Close your eyes and imagine a volcano so huge that it’s crater is 11.2 miles long, 5.5 miles wide and up to 1,120 feet deep. And imagine that this monster volcano is surrounded by 3 smaller yet sizable volcanos, classically cone-shaped, rising high into the blue sky. Then imagine that after a massive earth-splitting eruption some 84,000 years ago, this horrific giant eventually calms down, cools and over time, its enormous crater fills with sparkling clear blue rainwater that also feeds two nearby rivers. Now open your eyes. Welcome to Lake Atitlán, which some have said is one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. It certainly has to be!
Leaving Antigua around 8 a.m., our 3 hour van ride traveled though highways and mountainous roads that wound through a colorful assortment of villages, towns and small cities quite different from Antigua. These places were interesting but many of the buildings were run down and seemingly falling apart. There were lots of tiendas with traditional signs for Coca Cola and Orange Crush, and we even passed the “Alta Seltzer” pharmacy which was using the familiar logo in its sign. One of the small cities called Chimaltenango is apparently known for, among other things, its prostitution (which happens to be legal in Guatemala). The city was heavily traffic jammed because it is located where a number of major roads and highways converge. We passed several motels where scantily clad and heavily made up “ladies” stood outside the doorways eagerly waiting for their next “john” to arrive.
Half way through the trip, we had a 20 minute rest stop at an unexpectedly nice upscale rustic wooded lodge. The air outside was chilly since we were up well above 5,000 feet. The inside of the building was predictablyfilled with a
few taxidermied animals, and the room was smoky from the open wood fireplaces scattered throughout the restaurant (without chimneys) heating the inside. And of course, in the small gift shop and bakery, we managed to find small chocolate chip cookies that tasted just like those wonderful crunchy cookies found at traditional Jewish bakeries. We regretted not buying an extra package.
After the short break, we continued our ride as we made our way into the the Guatemalan Highlands of the Sierra Madre mountain range in southwestern Guatemala. As we rose higher into the mountains, we caught glimpses below of the beautiful green-blue water of Lake Atitlán surrounded by its three renowned volcanic cones casting impressive shadows on the sparkling water. Our view of the lake played peek-a-boo with the hills and trees as we traversed the many curves and slopes of the windy mountainous roads. We eventually made our way down the mountain on some very steep roads. I could smell the musty stench of the heated brakes as they strained to keep the van at a reasonable speed. We continued down the mountain on what seemed like 45 degree angle roads, quickly declining towards the water-filled crater of the lake and finally entering the small city of Panajachel (called “Pana” by the locals) which borders on Lake Atitlán.
When the van dropped us off at our hotel, the Hotel Playa Linda, the
aggressive driver hustled us for a tip which we had planned to give him anyway. The Hotel Playa Linda is a funky, fun and colorful thatched-roof rustic buidling that was decorated in early tiki meets the Mayans in the Caribbean with some Bahamas and Central American thrown in. We loved it! At $50 a night, it was perfect. We were immediately greeted in the lobby by a rambunctious adolescent golden retriever puppy that must have been born with springs in its legs the way it was bouncing off us and the furniture.
We were also greeted by a couple of wonderfully friendly cats, a young tiger-stripped tabby and an older black cat who were both purring loud enough to compete with the motorcycles outside. There were nautical items and all sorts of tchotchkies all over the walls of the lobby and adjoining areas. This place had character plus! There was a lovely small flower-filled garden just outside the lobby with papaya trees heavily burdened with large ripening fruit. There was
also a large aviary and a parrot speaking Spanish on a stand next to the other bird cages. The cats were lurking nearby and carefully eyeing the many birds while urging us incessantly to never stop petting them.
The owner was a very friendly middle-aged guy whose look and demeanor fit in nicely to the nautical-ish tiki theme of his small eclectic hotel. Upon first seeing us, he unexpectedly greeted me by my first name- he obviously was expecting us- maybe we were only two of just a few guests checking in that day since we had arrived during the very slow season at the lake. In his very deep resonant voice, he tried his best to use what little English he knew to tell us about his favorite local restaurants that we needed to try. He gave us the key to our room (a real key, not a key card) and we made our way up the bright orange flight of concrete stairs to our room accompanied by the young affectionate tabby practically under our feet and of course, the exuberant bouncing golden puppy who seemed to fly effortlessly up the many stairs.
Our huge room contained three queen size beds covered in bright turquoise Guatemalan bed spreads and a charming red brick fireplace. A great view of
the lake was visible through the wall of windows that opened onto a very large patio with a couple of aged wood benches. After settling in for a few minutes, we went out to explore the city of Panajachel. We were told that it was off-season so there were not too many tourists although the streets seemed fairly busy. The quaint main street, Calle Santander, was lined with lots of open
shops selling many of the usual items that we’ve seen everywhere in Guatemala including blankets, table runners, clothing, shoes, artwork and all sorts of Guatemalan knickknacks, toys, worry dolls, hats, religious items and even Guatemalan Barbie dolls! The street was filled with people trying to make their way among the bustle of cars, tuk tuks, bicycles and lots of noisy motorcycles.
We enjoyed exploring the area, finding a local bakery and chocolate shop. We walked into a small bookstore and spoke to the gringo-owner, trying hard to avoid talking about the United States politics even though he seemed eager to do so.
