San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala
Just about every backpacker who travels from Antigua to the cities surrounding Lago de Atitlán does so via a plush bus and ferry. Hoping to save some money, spice up my travel, and avoid potential armed robbery (popular on this route), I blew off the well worn tourist-trail.
From Antigua I hopped onto a chicken bus that took me to a crossroads town called Chimaltenango. From Chimal I took a former touring bus (think captain's chairs instead of bench seats) headed for a larger city near the Mexican border. The touring bus dumped me in some random rest stop on the side of the highway, where I shortly joined a bunch of locals in a nice mini-bus taxi headed towards Lago de Atitlán. Little did I know that the driver wasn't going as far as San Pedro, and dropped me on the road at the edge of Santa Clara La Laguna (still a good 30 minutes away from my destination).
I sat on the side of the road and waited for any type of transport to drive by. Eventually I was joined by a Guatemalan merchant who was also bound for San Pedro. We chatted while we waited (and waited…). He made excellent use of the time by trying to get me to buy one of his handmade wool blankets (in a friendly, but persistent way). Wow—they'll last for 35-40 years, huh? …So, is that corn they've planted over there?
Interestingly, instead of just taking cash, he tried to barter a blanket for spare American clothes, medicine, or any electronics (such as a radio or camera) that I might have with me. It was entertaining to listen to the price drop from Q$1500 to Q$600 by the time another chicken bus came along to scoop us up.
I later realized that I could have spared myself the vehicle hopping if I had taken one of the intermittent chicken buses that run through Chimal and go directly to San Pedro—but where would the fun be in that? I enjoyed the fact that I traveled between two major tourist destinations today without seeing a single backpacker.
The view from the (rough) back-road into San Pedro La Laguna was amazing. Deeper and deeper we descended along switchbacks and steep inclines that offered up stunning views of the massive Lake Atitlán, and the villages that sporadically dot its shoreline. The surrounding mountains are high enough to make the lake seem like it's sitting inside of a giant crater.
Arrival in town was your standard room hunting with your backpack on routine. The twist this time though was that the town is built on quite a hill, and it requires some effort to move around with a pack on.
The other curveball that was thrown my way was that over half of the accommodations in this town are only accessible by dirt (or in the case of the rainy season I'm in now, mud) trail! Better yet, when it beings to rain here—and does it ever rain—all those fun little paths and trails turn into full blown streams. Solution: I just wear sandals, and watch for swimming fish near my feet.
I spent the afternoon walking the town. I think I've seen a good 80% of this place, and have a fair idea of what it's all about.
It's easy to get out of what I've labeled the "Zona Gringo" here, and it's nice that the locals would rather speak Spanish than English to you. There's nothing particularly interesting architecturally to see, but there does seem to be an awful lot of firewood tucked away here and there though. Wood-burning stoves and fireplaces are probably an inexpensive source of heat for these folks. I think this my first time being someplace where it gets cold enough for firewood to be used so regularly.
Speaking of cold, I feel pale. My Caribbean tan is but a memory. Maybe I can find a little beach-time in Nicaragua between the rain showers to get a little sun. Oh, and I've decided to let my hair grow out (some) in anticipation of the colder months in South America. We'll see how long it lasts.
There's a guy in this "hotel" that's got a 13 or 14 year old girlfriend. Bob is from The States, has been here for four months, and must be close to 40. Since when did Guatemala become the Philippines?
I'm not sure what this is that I'm feeling at the moment—indifference, perhaps. I was on the edge of my seat when I saw Lake Atitlán for the first time, but after only a handful of hours in San Pedro I've lost that excitement. I feel no attraction or connection with this place—nothing is stimulating, or inspiring me to stay here.
I think this town is actually a nice little spot to sit and focus on language studies (while attending an inexpensive Spanish school). There's some great nature to enjoy, the lodging is very cheap (US$3/night), and the majority of town is relatively normal (surprising, given the amount of tourists that roll through here). That being said, I'm not in a sit and chill out mood—I did that in Antigua, and now I'm looking for some passion (and unattractive concrete streets lined with tienda after tienda just isn't doin' it for me).
I'm going to jump over to Panajachel via ferry tomorrow. I don't expect to find much, other than tourists. The town has the nickname "Gringotenango" (Place of the Foreigners), and has been a backpacker hangout since the '60s. My guidebook says:
The town itself is a small, unattractive place that has developed haphazardly, but you need only go down to the lakeshore to understand why Pana attracts so many visitors.
At least Panajachel has good bus access to move me to my next destination, and of course, it should be a popular spot for…
I'm excited for the start of the World Cup in two days. I remember staying up at all hours of the night four years ago to watch the matches. I need to find a nice spot (with some energetic fans) where I can cheer Deutschland on (without fear of getting a bottle broken over my head). Humm—maybe it's a good thing I don't have my jersey with me to wear.