Lago de Atitlan & Chichicastenango market, Guatemala

Filed under: Guatemala — Aaron and Amy at 11:18 am on Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Lago de Atitlan is located in southwestern Guatemala and according to Maya legend, is one of the lakes that marked the corners of the world. The present-day shape of the lake was formed around 30,000 – 40,000 years ago when the double-coned Santiago volcanoes formed. The local museum says the lake is a volcanic cauldron created by the fast drainage of a large amount of magma. Our beautiful campsite in the city of Panajachel is located on the edge of Lago de Atitlan. We are parked in a large grassy field on the grounds of a beautiful hotel with a pool that has great potential. It is just far enough outside the bustling city to have a wonderful sense of peace to it. Our view consists of several volcanoes on the other side of the lake firmly standing guard, creating an unforgettable silhouette against the sky. They provide an immaculate backdrop for the lightning shows that present themselves every night. Sometimes the lightning is so rapid; it looks like there is a disco ball outside! The cooling altitude of Lago de Atitlan makes the mornings refreshingly crisp while the days easily warm up under the strong sun. Panajachel is one of the larger cities on the lake, making it the first stop for almost every visitor to the area. There are two docks in town that have ferries running to different Maya villages that dot the shoreline. Some villages are larger than others, and some only have foot paths connecting one to the next. Each village is well-known for its own traditional Maya clothing, but this is not the most interesting part. Most traditional Maya clothing we have seen thus far is worn by the women. Here on Lago de Atitlan the men are very well known for their extravagantly unique clothing. In each village the women wear a unique pattern and color for their skirts, and usually the same color blouse. The men wear pants that are cut-off just below the knee. Some of their pants are simply striped a particular color, others have embroidered figures in addition to stripes. Sometimes the men wear material unique to their village wrapped around their waist on top of their pants while others just wear the material as a skirt. Most of the men complete their outfit with a Stetson-looking hat. Their identifiable clothing is truly one of the most enchanting features of the people of the lake. We see them all over, especially the hub of Panajachel, adding a little cultural decoration to the experience. We were in town the other day in line in the grocery store looking across the street at a man in traditional clothing in a hardware store. It is all so natural here, but when you stop and think about how amazing and beautiful it is, you know it is something you are really going to miss once you leave. After looking into the Spanish schools in town, we decided to attend for a couple weeks. Aaron decided he would complete two weeks, and Amy would do one. During our first week here Amy worked on getting a long overdue update on our website and completed a lot of work for her high school reunion to be held next year. We filled our spare time exploring the sites around Panajachel as well as the Maya villages surrounding the lake. One day while Aaron was still in school, Amy took a ferry across the lake to the village of Santiago Atitlan. She went on a Friday which meant she was able to see their market full of color! All the men and women wore their village’s special clothing, creating quite a site for the spectator! It was fascinating to see six men of varying ages all dressed in traditional clothes sitting on a wooden bench licking ice cream cones! Apparently the village recently had a fair, but all that remained was a single ferris wheel right in front of the church. Children laughed and chased one another around the courtyard, some of them in traditional clothing while others wore western clothes. Amy entered the church and walked underneath its red and white decorations which made it feel like Valentine’s day. She watched as a group of men put away religious figures in the niches behind the altar; they must have recently been used in the festival. She also watched from a distance as a man in traditional clothing knelt in front of many candles, offering his prayers with the light of each new candle. Off the side of the church there was a small chapel that was full of people on their knees. All the women had their heads covered with a piece of material and they rocked themselves back and forth on the floor as they prayed or chanted out loud. The volume increased and the women began to sob. There were only a few men in the chapel, and a few curious children that turned around to look at Amy. Some of the women began to filter out of the small room, wiping tears from their eyes as they continued to cry. It is always interesting to witness people’s experiences and interactions with their religion. Such a vocal expression of faith always puts goose bumps on Amy’s skin!One afternoon Amy