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Lago Atitlan, GT


May 20th

We left San Andres Xecul after picking up some fresh veggies at some street stalls and hit the PanAm highway (known as CA1 here in GT) and to our delight, it was a four lane, smooth paved highway with some actual shoulder in places; this was about 50kms long and even after our turn to Lago de Atitilan, the road was in good shape but super windy. We found a hotel in Panajachal on the east shore of the lake that offers camping with power/water and a pool with Wi-Fi near their office and settled in. When we got on the Wi-Fi, we received a message from Christine & Mark that they were here in town for the day and were sitting in a bar here in the village of Panajachal. We went over and met them before they had to catch their lancha back to the house they are sitting in Santiago – on the other side of the lake. It was nice to catch up with them.

The weather was a little more humid today as we are down around 1500M/5000′, the sky is hazy and it looks like rain. It sprinkled a bit on our walk back from the bar but the rain really didn’t start till we had dinner – that killed the humidity for the most part. It is a little warmer during the day here but does cool sufficiently at night to sleep comfortably without AC although it would have been even nice if we’d been able to keep the roof vents open.

We awoke Saturday to beautiful weather and the volcanos around the lake were showing off.  There are three large volcanoes around the lake: San Pedro, Atitlan and Toliman – it’s still a little hazy with a few clouds but the view from our spot is gorgeous so we sat outside for breakfast and took it all in – we are in freaking Guatemala; a little surreal! We have heard that the volcano near Antigua is erupting and could be contributing to the hazy sky. The campground we are at is right along the lakefront separated by a small rock wall. We plan to stay here for about a week for now; we’ll see how we feel next weekend. Christine and Mark have invited us over to their “home” in Santiago across the lake for a night so we plan to do that on Friday when our stay here at the campground is over. Their housesitting job ends on Monday and then they are headed back to Mexico to house sit for the summer in Puerto Escondido on the Pacific Coast.

Volcan San Pedro

Volcan San Pedro across the lake

We spent the day at the campground catching up, cleaning, internet time, Spanish etc. It was a lovely day temperature-wise and we only had a touch of rain in the late afternoon. Mornings tend to be the best time of day as clouds build up in the afternoon.

Sunday, we took a shuttle bus to the village of Chichicastenango aka “Chichi”. (GT cities often have loooong names hence the nicknames.)  Its claim to fame is the largest market in the country as well as churches that have combined Mayan traditions with Christian.  Market days are Wednesdays and Sundays.

The van ride was less than an hour and we met a older gentleman named Roger on the bus who is from upstate New York and he walked with us for the day. We wandered the market a bit browsing then checked out the two churches on either side of it. Both were Catholic churches but you could see the Mayan altars outside burning offerings and inside up the centre aisle were more Mayan altars where candles and offerings had been left. We were not lucky enough to see an actual ceremony but did see offerings being burned.

Next, we walked up a pine tree clad hill to Pascual Abaj where there is a stone idol from about one thousand years ago and about a dozen Mayan altars. The circle contained several stone crucifixes as well so here the rituals were combined also. The idol has been defaced some over the years but you can still make out the head. During the hike up, we could see a very colourful (well maintained) cemetery on the hill across the valley.

main offering site

We wandered the town and went for lunch where we toasted Fran’s Dad who would have been 83 today while enjoying a nice meal with Roger. Next it was back to the market where we bought a few items for the grandkids and Roger found some GT coffee for his son – not as easy to find as you would expect. We enjoyed a soft serve ice cream for less than a $1 and made our way back to the shuttle to return to Panajachal. It was a nice way to spend a Sunday. Chichi is at a higher elevation than Pana but the sun was shining and it was a very nice day. As we drove back the sky was clouding over, as usual, but it did not start raining although the lake looked a little rougher than usual.

Monday, we decided to check out the local surroundings and went to a tourism office to find out about this town, Pana, and the other little villages on the lake. There are about eleven little villages around the lake and by the time we leave on Saturday, we’ll have seen eight. They each have a different look and vibe to them including very different waterfront and dock areas.

We then took a tuktuk to San Antonio on this side of the lake, about 11km away and we got a flat tire on the way up a hill! The village does not see a great deal of tourists and is known for its ceramics. As usual, we do not purchase much as we do not have much space to put anything let alone something breakable, but it made for a pleasant afternoon.

