Lago de Atitlán and Chichicastenengo, Guatemala – Our timing wasn’t ideal so we only had half a day in Quetzaltenango (Xela) before we had to leave on the trek to Lago de Atitlán that we had signed up for. We spent a little time in the town square and got some yummy hot chocolate (oh how I miss the hot chocolate in Mexico) and then had to attend a pre-hike meeting at Quetzaltrekkers. We learned that we would be hiking with 20 other hikers and four guides – a huge group! We also picked up all the gear we would need for the hike and some food for group’s meals.
Quetzaltrekkers is an interesting organization. It’s all volunteer run, and the guides are all foreigners. They volunteer for at least three months to lead hikes and run the organization. All the proceeds are donated to a school, run by the founder of Quetzaltrekkers. This model has its advantages and disadvantages: It’s great that all of the money goes to the kids and the school and that it directly benefits the community, but we felt more disconnected from the villages and people we encountered on the hike than we usually do when taking hikes with local guides. Because all the guides are volunteers, it makes sense that local people can’t afford to donate three months of their time, but it did make for a different kind of hike.
The next morning, we all met at 6:30am for a pancake breakfast and then walked across town and caught a bus to our starting point, the village of Xecám. The hike started out steep and pretty much consisted of steep ups and downs the whole way. About an hour in I really started to feel the weight of my pack and started to curse the avocados and peanut butter I had chosen to carry (why didn’t I take the oatmeal or pasta?!).
As usual I was at the back of the group, but later found out that everyone except a fifty-something year old guy who has done tons of hikes with these guys, was at least 10 years younger than Stuart and me. Plus, I have tunnel vision, so I didn’t feel bad. And there were other people struggling as the day went on. Fortunately, we took a lot of breaks and they busted out the trail mix and hard candies too keep us going.
We hiked through farmland, villages, bamboo and cloud forests – a pretty diverse landscape; there wasn’t much wildlife. Our guides told us that the local people had probably eaten all the wild animals in the area, so there wasn’t so much as a squirrel or even many wild dogs. After lunch it started to rain, which was not the funnest thing to hike in, but thankfully it stayed light. We hiked about 12.5 miles the first day and arrived in the village of Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán just as the rain really started to come down. We took refuge in the village’s municipal hall, which would be our accommodations for the night. For dinner we had some hot beverages and then a dinner of pasta and bread. We all slept on the hard tile floor which, needless to say, didn’t make for the most restful sleep despite the fact that we were exhausted from a grueling day.
We were almost thankful when the guides woke us all up at 6am the next morning. We quickly got ready and had breakfast at the local commodore. Unfortunately, four or five people had gotten sick in the night and one of the guides had to arrange to take them all to the next village via public transportation. I had to admit that I was a little envious – with the 12.5 miles we would hike that day seeming like a near impossible task after a hard night’s sleep on the floor.
Day two turned about to be just as grueling, but we all pushed on and it was fun. We started to get to know people and the conversation definitely helped keep our minds off the burn in our legs. Towards the end of our day we had to cross a river several times and walking through cool, refreshing water was absolutely divine. We stopped in the village of, Xiprián, at the home of Don Pedro for the night. He made us all supper yummy licuados (blended fruit and either milk or water) when we arrived and we sat around chatting and playing cards until it was time for dinner. We sat at two big tables and had a huge meal of chicken, rice, beans, veggies, bread and tamales.
After dinner they lit a fire in the family’s outside living area and we roasted marshmallows. We slept in the same room that we ate in, on straw mats on the tile floor. It was a tad more comfortable than the night before, but not by much. I laid down super early and missed the performance that Don Pedro and his kids put on for us. They played instruments and sang and danced for their guest. I was totally bummed to miss it – I could hear it, but couldn’t get up the energy to put my pants back on and go out to watch it.
On our third day we were woken up at 4am by our guides – brutal. We hiked in the dark for for about an hour to a hill with a great view of Lago de Atitlán. We arrived in the dark and we could still the lights from the towns on the lake. We could also see the volcano, Fuego, spewing glowing red lava into the air, a rare occurrence according to our guides. As the sun came up we were able to see the lake and the surrounding peaks and the plume of smoke from Fuego. We ate our breakfast while watching a spectacular sunrise. And then I took the best nap that I’ve ever had.
