Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Days 29 - 31: Lake Atitlan and Chichicastenango

During our stay in Antigua we took a short 3 day trip to one of Guatemala's "must see" destinations, Lago de Atitlan. This glorious landlocked lake is located within a caldera that was formed as a result of a massive volcanic eruption. There are several Mayan villages dispersed around the perimeter of the lake, we stayed in San Pedro. Another feature which made Atitlan so unique were the 3 active volcanoes flanking the south side of the lake. 

We took a pullman bus from the bakery Panaderia Colombiana (4 Calle Poniente, 34) in Antigua to Panajachel, the largest town on Lake Atitlan. The fare was Q36 pp (approx 3h) that left at 7am. The pullman ended up being a chicken bus which dropped us off in the town centre. We walked down to the lake side to catch a small boat taxi to San Pedro on the other side of the lake. The fare for the boat was Q25 (fixed Gringo/ non-local price) no matter which village you were going to (we later found out it can be cheaper to go shorter distances if you know that). There were two types of journeys, direct (30mins) or indirect (around 1h) that took us to each town along the way. San Pedro was named after the volcano the town was built at the base of. There was a big backpacker community there, with the majority of people speaking English. San Pedro also had many Spanish language schools. We stayed at the very cheap Hotel San Francisco 100m's uphill from the Santiago dock. For a double bed and private bathroom, with an impressive view from the balcony, we paid only Q20 pp a night! From this hotel, we got incredible views of the lake at sunrise.

Sunrise over Lago de Atitlan from our balcony!

An old house abandoned because of the rising lake level
The church in the centre of San Pedro

The lake is totally enclosed with no outlet so every year the downpour during the rainy season causes the lake level to rise. In recent years due to a combination of colder summers reducing  evaporation and wetter rainy seasons, the lake level has been rising so that many of the houses that were on the prior shoreline are now underwater.
There were still loads of things to do around the lake. There were a couple of hikes that took groups up the surrounding mountains and to the coffee plantations and most hotels offered kayaking and horse riding. Panajachel offered paragliding, Atitlan was so beautiful, it would have been an incredible view, I wish I had brought enough money! We were just wanting to relax so we spent our mornings walking around the town. We saw the local food market and a couple of football and basketball games played by the local kids. By around 2pm the thunderstorms rolled in so most of the afternoon we hopped between different cafes and restaurants. Mikaso Hotel had a great menu and an even better view! We ate out on their roof top terrace (with loungers and hot tub!); they had particularly good fruit licuados and the burger was the best Harry's had so far, all at reasonable prices. The Clovers Irish pub had good cheap food and La Puerta had a garden terrace and had brilliant cocktails, watch out for Happy Hour from 2-5pm daily. Many of the pubs had quizzes or were showing major sport games during the evenings.

Best papas fritas ever!
We decided to take a small (large) detour on our way home to Chichicastenango that had a famous crafts market 35km north of the lake. We got a shuttle at 8am that was meant to take 2.5h but really took 4h. It cost Q50 for the shuttle operated by tour company Big Foot, but there was an option to take two chicken buses from the town centre that would have probably cost less.The market was really cool but a bit overwhelming. There were so many branches of stalls filled with local colourful crafts and dozens of locals crowding us trying to make a sale. After bargaining for bracelets, purses and necklaces and saying "no gracias" about 5,000 times, we were exhausted and very hungry. We disappeared up some stairs to the restaurant Las Brasas (6a Calle, 4-52) for lunch which had the best papas frittas we have had yet, I cannot stress just how good they were! Refueled, we headed back to Antigua on two extremely crowded chicken buses. The first was heading to Guatemala City but we got off at Chimaltenango (Q25, 1h 45mins). The second bus (Q5) was a joke, every inch of the bus was occupied by people going to Antigua. We were told it was a 15min journey, which was why we thought it would only be a squash for a wee while...turns out it was 45mins, all of which we couldn't move! For Harry, a 45 minutes on a crowded Guatemalan chicken bus requires the skills of a "cirque du soleil" contortionist, it was not a pleasant experience! (edit Heindsight: Great experience, we can finally say we rode the buses Guatemalan style!).

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