Since our visas for Mexico were about to expire, we had to take a little trip over the border for at least 72 hours, so we chose the nearest border, Guatemala. We’d heard good things about Panajachel on Lake Atitlan, so that’s where we decided to head. Friends told us the best way to go is on a shuttle instead of taking a bus line as one bus line will take you to the border and then you have to pick up another, and you are left to your own devices in accomplishing the border crossing. With the shuttle, the driver makes sure everyone gets through immigration and onto the shuttle in the next country. Much easier to avoid all kinds of scams from people offering to “help” you.
The drive in the Mexican countryside was just beautiful, and we arrived at the border crossing around noon. The crossing went smoothly, except for one guy that had overstayed his visa and had to go find an ATM to get enough cash to pay the daily fines. We were then driven about 10 minutes to the actual border and pointed toward the entry station for Guatemala where we walked over with all our luggage and got stamped in with a visa for Guatemala. Our new driver was waiting and got us all safely into his van and we were off again.
The scenery was equally beautiful, green jungle and croplands butting up together. The fields went right up the steepest mountain slopes, some terraced, some not. Lots of corn. Right off, I noticed that Guatemalan women almost all wear the traditional skirt and top, similar to that of the indigenous women in San Cristobal; and unlike San Cris, it’s very common for them to carry their heavy loads balanced on their heads. The indigenous in San Cris usually wrap their loads and/or their babies in their rebozos on their backs and tied diagonally around their torsos. The Guatemalans do both.
We finally arrived in Panajachel and after checking 3 hotels on the main drag, elected to stay at Hotel Chaparral. Pretty place and a huge 2nd-floor room with 3 full-size beds was about $22 US a night. Internet was included, but it only worked well out on the bench outside our room, though that’s a pleasant place to be. Also down on the table in the courtyard. Ahhh! We had a nice steak dinner and wine at a little restaurant down the road. We spent more than we intended, since the Quetzal is worth double the Peso and we didn’t check, but the food was good.
The next morning we decided to stroll down and see this beautiful lake we’d heard about, the biggest in Guatemala, sporting 3 volcanos around the edge. Truly beautiful! In the mornings the water is so calm and serene, and we watched launches and fishing boats and dugout canoes traversing. Afternoon trips are a bit more exciting as the winds pick up and the lake gets wavy. If you’re prone to motion sickness, come back home early! Myself, I loved it all and insisted my window be open even if I was getting splashed.
We walked around and explored and figured out the launch situation and decided to go to San Marcos the next morning. There is a river that enters the lake near the docks. Lots of guys working separating gravel from little river rock to bigger rocks for sale for construction and gardens. The river had come through at some point and ripped huge pieces of bank out, including some buildings and roads. We had a nice exploratory walk around town and on the main drag. We discovered the people selling things to tourists in Pana are extremely persistent compared to the indigenous in San Cris. Instead of going to the next person after you say, No, gracias, they pester you for a while to see if they can wear you down. Guess it works on some or they wouldn’t do it.
One lady who spotted me and made a bee line to the back of the restaurant just would not go away, so I offered her a Quetzal for a picture. She got all huffy and said that a Quetzal “no compra nada!” (doesn’t buy anything). She wanted 10Q, but I finally convinced her for 5 Q. She let Glenn test the weight of her head bundle, and he said it weighed about 20 pounds! These ladies do work hard walking all day with their arms laden with textiles and more in the bundle on their head. I had finally just accepted the fact that the street sellers were part of the tourist experience so I could interact with them and not be intimidated. Another lady who spoke some English said, “Oh, I remember you, how are you? What’s your name?” all friendly-like. When I still wouldn’t buy her stuff, she said, “Never buy!” and turned around and strode away.
We caught the launch to San Marcos to explore that town on the second morning. We were “serenaded” by a guy practicing his rap tunes with his iPod in his ears. Sorry, but, dude, don’t quit your day job! The launch stopped twice on the way to pick up and deliver passengers. Seems that about everybody uses them, and the price for locals is about half or less what they charge tourists, which is about $3.75 each for a trip to whatever stop around the edge you choose. Each stop had what used to be covered deck areas to wait that were about a foot and a half underwater and had new walkways above the water level. Many who built too close to the water have lost their homes to rising lake levels in recent years, mostly expats that wanted to be too close to the water.
San Marcos had basically one walkway from the docks up to the small town that was lined with New-Age-y shops and various healing centers and some little restaurants. Very quaint and nice. We walked around town for about half an hour and saw most of what was there outside the residential areas, and then we had lunch down a little side path on the main walkway. A little place with two or three tables called Maya Jovenes (Young Maya) that was owned and run by a smart young Mayan guy named Marco who was a wonderful chef and also spoke English pretty well. Very nice little place to hang out for lunch.
That evening, after a rough-and-tumble launch ride back, when we were on our computers, a huge BOOOOOMMMMM startled us. Being familiar with the Mexican Catholics and their love of exploding “mortar shells” in the air at all hours, we weren’t alarmed. I heard a marching band in the distance and went out – oh, boy, a parade! It consisted of the marching band from a Christian school and their team of flag girls dancing routines, a van in the lead with loudspeakers to announce whatever – couldn’t catch anything they said – and a couple of “floats” with girls on couches in the back of the trucks. The whole thing moved extremely slowly, so took about a half hour to go by. Then the band stopped and marched in place and played for literally hours at the far end of the main drag. How exciting!
Our last day we took the launch over to San Pedro. This town has a reputation for being sort of a hippie town with lots of pot smoked and laid-back characters around. It seemed to be a bigger town with fewer tourists and street sellers. Very nice vibe and lots of nice murals on lots of buildings and shops. We had lunch at The Burrito Factory run by a hippie-type fellow that lived in the back. He had a gorgeous deck over the edge of the lake that was his backyard when the restaurant is closed. He was not kidding that he has the biggest burritos in Guatemala. We split one and were both absolutely stuffed with his tasty concoction. We lounged there under the shade and enjoyed the lake for quite a while before leaving to get back before the waves got bad. Unfortunately, the waves were early, but it was a fun ride. We agreed that if we go back, we will skip Pana and head straight for San Pedro, maybe stay there a few weeks.
Next morning we had to catch our shuttle at 6:30 a.m. for a beautiful ride back to the border and back home to San Cris with our shiny new visas. On the drive back I made a game of trying to get pics of the gas stations and their “signs” showing one was up ahead. If you see a stack of plastic jerrycans of different sizes with prices written on them in marks-a-lot, there’s a “gas station” just ahead. There are no traditional gas stations outside larger cities. It seems that families assign young boys to sell gas beside the road. You can buy a little or a lot, and the kid will run up, pour in your choice, collect the money, and you’re off again. They have these in Mexico as well, as our taxi bought a small amount of gas this way when we went to Oventic, but in Guatemala they are plentiful.
At last we arrived back in San Cristobal after another 10-11 hour shuttle ride. Ahh, home, sweet home – at least for a little while.
Here are ALL the pictures — just click one to see a bigger version or to start slideshow mode…