A May 2000 trip
to Lake Atitlan by evilchris
Quote: Despite a reputation for harboring old hippies and hosting late-night raves, San Pedro is a peaceful little village that can offer a respite from the increasing crowds and increasing prices that herald Antigua’s (and even Panajachel’s) entry onto the beaten path with their growing number of tourists.
San Pedro has no colorful market geared towards tourists like neighboring Panajachel. (There is a market here, but it targets the locals and their day-to-day needs). There are no impressive examples of Spanish-influenced architecture or old churches, the main building materials here are cinder block and corrugate steel sheeting. And tourism-based infrastructure in San Pedro is limited to local initiatives by a few hoteliers and entrepreneurial Mayans.
What San Pedro can offer is relaxed way to take in the most dramatic and beautiful landscape I have seen in Central America. The village is also an inexpensive alternative for overnighting on the lake, learning Spanish, hiking, swimming, canoeing, or just "chilling out". San Pedro and the surrounding villages on el Lago can also offer is an authentic slice of life among the Mayans.
The town is organized into Zonas with streets. Like most small villages in Guatemala, paved roads are few and far between, and many footpaths function as rights of way. Keep in mind that people give and get directions based on landmarks (the market, the police station, the piers, etc.) or businesses (hotels, the bank) rather than street addresses.
If you come during the rainy season (April onwards), as I did, be aware that it rains all afternoon, every afternoon. This means you need a good rain jacket and a flashlight, as the power grid on the southern side of the lake is not reliable, making blackouts common. Bug repellent is also a good idea. While you can never avoid the flies and the dogs that attract them as they laze about in front of all the comedores, repellent will stop the worst of the mosquito bites.
For all practical purposes, San Pedro and other major villages on the lake are only reachable via a lancha. These are small fiberglass-hulled, flat-bottomed launches that make regular trips across the water. (The "gringo price" for la lancha is around four times what the locals pay, and one of the few prices in Guatemala that is apparently non-negotiable.) Avoid taking one of the larger boats plying the waters. They run infrequently, and are far more expensive. These larger boats hire young boys to sell tickets to foreigners, who are usually none the wiser. The smaller launches are easily found on the waterfront in Panajachel.
San Pedro can only be explored on foot. Upon landing at the embarcadero, you will be immediately swarmed by confident young boys who will offer to take you to lodging, food, horses, and Spanish lessons (in one breath of rapid-fire english). Feel free to go along and evaluate what is on offer, but be aware that the boys will ask you for a tip. If you need a respite from them, head for Nick’s Place, which will be on the left as you leave the pier. Relax and have a coffee before exploring the town.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on September 11, 2004
Hospedaje San Francisco
Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
There is a clean kitchen in Casa Rosario where you can prepare your own food purchased at the mercado or one of the many family-run tiendas in the neighborhood. I forewent the trickling water from the "solar heated" shower, and opted instead to go down to the lake every morning with my shampoo. Here I was politely ignored by the Mayan women who were there with the same idea. (Yes, they bathe with their clothes on.) When you leave Casa Rosario, make a left out the door and then a right at the bottom of the road away from the Police Station. Continue past the school and look for a footpath on the left. This will take you to the cleanest stretch of black sand beach I found on the lake.
Because I was a budget traveler, I was quite content with my accommodation there: My fellow boarders were all as friendly and as mellow as could be, and I could theoretically roll out of bed for my Spanish lesson. (This was never the case - every morning at 6:30, the farmer across the street would begin work by revving up his rickety, gas-powered molino to start grinding coffee.)
If the rooms are not up to your personal standards, I still strongly suggest checking out the Spanish lessons here (see my free form entry below).
Member Rating 2 out of 5 on September 11, 2004
4 Avenida, Zona 4
Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
If there is a power outage (and during the rainy season, there usually is), candles are set up on all the tables, which actually adds to the atmosphere. During one evening outage, I watched the D’noz regulars demonstrate an aptitude and determination normally attributed to the Great Explorers (or perhaps, Army Special Forces). Using only flashlights and candles, they quickly gather themselves, some lights, speakers, and a diesel generator, and set up a rave in the jungle within the space of 90 minutes. How can that not impress you?
