Aldous Huxley described Lake Atitlan as “really too much of a good thing”. Surrounded by volcanoes it is certainly very beautiful, has – on its shores and hillsides – twelve villages all with their own unique character and has a near perfect climate [kind of like an English summer at its best].
Our visit, during the rainy season, meant that we also saw some of the lake’s “moodier side” with choppy waves…
The days followed a general pattern of bright blue sky in the morning, fluffy clouds forming by 10ish, which developed into increasing cloud cover which sometimes, but not always, resulted in rainfall in mid to late afternoon. Most evenings/nights were dry again.
We arrived at our first destination on the lake, the small town of Panajachel, on one such rainy afternoon and were forced to sit drinking Mohitos whilst watching the water flood down the street.
The trip to Panajachel – which is known locally as “Pana” took about 4.5 hours from Antigua [where we had spent Sunday night with Steph who was embarking on a two week Spanish language course]. The journey, or should I say “adventure”, involved four separate “Chicken buses” which, you might remember, I described in the last blog post. We could have opted for an Express bus from Antigua to Pana but it left at 7am so it wasn’t a difficult decision to try the alternative chicken bus option.
When we set off we had no idea how many buses we would need to catch – the Lonely Planet advised that there would be one change at Chimaltenango [Chimal] so at least we knew where to head for initially. The first bus took us through the village of Pastores which consists of shop after shop of leather whips, saddles and cowboy boots – and I mean literally shop after shop! From Pastores it was then only about 20 minutes to Chimal and we stayed with the bus until the terminus in the centre of the town. We now know that this isn’t actually the best way to do it. On finding the Chimal bus we should have told the conductor that our final destination was Pana because he would then have ensured that we alighted from the bus on the outskirts of Chimal at an intersection where the next bus would be waiting.
The bus system in Guatemala is absolutely amazing. There are a few main routes through the country such as Highway One which formed part of our journey. To and from these main highways Chicken buses make trips to surrounding towns and villages which, in themselves, have other “junctions” or “intersections” where they meet up with yet more buses – thus forming a whole network of transportation to just about anywhere. The other good things about this system are firstly the relative speed of the journey [the chicken bus route only takes about one hour longer than the express route] and, secondly, the relative cost. We paid Q28 each [£2.34] for the four buses. Mike later made a shuttle bus trip covering the same journey which cost four times as much. The reason for that trip will become clear later…. though the title of this blog post might be a bit of a giveaway!
Anyway, Pana was our base for the first four nights and on Tuesday we walked around the eastern shore of the lake from where, looking back, we had great views of the larger dock area and the many Lanchas waiting to take passengers across and around the lake.
The villages around the lake are famous for their weaving, some of which is still done on a backstrap loom and this young lady from Santa C is modelling a typical decorative Mayan blouse called a “Huipul”.
The skirt is called a “Corte” and the belt which holds it all together is the “Faja”. Most women wear the traditional dress as do some of the men, though more Mayan men have adopted the gringo style – hence all those cowboy boot shops in Pastores. However, it is possible to see some men in traditional wear which is less decorative than the women’s clothing but still rather striking.
Each village has a distinctive style with a less embroidered huipul being the preference of the women and girls in San Antonio Palapó seen here doing their washing in the lake.
Many of the villages on Lake Atitlan used to look to fishing as their main source of income [and food]. However, following the area becoming a National Park in 1955, ways to increase tourism were sought. It was suggested by Pan American World Airways that stocking the lake with fish prized by anglers would do that. So, a non-native species, the black bass, was introduced in 1958. It quickly took to its new home and equally quickly ate two thirds of the native fish, also contributing, as a result, to the extinction of the Atitlan Grebe. It was also the demise of the local fishing industry but didn’t result in all the world’s anglers travelling to Guatemala! Sport fishing may be popular off the coast where Tuna, Marlin and the like make for a good day out [if you are in to that kind of thing]. Contrary to Pan Am’s belief, the black bass appears not to have any such appeal.
