So we’ve caught up to the first two months in Guatemala. Only 7 (as of this moment… Okay, now it’s 10) more months to catch everyone up on….
After spending a month in Antigua, Sacatepéquez and a month exploring around Petén and Cobán, we decided to head up to Sololá and spend some time at Lake Atitlán; Panajachel to be precise. We chose Pana due to the ability to actually park our car. They have a great camping area, but at the time we had Bronson’s mom visiting and splitting her time between Antigua and Pana. We also had friends coming to visit from the US, so we decided that renting a house would be best. We could park, do laundry, have a yard for the kids to play in and enough space for all 7-10 of us to be comfortable. In an area that relies on public transportation in the form of small Toyota pickups and tuk-tuks, there isn’t much room for our vehicle, albeit, we did see plenty of chicken buses driving through these tiny streets. We however, didn’t want to chance anything. We spent a month in Panajachel and explored all around the lake. While it is possible to drive around this lake, which is literally half the size of Lake Tahoe with similar attributes, the roads are narrow, steep and super windy, and you’re better off in a tuk-tuk. The trip around half of the lake will take you about 3 hours by car. The easiest way and pretty economical way is to either use a public boat to transport you to any of the other tiny villages that dot the lake for $1.75 each trip, or hire a private boat. We hired a private boat for an entire day and it cost us less than $100 for all 7 of us. They took us to every town we wanted to visit, waited for us while we explored, gave us tips about each village and even had guides waiting for us at each village ready to take us wherever we wanted to go. The price included tip. The guides at each stop was extra, but a tuk-tuk driver, personal chauffeur for the time we were in each village ran us about $15/ per tuk-tuk. That was going the expensive route. You can always walk the towns which is free, but some of these places, you’ll be wishing you hired the tuk-tuk. Your calves will burn and it’s the best butt work out since lunges and squats, but in the heat of the day… You’re secretly hoping an empty tuk-tuk drives by so you can wave them down and they can whisk you away to the safety of the cool, refreshing water in the lake.
Panajachel (pronounced Pana-ha-shell) is the biggest town situated on the lake. There you can find a large central market, lots of tiendas (stores) carrying any variety of items and a few larger grocery stores. For those of you who are organic conscious, they have a market for whole foods, though real, fresh milk is hard to find outside of a private ranch. Most milk is like the equivalent of evaporated milk, super-ultra processed for shelf life and rarely do you find any refrigerated milk. They have all the modern food choices that you have in the US, but not as many. They have great restaurants and easy access to all the other villages. It is the main thoroughfare, so it’s quite busy all the time. We were there in February and the weather was pleasant with abundant sunshine. Keep in mind, things we get in the US that are imported are more expensive in Guatemala as they aren’t part of NAFTA. They don’t have trade agreements like the US does (or did until recently). Vehicle parts are expensive, imported fruits and vegetables, clothes…. You name it. If it’s not made here in Guatemala, it’s expensive relative to the US.
While in Pana, there are lots of things to see and do. You can hike a volcano, go zip-lining and see a butterfly sanctuary, walk around Santander (the main tourist street) where you get haggled from every vendor at every store, peruse the central market, visit the other towns that line the lake, even an island in the lake. If playing in the water is the thing you want to do, the best place to do that is at Cerro Tzankujil in San Marcos La Laguna. You pay Q15, which is the equivalent of $1.75 per person and you walk on the trail until you reach a wooden platform where you can jump about 30 feet (10m) to your death. Okay, okay, not really your death, but when you’re staring at it from up there is sure seems like it could be the end of you. There are tree limbs that hang over the water and a ton of rocks at all different heights to jump from. There are benches along the path that you can claim (by leaving your stuff on it) and relax at while taking in the beauty and serenity of the lake. To get there from the town takes a little imagination as the pathway isn’t really clearly laid out, at least it wasn’t when we were there. You take some back alleyways to get there and you feel like you’re trespassing on private property or at the very least you feel like you’re sneaking around just waiting to get caught. But I assure you, these tiny little alleyways are public and they pass just outside of people’s private property, so you’re safe. If you get lost, you can always ask the villagers, you will no doubt, pass by them around every turn and in all of these alleyways.
All of the towns around the lake have something different to offer. Many of them have women weaving the traditional traje (shirts and skirts) that the Mayan men and women wear. It is amazing to see them work. Their clothing is dyed naturally using plants and bugs they find in the wild. They spin cotton by hand here still and the things they make are mostly handmade. There aren’t very many big factories here and they don’t make it a habit to import a lot of stuff because it’s too cost prohibitive for them economically. Most everything that we’ve bought here has been of the highest quality and hand made (even the chocolate, my favorite chocolatier is featured in the last picture, Dina of Dina’s chocolates). I bought a leather purse and got to choose the fabric I wanted to embroider it with. Bronson and Kaden both got leather backpacks and chose their fabric as well. All three bags high quality and handmade by the shop owner who you were able to talk to and personalize your order with. No middleman, no management hierarchy. I asked for him to make a shoulder strap for my purse as it didn’t come with one. He put loops and a leather strap on it for me too. All customizable and for less than picking ONE run of the mill leather bag from any leather store in Anytown, USA.
All in all, Lake Atitlán is quite an amazing place, there is a town for everybody. There are tons of things to see, plenty of delicious foods to choose from and the textiles are beautiful, though my favorite patterns originate in Chichicastenango. That’s where the pattern that all three of us chose for our bags originates, just to give you an idea. Each department has their own unique style and the longer we stay, the more apparent they become. Each style represents a different tribe of Mayan people and each tend to speak a different Mayan language. Guatemala is really a fascinating country with so much to see and do and so much culture to learn about. If you ever venture out to Guatemala, give yourself some time. NOTHING happens fast.