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on September 11, 2004
Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
Nonetheless, I would not recommend hiking the volcano alone, due to the aforementioned baditos. I hiked alone to the top, and encountered no problem, but an English couple I passed on my way down were ambushed soon after. As I reached the bottom, the couple actually raced passed by me - flustered, and completely out of breath. Apparently, one of the aforementioned machete-wielding bandits had leapt out at them near the top. They quickly decided to cut their hike short, throw him a watch as an offering, and high-tail down the hill as fast as their Birkenstock-clad feet would allow.
Hiking Volcán San Pedro
Western Shore of Lake Atitlán
Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
From San Pedro, I left on foot on the road leading out of town that followed the shoreline, heading clockwise around Lago de Atitlán. (Rough Guide Central America has a good overview map of the Lake, which shows all the towns I visited.) The road takes you up a hill, giving you a fine view of both the west harbor at San Pedro, and the coffee fields and marshlands of the next town over, San Juan la Laguna (see attached photos). San Juan is a sleepy little town. What plays the role of a downtown gives evidence only of neglect. The streets were empty when I walked through town, and the locals (also Tzutuhil Maya) were definitely less used to foreigners in their midst in comparison to Panajachel or San Pedro. This did not stop one proprietor from inviting me into his comedor for my first (and last) shot of Quetzalteca and a beer chaser, where we communicated in broken Spanish and sign language. (Spanish was not his first language either, so we were both handicapped.)
While continuing onto the next town around the lake – San Pablo la Laguna – I passed an organized soccer match. This was not sandlot ball, but a proper match, and I recognized the home team in their bright red uniforms. I was coincidentally on the lake during the European Championships, so the infectious enthusiasm amongst European expats caught on amongst the already football-mad Central Americans fairly easily. Past the well-groomed football pitch, there is an usually large hill in the flatlands along the lake. This hill has no name I could find on any map, but it is crowned with an 8-foot white crucifix and a plaster statue of the Virgin Mary. A quick hike to the top afforded yet another spectacular view of my surroundings. A number of prayers from the previous New year’s Eve and remnants of devotional candles were scattered around the base of the statue. I was on my own up there, so I took in this view of the lake, the surrounding villages, and a bird’s-eye view of the football match in private.
San Marcos, the next town over, is itself is one of the larger towns on the lake. There are a number of hotels (less than Panajachel, for sure), and the center of town was bustling with activity. The tienda where I bought a fresh water supply did not blink an eye at me. The road out of San Marcos (continuing clockwise around the lake) put me on the northwestern shore of the lake. The road gets narrower, and at many points is just above the water. Here, I found a number of large lakefront homes high walls that ran along the road. It was apparent that homes were owned not only by wealthy Guatemalans but a few gringo expatriates as well. (A giant wooden peace symbol on the garage door of one home sort of tipped me off to this.)
This road leads to the village of Tzununá, and was the only paved road in the village from what I could see. Apart from this were a number of footpaths, which doubled as calles as was the case with most of the villages on the lake. Tzununá is reachable by launch, so there are a couple of restaurants and "holistic" (read: hippie-run) hotels here. I imagine it is probably a very peaceful place to stay: there was no traffic here, and the town was enveloped in flowers and green foliage, with very little of the litter (la basura) which plagued other villages around the lake. I stopped for a quick (and inexpensive) lunch of lake fish and pleasant conversation with the owner of one of the roadside restaurants in the village.
After Tzununá, the dirt trail then heads up through Jaibalito to Santa Cruz. It definitely had a remote feeling, and the blatant stares I received from every local (I am a 6’2" caucasian guy with a sunburn) reminded me that I was very much out of my element. After yet another refresca at yet another tienda, I walked back down to the main road. Along the way, I hooked up with a few Mayan boys on their way to their construction job in San Pedro. Once reaching the road, they took me to an unmarked "bus stop" where we waited for the unofficial "bus service" to arrive. Our ride announced its arrival with a squeal of well-worn brakes. It was a beat-to-hell Nissan 4x4 pick-up truck with rusty steel frame soldered onto the flatbed. The fleet for this "bus service" was made up of such vehicles. I expect they could squeeze 8-12 (Mayan-sized) people in the flatbed, and a seat in the flatbed cost Q 3.50. The trip promised to be fast, judging by the way the driver took corners, but the regularly scheduled afternoon downpour started just as we were taking on more passengers in San Juan. The co-pilot who collected the money passed a dirty tarp back, and we all grabbed onto an edge and held it down for the high-speed, hear-stopping dash to the to San Pedro, which seemed to take an eternity.
