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Lago de Atitlán

February 20, 2012

We started off from Coban hoping to take the 7W as the most direct route through the mountains to Lake Atitlan. It only took a couple of kilometres of bad road to convince us that this was going to be too painful. We decided that the long way round on the main highway would be much quicker. This meant that we had a really good road until the last 20km.

We had taken the road via Patzun into the mountains round Lake Atitlan. This was a really beautiful road but it was up and down through the mountains through areas with washouts and even a collapsed bridge which meant we had to go through the river.

We finally arrived at Panajachel on the shores of the lake and were negotiating our way through the town when we ran into a policeman directing traffic and preventing us turning the way we needed to. So we ended up heading back out of town. This time when we tried to come back in we stopped just outside town to see if we could find a better route. No sooner had we stopped though than a motorbike traffic cop pulled up next to us and offered to lead us through town to our destination.

We tore through town behind the cop with his lights flashing as he guided us down the narrow streets of the town to the hotel we were planning to stay in. When we arrived he declined any payment when we thanked him.

We had decided to stay at the Hotel Tzanjuyu which has camping right in front of the lake. The view from the camper was pretty stunning across the lake and with three volcanoes visible.  The climate here is lovely with highs of late 20’s in the days and dropping to 18c or so at night. This is a result of the altitude of around 1500m. In the surrounding mountains we had topped 2300m on the way to the lake. We were the only people staying at the hotel and had the gorgeous pool and grounds all to ourselves.

We stayed in Lake Atitlan for three days but we were pretty busy. Panajachel itself has a real laid back vibe and has a lot of tourists. This means that there a lot of small cafes, restaurants and little travel agents catering to the backpacker market.

Firstly we took a trip to a town called Chichicastenango which is renowned for its market. On Market day the town is clogged with traffic and there is nowhere to park so we decided it was best to take a minibus rather than drive ourselves.

The market was a bit disappointing as it is very touristy. However the colour of the locals dressed in their traditional clothing was wild and the church which is the centrepiece of the plaza was interesting with its mix of mayan and Christian beliefs. The local cloth and handicrafts being sold were beautiful though and if we had the space we would probably have bought some things.

A 20 minute walk from the centre at the top of a small hill is a Mayan altar where people still worship today. This is called Pascual Abaj.  We were lucky enough to see a ceremony when we arrived with incense being burnt and alcohol being poured on the altar. To one side there were piles of feathers from sacrificed chickens !

Our second trip from Lake Atitlan was to take a boat trip to three of the lakeside villages. We visited San Juan La Laguna, San Pedro La Laguna and Santiago Atitlan. Each of the villages had a different character with different goods for sale.  Its clear that the lake has risen quite considerably in recent times because on the shore in each of the towns we saw a number of flooded buildings.

San Juan was the smallest of the villages and specialist in weaving using material which had been dyed with natural dyes. We saw a woman boiling up a bunch of plants to make the dye. Throughout the town were a number of murals some of which were quite bloody !

San Pedro was a bigger town which had one of the prettiest churches we have seen in Guatemala.The churches in Guatamala are much less grand than those in Mexico. In the square outside the church there was a fountain which had turtles in it !

Santiago Atitlan is a much bigger town than the other two. Its distinguishing feature was a shrine to Maximon – an evil saint. The shrine moves to a different house each year and is associated with sins such as drinking or smoking. We had to pay a guide to take us to the shrine as it was down a tiny back alley – a bit nervy being led there because we didn’t know if we were being led to a back alley to be robbed !

We thoroughly enjoyed Lake Atitlan but moved on slightly sooner than we might have because of a big party scheduled at the hotel with music until 3am.

While in Lake Atitlan we did our laundry again and this time it came back all tied up with ribbons. You could really get used to this !

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