If Cinque Terre (Italy) and Lake Inle (Myanmar) were to somehow have a lovechild, it would be Lake Atitlan. The lake sits in the crater of a massive volcano and the surrounding areas that dot around it are made of tiny Mayan villages, alonside larger towns where Mayans and 21st century bohemians seemingly coexist. A popular spot along the famed “gringo trail,” it is easy to see why so many young backpackers were drawn to this place, with many deciding to stay put. The lake itself is massive, and with a ton of activities to partake in, alonside cheapfood and a laid back vibe, Lake Atitlan is an absolute must-do for the adventerous type.
After being in transit for about 24 hours, our shuttle dropped us off at Jennas River BNB around 5pm Friday night; a place I had found on air bnb, though its more of a bed and breakfast. Located just off the main road, and half a block up from the Lake, we were greeted at the gate by Jenna herself, and her 3 adorable dogs; Chacha, Sammy, and Mitch.
After giving us a lay of the land, we freshened up a bit, then headed out to Calle Salender; the main thoroughfare that cuts through Pana filled with bars, open-air restuarants, street stalls, shops, etc. We first stopped off at a street stall grilling up different yummy varieties of meat accompanied by roasted potatos, refried beans, and vegetables. After a quick snack, we made our way to the Circus Bar; a lively little place with live music and creep clown decor. After a few beers and a pizza, we met Jimmy Suarez, a seeminlgy harmless older dude who just finished his set. After chatting with him for a bit, he gave us his number and offered to drive us around if we needed. We politiely took it and said goodbye with no intention of really ever seeing him again; we would be wrong.
After an exhausting first day that consited mostly of transport and drinking, we greeted day two with an enthusiastic desire to set out and explore. In the morning, we headed to Chichicastenango, a small city that sits in the guatemalan highlands, known for its impressive open air market, which is likely the biggest one in all of Latin America. We hired a tour guide who took us to Iglesia de Santo Tomas; a Catholic Church infused with Mayan culture that dates back to 1540. This being market day, the stairs (of which there 18 to represent the months in the Mayan calendar) were crowded with both vendors and worshippers selling trinkets and offerings side by side.
From here, we walked through the market to the Capilla del Calvario that sits across the plaza from the Santo Tomas. The smaller of the two churches, the Capilla del Calvario is the sight of Mayan rituals as well as Catholic. While popping our heads inside, we were taken to a small dark room off the side of the main church where a shaman was preparing to perform a ceremony.
From here, we asked our guide if we could visit the cemetary, as I had read that one should not attempt to visit it without a guide. We walked up a large hill where there were numerous colorfol stones that overlooked the city. The cemetary is considered both Catholic and Mayan.
While there, our guide took us to a small area where there were shamans performing Mayan ceremonies.
We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the market and relaxing at a coffee shop.
Upon returning to Pana, we headed to the sunset bar for some lakeside drinks and tacos, before ending the night eating street meat (chorizo y tortilla) at a corner stand.
After a lovely breakfast with Jenna and her guests, we paid a boat taxi to drop us at San Pedro, a little town that sits below the slopes of the San Pedro volcano across the lake. The town is filled with restuarants, bars, and tour companies catering to the backpacking crowd, and a few hippie hold outs from the famed gringo trail of the 1970s. Immediately after departing off of the boat, we decided to go horseback riding along the cliffs of the San Pedro volcano, and were treated to magnificent views across the lake.
After our tour, we headed back into town and found our way to Zoola’s, an Israeli owned restuarant/hostel/pool that served decent middle eastern fare to while we relaxed on pillows on the floor.
After lunch, we hired a tuk-tuk to take us over to San Marcos; a smaller village along the shore that has become the destination of spiritual seekers and yoga aficionados over the years. After a somewhat scary ride around the edges of the volcano, we arrived in a tranquil scenic village, where the Mayans live side by side with those who seemed to have completely checked off the grid.
After exploring a bit, we ended our time in San Marcos with a lakeside coffee.