went to the nearby Atitlan Reserve with our friends Chris and Mel. It is just around the corner from town, all we had to do was hike up the hill leaving town and then back down into a small valley. We had a guide from school that was able to answer any questions we had about the beautiful plants and animals we saw. We even saw some spider monkeys climbing around in the trees! The first Friday night after school Aaron, Chris and Mel celebrated with a few drinks. After Amy joined them we met a group of friends that were visiting from El Salvador. We went out dancing with them for a few hours before calling it a night. We parted ways with their phone number and a hospitable invitation to visit San Salvador.Chichicastenango is a village about an hour away from Panajachel that is well known for its large craft market on Thursdays and Sundays. Aaron, Amy, Chris and Mel all purchased tickets for a small van that dropped them off right at the entrance to the market. After getting some breakfast in our bellies we made our way towards the center of the market. A lot of the stalls had the same kinds of crafts that we had seen on the streets of Panajachel, but there were also new items like masks (old and new) and archaeological artifacts. We stopped at the first table and looked at the artifacts trying to determine which were old and which were new ones created for tourists. There were a lot of artifacts at the first table, and Aaron was thinking of purchasing one. After discussing it with Amy, Aaron realized he would be buying the artifacts on the black market and would only perpetuate the problem. Although she wishes the artifacts were not for sale at the market, it was like a hands-on museum for Amy! After looking at the artifacts we paid a quetzal to take a few pictures and continued on our way. There were plenty of legal items to buy in the market! We only ended up buying a set of placemats and napkins for ourselves, but the market was such an experience! The central part of the market took place in a large courtyard between two churches. There was a sea of different colored tarps tied to one another above the stalls to provide shade from the sun. Each stall had a plethora of colors dripping from its walls into the walkways! You walk by all the different stalls trying to look at their wares, but there are so many people behind you, you can’t always stop! Eventually we came around a corner and saw the stairs which lead to the first church. This was a main intersection in the market and there were Maya in indigenous dress mixed with tourists with cameras around their necks. We purchased some ice cream cones that already had the ice cream scooped onto them and were being kept in a cooler! We found a spot on the church steps, sat down and just took it all in. The lines of people walking every direction usually had the common sight of a man carrying an extremely heavy load on his back with a strap on his forehead. Sometimes they have three or four different bags or boxes on their back! We sat there long enough to see two men walk by with baskets on their back that were full of turkeys. The turkeys were held in the basket by a net, but some of their heads poked through! An interesting fact is that the ancient Maya did not use beasts of burden, so this is the same way they transported goods in ancient times. It is not uncommon to see men walking up a steep mountain grade with heavy loads on their backs. There are usually women and children carrying smaller loads. It is amazing for us to see, but it is just a part of their hardworking lives. As we sat on the church steps we were engulfed in the smoke that came from the incense being burned at our feet. On the bottom step there was a pit where several men maintained the burning of the incense. Sometimes they would let a canister sit in the fire collecting smoke for a while before swinging it around the people’s heads walking by. This made the incense rise even higher, creating an unmistakable thick white cloud that hung around our heads before rising above and beyond the tall market stalls. The incense is so thick you can see it in the photos! We sat there on the steps with indigenous people selling flowers and material, as the smoke wound around us. After eight months of our trip, Aaron finally decided to get a shoe shine from one of the little boys that are always trying to sell him one. Right there on the church steps he got his brown boots shined . . . . BLACK! Once he realized the difference in color the kid was already halfway done with the first boot. He asked the kid about the difference in color and he looked stunned. Once Aaron shrugged it off he just kept shining! After watching a parade of traditional colors walk by we went inside the church. There were different colored candles running down the middle of the walkway with pink and red flower petals sprinkled about them. Every once in a while someone knelt down to light a new candle and say a prayer out loud. At the front of the church men knelt on the floor right next to the banister, reaching through the wooden bars to get the