We then found Guajimbo’s Parrilada Uruguaya Restaurant (Uruguayan barbeque), a nice gringo-owned restaurant for lunch where we enjoyed chicken filet and ham
and cheese sandwiches along with french fries and Diet Coke. After lunch we explored the central part of Pana finding the municipal area. We stumbled on a typical yet interesting open air market selling all types of fruits and vegetables, and different kinds of meat and chicken that were hanging unrefrigerated and seemingly enjoyed by lots of flies. Nearby,
we discovered a small carnival adjacent to the main church complete with two rickety, rusty and crudely painted multi-colored Ferris wheels that looked like a hazard waiting to happen along with a few other carnival games. We were surprised that these rides actually worked and we had to cringe when the ferris wheel seemed to be going way too fast for the way it was constructed. There were a few other rides as well, most of which looked equally unsafe and put together with spit and chewing gum.
good food, we were lured by the beautiful live acoustic guitar Latin music being played by a couple of local guitarists. We shared a traditional dinner of chicken, rice and vegetables. After dinner, we stopped outside a couple of other restaurants to listen to more live music. One of the groups was a terrific and entertaining Guatemalan “girl band” dancing in unison like the “Temptations.” After a while, we were tired from the days travel so we splurged on a Tuk tuk (15Q or just under $2) and headed back to our hotel.
The following morning, we were up early since we had booked a boat tour to three pueblos or villages located across the lake. We were picked up by a driver in a tuk tuk who sped us to a nearby open-air makeshift restaurant for
breakfast. A young man was the only server, and a woman who appeared to be his mother was the cook. They were busy scurrying around to feed the many people who showed up for an early breakfast prior to the tour of the pueblos. We had a traditional Guatemalan breakfast of eggs, tortillas, frijoles (black beans) and platanos (fried plantains) along with the no so traditional panqueques (pancakes or humorously translated as “bread what what”- people who know Spanish will understand this) and café (coffee).
It took about 20 minutes to cross the enormous lake when we finally arrived at the village of San Juan La Laguna on the southern shore of the lake. This is a
aquaint, charming and colorful village with very steep streets giving us plenty of exercise. Upon arriving, our tour guide, a pleasant local guy, pointed out that the top of the nearby mountain formed the silhouetted profile of a Mayan man lying down. It took us a while to make it out but there it was — we think. We then visited an artist’s
gallery and also a place where they made cloth items woven with naturally dyed cotton yarn of various thicknesses. They gave us an infomercial demonstration of the plants and related materials that are used to make the dyes. We were also shown how the raw cotton is dyed, spun into yarn, and then woven to make the beautiful cotton items that they were selling. Of course I had to buy something – a small embroidered table runner.
We then walked around for a little while exploring the village and seeing a number of beautiful and interesting murals and several nice shops. I managed to buy a woven multi-colored book bag for school. We then came across a shop which to our surprise had a large
selection of beautiful woven multi-colored yarmulkes which we certainly didn’t expect to find. So of course I had to buy two even though it was so hard to chose which ones since they were all wonderful. And I even learned the Spanish word for yarmulke — “yamaka.”
From there, it was a fairly short but still bumpy boat ride to our second village, San Pedro La Laguna on the southwestern shore. As we approached this picturesque little village with its houses and buildings nestled up the hillside, we noticed a fairly large hotel with an Israeli flag flying high above it. Apparently there is a sizable Israeli population there. The village seemed to cater to the hippie-ish earthy types. There were natural juice shops, yoga studios and restaurants offering organic, gluten-free, sustainable,
locally sourced and non-GMO food. And apparently marijuana is plentiful as well although it is not legal in Guatemala. Again, there were lots of shops selling the usual Guatemalan items. We didn’t stay all that long.
After lunch, we took a quick walk to the center of town to visit Colonial Church
which was worth the effort. It was built in 1547 and is one of the oldest Catholic churches in Central America. It was simple but very nice with lots of ornate imágines (religious statutes) around the walls of the church. A memorial plaque along with posted information just inside the entrance commemorates Father Stanley Francis Rother, a missionary priest from Oklahoma who was apparently loved by the local people and considered to be somewhat of a local hero. Sadly, Rother was murdered by ultrarightists in the parish rectory next door to the church in 1981 during the political struggles in Guatemala.
On our way back, a lovely Mayan women demonstrated how to create a traditional Mayan Tocoyal “Hat” or head wrap from a single thick flat piece of woven
colored cotton . She seemed to have fun showing us and there were smiles all around. After our visit, we then headed back to the boat which took us to Panajachel. The water was so choppy by that point that the boat continually smacked the water so hard that we couldn’t wait to get off the boat.
The next day, which took another 2-3 hour van ride to Chichicastenango which
is known for its gigantic Sunday open air mercado (market). When we got there, we were greeted by numerous “tour guides” offering to take us around since it was supposedly so easy to get lost in the enormous maze-like market. We took our chances. It was pretty amazing to experience such a huge mercado and no, we didn’t get lost except on purpose. The sights, sounds and smells enhanced the overwhelmingly great experience, especially in the areas where all types of food was being prepared and sold. It seemed like everything imaginable was being sold at the mercado from beautiful fruits and vegetables, to household items, woven products, toys, candles, clothing and more. There was even a woman selling some Guatemalan version of “snail oil.” Her passion was astounding! We bought several dozen sets of worry dolls (you never know when you’ll need them) from a wonderful young family that allowed us to take their photo. We
found a nice restaurant for lunch which was a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of the phrenetic chaotic mercado. We also visited the central cathedral, which was dark inside where we witnessed Mayan fire ceremonies of different indigenous people on the floor of the church burning candles, leaves and other items as they solemnly prayed on their knees.
Aldous Huxley, the famous author of “Brave New World” (and who ironically lived on our street in Los Angeles) in his 1934 travel book, “Beyond the Mexique Bay” stated: “Lake Como [in Italy], it seems to me, touches the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanos. It really is too much of a good thing.” I am so glad that Lake Atitlán is too much of good thing since it absolutely must be one of the most beautiful places in the world. (Don’t miss all the photos that follow).