On Saturday 9 July we met Alex from Rio Dulce Travel, at 0630 for our journey to Lake Atitlan, west of Guatemala City. Richard and Kay from ‘Atalanta’ and Tony and Anne from ‘Argosea’ joined us. We booked a 16 seater van with air conditioning and comfortable seats as we knew it was going to be a long day. In the end it took over 12 hours with a couple of short stops plus a late lunch and we were glad we had gone for the more expensive option. The return trip cost 800 pounds in total, split by 3 but it was worth every penny.
Sunrise Over Lake Atitlan
We first headed for Morales, then turned west along the main road to the city. They are improving the road between Morales and Guatemala City but it is arduous and slow work as they cut into the mountains to expand the carriageway. Long queues of traffic can delay the journey by hours and there is no other option. It was amazing to see the diggers higher up the sheer cliffs and the rocks falling down. Local families sit along the dusty road selling fruit and drink and everything was covered in red dust.
Our Favourite Restaurant – El Barrio
The farming land is nestled between 2 ranges of mountains and very fertile. Crops grow everywhere in neat little parcels of land and countless stalls fringe the roads selling pineapples, melons and other fruits we don’t recognise. It is dramatic scenery so I spent most of the trip just looking out of the window. What spoils it is the quantity of litter in every place a car could stop. Awful.
San Pedro Spanish School
Guatemala City is a shock to the system. Huge, noisy and from what we saw, ugly. The shanty area looked desperately poor perched on the hillsides with ‘waterfalls’ of rubbish just underneath the shacks. Must be unbearable in the heat. During our return journey we stopped at a sparkly clean and modern shopping mall to see what it offered compared to Fronteras. The contrast couldn’t be more extreme. They had plenty of big names, designer clothes shops, all the fast food chains and a huge Walmart supermarket.
As we drove away from the city it got cooler until we ascended into the clouds on top of the mountains near Lake Atitlan and got up to 8500 feet. The bus then had to wend its way down again, zig zagging along the sides of the mountain into the towns on the lake. The road wasn’t in great shape, with lots of pot holes and it took hours to make the last few miles into San Pedro.
Town Taxi Rank By The Ferry Dock
We had all decided to stay at a hotel rather than take up the homestay option the school can arrange. Given only Tony could speak Spanish, it seemed unfair to the host family to have us there, unable to converse but I would go for that option next time to avoid speaking English with my friends after classes. Hotel Sakcari is situated on a pathway next door to the school with a stunning view over the lake but it is basic. We had a private bathroom with clean towels, a TV on which we saw the Wimbledon final but you had to go to the reception area to get coffee. Cold drinks and alcohol were available on an honesty box system as well. There were pretty areas to sit all around the garden, by the pool and hammocks to sleep in after a hard morning in class. We didn’t find any other hotels in town which looked any better.
The first evening we strolled across the pathway to El Barrio, a great restaurant where we ate no less than 6 times. They did an amazing breakfast on Saturdays and Sundays for only 4 pounds and this included a glass of champagne, huge bowl of fresh fruit with yoghurt and granola. Next was a choice of bacon, sausage, hash browns, eggs, omelette, frittata, tomatoes etc. None of us managed the final course of pancakes.
Breakfast In The Italian Bakery
The place was run by Stuart, originally from England, so we didn’t use much Spanish there unfortunately. In the Italian Bakery, the other side of the San Pedro School, we were able to try out our new phrases for excellent coffee, croissant and cinnamon rolls topped with almond icing. The whole area is full of bars and restaurants, catering for the students and tourists. Naturally there was an Irish Bar.
After class there is plenty to do with horse riding costing a mere 6 pounds for 2 hours, several massage rooms, a cookery school specialising in local cuisine and the town to wander around. I was keen to visit the museum but it was shut the entire week. Countless shops and stalls sell the traditional cloth that the women all wear. They have a long piece of material just wrapped around their waists and it is held in place with a belt, again without fastenings and the ends are simply tucked back under the belt. We barely saw a female child or woman who wasn’t dressed in this style. They match the colour of the skirt with a coloured top and cardigan but the outfit is quite expensive, so they don’t have too many sets.
Rob and Tony Off For A Jaunt Around Town
The climate on the shores of Lake Atitlan is perfect. Cool enough to feel wonderfully fresh all day rather than exhausted and needing a shower every hour but the occasional burst of sunshine to warm up the pool and enjoy a lie in the hammock. It rained a couple of times and was torrential for a while but it soon cleared up. It wasn’t humid like the Rio Dulce and we really appreciated being away for the week. For the first time in years I actually wore a nightie and the bed had a sheet and blanket.
The hotel was a short walk from the ferry dock and there are tuk tuks to take you around the town for a pound or less. We found a market in the square and a huge church amongst the small houses. One coffee shop arranges tours of the coffee plantation and production line and sells great coffee. Our meals were all very good and we didn’t spend more than 25 pounds for the both of us including drinks. It was good value and our hotel was 200 pounds for the week, as was the school.
