Along the Shores of Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala
Once in a while you stumble upon a destination as remote as it is beautiful, as quirky as it is quaint, in equal parts foreign and friendly. For me that place was the pueblo San Pedro on the shores of Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala.
San Pedro and several other villages are set along the edge of the lake, which is ringed by forest- and coffee-covered mountains and three major volcanoes. The lake, deepest in Central America, was formed in the aftermath of a volcanic explosion some 80,000 years ago which left ash debris as far as Florida and South America. You can either take speedy lanchas across the lake from village to village, or one can pass along lakeside paths that are surrounded by awesome natural beauty in every direction.
San Pedro is small and quiet, with hardly any cars and only a few red tuk-tuks navigating the mazelike pathways, winding between houses, stores, and cornfields. The cafes and restaurants are abundant and just as you want them–good music, rich food, comfortable seating, outdoor patios overlooking the lake, books for loan, aesthetic decor. One cafe, called Zoola, is one of the most unique restaurants I´ve ever experienced—hosting open-air dining under a thatched roof surrounded by rows of corn and banana trees. You sit or lounge around low wooden tables after taking off your shoes and listen to live contra bass and muted trombone jazz or African beat djimbes. Hammocks are strung between the wooden pillars if you in need of a siesta from the hard life of conversation, comida deliciosa, and Gallo beer.
The small village is now a mix of Tzotuhil Mayan, both traditional and modern, and foreigners of all stripes. It is equally common to hear French, Hebrew, English, German, Tzotuhil, and Spanish in the streets and cafes. The lake has become a mecca for language study, having a dozen good language schools, but it can actually be a struggle to study Spanish here because you meet so many non-Spanish speakers. You’ve got your middle-class women from the States who came here and have stayed on, escaping an unfulfilling career or mid-life crisis, who might be doing a business via internet from here. You’ve got your retirees who can stretch their dollar or Euro here, who probably don´t like the young hippies that much, but who might enjoy the character it brings. Then you’ve got your bohemians, your beatniks, the artsy sandal wearing hippies, the rastas with dreadlooks, the barefeet and bare-chested. Then you’ve got your average young college student from Europe or the USA, some who actually want to learn Spanish, but also enjoy the nightlife too much and who get tempted by the easy hedonism.
I lived with Rosa and Felipe and their 6 children, 4 boys under age 6 and 2 teenage daughters. The house has a couple bare rooms and a yard with flowers, a watermelon patch, and an avocado tree. I have my own large but bland room and take some of my meals with them. Rosa and Felipe are very nice. I have practiced Spanish and also learned a little basic Tzotuhil. Once you peel away the surface you get to know Guatemala on a deeper level. You would never guess it, but Felipe and his brother were kidnapped during the civil war by the army. They were tortured for days for information about the guerillas even though they didn´t know anything. Felipe ended up escaping. But he never saw his brother again.
One can pack quite a bit of adventure into a week here. I studied at San Pedro Language School and stayed with a Tzotuhil Mayan family. The school is set on a gorgeous piece of land leading down to the lake with a magnificent jardin filled with palm trees, rose bushes, and butterflies. You take your one-one-one lessons with your teacher under thatched palapas. Can you think of a more pleasant way to learn your subjunctive tenses and indefinite articles!
On Tuesday we enjoyed kayaking across the bay to dive off of rocks and swim. Every morning here is bright, warm, and clear, then the clouds roll in late morning and the evening rain arrives. When it rains hard all of the bumpy dirt pathways woven among the houses become rivers because there are no gutters. On Wednesday night I enjoyed a local reggae-rock band at the Buddha Bar. On Thursday we got up early to go zip-lining in the cloud forest above the lake. The cable was 1200 feet across and hundreds of feet above a valley between two hills. You could see Volcan San Pedro and the whole of the Lake as you zipped across the line. It was an awesome adrenaline rush, perhaps the closest thing to feeling like a superhero that I have experienced since whitewater rafting.
On Sunday we rode horses on a path along the lake and hills above San Pedro, through some of the most impossibly beautiful scenery ever. We were surrounding by everything from coffee, banana, avocado, grapefruit, and orange trees to olive bushes, wild sunflowers, pata de gallos, and estrella de navidad (a type of wild poinsetta tree). We passed simple stone houses with sweat lodges surrounded by chile pepper and guayaba/guava bushes. Hovering amidst this natural setting were flirtatious hummingbirds and soaring hawks that completed the ambience. Overall it was an unforgettable week!
It is easy to see why so many have came here and stayed a while. Aldous Huxley wrote of it, ¨It really is too much of a good thing.” Indeed, I found myself resisting the moments leading to my departure from this particular pueblo.