Lake Atitlan from the San Pedro Volcano

Lake Atitlan from the San Pedro Volcano
Lake Atitlan from the San Pedro Volcano

16 April 2012

El fin de semana

During the first week of classes at an evening activity hosted by our school, we met a bunch of students who are participating in a 6-month stint in Guatemala. Their time here includes studying Spanish, volunteering in clinics and at health education centers, and traveling around Guatemala and other parts of Central America. They are a “pre-health group” of 14 students consisting of 13 females and 1 male, all of whom are planning on applying to medical school or starting medical school this coming fall. There is even one girl here who is going to be a first-year student at Stanford’s med school in the fall!

Anyway, while we were eating dinner with this group of students at our school last week, a couple of them mentioned that they would be going to Lago de Atitlan for the weekend. They offered for us to come along. We were excited for the chance to visit somewhere we were hoping to go, as well as learn from some English-speaking friends about some of the intricacies of traveling within Guatemala.

Lake Atitlan, or Lago de Atitlan, is the largest body of water in Guatemala. The lake is 8km across from north to south and 18km from east to west; on average, it is 300m deep. According to our Lonely Planet guidebook, this huge lake is actually the crater of a very ancient volcano. The crater was formed 85,000 years ago through a massive eruption called Los Chocoyos. Ash from the eruption blew as far as what is now Florida and Panama! Thousands of years later, smaller volcanoes were formed. Volcan San Pedro, reaching 3020m above sea level, was the first to form, then came Volcan Atitlan and Volcan Toliman.

On midday Friday, Alex (a student living with us in our house and currently volunteering at one of the local medical clinics) met us at school to bring us along with him to catch a bus for the lake. “Minerva” – the bus station – is a long walk away or a short ride in a “mini-bus” from school. After opting for the mini-bus option, we shared a makeshift seat in something like a 15-passenger van that had been converted to transport closer to 20-passengers. After the short ride in the van, we dodged through hundreds of people and markets stalls, to reach the row of “chicken buses.”

What’s a “chicken bus”? Chicken buses (camionetas or parrillas to Guatemalans) are the most common form of transportation from city to city here. These buses are former American school buses that have been given another life, often with new colors and altered interiors. Once a school bus in the U.S. is ten years old or has reached 150,000 miles, it is auctioned off. They make unpredictable and frequent stops based on wherever the passengers are going along their stated routes. Our bus was “direct” to San Pedro, requiring no transfers to other buses, but certainly stopping many times along the way. It was painted green and white, had luggage racks hanging from both sides of the ceiling in the bus and along the entire top outside of the bus. The radio blared a mix of soft rock and fiesta-like Spanish songs. We were on our way!

After a 4-hour ride climbing hills, traversing gigantic speed bumps, winding around mountains, and dodging potholes, we eventually made the bumpy descent to San Pedro. On the other side of the lake, Panajachel is the major tourist town, perhaps because it is easier to access from Guatemala City and Antigua. San Pedro is a smaller lakeside town with both visiting tourists and a vibrant traditional culture. In addition to speaking Spanish, people here commonly speak two Mayan languages: Tz’utujil and Kaqchiquel. There are over 20 Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala, but most of the people who speak these languages also speak Spanish.

Hotel Tepepul Kaan, San Pedro
When we arrived in San Pedro, it was just starting to rain. Our friends, Alex and Cami, had been here before and wanted to swing by a fair-trade store to purchase some gifts. We followed them down a cobblestone street to the water, then up a little hill, and finally to the hotel they had stayed at last time. Hotel Tepepul Kaan is a cute three-story building with views of the lake, colored glass windows on the door of every room, and hammocks on the porch of each room.  While settling into our rooms, the rain really started coming down. We ventured out to Zoola, an Israeli-inspired restaurant. We sat outside on mats on the floor and a low-set table, while the rain poured down on the tent-like roof. The spot was wonderfully relaxing and the food was delicious (David had lasagna and Krista had ktzitzot – meatballs in a special tomato sauce). 
The rain let up a bit by the time we had finished dinner, so we wandered around town and found a travel agency that specializes in local adventures. We decided to hire a guide to take us up Volcan San Pedro the next morning.
Dominic, our guide, met us at our hotel at 6am. Together we took a tuktuk (3-wheeled mini-taxi) to the base of the volcano. The sun was rising and the early morning light was beautiful. We ascended the volcano via a well-maintained trail, weaving through coffee plants, small fields of corn, and jungle-like areas as well. On average, the trip to the top (3020m) takes 3.5 hours; we arrived in 2:20, just hiking along. The top was covered in clouds! Occasionally the sun broke through and we could glimpse another volcano or part of the lake in the distance, but most of the time we spent resting in the clouds. We did get to see the giant crater of the volcano. There were three distinct peaks in a triangle that formed a crater in the middle. Fortunately for us, this volcano is inactive, although there are still a handful of active volcanoes in Guatemala. It was crazy to think that thousands of years ago there were regular eruptions and hot lava flowing from Volcan San Pedro. The hike was our first time really exercising since we have been here and it felt so good to be drenched in sweat and feel our hearts pounding! Our guide also made our trip so satisfactory. We were able to practice lots of Spanish with him and shared with us about his family, his work, and his town (San Pedro). We could probably write an entire blog entry about our conversations with him.

After hiking, we spent the afternoon relaxing in the hammocks or on the rooftop of the hotel, eating yummy food, wandering around town, and trying to speak Spanish with whomever we met. 

We happened upon a cute café that was filled with books and games to borrow. We played a couple games of backgammon while sitting lakeside on a beautifully sunny afternoon. 

At night we went out with Alex and Cami for mojitos and nachos at Café Atitilan (with live music) and then dinner at a little French restaurant (with more live music across the street).

The next morning we jogged around town, went to breakfast, and meandered through their very large Sunday market and bought some bananas and freshly bakes bread for the bus ride. We enjoyed a couple of chocobananas and a chocomango before hopping on our bus back home. 

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