The juxtaposition between the Mayans and Lake Atitlán’s Gringo interlopers is an interesting one, particularly those Gringos hanging out in San Pedro. The Mayans are very religious, traditional and conservative (evangelical Christianity and Catholic missionaries have a strong presence all around the Lake), and the focus of most Gringo residents seems to be anything but conservative. In all fairness, those tourists with more bacchanalian pursuits in mind pretty much kept their activities hidden from plain sight, and I saw an apparent peaceful co-existence between the two groups. Granted, there were always a handful of Gringo revelers that could be found stumbling around in the wee hours of the morning, but this was really no different from the Mayan men who would gather at certain tiendas at all hours and drink Quetzalteca until stupefaction set in. (Followed by a nap on the pavement.)
Those Mayans that made a living off of tourists (tienda or comedor owners, hostel operators, etc.) were quite friendly, and more than happy to make money off of ex-pats and tourists. And those locals that did not make money off tourists seemed to go about their business oblivious to them. It was no surprise that the younger generation had fewer hang-ups about tourists than their parents. While the young machos may have monopolized the hustling tourists for tips (or as they pronounced it: "teeps") in return for dragging them to a language school or hotel, the young girls who sold baked goods such as pan de banan proved that the boys certainly did not have the market cornered on "motivated salesmanship". Never shy, the girls are impossible to miss as they buzz around the main thoroughfares of San Pedro in their traditional traje with a basket balanced on their head. If you sit long enough in one place, one of them will eventually find you. They are hard-nosed negotiators, dauntless and charming, and rarely take "No" for an answer.
The story was the same at the mercado in San Pedro, where I went to buy a flashlight. It was only my third day in Central America, and my negotiating skills (and math skills, apparently) were so poor, that the young brother-sister duo running the stand gave me more change than the price we had agreed upon. Apparently, I had negotiated the price in the wrong direction once they threw batteries into the discussion. (I was flustered, OKAY?) I guess they felt I would need every Quetzal I could get, as I would undoubtedly starve to death if I continued negotiating in a similarly poor fashion for my next few meals.
Despite the bravado-filled countenance of these young entrepreneurs, a little one-on-one conversation with any of them revealed kindness, innocence, and intellectual curiosity beneath. The boys, no matter how young, always insisted that I treat them as much like equals possible, even when they were a fraction of my height. This required, for example, that I reciprocate a ridiculously firm handshake or high-five them in front of their compañeros, which never failed to impress, I’m sure. On my walk back from Tzununá, one of the young boys that I met as we both waited for a ride was full of pride to tell me about his full-time construction job after he had asked me about my own profession (this from a 13-year old boy). From both boys and girls, there were always questions about family and school – two things they could directly relate to. (Place-names and geography were too abstract.) One game two of the "pan de banan" girls loved to play with me was to let me try and read Tzutuhil vocabulary aloud from their Spanish as a Second Language textbooks. Nearly every word I spoke (read: mangled) was met with tittering that built up through suppressed giggles to doubled-over guffaws. I suppose I must have sounded like a drunken Bushman with Turrets Syndrome, so maybe the laughter was well deserved.
While the Gringos and the Mayans co-exist peacefully in San Pedro, it is not always the case in other parts of Guatemala. With the growth of tourism, countless Mayan entrepreneurs have risen to the occasion in chasing the tourist dollar. Markets selling traditional clothing are booming in such towns as Panajachel, Antigua, Todos Santos, and Quetzaltenango. Development of the tourist industry is far enough along for organized bus tours to come visit these market places on excursions operated by the more established tour operators based in Guatemala City or Antigua. While Mayans are comfortable with our bizarre appearance (particularly if there is a tidy profit involved), an incident occurred during my stay where the stiff competition of the midday market, the skewed perceptions Mayans had of foreigners, and the disregard of tourists for local customs built up into an hysteria with deadly consequences in nearby Todos Santos Cuchumatan.
