“I don’t know what everyone is complaining about, these long haul shuttles around Guatemala are great!” That was our mistaken impression after the 4.5 hour drive from Antigua to San Pedro La Laguna at Lake Atitlan. We had been lucky enough to be the first pick up and therefore had snagged the much coveted front row bench seat which had more leg room and air flow. We were also blessed with a newish van which still had shocks and stuffing in the seats. We later learned that this was a very rare combination. It seems most of the vans are old and extremely uncomfortable and that pretty much every seat other than the front bench was just varying levels of torture. However at about $15 pp you can’t really complain and it is much better than the dreaded chicken bus.
Regardless of the cost in either dinero or bumps and bruises it is all well worth it once the stunning vistas of the glistening lake nestled in the valley of volcanoes and lush mountains comes into view. As we wind slowly down the steep mountain road we pass men, women and children hauling wood in a variety of ways including balanced bundles on their heads and contraptions sitting on their back attached to a head strap in place around their foreheads. After passing through several small Maya villages we arrive at the Panajachel dock in San Pedro where we load our bags into a Tuk Tuk. Depending on where you’re staying and how many bags you’re carrying you can likely just hike to your accommodation but we opted for the $1 Tuk Tuk ride to Hotel Nuala Maya.
We had originally booked Mr Mullet’s hostel but after hearing that it was a full on party place we decided to go for somewhere a bit quieter. Hostels are a great way to travel on a budget and also a good way to meet fellow travelers but if you’re planning to get some early morning starts or get some work done like us it’s a good idea to check Tripadvisor for reviews. Places like Mr Mullet’s and Zoola have great reviews from the backpacking party crowd but if that’s not your scene then a place like Nuala Maya is a great alternative. It’s in a very central location, has spacious rooms with private bathrooms and hammocks on the lovely whitewashed verandah with a partial view of the lake. Plus the best part is at about $18 per night it was actually cheaper than a private room at Mr Mullet’s.
We had been told that San Pedro was a Gringo party town and as we walked through the main street just up from the Panajachel pier we realized that although this may be true it was not necessarily in the way we had imagined it. True the numerous restaurants and bars along this strip displayed menus offering familiar options such as hamburgers, pizza, Thai food and even sushi. Also true the majority of the people we encountered on the street were indeed Gringos. However what was a little unexpected, at least to us, was the large amount of Middle Eastern food and the abundance of vegetarian and health food options including at least three smoothie stands. On closer inspection this made complete sense. The majority of people living in and visiting San Pedro (outside of the locals) were a blend of dreadlocked young and aging hippies, gap year travelers partying their way around Central America and North Americans and Europeans attending the numerous Spanish language schools. What did come as more of a surprise was the large presence of the Jewish community. Apparently this area is a big destination for the Jewish culture and there are many signs and menus written in Hebrew and even a couple of worship centers.
As for the partying we’d been warned of it seemed to be pretty well contained to places like Hostal Zoola and back door after hour’s gatherings. The bars themselves were pretty laid back with lots of live music and good food and drink specials. They definitely weren’t overly loud or obnoxious…at least while we were there, which granted wasn’t peak season. In our experience the party scene is there if you want it but there is also the option to stay in a quieter hostel or hotel and just enjoy the chill vibe of the town as a home base to explore the surrounding area or take inexpensive Spanish lessons. As with any location just do your homework before choosing an accommodation.
We spent five very relaxing days at Lake Atitlan working on the verandah while enjoying the view, swinging in the hammock, exploring the laid back town, kayaking on the lake and taking a couple of day trips. You can take a boat to any of the villages around the lake for just a couple of dollars (there is not a road that goes all the way around) and as all the towns are quite diverse it’s definitely worth doing at least one or two. We chose to go to Santiago Atitlan as it’s said to be the last village where you can experience traditional Maya life. The main things to do here are just walk the town and market, visit the Baroque Catholic church and pay homage to Maximom the “evil” saint. Maximom’s place of residence changes every May but any child will take you to see him…for a price of course. Once there you will also have to pay a small fee to enter the shrine and another fee to take his photo. The other day trip we took was to Chichicastenango for the Sunday market (Thursday is also market day). The Chichi market is vibrant and crowded with both tourists and locals with many rows of stalls selling colorful textiles and crafts, fresh produce and flowers. Be sure to also visit Iglesia de Santo Tomas at the southeast corner of the plaza. On market day the steps in front of the church are covered with people and the air is full of the scent of flowers and incense. The church itself is home to a faith that combines pre-Columbian and Catholic rituals and you will find saints along the walls dressed in strange modern day and traditional outfits. **Sadly our cameras were stolen containing photos of these day trips but we do have a video which will follow soon**
As always we have to make note of a few restaurants and bars that we really enjoyed in San Pedro. First of all is the The Juice Girls smoothie shack where I had a smoothie every single morning. They are made with your choice of water, fresh OJ, milk or yogurt and a selection of fresh fruits and extras such as wheat grass and Moringa. For breakfast there are lots of options but our fave was D’Noz where we sat on the upper deck overlooking the pier and watched the people coming and going. D’Noz is also a popular evening spot. For dinner and/or drinks there are again plenty of options. From the places we tried we would recommend Zoola for the cool Middle Eastern setting with colorful globe lights and mats and cushions set at low tables. Although I wouldn’t say the food was the main draw. Zoola also has a cool bar with a pool right on the lake but be warned it’s known for its wild parties and apparently even occasional drug raids. But again the night we were there it was just a group of about 30 people dancing, getting to know other backpackers and having fun. For an older more chilled out crowd try the Clover which has great food all day and usually live music in the evenings.
By far though our top choice is where we had dinner on Valentine ’s Day. We had booked a late evening private thermal tub at Thermal Pools Spa. The tub was set in amongst trees and bamboo and was filled with water piped in from volcanic pools and then heated by the sun in tubes on the grounds. It was very relaxing and at $12 for as long as we wanted it was a good deal. We had no special plans for dinner and just chose a restaurant across from the Thermal Pool called Il Jardin. We picked a low table with cushions on the ground tucked in amongst beautiful trees, greenery and flowers and lit by candlelight. They also had a harpist playing and by chance a French lounge singer was there for dinner and joined in with her beautiful smoky voice. We had a ceasar salad and Spaghetti Bolognaise which may sound mundane but was absolutely amazing. They were both presented beautifully and the flavors of each were perfection. The best part was that the bill for both meals plus two drinks was about $12.
The next morning we took the shuttle back to Antigua and had 4.5 hours of pain and discomfort to contemplate just how lucky we had been on the previous trip. In fact within the first 20 minutes of the journey I commented to Nathan that it was a wonder that this overloaded van could make it up these steep hills. No sooner had I uttered the words than our van stalled and due to too much weight we could not get up the hill.. The driver had 5 people get out and help push the van up the hill to get us going again. I guess it’s just the price you pay to Live, Dream and Discover.
**Sidenote: Apologies for the lack of good photos but our SLR cameras were stolen so we have to resort to using only our $60 digital.
***Update! We have just heard our cameras have been found and hopefully are en-route to our current location. You can read the story here.