|Subject: Guatemala - Lake Atitlán|
Before I continue with the Guatemala travelogue I would like to address a question regarding language differences. I am fluent in Spanish which obviously is a huge advantage when traveling in Latin America. My wife is not but has become proficient in her comprehension due to our many travels in Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries. And I tend to slip away when she's haggling in the market forcing her to use her Spanish. On this visit to Guatemala we were often in close contact with other travelers who did not speak Spanish. Undoubtedly they all experienced an occasional miscommunication due to the language differences but never did I hear of any case of extreme frustration regarding this issue. All in all, we were impressed with the number of Guatemalans within the tourist industry who were bilingual.
Our transportation from Antigua to Lake Atitlán was made by bus on the Rebuli line which has a "Pullman" leaving at 7:00 am each morning. "Pullmans" are the more spacious larger buses as opposed to the converted school buses. I understood this to be the single direct bus between Antigua and Panajachel (the primary entry town to Lake Atitlán). Mini- shuttles are available at a cost of about four times the bus which was approximately $5 U.S. The Rebuli office in Antigua is located in a bakery on Calle 6 Poniente across the street from the La Bodegón supermarket.
The three hour-plus ride to Lake Atitlán rises up from Antigua into the Western Highlands through one major town (Chimaltenango), corn milpas, vegetable plots, small villages, and steep-sided forested hills before passing through Sololá and diving down the switch-backed road to the shoreside town of Panajachel. The Rebuli bus makes frequent stops along the way picking up locals heading into the various villages. Our travel day was overcast with drizzle and heavy fog in the higher elevations. Slow moving traffic and winding mountain roads result in white-knuckle passing with the most astonishing example being an incident in which our bus encountered two local buses approaching us side by side coming out of a blind turn. Our driver managed to keep the bus under control despite both right wheels bumping along on the dirt shoulder as the three buses passed one another on a two-lane highway. Having watched this driving feat unfold before my gaze down the center aisle of the bus I glanced around at the local riders (including many standing in the aisle) and noticed not a bit of concern on anyone's face. If this kind of travel leaves you unsettled do like my wife did and keep your eyes on the scenery and not the road ahead.
Arrival in Panajachel was about 10:30 am. I consulted with the Rebuli office about return buses to Guatemala City determining that due to our itinerary our departure from Lake Atitlán would require a mini-shuttle.Our accommodations were on the north shore of the lake near the small village of El Jaibalito at La Casa del Mundo. Access to the hotel is by the launches which serve as the main means of transportation between the villages that ring the lake. As you approach the dock (one of two main docks; one has the launches that serve the northern towns of Santa Cruz, El Jaibalito, San Marcos and San Pedro; the other serves Santiago Atitlán and San Lucas Toliman) you will come across evidence of Hurricane Stan's destruction in this area. A small stream that entered the lake here had grown to a raging torrent during the storm ripping apart the street where it approaches the docks. Other evidence of the storm had been seen on the road from Antigua; portions of the highway had collapsed and landslides were still in the process of being cleared. But from what we observed the Guatemalans had made a remarkable recovery in regards to reopening the roads into the lake. We had contacted our hotel about our visit which came a mere three weeks after the tragedy. They assured us that the community was actively seeking the tourist trade to return to normal. And that was exactly what we encountered during our visit.
Now that I've covered the mundane travel details of arriving at Lake Atitlán let me say that the stunning beauty of the setting is incredible. And fortunately the glowing reviews I'd read about La Casa del Mundo all rang true. When making my reservation I had requested room number three and on arrival we were pleased to be situated in that very room. The view of the lake, it's three towering volcanoes, San Pedro, Toliman, and Atitlán, and the clouds dancing off of the peaks is one of the most exquisite scenes on earth. To have this view framed by the arched window at the foot of your bed is sublime. Everywhere on the property the view of the lake and volcanoes is constantly before you. Achieving this was no mean feat for Bill and Rosie Fogarty, the owners of the hotel. La Casa del Mundo is situated on steep cliffs a couple hundred feet up from the lakeshore. Of course, this means steps, and lots of them, to get around on the property. But it is well worth it. Whether you are enjoying the lakeside terraces for sunbathing, swimming, cliff diving; accessing the high trail along the lake's north shore for a breathtaking hike; sampling some of the fine cooking in the restaurant; or reading and resting in a hammock in the lush gardens this is one of the planet's ideal hotels.
During our three day visit we opted to have our breakfasts and dinners at the hotel. Breakfasts were ordered from a menu and could be had between 7:30 am and 10: 00 am. Dinners were served at 6:30 pm in a single seating at one large table for all that opted to dine at the hotel. The meals were convivial offering a chance to exchange travel stories with fellow residents. We found the food to be well-prepared and flavorful . Lunches we took while we were out and about sightseeing in the other villages on the lake.
Lake Atitlán's population is predominantly indigenous people of Mayan ancestry. In fact, Guatemala has the highest percentage of indigenous population in Central America, approximately fifty percent. The lake's inhabitants are divided into two distinct language groups, the Tzutujil and the Cakchiquel. These are just two of twenty-three languages spoken in Guatemala. It is quite common to hear these various Mayan languages spoken all throughout Guatemala. And it is interesting to notice the use of both Spanish and local Mayan dialect in one sentence. In addition to the languages spoken the various Mayan people distinguish themselves by their incredibly colorful hand woven fabrics. Each village around the lake, throughout the Western Highlands, and to a lesser degree all of Guatemala has a unique set of patterns to the fabrics incorporated into their clothing.
