Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Lago Atitlán & Panajachel

After a brief over-night in Antigua, which served as more of a way-station than a an actual destination at that moment, I got up early and boarded a Chicken Bus for Panajachel.  Pana, the largest city on the rim of Lago Atitlán, is the traditional stopping-place for visits to the highland lake.  Luckily for me, I had budgeted several days to spend in the area, so I got to see a lot more than the Pana Santander High Street and bus terminal.   From the main bus drop-off, it's a short walk down to the lancha, where a fleet of bulky, fiberglass boats that strongly resemble bathtubs wait to ferry passengers to the neighboring towns.

Perhaps, on a re-do, I would sacrifice some of my time in Pana and spend a little more time in Honduras instead.  But not much of it!  To start with, the lake is beautiful.  The clear waters reflect the sky, turning the entire lake a deep sapphire color, and a ring of volcanoes surround the site.  It's genuinely one of, if not the most, beautiful place in the country.  And this from the girl who was loath to leave Rio Dulce.

The view from the lancha alone was worth a visit, but actually getting out onto open water was a spectacular (and very wet) experience.  Pro Tip: Don't bring anything you haven't waterproofed or that can't afford to have soaked onto the boat.  Sleek, ergonomic vessels these are not; they kick up tremendous wake, mostly into the laps of the passengers.  Zip-locked electronics are a must.

From Pana, I headed directly to San Pedros, the back-packer capitol of Guatemala (or possibly second to Antigua).  It's the kind of place that any one in the mood for a bowl of weed and a mountain of banana bread at the beach would enjoy.  Personally, I kayaked.  A lot.  Rentals were very cheap, and there wasn't much else to do that didn't involve consumption of some sort.  The food on offer in town was decent, and it was a nice chance to change my diet from more traditional Guatemalan fare to a special treat -- an Israeli restaurant attached to my hostel.  Definitely don't visit San Pedros if you can't deal with stinky travelers and lots of parties, though.

Just across the lake from San Pedros is San Marcos, a laid-back hippie town full of aging ex-pats and massage parlors.  It's much quieter than its neighbor, and if you were looking for a truly restful time, this would be my recommendation.  I passed a lovely afternoon reading on the pier, walking through its twisting, overgrown alleys, and checking out the many murals.  Ultimately, I returned to San Pedros well rested and ready for another night out.

The somewhat interesting thing I found in San Pedros, that wasn't true in many of the other places I visited in Guatemala, was that it was the only destination for many of the travelers I met there.  Out and about, I would predominantly meet European and American gringos who were visiting the sites: Tikal, Rio Dulce, Antigua... all were common.  Some were going on down / up the trail a little further than others, but ultimately they were trying to live the dream: see the world cheaply, independently, and not from the pool-side bar at a resort.  Some even mentioned plans to visit the Lago.  But in San Pedros, it seems like people more or less got off the plane, hired a shuttle, and went straight there.  I guess I'm used to weed tourism in some capacity, but I didn't realize that I was walking into its Mecca.  The El Dorado of Pot.

Deciding that my time in San Pedros was over, I returned to Pana and holed-up there in a small hostel with a beautiful courtyard.  Pana has a lot to offer, and a fairly broad appeal for tourists.  I'm not sure that the very-elite snobs of the backpacking world would like its middle-class tourist vibe much, apart from using it as a base to climb the near-by volcanoes, but it's definitely a good stop if you're travelling with family or just want to slow down for a few days without all the fuss of the lanchas.

I visited the museum, took a walk through the Atitlán Nature Reserve, and enjoyed lots of live music on the Santander.  Then, on a Thursday, I boarded a Chicken Bus for the market at Chichicastenango.  Chichi is famously one of the largest markets in Central America, and definitely the biggest one in Guatemala.  What I expected was to find something like the infamous Black Market in Bolivia, mixed with elements of the Mercado Central in Peru.  Or, maybe on a stretch, something semi-permanent, like the Istanbul Grand Bazar.  What I found was infinitely more crowded, and ultimately exhausting.  But I got my Christmas shopping done for under $300, so I guess I'm not complaining.

Chichi is a labyrinth of streets and alleys, crowded on both sides with vendors whose wares sit on tarps on the ground.  A few fortunates had card tables, but most simply piled up goods (including caged animals) so high that they came up to browsing level anyhow.  The closer I got to the central plaza, outside the Cathedral, the more likely I was to encounter tourist goods.  Dozens of blanket sellers, jade sellers, and kiosks full of kitsch crammed together in the plaza under loose scaffolding.  If you saw one of each booth, you realistically saw them all.  The uniqueness of individual sellers was fairly non-existent, but a few blocks further out I found some actually interesting textiles and embroidery made by the women who were selling them, instead of what I presume was a big machine from China.

I simply didn't have a full day of shopping in me by the time I had walked half of the crowded market on my initial browse, so I looped back for the 1 or 2 items that I really wanted, bought a few blankets for gifts, and boarded the Chicken Bus back to Panajachel -- where a shady hamock in a private garden awaited me.

With the bulky gifts bought and my vacation time winding down, I really only had one last stop on my agenda before flying back home: Antigua.  I caught a bus back to the historic capitol of Guatemala the next morning, fully intending to see more than the back of my eyelids this time around.

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