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eirekay Panajachel - A travel report by Eire
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Panajachel,  Guatemala - flag Guatemala -  Sololá
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eirekay's travel reports

Lake Atitlan, 3 Volcanoes, a Horse and Maximon!

  15 votes
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Aldous Huxley once wrote “Lake Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing." As we spend the day boating between its quaint lake front villages, I find truer words were never spoken! report of the month contest
Apr 2010


Volcano San Pedro from Panajachel's docks.
Volcano San Pedro from Panajachel's docks.
Literally formed by blowing its top, Lake Atitlan is a caldera, the remains of a volcano filled with deep blue water. How deep? Estimated at 340 meters, the bottom has yet to be sounded. Fish, fishermen and the occasional water taxi fill its waters while three volcanoes, Atitlan, San Pedro and Toliman, ring its shores. Tiny villages, linked only by boat – there is no road circling the massive lake – hang tight on the steep banks, looking as though they might slide in with the slightest provocation. Our first glimpse of the lake is from the steep, switch back filled drive into Panajachel. The drive itself is a visual feast, lined with spring fed water falls on one side and vistas of the enormous lake on the other, all in a lush rain forest environment.

Panajachel is the largest village along the lake shore, founded by the Spanish Conquistadors as a base for conquering the Mayan tribes that lived along Lake Atitlan's shores. During the sixties it become known as hippy base for US draft dodgers and the flower child drug culture but there is little to none of that evident today. It retains a laid back feel with a slow pace but is prominently occupied by tourist hotels, shops and restaurants. The streets are pleasant to walk but there are few historical structures and little to see beyond its stunning natural beauty.

From our home base in Panajachel, we chose three of the traditional Mayan villages on opposite shores to trek in our water taxi. Our choices? San Juan for its famed weavings, San Pedro known as a typical fishing village, and Santiago, the current home of the traveling Maximon, a Mayan deity that moves between villages year to year. Our guide, Diego, should have told us that he, and the boat, were only ours until 2pm. We didn’t return to Panajachel’s dock until well after sunset! He never said a word until we were on our way back. Of course, we tipped him handsomely.

Favourite spots:
We enjoyed the pace of sleepy San Juan, a highland weaving village.
We enjoyed the pace of sleepy San Juan, a highland weaving village.
San Juan: Walking off the rustic dock past purple water hyacinth and through a labyrinth of alleys to tiny weaving studios, each offering a different textile, was like a trek back in time. No street vendors, we browsed stressed only by the limits of our wallets.

San Pedro: Horses awaited as we got off our boat. A leisurely ride up the hillsides and through the sleepy fishing village afforded spectacular views of the lake as well as an appreciation for a very different lifestyle. We watched as women gossiped on door stoops and young girls played clapping games singing the same song I sang as girl but in Spanish.

Santiago: As sleepy as San Juan and San Pedro were, Santiago was a whole different animal. Known for its seed beading, the children selling their wares were so aggressive that they literally jumped on to our truck and accompanied us out into the countryside, negotiating the whole way. The negotiation continued all the way back onto the boat as we pulled away from the dock.

What's really great:
Maximon, our mustachioed, cigar smoking, hard drinking deity.
Maximon, our mustachioed, cigar smoking, hard drinking deity.
As we landed on Santiago's dock, the sun was already starting its descent. We hurriedly hailed a cattle truck and hopped into the back with as many others as would fit, all of us standing and holding on to the cattle frame for dear life. Racing through the countryside at high speed, we were off to find Maximon, a deity in effigy that is part Mayan, part Conquistidor and part Catholic. He is moved every year during Semana Santa, the Easter Holy Week, by the Brotherhood that guards and celebrates him.

We were stunned when we found him. Maximon is kept in a remote village hall, a 5 x 5 meter windowless room really. The mustachioed effigy is dressed in a black cowboy hat and an odd assortment of scarves and ties. Here he is served liquor and cigars while a shaman sprinkles whiskey, lights candles and chants Catholic prayers in Mayan tongue. Not at all what we were expecting, the overall effect was like being in a Saloon scene from a Spaghetti Western gone badly awry.

