here which is unusual, and it lends a lot of color and atmosphere to the place. The men’s clothing especially is really out there. We ate some freshly barbequed market meat, bought some watermelon slices and frozen chocolate covered papaya pieces, and in general had a fantastic time people watching and exploring. Allison bought some tote bags and Denae got some cool aprons for her sisters.
When we’d had our fill of the market we caught the bus back to Pana and went straight to the docks to catch a boat across the lake to San Pedro, where we’d previously spent two weeks studying Spanish. We really like San Pedro, despite the fact that the lower half of town is purely gringo bars and restaurants and is very touristy. It’s backpacker touristy though, which we can put up with a lot more easily than yuppie style tourists with lots of money to spend, because it keeps things really cheap and the town is a very comfortable place to hang out in. And on the hill above all the gringo hangouts, it’s a real town of 13,000 Guatemaltecos just going about their lives and business.
We stayed for the week in a cheapo hotel ($5 US per night!) that some friends had recommended called Hotel Peneleu, which turned out to be an incredible value. It had a shared guest kitchen where we made coffee every morning and cooked up some tasty meals, wifi, decent rooms with private bathrooms and some fantastic sitting areas with lake views. One of our first nights in town we had some friends over for guacamole and rum with fresh squeezed orange/ginger juice from the juice stand down the street, which we enjoyed as we sat around talking and looking at the stars. Then the stargazing suddenly got a lot better when the power went out, and didn’t come back on for three days!
We took a boat trip one morning to another lakefront town called Santiago Atitlan, about a 45 minute boat ride across the lake. We’d been warned that the boatmen from the Santiago dock try to overcharge the gringos, and sure enough we got ripped off a bit. When we tried to argue for the correct price the guy basically told us to take it or leave it, so in the end we reluctantly paid the inflated fare. Maybe it was the negative way the trip started but we just didn’t enjoy Santiago that much. It was packed with handicraft stalls and people trying hard to sell things to the tourists, and seemed a little dirty and desperate. We walked around for an hour or so, checked out the church plaza (the steps up to the plaza had a “No Peeing” sign and reeked of urine), had a mediocre comedor meal, and decided to catch the boat back to San Pedro. We didn’t even bother tracking down Maximon, aka San Simon, another version of the evil saint we’d visited in Zunil who lives here. We just weren’t feeling it.
Sunday was market day in San Pedro, a far smaller affair than Solola but still full of color and activity and lots of fun. In the afternoon we caught the (correctly priced) boat over to the hippyish town of San Marcos. Our previous host family told us that more of San Marcos is owned by foreigners than Guatemalans, and its the kind of town where you can go to a water re-birthing ceremony in the morning, choose between eight kinds of yoga for the afternoon, and have your Mayan astrology reading done during the evening. All while high. We’d been there before but we wanted to take Allison, who has enough new-age tendencies that we were certain she’d love it. San Marcos is an incredibly peaceful and pretty place, filled with trees and calm and the faint buzzing of gringos chanting “Om” in the distance. I can’t help but make fun of the town but I do like it. There are some beautiful garden cafes and restaurants, and we spent the afternoon drinking coffee and reading before heading back to San Pedro, our chakras already feeling more aligned. I predict Allison will return for a yoga retreat within the next three years.
On Monday we started Spanish school again at the Cooperativa, one of the schools we’d studied at previously and enjoyed. After our week off from classes it felt good to be working with a teacher again; we really enjoy learning Spanish. Things were slow in town with the power still off; no music playing at the bars, no espresso at the cafes (Allison was devastated!), and with no power juicers or blenders we couldn’t get our daily .60 cent carrot/beet juice… tough times.
We’d enjoyed visiting with Allison, but unfortunately her trip was only for a bit over a week and she had to head back to Oregon and work. I think she enjoyed the trip a lot and was due for a getaway.
We spent the rest of the week studying, chilling out and making friends with some cool people from our school. One couple were ultra-marathoners (that’s 100 miles to run in less than a day!), another were driving from the states to Argentina, others were frequent travelers with interesting outlooks… you meet some very intriguing people in places like these. One night we splurged and went back to Ventana Blue, our favorite restaurant in town with amazing Guatemalan/Asian cuisine. It is nice when a splurge only costs around $15 US. Another splurge during the week was paying $4 US for a shot of Ron Zacapa, the pride of Guatemala. It’s a famous rum, aged over twenty years and considered one of finest in the world. I won’t argue; I’m a rum fan and this stuff was nectar of the gods.
The Cooperativa school donates part of their proceeds to needy local families, and Friday all the students split up and delivered food and supplies purchased by the school. Denae and I went to two family’s homes, and it was a powerful experience. In comfortable and cheap San Pedro if you didn’t look around to carefully it was easy to forget about poverty, but these people lived with true need. Their homes were made of sticks and cardboard and ragged plastic, with generations living together in one room. Allison had brought some kid’s clothing from the states for us to give away, and we gave it to a family with a bunch of kids whose sole source of income was from the grandfather working as a market porter for a few Quetzales per load. The kids were wearing rags and it felt good to help out just a little. It was also a reminder of how easy all of us from developed countries have it. We’ve had this realization many times before and I think it’s an important lesson of travel: no matter how hard a time people at home might be having with the bad economy, we are all so lucky compared to the folks struggling just to survive in poor countries like Guatemala.
Our last day in town we hiked up the Nariz del Indio, a hill bordering the lake that looks strikingly like the profile of a face of someone lying on his back. It was a class trip organized by the school with one of the teachers as a guide. We started walking from the nearby town of San Juan, and within a couple sweaty hours had reached the top with some incredible views of the lake and volcanoes. Sweetening the deal, we walked down the opposite side of the hill to the town of Santa Clara, which sits up high on the plateau surrounding the lake and took only about twenty minutes to reach. Steep and long downhill hikes can be a drag and I didn’t mind missing a knee-jarring slog down. It was market day in Santa Clara and we explored it for a while before catching a bus back to San Pedro, down a road with switchbacks so tight that buses have to back up and make two point turns. It’s a slightly anxious moment watching the bus driver pop the clutch while the bus is practically hanging over a cliff! Safely back in San Pedro we started packing; the next day we were headed back to Xela.