candles on the other side. The men were praying and speaking to their God with energetic hand signals as if they were trying to convince him of something. Some of the men and women were so old and had such difficulty getting up and down that it was amazing to watch their efforts. We walked around the market some more and got some of the best fried chicken we have ever had! After that we barely had enough time to run back and meet our bus to take us back to Panajachel.Our second week in town was Amy’s first week of Spanish school. We had both done a week in Oaxaca, Mexico, but were planning on doing a month-long school while living with a family in Guatemala. We had heard so much about the language schools in Guatemala, especially how much cheaper they are than in Mexico. We were excited to have a teacher to ourselves, since most instruction is conducted one on one here. We enjoyed our time and improved grammar skills at Jabel Tinamit, but we actually preferred the structure and knowledge of the teachers we had in Oaxaca. Sometimes we even felt that our teachers in Panajachel were providing incorrect information. We checked with other people to confirm this on several occasions. All in all, it was a good experience and we can always use a review of grammar! We do want to mention that doing a Spanish school in Panajachel was a last minute decision and we had not heard anything about the schools there. We had planned on going to school in Quetzaltenango (Xela) where we have heard many people rave about their school and home stay experiences. We are sure there are other schools that would suit our needs in Guatemala, but it is time to move further south. During Aaron’s second week of school (Amy’s first) he decided that he wanted to stay with a family to get a little more practical Spanish. We always speak as much Spanish as we can with anyone who is willing, but then we always go home and speak English to one another. It always helps to actually have just Spanish being spoken. Aaron stayed with a family that had three daughters, one of which had a son of her own. The father seemed pleased to have Aaron there since there were four women in the house! They went out for beers together on several occasions. Aaron enjoyed his time with the family and looks forward to having the experience again. One of our dogs, Skylos, was very sick at the time, so Amy decided to stay in the RV with the dogs. She is also anxiously looking forward to her first home stay with a family! During the week that Amy was in school, we took one afternoon to drive the motorcycle to a few nearby Maya villages. It was actually a trip organized by the school, but we drove our motorcycle instead of riding in the back of the pickup. Our guide and a woman from school rode in the pickup and met us there. Santa Catarina and San Antonio are two separate villages that cling to the steep cliffs looming above Lago de Atitlan. San Antonio has a white church that gleams in the sun as you approach it. Looking out from its steps provides a spectacular view of the lake below and mountains above. We toured through some of the stores in town and purchased a few gifts. We were able to find some floor mats for the RV which we had been looking for. We were also able to tour several houses where they make the pottery we had seen in the village’s stores. They have it worked out like an assembly line, one person paints one color and the next person paints a different color. After lunch we had a beautiful bike ride home along the lake back to Panajachel.One morning Khorrah, our other dog, fell ill with a bang. At 8:15 we heard a large thud and saw Khorrah on the floor lying uncomfortably beneath the couch she was sleeping on. After watching her move with great effort and eventually not being able to get up, Aaron thought she may have had a stroke. We rushed her to the vet’s office that had been working with Skylos. The vet wasn’t there, so we decided to leave Khorrah and we returned in the afternoon to speak with the vet, Miguel. We stayed with her for a while and also left Skylos to comfort her while we were away. Several hours later we returned to see that she was able to walk, albeit with great effort. Miguel immediately said he had already given her a shot and declared she most likely had a stroke. After describing some other symptoms Khorrah had the two weeks prior, (not eating, drinking a lot of water and her incontinence was no longer controlled by medication), Miguel also said that she may have diabetes. He said she should restrict exercise for a week; he put her on quality senior dog food and prescribed a medication to help her recover from the stroke. Every day Khorrah improved greatly, increasing her strength and ability to maneuver herself. It has been a week and she is still a bit weak in the hind quarters and has difficulty with large amounts of stairs, but that is expected to improve. Miguel said she could have another episode, but sent us with enough pills to give her whenever she appears weak or has trouble getting up. He assured us that both the food and the medication