Wednesday, January 6, 2010

San Pedro and Santiago at Lake Atitlan, Guatemala


The descent into Panajachel from the ridge above gave us a great view of Lake Atitlan, a huge expanse of blue-green water ringed by volcanoes and hills on all sides.  We drove into town down the main road (Calle Santander) and our microbus let us off a few blocks above the lake.  After a minor detour that had us scrambling along the sandy cliffs above the shore to get from the Santiago docks to the San Pedro docks, we handed over the equivalent of $3.50 for the two of us, threw our bags into the front of the small boat, and started off toward the opposite shore, getting splashed every few minutes as we bumped our way across the windy lake.

San Pedro, our home for the next three nights, is a super laid-back hippie beach town without a beach, since the town sits on a steep hill above the water.  San Pedro is clearly influenced by the range of international tourists here to chill for a few days, weeks, or years, but it’s not crowded at all.  In fact, it’s a bit sleepy.  But we’re enjoying the place.  We’re staying at one of the pricier (and cleaner) hotels in town for a whopping $15/night.  I enjoyed three glasses of wine on our first night here for a total of $5.50, and Mohit’s been ordering liters of Gallo beer for $3 each.  I bought a brightly colored handwoven scarf for 15 quetzales, which is about $2.  We could definitely afford to chill here for quite awhile, and it seems that’s exactly what many ex-pats have done, since the bars and restaurants are staffed by a variety of Americans and Europeans who now call San Pedro home.

Our second day in San Pedro was a beautiful sunny day, the warmest yet.  We enjoyed a late breakfast on a concrete terrace overlooking the lake, and then hopped onto a boat taxi headed to another shore town, Santiago, around noon.  Santiago is less touristy, and once we made our way uphill from the docks and past a few blocks of tourist shops, we found ourselves in a town filled with locals going about their everyday business.  We wandered into a huge empty plaza in front of the church in the center of town.  Kids had just been let out of school for the day, and they clearly enjoy teasing the tourists as an afternoon pasttime.  Six kids circled us, a chorus of requests for a few quetzales with outstretched hands.  Mohit obliged and emptied the small change out of his pocket and we were rewarded with big grins and a photo.

The oldest of the group, an entrepreneurial boy about 10 years old, convinced us to let him be our tour guide to see Maximon, a local Mayan god, the saint of gamblers and drunkards, according to our guide book.  We followed the boy through town, took some photos along a pretty outlook at the edge of town, where local women were washing laundry in the lake below us, and continued along a dusty road leaded out of town to the neighboring village.  We passed small concrete houses with coffee beans growing in the yards, and after walking in the sun for a few kilometers, we came to a private house where the Maximon idol is being kept this year.  Our guide explained that Maximon moves among a handful of the most influential familes’ houses from year to year.  Maximon was in a dark cinderblock room surrounded by lit candles stuck to the floor of the room with melted wax.

The squat wooden statue was of a mustachioed man wearing a leather cowboy hat and layers and layers of silk scarves and men’s ties.  Three men were reciting something in the local Mayan language that our guide, who spoke Spanish and English, said he could not understand. Then men were sipping tequila and periodically offering some to the wooden statue.  We paid 10 quetzales to take a picture, and the money was tucked into the layers of silk worn by Maximon.

We took a water taxi back to San Pedro and spent the afternoon reading and enjoying snacks at a cafe garden in the shade of a palm tree.

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