We had heard a lot about this gigantic lake formed in the crater of a huge volcano. There were a few towns along the shore of the lake each with its own distinctive characteristic. San Marcos is full of yoga retreat and meditation centers while San Pedro is full of hippie backpackers. Our third choice was Santiago which holds the biggest arts market in the region. All of these places are home to their own Mayan indigenous people with their own dialect in each of the towns. We fit right into the second category and headed for San Pedro.
Our ‘shuttle’ was pretty much a collectivo and we got exchanged with passengers from another collectivo at a gas station between Antigua and Lake Atitlan. Good business model! The last hour of the ride was very bumpy as we entered the once volcanic mountain. We could see the three towns lit around the lake from up top.
We got dropped right outside the hostel we wanted to stay at – Mr Mullets, but were still accompanied by some guy to the second floor, who got tipped by the hostel for for bringing us up that dangerous one flight of stairs. I want his job! We got a tiny room with just a bed in it and the bathroom was shared. This was our first time where the bathrooms and showers were share by both the sexes. It was soon to become the norm as our travels continued but for now it was strange to have Ollie shower in the cubicle right next to me. At least we could share the shower gel easily.
We went to the cafe down the street and bumped into a couple of people from our infamous Guatemalan border crossing and Antigua. We saw the second half of the NBA final with them and shared a huge curry.
We woke the next morning and walked to the dock to finally see the lake Atitlan for the first time in daylight and enjoy our coffee.
Even though we did not make it to San Marcos, I had to try the yoga around the lake while Ollie went for a run. I was so surprised to find such a big hub of yoga and silent meditation activity in the middle of Guatemala. The yoga class was nice and my first time trying anything other than vinyasa. I really enjoyed it and will definitely get into yoga after my travels. I also don’t want to be the only indian who doesn’t know yoga.
We got some bagel and cream cheese from a lady who came into our hostel selling it. We were starting to crave some of our New York staples. She was from Oregon but had stayed here since she came to visit it a few years back. Lake Atitlan was full of surprises! And we had heard the same story from a few other people that said they came to the lake for 2 weeks and stayed for 6 months. We were hoping not to become entrapped by the beautiful lake.
We walked to the other dock and took a boat to Santiago. We paid more fare than the locals but couldn’t seem to get away from it despite our haggling attempts. I guess you have to pay some tourism tax. The walk to this dock gave us a view of some of the flooding damage happening on the lake side.
As for the boat ride, we intended to enjoy our $2 payment as much as possible while the locals napped.
The market on the other side was beautiful and huge but there were no tourists since this was off season. But that meant we got a good deal with a tuk tuk driver to show us around the town. First stop was a vista with a cloudy view of Volcan San Pedro.
We were mainly here to see Maximón, who is the local saint. The background is that this guy was a local priest and really helped the local Mayans out with their problems. But that caused him so much stress that he used to drink and smoke a lot. So now he is called the ‘Smoking God’. Of course, the catholic church does not recognise him, but he’s still revered by the locals. Every year one family in the town hosts his idol and only the locals would know where to find him. Our tuk tuk driver was just the right guy. He drove us 10 mins out of town and stopped in the backyard of a house. We entered a room where San Simon in lots of shirts and ties and a cigar in mouth was situated in his full glory. A guy sat next to the idol similarly dressed. The offering to this saint is cusha, an alcoholic beverage (of course) brewed locally from corn. You buy a small pouch of it, pray for a wish and the host pours the drink into the idol. There is a also Jesus dressed in a velvet robe lying in a glass case next to him. All was as strange as expected!
We also visited the local church with weird statues and more robed Jesus in the glass coffin. This became a theme in Latin America!
The boat ride back was beautiful and we spent the evening playing beer pong with other backpackers and a couple of Canadian doctors who we would meet again in Nicaragua.
The next morning we decided to kayak across the lake to a quiet shore line. The water on this side of the lake seemed extremely still and maybe even more dense. It felt like we were rowing but not moving ahead. Maybe it was just the paranoia, side effect of the malaria pills. The beach was tiny with a few rocks, with colorful lizards and butterflies. A couple of kids were swimming in one corner and had made floats out of empty plastic bottles by the end. The water was clear and the view beautiful. It all seemed a little romantic.
We took the longer route back and paddled across the shore of San Pedro. It was quite serene with just a few motor boats crossing the lake to reach the other two towns, locals bathing and backpackers trying to jump off rocks.
The lake is not very swim friendly and can get rough in the evenings. So we spent the afternoon sampling some falafel sandwiches and hot chocolate. There seemed to be quite a few Mediterranean food joints thanks to the herds of Israelis who travel in their gap year.
We didn’t much sleep that night thanks to the loud party going on at the terrace next to us and Ollie’s sun burnt legs. We also had to wake up at 3.45 am to hike up the Indian Nose mountain for sunrise. The first 15 minutes of the hike was behind corn fields and houses with chickens waking everyone up. A steep and slippery hike in the dark is no fun but it was only for 30 minutes so I didn’t complain. We reached the top to find it crowded with everyone waiting for the sunrise. All the effort was worth the most beautiful sight we laid our eyes upon!
Lake Atitlan was pulling us in, and we really struggled to leave, but back down the trail we went (this time with some sunlight):
Then a nap to get over the waking up so early that morning:
And away we went back in search of a volcano to hike.