After Antigua we went to Lake Atitlán in western Guatemala, a crater lake surrounded by volcanoes that is popular for many reasons. Some call it one of the most beautiful lakes in the world; there are lots of outdoor elements like hiking and kayaking; it is surrounded by unique indigenous Mayan villages; there are coffee farms, yoga retreats, shopping, backpacker scene, fancy hotels, anything you are looking for you can probably find it here. But the reason that brought us here was the opportunity to take some Spanish lessons and do a home stay. Guatemala is known for some of the best and well-priced language schools in Central America. A claim that I can attest to be true now. So we spent a week on Lake Atitlán and had probably one of the most interesting weeks of our travels.
Panajachel is the main town on the east end of the lake. It is the main point of entry for tourists who either stay here as a base or then take a lancha (small boat) to one of the many other lakeside villages. The touristy part of town is by the lake, where every shop is a souvenir shop. A 10 minute walk up the hill takes one to the “real” part of Panajachel with hardly any tourist, which is where our language school and home stay were.
Our school was Jabel Tinamit. It is “our” school because Ty and I both took private lessons there the whole week! I highly recommend this school without any reservation. Our teachers, Gladys for me and Celestine for Ty, were excellent. The owners, Gregorio and Candelaria, had impeccable communication with us throughout and do so much good for the community. The facility is spacious, cool and pretty. Prior to this, I also took a one week private course in San Miguel de Allende, but found that I learned many times more with Gladys than I did before. As for Ty, he just fell in love with Celestine and even got a little teary-eyed when he said goodbye.
Through the school we arranged a home stay with a Guatemalan family. They have a large and modern home with a couple bedrooms for visiting students. They also run a used clothing business at the front of the house which provided good people watching activity from our balcony. If you wonder where all the used clothing go from the U.S., some of it ends up right here. The best food we had at their house was Guatemalan tamales. Everybody knows tamales, but did you know that Guatemalans made theirs from rice? Angel and Luki made theirs with chicken in a tomato/pumpkin seed sauce, along with a couple dried prunes and a strip of red pepper, all wrapped in banana leaf and steamed for hours. We actually prefer their tamales over all the other maiz (corn) ones we had in Mexico.
There is actually good hiking from Panajachel. You can hike to a couple other small villages or you can hike the many onion fields surrounding the town. We did a hike up one of the onion field terraces. Pretty cool. On the bottom of the hill is actually a river running through the middle of town. It’s almost all gravel at this time of year. But during rainy season it will be much more picturesque.
Santa Cruz de Laguna
One of the nice things about staying in Panajachel is the ease to visit all the surrounding lakeside towns by taking a lancha. The lanchas don’t have a set schedule. Once there are about a dozen people, the captain will take off. We visited two towns from Pana and both times as we were talking towards the dock, scammers tried to talk us into a different boat. The first time we almost fell for it. So if you go, don’t talk to anyone except the guys in the captain shirts next to their boats. Also, the locals told us that every day from about 1-3pm, no matter what kind of weather that day, the water will be choppy and you better have a strong stomach. From what we see, it is definitely true so plan your boat rides accordingly.
Santa Cruz is a very small town. Almost zero tourist infrastructure in the town itself except for the hotels right on the lakefront. We were hungry but weren’t interested in lakefront hotels so we went straight up the hill to the actual town where we then proceeded to find no restaurants whatsoever except a house that sold fried chicken that didn’t look too appetizing. By chance we found this coffee shop in the back of a sewing room, with a beautiful view that looked like it did not belong in the town. Turns out the whole building – coffee shop and sewing room on the top floor, as well as computer rooms and other classrooms down below – is run by a non-profit called Amigos de Santa Cruz. They run a vocational program among other things, and the coffee shop is run by the culinary students. The sewing room also has a small coop shop selling items made by local women. Guatemala is a great place to shop for all things textile, although most of what you see are made in factories. Shopping in a coop like this is a great way to support the artisans and find unique pieces too. Nice place and worth a visit.
San Juan de Laguna
Finally, we visited San Juan based on the recommendation of our traveling friends Our Bigger Picture. We stayed one night with a home stay program called Posada Maya. Unlike the family in Panajachel which seemed very solidly Guatemalan middle class, the family in San Juan represents life from a small Guatemalan village. Angel, the father, works in agriculture on a rented plot of land and also the land of others, and Gloria, the mother, sells textile pieces out of their home. Their house is spacious and simple, with a wood cooking stove, sparse furniture, two kids, a dog, and some chickens on the roof. Income from tourists’ visits really make a difference and allows them to send their eldest daughter to teachers’ school from where whe will graduate in a couple years. Angel wants me to spread the word via his letter below which has his contact info (add country code 502). Angel and Gloria are great hosts. And if you want to learn Spanish, Angel will talk your ears off all day and tell you all about his town and his life.
We did our first coffee farm tour in San Juan at La Voz. Another really cool experience to remember. La Voz is certified organic, small, and a cooperative of 200 families. Ty motor-mouthed the entire tour prompting the guide to give him her guide jacket and a little bracelet souvenir at the end of the tour. The next day Simon and Ty went horseback riding again with the horses coming to our doorstep in town to pick them up. We ended our time in San Juan by taking our host family to lunch in a comedor which just means a casual restaurant without a full menu. San Juan is much bigger than Santa Cruz but much smaller than Panajachel, and like all the other lakeside towns, once you venture away from the waterfront there are hardly any tourists.
Lake Atitlán ends our time in Guatemala. Next country – El Salvador.