“Lake Como, it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing.” Said Aldous Huxley, but then he ended up going all trippy and taking too much mescalin so what does he know? On the other hand, you can take it from me Lake Atitlan is bee-youtiful.
I arrived in Panajachel, the main town on the shore of Lake Atitlan, on Saturday after escaping Antigua. As these things happen I got chatting to a nice American lady called Beth who was out here to learn some Spanish before going back to New York to continue Med School. She has some friends already in Pana, who we ended up meeting, having lunch with, and before you know it, hopping into a boat for a quick tour of the lake.
Beth’s friends were a couple of other Americans, who for all the lovely Americans I have met so far, these guys make up the stereotype we so often hold against a nation of 300’000+ people. Also along for the ride was German Constantine, to whom, after an initial mix up, I referred to as Freddy for the duration of the day. The tour was to a couple of villages to the south of Pana, clockwise as you face the lake, and also a stop at some hot water springs.
The villages were a fairly mediocre affair, there wasn’t a great deal to see at them, although we did enjoy a nice beverage with a beautiful view at beer o clock. The highlight of the trip had to be the hot water springs. They aren’t as you may initially envisage, a hole in the ground with steaming water coming from it, but instead an area by a lake wall where hot water seeps through the rocks and rises into the lake. Constantine and I jumped in, leaving the Americans in the boat who had complained of the sewage pipe they had seen running into the lake further down stream. As you swam through the water there was the odd sensation of passing through very chilly patches and then into a warm patch and back out again. Closer to the rocks and the waters edge it was possible to find a patch that was just like sitting in a hot bath. It warra lovely.
The following day I made my way to Chichicastenango market. I decided, rather than take the overpriced private shuttle buses, to do the journey to Chichi by chicken bus. In all fairness, they really aren’t that bad. Yes, the drivers to tear around blind corners down hill at silly fast speeds, and yes, at times there were three people to a seat with a seventh suspended over the aisle, held there by the force of the other six. But then the chicken bus was a quarter of the price and much more of an experience. Its refreshing to be the only gringo on the bus rather than being all gringos in the rather sterile private shuttle environment.
As for the market itself, it really is now just a showpiece for tourists. The exceptions are the food stalls in the centre and the corn sellers in the periphery, but for the most part each stall sells the same Gallo beer t-shirts and the same selection of local textiles. Which isn’t to say that the market is a complete waste of time; it was genuinely interesting to walk along the narrow aisles and corridors formed by the stalls and at times I would be surrounded by a swarm of local people all pushing at me from all sides like at the change of band at a music festival. But everyone is so small, the tallest locals reach my chest at most, I must have looked like Gandalf at a Hobitton village fete.
I’d tired of the markets after a couple of hours, and since I wasn’t tied down to a fixed departure like those on the shuttles, I decided to make my way back. I was engaged in another round of ¿Donde es?with a petrol station forecourt worker when I bumped into Lucy and Ainsley who had been on the Raggamuffin sail boat tour in Belize. I said my hello’s and arranged to meet them for a drink later that evening in Pana. They’d spent a week in language school in Xela, and so were able to point me in a slightly more accurate direction towards the bus stop home than I’d managed with my pigeon Spanish.
After having met up with Constantine, Lucy and Ainsley the previous night (Constantine had not gone to the market because of a bug he’d picked up) and having a drink and a bite to eat, we met up the following day and all went off to San Pedro, a village on the lake about a 40 minute boat ride away from Pana. On arrival we checked in at a place by the dock which had amazing views of the lake from my window and a small dock from which you swim off into the lake beyond the questionably murky shores. We booked a volcano hike for the following morning and spent the rest of the day chilling.
However, a relaxed time it wasn’t to be for me. That afternoon we went for lunch in a magic little spot by the lake which was reached by walking along narrow dust paths which threaded their way through shaded gardens and small fields of maize. I had nachos, and I’m afraid that was the end of me. That evening I had a sudden turn and felt rather sick. The prospect of eating seemed entirely unappealing and I had completely lost my appetite (yes I know, unheard of). It turned out that I had picked up Constantine’s stomach bug, and probably from something as trivial as not washing my hands before I ate my nachos after using his camera to take a photo.
For the next 24 hours my body did its very best to completely empty itself, I couldn’t even hold down water. The walk I had booked for the following morning was a complete no goer, and from what Lucy and Ains had told me, a good job too. They had endured a marathon 5 hour uphill trek followed by a rapid decent as they were chased down the volcano by bandidos. That afternoon I longed from some comfort food. There was the voice of my mother telling me to have some tomato soup and a piece of dry soup (oh how I would have killed for a tin of Heinz tomato soup at that point), but the best I could do was bean on toast where the baked beans was a homemade concoction of white beans and a tin of tomatoes. Not quite what I wanted.
The next day I was on the road to recovery, self evident by the empty plate of pancakes I left at breakfast time. Ains, Lucy and I paid a trip to the next village on the way back to Pana called San Marcos. Its was supposed to be a hippy hang out and the most beautiful and clean village on the lake. When we arrived it was true that the waters were crystal clear amongst the reed beds, and the little paved and cobbled streets that intertwined the buildings under the dappled shade of large trees that over hung the village gave me the impression that this is what the settlement the islanders in the film The Beach would have created had they had 10 more years for a bit of infrastructure. There were plenty of places to do yoga and have massages, you even spend a week in silence meditating if you liked, but apart from that there wasn’t a great deal to do so we made a quick exit.
That evening, Ains, Lucy and I went to the thermal waters at San Pedro where we sat in large concrete baths at dusk enjoying a long soak to soothe our aching bones. It started to rain, but as they say, the best place to be when it rains is somewhere already wet.
However, the rain continued, and after saying my goodbyes to Ains and Lucy the next day, I just managed to get back to Pana before the heavens really opened and Guatemala gave me a state of highland rain storms. The streets of Pana were like rivers and after sheltering with some fellow Brits in a cafe for a while trying to enjoy a cup of tea, I had to wade back up town barefooted with the filthy water riding up my shins and the rain lashing down against my poncho.
The rains receded by late evening and I ventured back in to town for some dinner, but for the first time on my travels, without any company. A fact I would have to get used to in the next couple of days as I left the well worn gringo trail for the mountain town of Nebaj, and a route to Coban and the limestone caves of Lanquin without having to shuttle it back to Antigua.