Monday, December 31, 2007



The Bramanda Band

Posted by streickly

Since nothing was going on in Xela this weekend (and because we certainly didn’t want to study) Brandon and I took off to spend the weekend at Lake Atitlan. We rode in another dreaded chicken-bus — which, I should clarify, are decked out, old American school buses which only rarely carry chickens but are always stuffed with twice their capacity in passengers and make a rule of traveling at vomit-worthy speeds — which we were promised would take us directly en route to Lake Atitlan’s main city, Panajachel. We changed buses three times — Guatemalan style. Anyway, all forced inconveniences were forgiven as we caught site of the lake on our last descent from the mountainside. Lake Atitlan is indescribably beautiful — it literally took our breath away. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this Gautemalen jewel, it’s a gigantic lake with three towering volcanoes kissing its shores. Encircling the entire lake are mountains covered with dense foliage, spotted with occasional patterns of maize fields. Several small communities are found along the lake, accessible only by boat. It was to one of these little cities that Brandon and I were planning to stay for the short duration of our trip.

So, as soon as we landed in Panajachel early Saturday morning we called to reserve a place to stay. A quaint little hotel with a sauna and private hot tub for 20 bucks, quoted as the best in our trusty guidebook — a real treat after a long week. Ah, too bad. It was full. So was the next place. And the next. After two hours of calls and seven small, fully-booked lake communities later (we guessed it was some sort of hidden high season), we admitted defeat and resorted to finding a place to stay in Panajachel. Panajachel is not that bad, it just reminded me of what I imagine Cancun is like. A million international tourists stomping around, buying crappy trinkets for too much money and taking photos of the locals without asking while at the same time the undignified locals try to cheat the tourists for all they’re worth and there’s not an ounce of the traditional culture to be found — that sort of thing. So we settled for a room in a bright, empty hotel with a rooftop view of the lake. Which was perfect until the 25-strong American high school marching band came to stay there, too. Anyway, we made the best of it and did some of our own shopping, ate a yummy non-Guatemalan meal and drank some wine to the sunset over the lake on our rooftop deck in the evening. We even watched some British TV and then vowed to go in the morning to what was promised to be the most traditional city across the lake — Santiago.

The boat ride was definitely a highlight of the weekend. It took an hour to cross, enough time to enjoy the beauty of the perfectly aquamarine lake water and snap lots of bad photos of the looming volcanoes. Santiago is a benign appearing little village, nestled into the mountainside between three volcanoes. However, when we docked in Santiago, we were immediately accosted by tons of little boys who jumped into the boat and asked if we needed guides … or taxis … or keychains … not even a pen? We squeezed by without buying anything and proceeded up the main thoroughfare into the town. What we found were shops and shops and shops and shops and shops, mirroring those we thought we had left behind in Panahachel, and people yelling at us to buy things and small children who held out there chubby paws, opened their cherub mouths and said “Quetzale” (the Guatemalan currency). When we didn’t give them money, they spanked their butts at us, muttered swear words and ran to find another unsuspecting tourist. Tourism had trashed this town as it had trashed Panajachel — and we felt guilty and disillusioned. We were also feeling hungry so we had a nice cafe lunch of Wonderbread and American processed cheese, with leering children hanging over our plates as we ate. We got on the next boat back to Panajachel and then took the next available bus to Xela.

As we ascended the mountain on our way back, we hardly even glanced at the beautiful mountain lake as we washed our hands of Atitlan and its serene little villages. In any case, it was an experience that we wouldn’t not recommend to someone else.

Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)

* Sunset, Lake Atitlan
* Investigator On Boat Accident

6 Responses to “Lake Atitlan’s Monster”

Linda Says:

January 1, 2008 at 12:50 pm

It all sounds so warm and green, as I sit here looking out at a near blizzard with giant wind-tossed snowflakes punctuated by red cardinals and bluejays in the trees trying to stay put.
Even in the disillusionment it sounds exotic and beautiful there!
Enjoy all for a lifetime of memories.
Catherine Todd Says:

May 9, 2009 at 4:17 am

Wonderful blog entry; I live in Panajachel part time and love it there. Can’t wait to go back, especially after reading this! I posted a bit on my own blog, with a link back here.

Hope this is alright, and hope we run into each other in Pana one day!

Yours, Catherine Todd
Catherine Todd Says:

May 9, 2009 at 4:22 am

Whoops… I hadn’t read the whole entry; just the first part describing the beauty of the Lake. Oh, My Goodness! I removed the excerpt from my blog, even though I am sure you did have a bad experience… but luckily that has not been the case for me. I guess it’s because I live there and have friends and “no where to go.” Makes a difference if you’ve been somewhere for awhile, I suppose.

I know parts of the tourism part is “inconvenient” and messy and the tourist traps do overcharge (bargaining is part of the Latin American culture), but believe me there’s still plenty to love about Pana and the villages around the lake.

I hope you give it another chance one day, at times when there’s less tourists (like right now, for example). I’ve been to Xela a couple of times and it is spectacular there. Hope you are enjoying it.
streickly Says:

May 10, 2009 at 8:05 am

Thanks for the note, Catherine.

Traveling is so individualized, I am not surprised we had different impressions of Pana and the lake. I am sure there are endearing parts of the area we were unable to experience due to our short stay.

Xela was magnificent and we hope to go back one day.

Good luck to you.
Catherine Todd Says:

May 10, 2009 at 9:19 am

Ah, thank you so much for your response. I was concerned that perhaps I shouldn’t have written mine, so I am very relieved. It was actually GOOD for me to find out what it’s like for people who don’t live there to visit there, as Calle Santander (the tourist trap) can be a nightmare for even the locals, but since it’s such a small part of my life there I didn’t realize that it might be someone’s entire experience.

The negotiation for buying anything can be so bad that I myself quit buying things in Pana, until I met good people that I always do business with. I finally realized there are three prices in Guatemala: the first “real” price is for the Guatemalans, the second is for the foreigners who live there, and the third is for the gringo tourists who visit. The “gringo price” is, as you can imagine, sky high, or at least 4 times the price. I pay double the price, as I am a gringo who lives there, and truly, I can afford it. We are usually talking about a few pennies or a dollar difference. But when they try to give me the tourist price, at ten times the regular price, I get mad and say “I am not a tourist. I live here!” and the price immediately gets cut in half!

I am going to take your notes with me and bring this up at a meeting to see what we can do to improve things in the area.

There are so many tourists coming and foreigners buying property and retiring or living around the lake that I always say I “speak more English when I’m in Guatemala than I do here in North Carlina.” So your experience is very, very important and we must work to preserve a positive way of life for all concerned. Thank you so much. Your description of the lake is one of the most beautiful and accurate I’ve ever read. I hope you do come back to visit. Be sure to let me know.

Yours, Catherine Todd,
Catherine Todd Says:

May 10, 2009 at 9:23 am

I live in North Carolina, USA (mispelled as Carlina). Can you correct this and use the full name of “Panajachel” (not the short version Pana” as I wrote) and delete this current note? Thanks…

Archived Entry

* Post Date :
* December 31, 2007 at 8:17 pm

Panajachel, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Panajachel, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
View of Lake Atitlan and volcano from my apartment balcony in Panajachel. Taken by Catherine Todd June 2008.