The next day, we hired kayaks from Pana with the intent of paddling our way to Santa Catarina and perhaps doing a little swimming in the lake. When I hopped into my kayak however, I realized that the cockpit seat was not conducive for my big gringa thighs:)….so we paddled back and opted for a double, which had open-top seats. After paddling in circles to the delight of those sipping cocktails at the many restaurants that line the lake we eventually synchronized our paddling and made our way to Santa Catarina after about an hour. Perched up on a cliff far from the traffic of Pana, Santa Catarina had a charming abandoned feel to it that reminded me of a village in Southern Italy.
After exploring the town a bit, we hopped back into our kayaks and paddled towards Pana, stopping off on the way for a swim in the lake. When we made it back to Pana, we hopped on a tuk-tuk to take us to the Nature Preserve so we could go ziplining. Being I am terrifiied of heights, I was not too excited to try this. After around our 3rd line I started to really enjoy it and decided to actually look around and enjoy the scenery only to look back ahead and see our guide frantically waiving the yellow break flag when I wasn’t even half-way down the line. Apparently, Michelle was still stuck on the line and they couldn’t disconnect her from the break, which could have ended with me slammin both Michelle and our guide into the tree. Fortunately, he was able to slow me down a bit, but still, it was not a pretty landing.
After ziplining, they made us complete a ridiculous obstacle course with swinging steps connected by ropes, where I was so clumpsy and laughing so hard, I actually missed a step, chocked myself, and now have rope burn on my neck. Graceful as always.
That evening, we made our way back to the circus bar for our last hurrah in Pana, and of course we ran into Jimmy Suarez.
Our final day in Pana, we took a boat over to Santiago de Atitlan; perhaps the most interesting of the lake-side towns. When our boat pulled into the dock, we haggled a bit and hired a tour guide to take us to see Maximon, the Mayan-Pagan-Catholic idol that is an integral part of the town’s tradition. Before being appropriated into the town’s version of Catholicism, Maximon was a pre-columbian Mayan god of the underworld. His original name being Mamm (grandfather) combined with San Simon to produce his name today, Maximon (pronounced Ma-shi-mon). He is sometimes referred to as the “smoking god” because people often give offerings of cigars and rum. On any given day, you can pay a tuk-tuk driver to take you to see the town’s effigacy of the god (also with a cigar in his mouth), which is moved from one house to another year to year so as to protect him. This practice likely originated out of fear of the Catholich Church, who in its effort to demonize Maximon, equated him with Judas. Also known as the money god, it is believed that Maximon can bring secular success to those who believe in his power, which explains why we saw statues of him everywhere in the Chichi market.
At our request, our tuk-tuk driver took us to see Maximon. We drove way out of the city center into the surrounding village and stopped off on the side of the road when we wondered “where the hell are we?”. He directed us out of the tuk-tuk and led us into a small run down house/room where there was a ceremony taking place with Maximon at the center of it. We felt a little uncomfortable intruding, but he insisted for us to come in and witness the event.
Our driver told us that because it was the Wednesday of Holy Week, they were waiting for a few more people and than would be proceeding the effigy through the streets of Santiago to the church, where he would remain until Sunday and than move to a different house for the following year. Instead of wait for the procession to begin, we headed back towards town to the Peace Park which commemorates those who lost their lives during the Civil War. The village of Santiago has a unique history in the war, with many of the villagers being targeted and killed as rebels. One night, in response to the violence being perpertrated by the military, about 3000 villagers marched to the military camp and were shot on, with 11 people killed, including 3 children. After the incident however, the military receded from the area and is banned in Santiago to this day.
After visiting the park, we made it back in time to catch the small procession of Maximon being carried through the streets by the local townspeople and some gringo expats who have seemed to have become one of the locals.
From here, we went down to the main church which was decorted for Semana Santa and preparing for the arrival of Maximon that afternoon.
That afternoon we headed back to the nature preserve for one more gaunt around the area before heading to Antigua for the Semana Santa festivities.