Local people are now reduced to going into the tourist towns to sell their woven goods or scratching a livelihood from small holdings which look rather like paddy fields but which contain a variety of vegetables and herbs.
You may have noticed that one of the San Antonio girls is wearing a kind of head dress. This is a long braid which is woven into the hair and then wrapped around the head. I just had to have one “fitted”
Back in Santa Catalina again we see that the head dresses here are made from thicker woven cloth and just a plain, single colour.
Colour is another distinctive feature of the clothing. You will have noticed that San Antonio and Santa Catalina weaving was predominantly blue. In Santiago Atitlan, the clothes are more often various shades of pink and lilac
….we took a lancha and arrived in Santiago just 20 minutes later. Santiago is the largest village on the lake and lies between two volcanoes – Volcan San Pedro and Volcan Toliman. There are religious brotherhoods in Santiago called “Cofradias” and they are the guardians of modern and ancient religious practices, most notably the cult of “Maximón, to whom they offer liquor and tobacco in exchange for favours.
No one explained why Maximón wears loads of scarves/ties, but most of the statues in the church also sported them. Maximón isn’t actually allowed in the church. He “lives” with a different custodian every year and is paraded through the streets annually at Semana Santa, his effigy replacing that of Judas Iscariot in the Holy Week carnival rituals.
Santiago Atitlan was the site of considerable state sponsored violence during the Guatemalan civil war, one notable incident involving the assassination of Roman Catholic Priest Stanley Rother by right wing death squads on 28 July 1981. His body was returned to Oklahoma for burial but, at the request of the local Santiago parishioners, his heart was buried behind the church altar.
Whilst in Santiago we also visited the weaving museum which is also the outlet for the Cojolya Association of Maya Women Weavers – www.cojolya.org
They use fair trade practices and ecologically sound materials and are trying to preserve the traditional weaving methods. The association is linked with another project which is striving to replace traditional stoves with more environmentally friendly ones. They cut down the amount of wood burned by 70% which, as well as reducing deforestation also results in cleaner air and helps families economise as wood is quite an expensive commodity.
It was then back to Pana on the Lancha..
Our third day trip from Pana was to the hilltop town of Sololá – a fairly busy “working” town which doesn’t hold much interest for the tourist but which, on Thursday 15th August, was holding its annual fiesta.
The fairground rides were very popular and, perhaps surprisingly, it was the adults who were patiently queuing for most of the rides.
….finishing in the main square where a band entertained the crowds.
There were hundreds of small stalls selling food and “tat”, typical of a local fair and folk were pushing and shoving trying to pass each other through some of the smaller alleys. Unfortunately some of the pushers and shovers were using the melee as an opportunity for some sleight of hand. At one point I was “held” in place by an elderly woman pusher – that is until I realised something might be amiss and kneed her in the groin. I then turned to Mike and asked him where the wallet was. He too had noticed that all was not quite as it should be because it was the third time that the same elderly woman and a young boy had passed us. Mike felt for his wallet which was in a zipped front pocket in his shorts – and it was still there. But only just – because the side of the pocket had been cut with a knife. We think they spotted us on the first pass, cut the shorts on the second and were about to utilise their sticky fingers on the third.
It certainly gave us something to think about and we had to find a beer to help us calm down! We had been using Mikes zipped front pocket deliberately as we believed it was safer than the top/front of the rucksack. We decided that we would find a new place for it buried in the middle of the rucksack under whatever else we were carrying.
Anyway, by then we had seen just about all there was to see and the weather was closing in so we decided to leave all the fun of the fair…
The following day it was off around the lake again. We took the Lancha from the smaller Pana dock and went on a 10 minute ride to Santa Cruz la Laguna where, after walking up into the village [and there was a lot of up], we went back down to the lakeside again and spent a lovely lunch hour watching hummingbirds and butterflies.