are available throughout Central America.While Aaron was at the hardware store, he ran into a couple from New Zealand/Australia that has a home on the lake in the village of Santa Cruz. That day Mayah and Jeffroi joined us at our campsite for a couple of beers. They told us about the hotel they are building and pointed to the mountain they own! We listened with great interest as they described their land and the reserve they are going to make accessible to their hotel guests. After chatting for quite some time they invited us to visit their property the following day. After a short ferry ride to the small village of Santa Cruz, all four of us (Aaron, Amy, Chris & Mel) walked the footpath along the shore for about 20 minutes until we reached their hotel. They have been working on the hotel for about a year and plan to open for business this December. They planned the hotel very well with a restaurant and several different kinds of rooms from a dorm with bunk beds to rooms with private bath. They will also eventually have a nice house to rent. They took us on a hike up the mountain which provided a whole new view of Lago de Atitlan! We stood on the narrow spine of the mountaintop allowing us to look down either side onto different bays. Then we walked out to a point where they had a palapa perched on a rock outcrop high on the mountain. (The locals love carrying heavy loads uphill, its crazy!) After making it back down to the hotel all the guys went for a quick swim in the refreshing water! We climbed into their lancha and skipped across the bay to their home in just a few minutes. After walking uphill for about 8 minutes we reached their gated house. The house lies in the middle of their sloped property and has a lot of all natural vegetable gardens growing in beautifully crafted rock beds. As they gave us a tour of the wonderful gardens we picked our lettuce and herbs for dinner. Mayah and Jeffroi made a wonderful vegetarian pasta meal with a humungous salad and wonderful bread with fresh pesto. The table was beautiful as we sat down to enjoy a wonderful meal with new friends! It was quite an experience to visit their home and property under construction and we can’t wait to come back some day to stay with them. Aaron, Amy, Chris and Mel rode the boat back home that night with a feeling of tranquility and utter peace. It is so quiet and removed from the village of Santa Cruz, they have a little piece of paradise! Their property is nothing like Panajachel and it was a great experience for us to experience it with them. To top off the night we had a great lightning show which illuminated the volcanoes as our lancha skipped across the lake in the dark. Their web page will be available when the hotel opens this December; We decided to take a motorcycle ride around Lago de Atitlan our last Saturday in town. We heard conflicting information regarding whether or not there was actually a road that went all the way around the lake. We knew it went at least as far as Santiago which is halfway around the lake, so we set out on a mission to find out how far the road went! We drove up in the mountains high above the deep blue lake with marvelous views. When we weren’t right along the water we drove through beautiful hills that had farms on terraces as well as in the valleys below. The different crops created a patchwork of greens and yellows rolling along with the hills. We waved to everyone we passed, and their ever friendly faces always responded with a gigantic smile and an energetic wave. We marveled as we passed men and boys on steep hills carrying heavy loads of firewood on their backs and strapped to their foreheads. Aaron guessed their loads could have exceeded 100 pounds. After driving for an hour we arrived in San Lucas Toliman around 10:30. Once we found the route to the next town of Santiago we headed in that direction. Unfortunately, that was as far as we got on the road around the lake! Suddenly there was a very loud clambering of metal on metal and the bike came to an abrupt halt. Aaron quickly saw that the chain had come off, and because of the kink in the chain we were not able to push it very far. Amy sat and waited with the bike while Aaron took a taxi to the motorcycle repair shop. After a while he returned and the mechanic was able to push it to his brother’s bicycle repair shop. They worked on it for a while but were not able to straighten the kink in the chain. Finally they decided to take a link out of the chain which shortened it, and then moved the tire a little closer towards the center of the bike. This solved the problem until we can get another link in the chain in a larger city. We were so fortunate that the chain came off in town and not on the mountain road! We were driving over some seriously jarring cobbled streets, so it probably knocked the chain off that was already loose. It took several hours and it only cost about $5US! Aaron tipped him and we returned to the restaurant where we had lunch. We had met some great people there that we wanted to exchange email with. There was a couple from