Rob With Clara At Graduation!
San Pedro Spanish School is a well-established school set in beautiful grounds overlooking the lake. Rob and I decided to take individual classes as Rob thought he would hold me back, given his lack of linguistic skill and feel uncomfortable. My tutor was Lupita, very patient and full of interesting information about local life. She spoke in Spanish nearly all the time so although I couldn’t understand all the words, I did get used to the pronunciation and speed. Our classes were taken under small thatched palapas in the garden, each with a table, chairs and whiteboard. We had exercises to do, conversations to write up and share, games such as scrabble and homework every day and by the end of the week I felt I had learnt something, even if I still can’t sit down and chat easily with a local speaker. The school has a conversation class at 1715 each day, showed a film about the life in a town in 1993 and gave free salsa dancing lesson on Thursday.
My Profesora Lupita In Our Classroom By The Lake
In the picture of Rob with his teacher, Clara, he has a split lip, the result of my elbow hitting him during salsa class! She said she laughed with him every day. We all took our respective profesoras out for a meal on Friday and I would happily return for another week’s class. They gave us certificates and a statement of our Spanish level so we can take lessons in another school if we wish. Rob and I would like to see the old capital, Antigua, in September and there are lots of Spanish schools there too. Another option is Flores, nearer here.
What we have noticed in Guatemala, is that the majority of people are working. Much of the manual work is done by hand and we saw a man carrying half a dozen rocks on his back, taking them time and time again to where they were needed. They dig the soil by hand and cut the grass with scythes. Even if they are selling a few pieces of fruit and barely making ends meet, they are working. In the eastern Caribbean we got used to seeing a lot of the men ‘liming’ in bars in the morning, drunk for the rest of the day. We rarely encounter beggars here whereas it was a daily occurrence in St Lucia and Grenada. Life is undoubtedly hard here with no benefits system to help the mentally or physically disabled if they can’t work.
Private Palapas Make It A Great Learning Environment
Lupita explained that only small children have birthday celebrations and when people marry they can’t afford a big cake, a new dress for just a day nor a big party. Education is hard to finance so not many people are well educated. Lupita told me that she started at University with 175 students in her year. Only 17 made it to graduation, as they couldn’t afford the 150 pounds a month. The families have to support one another and the average daily wage is very low. Despite all this we have found the Guatemalans to be very friendly, happy and interesting people, used to working hard and getting by.
The Mayans make up the majority of the population but they are under-represented in government. Guns are everywhere in towns, guards keep watch even in the electrical appliances store but how anyone could run off in the middle of the day with a freezer on their backs, I’ve no idea. We were told that a policeman in one village demanded alcohol and money after hours and was refused by the young shopkeeper. The policeman then shot him 3 times in the head before running back to the police station. A witness alerted others and the town bell was rung, bringing everyone out of their homes. They surrounded the police station and all but 5 ran out of the back entrance. The villagers got into the police station and the perpetrator owned up and was beaten up but survived. He got just a year in jail despite being responsible for 6 murders.
Steep Plots Of Land To Farm
Here in Fronteras we heard that some gangsters were robbing tourists and cruisers a few years ago. This brought extra police into the town and questions were asked. One morning several of the criminals were laid out on the bridge, having been shot dead by the local ‘mafia’ who didn’t much like the police investigating their area. It all feels very safe here for us so guess it worked.
One afternoon Rob and I got the ferry across Lake Atitlan to Panajachel, a larger town with better road links to the city. There was a bigger supermarket rather than just the small shops or Tiendas we found in San Pedro but there wasn’t much more choice. Panajachel has a lot of stalls selling dubious tourist wares, seen in most towns here. I think the plastic horses by the ferry docks set the tone as we arrived. The 6 of us decided to take the ferry to meet Alex in Panajachel for our return journey to the Rio, thereby cutting down the journey time by a couple of hours. It costs 2.50 GBP to cross the lake and took half an hour. The mountains rise steeply from the lake and some of the cultivated fields are on precarious slopes. A set of tower blocks looked utterly out of place.
I read that the US Embassy was putting out a warning about the volcanic activity in the area. If I had had more time, I would have taken a 2 day tour of the volcano to see the lava flowing at night, as it is a bucket list item. Perhaps next time.
Beyzano was as we left her and our thanks go to Jeff for bailing out the dinghy after each rainstorm. There is nowhere to leave our dinghy out of the water, now that the boats are close together, so we have to stop it sinking. He also welcomed us back with a chilli con carne, very kind. Yesterday was dominoes all afternoon then a BBQ with other yachties staying in the marina. 2 big BBQs are courtesy of the marina, complete with gas cylinders, tables, benches and a palapa to keep us dry.
This week we need to get on with some tasks on the boat as we are already a quarter way through our time here and need to order the mainsail and decide whether or not to haul out and where we are going in the spring. Should we head for the USA in late April or come back into the Rio in May? Decisions, decisions.