View from square in San Antonio

view from main square in San AntonioWe took the local mode of transport back which is a pick-up truck with a couple of benches built into the back as well as bars for those standing. We passed through the tiny village of Santa Catarina enroute. We did a bit of grocery shopping when we returned to Pana; found a store that obviously caters to expats as we found some sharp cheddar cheese there – bonus! as well as a decent selection of wines.  This town and San Pedro (across the lake) are the largest on the lake and where you find the most supplies and tourists.

That night, a fellow overlander joined us at the campground – Wilfred is from Germany and his wife is back home for a while. He joined us for “happy hour” and he mentioned he wanted to climb Volcan San Pedro the next day. Fran suggested that Doug join him but we awoke Tuesday to cloudy skies so they decided to wait a day or so in order to be able to see the view from the summit.

Before heading out on Tuesday, Doug noticed the outside cubby door on Tigger was separating so he decided to glue it and then we tried to secure it with some weight for the day to let it cure. We took the local public boat system on to check out San Pedro at the foot of the volcano of the same name which is directly across the lake from us; we were not that impressed but it was a nice boat ride.  This town is supposed to have some decent language schools and the best night life on the lake.  We then walked 20 minutes over to the next town a bit north, San Juan, and we really like this town. It has lots of art galleries, artesian shops, a place where we watched a free weaving demonstration from raw cotton to the loom process and learned about the natural dyes they use.

We took the boat back to Pana, grabbed our laptops and went to find a restaurant for lunch with faster Wi-Fi than the resort we are staying at. It was a very nice pizza place and we took half home for supper that night.

When we returned to the campground, we found that the cubby door was now separating from the hinge! – the wood inside was rotting out again (this had happened two years ago and Fran’s sister fixed it) – darn it all; now the repair was going to be a much bigger operation.

By now, two more campers had arrived and we all had a nice happy hour before dinner. Kenny, his wife Devon and their 2 and half year old daughter, Vega, are from Oregon and travelling in a VW van. Shamyl and Connie, are an Australian/ Danish couple who have lived in a few places on those working visas that 20 somethings can get and are currently travelling to Panama – they need to be back down under by mid August as she has just received her visa to live in Australia with him. It was a fun evening until it began raining.

Wednesday morning, Doug began tackling the cubby door only to realize it was way too far gone and it basically, fell off the hinge. He went into town to see if he could find someone to either fix or rebuild the inside. Nothing was open quite yet as it was before 8am so he returned, we grabbed our laundry and bank card and took a tuktuk back into town. We dropped off the laundry and while Fran did a money run at the ATM, Doug went back to the workshop he’d found earlier to see if they could help us. We took the tuktuk back and he returned to the shop with the door.

Today we caught another boat about 8:30 to meet Christine and Mark to do a hike to a waterfall behind the town of Tzununa on the north side of the lake. This was quite the little adventure. We only knew that you had to walk into town, then go “about ten minutes”. Fran had forgotten to change from her flip flops into her Keenes before leaving and we should have taken that as a sign. We walked and walked and asked people along the way and we were told to keep going up on the road. After climbing as far as the bricked road went, we found and asked another person and she said we’d pass the turn to it! We went back and Mark found a little practically hidden path off a run off gutter that we followed crossing the stream several times, climbing up and up, until we came to a dead end. Enroute Fran “blew” a flip flop – the same one she’d blown back in Belize so now she’s walking with one sandal as the broken one has no toe piece to hold her foot in. We made it back to the bricked road and two women standing in the shade, told us we had been on the right path but should have gone right, not left. Mark and Christine, “MacGyvered” Fran’s shoe with a string from a bag of theirs and off we went again. After about ten minutes, we came across a young teenaged boy and asked him to take us to the waterfall. He said he would for a small price and off we went – this time we made it but we have to say it was anticlimactic. It wasn’t much more than a large run off but there was a little cave behind it that you could walk into but it was not that deep. You had to get wet to get there, but it was refreshing as we were all hot from hiking in the sun.

We hiked back down the path the young man had taken us, found the road and realized where we’d gone wrong the first time (typical Central American directions) and got back to town. Walking down we came across a small farm with chickens and pigs where a young American girl was working for a semester. Our boat was not picking us up for another half hour so the guys got a few beers and we rejuvenated ourselves. Fran’s shoe continued to hold, thank goodness. Thanks again, Christine and Mark!

DSCN2278 Christine & Doug heading into cave behind falls

We took the boat to the next town over, San Marcos, and we went to find a place to have lunch. This town is very nice with a big foreign influence. There are a lot of hippies, yoga studios, vegetarian restaurants, meditation/massage places here and you can see the better infrastructure because of it so the does not really have a GT feel to it until you get right into town. There are the usual tiendas and women selling fruits/veggies but most of the area we walked in, was not local. One of the best parts was no vehicles in this part of town so it was a very tranquil walk. We did, however, have a great lunch at a Bistro and we all felt better.