During our stay we visited the villages of Santa Cruz La Laguna, San Marcos La Laguna, Santiago Atitlán, and Panajachel. The visit to San Marcos was a short stop on the way to Santiago. While there we encountered some clowns and stiltwalkers entertaining the town's children in the center. Meanwhile, everybody was pitching in to help remove rubble left behind by the recent flooding. San Marcos has a number of places to stay with a "New Age" atmosphere i.e. meditation gardens, yoga classes, temescals (sweat lodges), etc. A fellow traveler staying at La Casa del Mundo did not speak very highly of the nights she stayed in San Marcos. She said that the many dogs in the village raise a cacophony of howls and barking throughout the evening while two different evangelical churches blasted their music over loudspeakers into the village night.
Santiago Atitlán was the town we chose to do much of our fabric shopping. Although the Mayan fabrics are available throughout the country we were very much taken with the local designs. Purchases included tablecloths and huipils (the traditional blouses worn by the local women). This town is the center of commerce for many smaller villages situated further up in the highlands to the west. It was in these small villages that Hurricane Stan wreaked its worst havoc including the tragic landslide into the village of Panabaj that claimed the lives of 1400 people. Unfortunately Santiago Atitlán (and many other Mayan communities in the Western Highlands) is no stranger to tragedy having been the site of a massacre of its citizens by government troops during the 30+ year civil war that shook this country.
Santa Cruz La Laguna is accessible from La Casa del Mundo by a hike along a cliffside trail that passes above the hotel. The hike to Santa Cruz takes about a half hour to forty-five minutes and is replete with stunning views of the lake hundreds of feet below. The same trail can be taken in the other direction all the way to San Marcos La Laguna for a much longer hike. We did the hike in the late afternoon which unknown to us had more direct sunlight; a morning hike would probably be cooler. The trail isn't difficult with the most tiresome portion within the first hundred yards of the hotel. Afterwards it becomes fairly easy. As you walk along the trail and look up the steep hillsides above you you'll see milpas hugging the slopes. I find it amazing that land this steep can be cultivated. Then all of a sudden you'll hear crashing in the thick undergrowth along the trail and a villager will come out of a hidden path with a hundred pound tumpline sack of corn hanging off of their forehead. Incredible! The village of Santa Cruz is situated on hills high above the lake and the trail brings you in just below it. We wandered into town late on a Saturday afternoon just in time to catch an impromptu game of soccer being played on the town basketball court. We bought a bottle of water before heading down the steep road to the docks. At the lakeside you'll find a couple of restaurants, at least one of which also has rooms. Other hotels/inns can also be found in the hills of Santa Cruz. The restaurants are great for enjoying a cold drink while waiting for the next launch to give you a lift back to the hotel.
Panajachel seems to get short shrift in the guidebooks because it has capitalized on its position as the entryway for most tourists coming to the lake. We found it to be no worse (and from our experience far less kitschy) than any other tourist gateway town. The way our schedule worked out Pana (as the locals call it) was where we opted to visit the local market. All the local towns have market days on a particular day of the week with some larger towns having two per week. Probably the most famous market is in Chichicastenango which can be visited from Atitlán on a day trip. Santiago Atitlán and Sololá (on the hills above the lake) are also renowned for their markets. In fact, our bus in to Atitlán from Antigua had passed through Sololá during market day and the town was packed. But our schedule had us visiting the Sunday market in Pana. Markets are always a thrill for us and this was no exception. My guess is that the Pana market has less fabrics for tourists and more foodstuffs and other goods for locals. Nevertheless we managed to pick up a huipil from one woman and a corte (skirt) from another who was simultaneously making a large sale of butchered chicken to a local woman. This whole transaction was fascinating as the vendor, and her daughter, were describing the material and its origin to us in Spanish as she handled the other transaction of the chicken in her native tongue of Cakchiquel. After shopping we stopped for lunch at one of several lakeshore restaurants near the docks that handle the launches to Santiago Atitlán. These multistory thatched roof open-air restaurants have (once again) gorgeous views of the lake and its looming volcanoes.
Our final day at the lake we again woke early to enjoy the sunrise. All three days at the hotel we had gone for a swim shortly after the sun peeked over the surrounding mountains. The hotel had a series of terraces for sunbathing and from which to enter the lake's tepid but refreshing waters. The design of the terraces and the rocky cliffside placement of them could have been lifted right off the Amalfi Coast. My wife who is an avid swimmer was able to get in her required laps every morning while I amused my self diving off of the terraces and surrounding cliffs. Morning is definitely the best time for a swim in the hotel's beautiful cove as the lake waters get fairly choppy later in the day as the wind picks up.
The hotel staff was very helpful in arranging for our transportation out of Lake Atitlán. Our next destination was Cobán in the central highlands of the country, a considerable distance. I had already determined that the bus company (Rebuli) on which we had arrived at Atitlán did not depart early enough for our needs. The staff was able to arrange for our transfer from Panajachel to Guatemala City, by way of Antigua, on a mini-shuttle. So, packed and refreshed from our early morning swim we caught the launch to Pana where we breakfasted on excellent pastries at Pana Pan before meeting our shuttle.
Our visit to Lake Atitlán was delightful. We can't wait to go back in order to relax and enjoy La Casa del Mundo as well as do some more in depth visits to the surrounding villages. Next installment will be on Cobán and the falls at Semuc Champey as we continue to work our way across Guatemala.
John in San Diego