Guatemala City that has a weekend house on the lake, and the other gentleman has retired in the village of Toliman. They were really great people and we look forward to their emails! By the time the bike was fixed we needed to head back to Panajachel. The clouds were low and threatening to dump rain on us all the way home! We made it through the mountain curves in time, and took Khorrah to the vet for her last check-up. Our last Saturday night in town we went out to dinner with our friends Chris and Mel that had been camping with us the entire time in Panajachel. The following Tuesday was Chris’ birthday, so we celebrated that as well! We had a great dinner and really enjoyed their company over the lat several weeks. They are planning on driving to Panama as well, so we hope to see them somewhere along the way!Amy had some shopping to do and was not happy with the prices or the snooty vendors she encountered in Panajachel. While there are plenty of gringos at the Chichicastenango market, the vendors usually seem to have more reasonable prices. Amy decided to go back on her own to complete her shopping list and take some more pictures. The market still had its charm from her first visit, and now she knew where things were. After completing some shopping she visited the magical church once again. She sat on the steps for a while taking photos, then just sat and watched two different worlds go by. When she entered the church it was a completely different experience than before, because there were so many more people inside. Plenty of tourists sat in the rear pews with a guide telling them some history while most of the indigenous people were up front on their knees lighting the pink and white candles and offering prayers. After watching all kinds of indigenous people on their knees at the front for a long time, Amy made her way towards the back of the church. She found that there were a lot of indigenous people at the first platform of candles at the entrance performing a ritual. For every candle each person wanted to light, they got down on their knees holding the candle and waddled to an altar with religious figures while blessing the candles. Then they lit the candle and repeated the process for as many candles as they wished to light. She stood there in the corner watching people of all ages walk on their knees over and over again. As usual, this kind of religious ritual behavior intrigues Amy. It is wonderful that the Catholic religion is serving a purpose for these people; but she couldn’t help but feel a little sad. She knows that religion serves the purpose of comforting people, giving them faith, forgiving their sins and granting access to heaven. While watching the people of this extremely traditional indigenous culture, in all their beautifully bright clothing participating in a religion that was forced upon them by the Spanish, she wonders what might have been for these people if they continued to practice their traditional indigenous religion today. There are many indigenous Maya that combine their Catholic and indigenous religions. That is a part of the ritual the people were performing with the candles.  The Maya believe the burning candles feed the Saints to which they are offered and keep them alive inside the church.  It was a common practice for the Spanish to erect churches on the sites of sacred places to the indigenous people. This was the beginning of getting them to come to church.  One example of this is the church in Chichcastenango.  It was already a sacred site for the Maya when the Spanish constructed a church on top of it.  Melting the two religions together is a way for the indigenous people to maintain parts of their traditional beliefs.

After we were both done with school we had the opportunity to go through the RV and choose some more items to get rid of that we are not using. We have left stuff along our entire trip, starting our first night in Ciudad Victoria, Mexico! We were able to give away some cold weather clothes etc. in the cool mountain city of Oaxaca in Mexico, and we did the same here in Panajachel. We enjoy taking advantage of giving things away when we find people that are in need. We can always lighten our load in our 24 foot RV, and they are always in need! We were able to give both our Spanish teachers some clothes and notepads to use in school. We leave Panajachel with the intention of getting into El Salvador the same day. We are not sure how long we will stay in El Salvador, maybe a week or so. We are anxious to get to Nicaragua where we plan on renting a house for a couple months.

1 Comment »


Comment by John Halkyard

August 25, 2006 @ 4:29 pm

Hi Aaron and Amy,

I like your narrative but wonder if you can include a few facts we could post sometime. For example, the specific schools you attended with contact info, costs and thumbs up or down, etc. Also, it would be nice to have recommendations for vets. Were you satisfied with Miguel? Do you have contact info? Soundslike hehalped Khoora!

Happy traveling,

John Halkyard

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