Every traveler I met in Guatemala loved explaining the Golden Rule of interacting with the natives: Do Not Photograph Mayans Without Permission. I received some half-baked explanations about "losing a piece of their soul" from some awful hippies I met which I found hard to swallow. What was clear was that many Mayans are nervous around the camera because they do not understand the intention. Naturally, many of them lose their fear if a "teep" is negotiated in advance, but it is strongly advisable to not shoot first and ask questions later. Sadly, that spring, a group of Japanese tourists visiting Todos Santos did not heed this advice (or perhaps they were never told). I read conflicting reports in the various local papers and from travelers who were in Todos Santos at the time of the incident, but what is known is that a group of Japanese tourists apparently disembarked from their tour bus, whipped out their cameras and started snapping pictures with impunity.
It will probably never be clear what exactly sparked the violence. Maybe it was the high-pressure competition of the market that day, or the rumors that had been circulating then about kidnappers were stealing children. Perhaps it was the fact that one or two of the Japanese tourists were dressed all in black, but in the end, one woman working in the market snapped – and accused one photographer of trying to steal her child. The hysteria quickly built up, and an angry crowd began stoning the bus, the Japanese tourists and the brave tour guide (a Guatemalan) who had tried to intervene. The crowd ended up stoning one tourist and the guide to death. To amplify the horror further, some men in the crowd then set the tour guide’s corpse on fire. The police arrived too late to save the victims, but they did arrest a number of suspects. Looking at the picture in the paper of the six somber Amerindian men, standing there handcuffed together, wearing their traditional traje (in Todos Santos, this consists of wonderful red pantaloons and a hat), I had little understanding of how this could have happened.
It is clear to me now, is that if you wish to travel on your own as a backpacker "amongst the locals", you should be armed with at least a rudimentary understanding of the customs when there is a huge cultural gap. Any cultural understanding you have will only enrich your experiences, and this knowledge can clearly have far more important value. A willingness to accept and act on this is a key aspect of traveling off the beaten path.
In San Pedro la Laguna today, around the corner and down the street from Casa Rosario where I lived and studied was the local headquarters of the Policía Nacional Civil. The PNC had only recently established itself in a two-story villa, and was home to a couple of officers and their 4x4 vehicles. (The PNC was not even founded and deployed until 1999, hence I do not write "re-established".) Jose and a few other villagers I spoke with made it quite clear that they were not altogether happy with the re-introduction of an armed federal presence to the village. The return of the gubierno to San Pedro in this manner was less than ten years after the massacre in neighboring Santiago Atitlán. The Army there had fired on a peaceful street demonstration, killing 14 civilians, and wounding 19 – some of them children. Because of these and other experiences during Guatemala’s long Civil War, even this small handful of cops was not welcome. (There was not even a jail at this police station – the nearest was across the lake above Panajachel in Sololá.) The locals still preferred their own local Mayan constabulary called the Alguacil. Jose explained that the Alguacil still made an appearance occasionally, recognizable by their jackets and long wooden staffs.
An incident that I sadly bore witness to, was the accidental death of a tourist in San Pedro. Two Dutch boys who were my neighbors at the Casa Rosario decided to try out their snorkel equipment in the lagoon in San Pedro. Losing their orientation in the water, they came too close to the embarcadero for the Santiago Atitlán-bound boats. A launch that was arriving at the pier never even saw them, and the prop subsequently mangled one of the boys. Peter immediately went into shock, and attempts to keep him alive failed after 15 minutes. The blood loss was too great, and there were miles of bad road between him and the nearest hospital. There was not even sufficient time for adequate first aid. The PNC was tasked with investigating the accident scene, arresting the launch’s pilot, questioning witnesses, notifying the Dutch Embassy, and transporting the body.