Sights:
A local relaxes at the end of the dock and enjoys the sunset.
A local relaxes at the end of the dock and enjoys the sunset.
Hang out on the dock for any sunrise or sunset. Grab a step or dangle your feet off the edge of the dock and just sigh as the sun rises or sets over volcanoes that threaten to touch the heavens, as clouds dance in wisps around their crowns. Watch as fishermen cast out their nets in the morning or draw them back in at the end of day. Light plays across the water as the fishermen start up the engines of their two man boats and trawl from shore to shore. I have the feeling that this is exactly the image that Aldous Huxley was recalling when he said that Lake Atitlan was too much of a good thing!

Accommodations:
Our lazy hoseback ride through San Pedro gave us views of farm life.
Our lazy hoseback ride through San Pedro gave us views of farm life.
Panajachel itself is known as a hippy enclave. There are plenty of laid back hotels lining the streets and a number of hostels. We stayed in Hotel Cacique which, while inconveniently located three blocks off the main strip, avoided the traffic noise of the town center. The rooms all have a nice patio facing a lovely garden and nice pool. At $75 USD, it was a fair value. The restaurant on site has a limited menu but the walk into town takes all of 5-10 minutes.

We saw hotels (and language schools) in San Pedro but none to speak of in either Santiago or San Juan.

Restaurants:
My fresh caught fish! No idea what it is called but it was tasty!
My fresh caught fish! No idea what it is called but it was tasty!
Have breakfast at any one of the many open air bar/restaurants that line the shore above the docks and watch the fishermen cast their nets out while sipping on a cup of marvelous Guatemalan coffee.

Restaurante Nick's Place in San Pedro is known for local fish. A low key open air place on one of the side docks, it was a real treat! I had fried fish that looked like it had just been caught. Don't forget to order a Gallo! This local beer was a twice daily ritual during our trip!

We ate at the hotel our first night but ventured out on night #2 to Casa Blanca, a higher end international restaurant located at the end of the main drag on Calle Principal. The menu includes a broad selection of Central American food as well as Italian, French and American. If you do nothing else, go into the bathrooms (yes, we ladies peeked into the Mens Room) and check out the modern art murals. The Sangria was rather marvelous too.

Lots of cheaper choices along Calle Principal including vegetarian food.

Other recommendations:
Jeralyn models a selection of bracelets from our dockside shopportunnity.
Jeralyn models a selection of bracelets from our dockside shopportunnity.
Be ready to shop! I am sure that commissions paid no small part in our guide Diego's willingness to stay long past his 2pm obligation with us. Much of the Mayan crafts you will see in these villages may be available elsewhere (those shawls in San Juan were not to be found anywhere else), but here you are buying from the maker and the money is going directly back into the community. On top of that, the quality was truly extraordinary. All six of us came off that boat loaded up with everything from a hammock to ceramic turtles and at least one shawl apiece.

Another tip - I took 314 pictures that day, and between the 6 of us, we took over 1,000. Bring a spare memory card and camera battery. Every where you look is another stunning shot!

Lastly, this was my first experience organizing a trip for a group of very trusting friends. They made it terrific and nothing beats having a group of close friends to share my favorite country, Guatemala, with!

Published on Friday April 23th, 2010


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Sun, May 02 2010 - 11:51 AM rating by bootlegga

A great report with some nice pics!

Fri, Apr 30 2010 - 07:02 AM rating by bineba

Sounds like you had a fantastic time with your friends. Great report, as usual.

Wed, Apr 28 2010 - 04:39 AM rating by louis

Very interesing reading. Nice place and photos.

Sat, Apr 24 2010 - 05:43 PM rating by rangutan

Well done!

Sat, Apr 24 2010 - 02:07 PM rating by davidx

An excellent report on what sounds a stunning place.

Sat, Apr 24 2010 - 10:30 AM rating by gloriajames

what a great read! btw....i love the bracelets!

Fri, Apr 23 2010 - 11:42 PM rating by jacko1

A super report Eire, your descriptions make the place really alive to the reader, Thank You!

Fri, Apr 23 2010 - 07:33 PM rating by krisek

A wonderful report, Eire. And it brought some great memories; I visited the lake back in 2002, and I could not believe how spectacular the area was! Oh, but I did not go horseback riding. I love your narrative and the photos are great, too. Many thanks for taking time to share all this with us.

Fri, Apr 23 2010 - 07:12 PM rating by pesu

Just beautiful, Eire! :)

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