San Pedro can be considered relatively remote in comparison to Panajachel or Antigua. When you compare infrastructure, number of Internet connections, or number of gift shops, this is certainly the case. But because San Pedro does have a fairly constant stream of day visitors and backpackers, I felt compelled to explore the rest of the villages around the lake on foot. It was a welcome break from the backpacking "scene" as well as a great opportunity to interact with the locals without being pressured into buying something.
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.