These were all tasks that the Alguacil alone could not have accomplished. Jose and a few other locals admitted as much. Perhaps this leads to a grudging acceptance of the necessity of having some sort of police presence in the village? It is hard to say. The distrust of authority is very great, and too many crimes committed here during the Civil War remain unpunished. And while the PNC may be a shining example of professionalism in this one situation, I have heard stories of police shaking down backpackers for money in other situations (a very simple shakedown where they threaten arrest for drug possession – hardly a baseless accusation in San Pedro!). More seriously, I have also read articles in local newspapers featuring reports of alleged police brutality. I would expect the best advice in a confrontation with the PNC is to treat the officers respectfully, and ask for a receipt for any "fine" you have to pay. This is not a sure-fire solution of course, as one agent who shook me down was happy to sign a scrap of paper confirming my stupidity in paying an additional $10 "tourist tax" for leaving Guatemala at the border with El Salvador.
The Mayans distrust of central authority is only matched by their devotion to religion – be it their own traditions or Christianity. I cannot overemphasize the devotion to Christianity I found in Central America. Mayans religious communities were no exception, and they performed regular religious procession with gusto. Throughout Central America (Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica is where I personally witnessed this), the locals lay down lush green carpets of plant clippings along the center of a main road accentuated with a multi-colored gilding of flower petals. They then stuff themselves into pick-up trucks festooned with balloons and placards, and parade through the town. These Hooray for Jesus Pep Rallies as I called them, were primarily Evangelical and seemed to highlight the local weekly social calendar. In San Pedro, these rallies were naturally smaller in scale, but they did allow the locals to dress up in their bona fide Sunday best and strut their stuff.
I met at least one local who did not participate in these activities and went as far as to disdain them. With disgust, he pointed out to me a number of schools, churches, and buildings in San Pedro that had all been funded by various competing religious denominations. I got the impression from him that post-Civil War San Pedro had been a sort-of sectarian land grab similar to the California Gold Rush. His argument was that these religions would not effectively address all the issues (societal and political) facing San Pedro and the surrounding communities. Political representation and land reform stood at the top of his list. To him, this side of the lake had little political clout and was overshadowed economically by Panajachel and Sololá. Would we really have suffered a power outage every night while they did not if this was not the case? I kept my mouth shut and did not mention the political work and lobbying that many missionaries did on behalf of the Mayans during the Civil War, but he had a point.
After visiting three different schools, my pick was Casa Rosario, located just up from the embarcadero for Santiago Atitlán-bound boats. Two local teachers, the always-affable Vicente and Samuel, run the school. I explained to Vicente my goals for learning (grammar, conversational Spanish), and he was right on the money in coming up with a course plan for my four week stay: 20 hours of individual instruction per week, plus a room for US$ 50 per week. I could have stayed with a family for US$ 90 per week (including board), but opted for a room at the school. My instructor, 25-year old Jose, was great, and I was conversationally fluent at the end of my stay, tackling advanced grammar (past perfect, past indefinite) and writing essays. The other students are primarily other backpackers, but there were also a few Mayan adult students improving their Spanish as well – which is always a good sign.
I managed to make the most of it - class in the morning, exploring the lake in the afternoon, and studying in peace in the evenings in one of the "open air" classrooms on the unfinished third floor of Casa Rosario with views of the volcano, the village, and the lake. If I needed stimulation, the school’s lounge had a small television hooked up to a satellite dish. Vicente also allowed me to use one of the school’s traditional canoes as used by local fishermen. He would not let me use it until the water on the lake was almost mirror-calm. I found this a little frustrating at first, but I later understood why. The canoe is essentially built for a small Mayan, not a tall Caucasian. The craft is short and squat – requiring you to kneel – with about a 2-inch freeboard. For you non-nautical types, this meant that slightest rocking of the boat to one side or the other, and I would have taken on water. I came ashore caked in black muck to my knees (you have to land in the lagoon), suffering from terrific cramps from maintaining balance on my knees for so long. Despite this, I know that the views from the middle of the lake were something few other travelers would ever enjoy.
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