Lunch at a Bistro

We caught a boat back to Pana and Christine and Mark went on their way back to Santiago. Doug went to check on the cubby door and find a new hinge before picking up our laundry and the repaired door and Fran went to rest her poor feet and knees.  This hike was especially hard on them.

Thursday, Doug wanted to finish the door repair and had to find the right screws. It was a beautiful sunny day with a bit of haze. Wilfred had climbed the volcano yesterday as the day was also lovely and he too was hanging around to do routine stuff and catch up on email. We enjoyed a cool dip in the pool today and a hot walk into town in the afternoon. This is Corpus Christi weekend and there have been lots of parades, firecrackers and parties going on. The Latin Americans love their religious holidays and celebrate them all out.

DSCN2300 Corpus Christi celebration

When we returned, yet another overlander vehicle had arrived with another family of three from Colorado. Their daughter was around 10 though and they had taken her out of school this past year to explore Canada, the US, Mexico and GT. They are on their way back north now. Just before dusk a very unique looking Jeep arrived with a Brazilian couple, Linho & Vanessa who are arrived here from Brazil in 80 days! They are travelling the world in their vehicle. She spoke more English than he did but they both speak Spanish and we understood most of the conversations. We wish them well on this huge endeavor.

Friday, we left the campground and parked Tigger in a secure lot near the docks and caught the boat to Santiago Atitlan to meet Christine and Mark and stay at their temporary home for the night. We had not visited this village yet so we got there early and walked for a bit, got hassled some by people offering “guiding” service, had a bite to eat in a lovely bakery where we met another American girl also studying for a semester here in GT. It was market day here so we wandered through that at a bit. The church on the main square was all decked out for Corpus Christi and we learned there have been lots of parties & fireworks here as well. This town is very steep as it’s on the side of two volcanoes. The females of the indigenous tribes here where headdresses made of extremely long belts that they wrap around and around their heads as represented on the 25 cent coin. There is actually an greatly enlarged replica of a 25 cent piece in the main square.

25 cent piece

Sidebar: The many tribes in Guatemala wear different patterns on their embroidered clothing. Here in Santiago, they like to have birds on their blouses. Some places it’s flowers, plaids, patterns and the like. They can be quite intricate and very costly if sewn by hand rather than machine. The women’s clothing here consists of a skirt and pull over blouse with a colourful cloth belt holding it all in. The men here, when you see them in traditional clothing, which is not often, wear button down shirts, vests, capri length pants and a colourful cloth belt. The ensemble is usually topped by a cowboy hat. We have hardly seen any men dressed in traditional clothing outside of this town.

The main attraction in this town is the effigy of Maximon, a deity revered by the people of the highlands of GT. The Spanish call him San Simon; the Mayan, Rilaj Maam. A member of the Mayan brotherhood houses this wooden statute (it moves around) and for a small donation, you can see him, make offerings of cigarettes/alcohol/money and receive a blessing. The four of us found a local guy to take us to where he was currently “living”. There were a few men there with special vestments speaking one of the local dialects and the man in charge blessed us each with a sign of the cross mumbling something as he did it – we were all convinced he’d been partaking of the alcohol donations as well as he was slurred and tipsy! The man who was there before us, actually gave Maximon, a cigarette, they lit it and he “smoked” it?! There were small bottles of alcohol on the table behind it, cigarettes in a bowl in front as well as cigarettes they called “medicine” ;-). Aaah the local rituals sure can be colourful.


Then it was back to market to pick up food and then a boat to across the small bay to the home Mark & Christine are housesitting. They need to call for a boat every time they want to go into town as there is no road to access town across the little bay. The house is up 100 steps from the water, has two pools (neither of which are operational) and lovely gardens. It is a good sized house with two large bedrooms and a small “casita” on the property with a kitchen and bedroom. It is listed on Air B&B under Casa Cynthia. We enjoyed a lovely meal, conversation and played some rousing games of cards that evening. When they leave on Monday, Christine and Mark are headed back to Mexico for three months so we’re not sure when we’ll met up again but we did discuss meeting in Costa Rica or Brazil. Only time and life, will tell.

We returned to Pana to get Tigger from the secured parking on Saturday morning.   He was safe and sound, washed while we were gone and we hit the road.