After a few hours at the viewpoint we hiked the last 5k into the town of San Juan de Lago. We had some great views of the lake along the way. In San Juan we all packed into the back of a pickup truck and road to the town of San Pedro de Lago and had lunch. We returned our gear and picked up our bags and then everyone went their separate ways.
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There are several towns on the lake and we still hadn’t decided which one we wanted to stay in, so we ended up following some friends, Matt and Tara, that we had gotten to know over to Panajachel. Pana is one of the bigger lake towns and we decided that it would be good to get in a couple good meals, a hot shower and get some laundry done. The hotel was a bit expensive for us ($50) and we debated trying to find something cheaper, but after two nights on hard floors we thought the splurge would be with it, and it was. I think we took the best showers we’ve had since we started the trip.
Aside from nice sunsets and one street of shops and restaurants Pana wasn’t too interesting. It is a good base, though. We got laundry done and enjoyed our showers and took a day trip to the town of Santiago. Santiago is probably the lest touristy of all the lake towns, so it’s interesting to visit to see “real life”.
By far the most interesting thing about Santiago is Maximon. Maximon is a wooden statue representing a folk saint popular with the Maya people in Guatemala He’s kind of a “bad guy” saint – part of his back story is that while the men in the village were out working, he slept with all their wives and the villagers in turn cut off his arms and legs. He is paraded around town during Semana Santa (Holy Week), and the villagers take turns housing it the rest of the year. Because Maximon moves around year to year you just have to start asking the townspeople where it is.
Since directions are usually vague, “go left, then right”, we wondered around, asking “Maximon” every couple of blocks to make sure we were headed in the right direction. We found him in a room decorated with colorful streamers, candles and other religious paraphernalia. Maximon had on real shoes and clothes and he was smoking a cigarette. His attendants made sure that he always had a cigarette and occasionally poured whisky down his mouth. Meanwhile villagers come in and out all day to pray and light candles at his feet.
From Pana we took a boat to another village on the lake, Jaibalito, to a hotel that came highly recommended by a few people. The Casa del Mundo is built right into the cliff of the lake and it has amazing views of the lake and surrounding mountains and volcanos. It was a great place to just relax and enjoy Lake Atitlan. Dinners at the hotel are served family style at one long candle lit table. It was a really fun way to meet people and talk to other travelers.
We spent one afternoon at a nearby village called San Marcos. The Lonely Planet calls it the most beautiful of the lakeside villages (it was okay – but not better than our hotel), and it is all hippy/new age central. There is a meditation center that is all pyramids. Adds for classes in Reiki, yoga, and meditation plaster the cafe and hotel bulletin boards. Apparently, there is some special kind of energy in the village – I don’t know about that, but there are certainly lots of hippies.
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After spending one more night in Pana we caught the bus in the morning to the highland town of Chichicastenengo (Chichi). Actually, it was three busses, but thankfully they weren’t crowded and we transferred from one bus to another without having to wait. Of course, I made sure to keep my bag in my lap the whole time – no more robberies for me (I hope!).
The big draw to Chichi is the huge market held on Thursdays and Sundays. We arrived the day before the Sunday market and there were no other tourists there. All the restaurants were empty and the town was pretty quiet. We decided to skip the empty restaurants and had some good street tacos – opting out of getting the optional spaghetti on said tacos, though we were curious.
We got up at 6am the next morning and headed down to the market – people were still busy carrying their goods on their heads and backs and setting up their stalls. An interesting flower market was set up on the steps of the church and we spent a couple hours observing the buzz around us before we took a break for breakfast.
After breakfast the market was in full swing and the tourists had begun to pour in. The market itself was – meh – not too interesting. We’ve seen a lot of markets, and this one seemed to have the same stuff in stall after stall and I think it’s become too touristy. The vegetable market was held inside a basketball court and we were entertained for a while watching from the seconding story balcony as the woman sold their huge mounds of colorful produce. And there was a kind of interesting pre-Easter procession from the church. Guys carried out these huge wooden statues of saints and paraded them around town.
Overall, I’d say the market in Chichi is overrated unless you’re interested in buying souvenirs or handicrafts. I did buy a replacement for the watch I broke in Belize for $2.
From Chichi we took a bus to Guatemala City so that we could take a bus from there to El Salvador. We had to spend the night there – which we were a little scared about, but it was okay. We spent the afternoon walking down a big pedestrian street that was crowded with young people, street performers and a a lot of shoes stores. Not quite the big bad city we were prepared to hide in our room from.