Whilst waiting for our lunch to arrive I spotted a familiar magazine – well, it was familiar two years ago – and we devoured the contents from end to end. Surprising what little things can make us happy!
towards Jaibalito where we were staying for a night at the “Casa del Mundo” – which we had booked as a special treat because we hadn’t properly celebrated our wedding anniversary, having been at anchor off the Guatemalan coast at the time. www.lacasadelmundo.com
The walk took us about 40 minutes and we found the description of the walk as being “lakeside” rather deceptive as we made our way inland
But it was very beautiful, if a little drizzly. If you have accessed the hotel website you will have seen how beautiful the gardens are and the spectacular views over the lake. Well, typically, the drizzle of the early afternoon turned into the worst rain we had over the whole ten days and our idea of romantic cocktails on our terrace didn’t exactly work out as planned. We still had a lovely room…
You might have wondered why the rickety wooden pathway in the photograph above was kind of in the lake rather than running alongside it. Well, the answer to that is that the path did used to be along the lakeshore but the lake is currently rising. Lake Atitlan is an “endorheic lake” which means that no rivers flow from it to the sea. It was at one of its lowest levels in 1976 following a massive earthquake which fractured the lake bed and caused sub surface drainage allowing the water level to drop two metres in a month. Since 1976 it has risen again and continues to do so.
Several house holders and business people are very worried that their homes and livelihoods are about to, literally, “go under” – and their concerns are certainly not misplaced. Two years ago this was a thriving small hotel/restaurant/bar in San Pedro la Laguna….
It is a town of two parts, the more tourist lakeside area and the town proper up a small hill. From San Pedro we took a walk to San Juan where the weaving is done with natural dies so the colours look almost muted in comparison to the vibrancy of the other materials. There wasn’t really much to do in San Juan but we enjoyed the walk.
Our hotel was on the side of the lake
It was then back to Pana for a final night before reversing the chicken bus adventure back to Antigua. Having learnt our lesson with money and wallets, when packing up for the journey we took out enough cash for the bus fares and hid the wallet in the rucksack. We then went out for breakfast and Mike decided we would also go to the bank so took the wallet out again. On arrival back at our room he commented that the wallet, the money, the room keys and everything else had all got muddled up in his one remaining safe zipped pocket [i.e. the one without the knife tear in it]and he was glad that the wallet was going in the rucksack.
Only it didn’t – we don’t think. Exactly what happened we don’t know? We had the wallet on the morning of Tuesday 20th August. By the afternoon when we reached Antigua we didn’t have it. Fortunately, having taken the wallet out so that we could go to the bank we decided to leave the banking until Antigua. Thus, we only had Q100 [approx £8] of actual money. But there were Mike’s three debit cards in it.
To cut a long story short – Mike hi-tailed it back to Pana to see if it had been dropped in the room. Why didn’t we phone the hotel? Well, the phones were down for the day so we couldn’t. Mike then spent a very dismal night in Pana as there wasn’t time for him to get back to Antigua. He spent several pounds trying to contact Barclays who won’t phone you back! We then thought of Skype – or rather Steph did. She was a real mate – and it was lucky for us that she was still in Antigua. She gave Mike money to get the shuttle bus etc, she gave me money for my night in Antigua, she helped me drown my woes and came up with her Skype password when Mike and I couldn’t remember ours.
So, lessons. Keep wallet safe, keep money in different places and share it between two when possible, remember passwords and make sure Skype account has sufficient money in it. We were lucky, our cards were not accessed and, because our friends Steve and Mary are coming for a visit in October, the replacement cards can be delivered to us safely. It could have been so much worse. The good thing we learnt was that there are some fantastic people:
The hotel in Pana only charged Mike Q50 [£4.20] for the night instead of Q150 – the owner saying that Mike had enough to worry about it as it was…
Steph had obviously told Stuart about our mishap and he, in turn, told Ninette at the marina and her immediate response was “What can we do, can we send money to them”. We don’t think many marinas would do that.
We had Steph – the saviour of the hour.
So, yes we lost a wallet, but in the end there was no harm done and we found beautiful Lake Atitlan with its fascinating villages and local colour