Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Relaxing in San Marcos La Laguna on Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

March 17, 2013
I am grateful for emissions testing. I will happily take my car every year to get its emissions inspected if it means I don’t have to share the road with vehicles belching stinky smoke in big, black puffs.

San Marcos is a tiny village, sort of a hippie town with plenty of yoga and meditation and chakra-alignment interspersed among the hotels, restaurants, and shops. Narrow walking paths leading away from the main square are sprinkled with Guatemalans selling freshly baked banana bread and expats selling macrame bracelets. The area around the lake has a large gringo, or foreigner, population, mainly from America. Thankfully, it doesn’t feel like home; it feels like Guatemala. Guatemalans are an integral part of the community. This is in contrast to what I found in gringo areas of Costa Rica, such as Tamarindo, where I barely saw any natives and even the buildings seemed foreign. I like the vibe around Lake Atitlan much better, how’s it’s a melding of cultures, rather than an invasion of one.

The Guatemalan woman offers me a choice of rooms at the hotel. One, she explains, is the luna y miel room. I am confused at first; what does it have to do with the moon? And then I realize what she means, and I laugh out loud - she is offering me the honeymoon suite.

I am purchasing dessert, and I say to the two girls, “dulce dente,” sweet tooth, pointing to my teeth. The girls look at me perplexed, and one offers me a toothpick. “Non, non,” I say, and try to explain, “Mi gusta dulce mas, mas, mas, y un Anglais hablo sweet tooth.” (I like sweets much, much, much, and in English say sweet tooth.) The girls understand and laugh, repeating the phrase sweet tooth. I am happy I communicated, as trivial and incorrectly as it was, and even happier that the girls don’t hold it against me.

A drum circle - rhythmic beats, singing, loud whoops of joy - is tonight’s lullabye.

March 18, 2013
We take a lancha, a water taxi, to San Pedro. During this five-minute ride I meet Anna, a photography teacher at a London university. She is enjoying a year-long sabbatical and has been living in San Marcos, teaching photography workshops to children, helping them see their world through the camera. My mind spins off into my own non-profit daydreams; I am excited by the possibilities of contributing to their lives. In our short conversation, Anna and I bond enough that we hug each other goodbye.

From San Pedro, we catch another lancha to Santiago. On the boat, a small girl, maybe three years old, sits in front of me. While licking her red lollipop she makes faces at me, moving her lips like a fish or sticking out her tongue. I copy, and I think she’s amused to have a shadow; she keeps changing her mouth and watching me. A woman generously passes out breakfast to other women sitting nearby; they nibble on fresh tortillas filled with refried black beans - not rolled up, but actually inside the tortilla, a hidden middle layer.

At the market, a man shows me a drape of fabric, but it is too wide. I don’t know how to say “wide” in Spanish, so I say, “Mas gordo,” which means too fat. Apparently “fat” is not a word you use to describe a piece of fabric, as the man, his wife, and his daughter all chuckle good-naturedly. “Mas grande,” the man corrects me, too big.

On the boat returning to San Pedro, I meet Zuleima, a Guatemalan young lady who grew up on the lake. She is open and friendly, telling me about her family, her boyfriend, her job. She loves to curse in English. She puts her hand up for a high-five when she learns that I’m a teacher, too. Zuleima spends so much of her salary on her students; the families have no money to purchase pencils, backpacks, or books. I immediately want to help in some way, and I know I will be back. Traveling lets you develop a real connection to a people or a place, so charity becomes more meaningful and personal, more of an intention than an afterthought; we are more inclined to help what has touched our heart in a real way. And these children of Guatemala have touched my heart, with their smiles and their laughter.

While waiting for dinner, the owner of the restaurant approaches our table to chat. He left his life and carpentry career in North Carolina eighteen years ago and moved to Guatemala after falling in love with the people, the weather, and the freedom living in this country provides him. He is happy with life, a vibrant and enthusiastic man who loves to talk. And I loved to listen - his story and ideas are refreshing and different, exciting and inspiring. Unhappy with his life, he took a leap of faith and created a new one. You don’t need to figure out what to do, he says, you already know inside your heart. You just need to listen. But it’s okay if you don’t hear the answer right away; sometimes you just need a little time, a little space for the answer to bubble to the surface. It’s more than just “opening the door,” a popular piece of advice; sometimes you need to walk down a hallway before you find the next door to walk through. It’s scary, difficult to have the patience and faith. But apparently worth it, the evidence shining through a happy man.

Guatemala teaches some of this patience, which the hotelier had to learn, too. One morning, he is sitting on a boat that doesn’t leave on time. He is getting so aggravated, and he looks around him, at all the locals. They are sitting nonchalantly, neutral, no agitation evident. He asks himself, Is this getting me worked up? or Am I allowing it to work me up? He realizes the futility of getting worked up by a boat, and he lets it go.

I love the human interactions as much as the cultural experiences when I travel. I love the stories and inspiration I find. I love the connections we forge and the wisdom we share. Whether it’s with a local or another traveler, it’s not a person or a memory I would find at home. It truly is an incredible part of the experience, adding depth, transforming it from a vacation to a journey. My life is immeasurably enriched by those I meet.

Tonight, I fall asleep to choral barking, When I wake up in the middle of the night, it is a cacophony of yipping and barking and yelping and woofing, loud and incessant. Now I know why so many dogs are crashed out on the streets and sidewalks during the day - they are saving all their energy for waking the dead in the middle of the night. The occasional high-pitched rooster crow chimes in - whoever started the ridiculous rumor that they only crow when the sun rises? It takes me awhile to fall back asleep.

March 19, 2013
Today we roam around San Pedro la Laguna. The market, a thigh-burning walk up a rather steep hill, consists of produce and plenty of food stalls, but there are no Guatemalan crafts for sale. Turns out, there’s not much to see or do in San Pedro if you’re just visiting, but there is a nice stretch of cafes and restaurants near the Santiago dock.

One of the things I regret when traveling is being unable to bring leftovers home with me to eat as tomorrow’s lunch. Mostly it’s because I like enjoying a good meal twice, but it’s also partly because I don’t like food going to waste (I grew up when everyone talked about starving Ethiopians). Well, you don’t have to worry about wasting food in Guatemala. There’s a great solution - feed your scraps to the local dog population. There’s always at least one dog lingering nearby or resting it’s head in your lap, looking up at you with pleading eyes, waiting to grab a morsel of meat or hunk of bread from your hand.

March 20, 2013
We’ve run out of things to do. Well, there’s more to do: lakeside towns to visit, volcanoes to climb, hikes along the shore. We just don’t feel like doing any of it. So, we do something that’s very easy to do in this town: nothing. First, we go into town and hang out in the amphitheater just above the two main tiendas. I stretch out on one of the stone benches to read, surrounded by the sound of children running and laughing and playing. Then, for a change of scenery, we go down to the lake, lay out a towel, and enjoy our books in solitude. There’s not much of a shoreline here, or anywhere that we’ve seen so far, but we manage to find a patch of grass that does the trick. There’s not much swimming, either. I heard about parasites, and I’m not taking any chances.

Out of character for this time of year, storm clouds roll in and announce themselves with rumbling thunder. It rains big, fat drops, and I enjoy sitting on our covered “front porch,” reading a book and listening to the pitter-patter periodically punctuated by thunder. I enjoy a good storm, even more when I can be outside to experience it. After the storm lets up, the sound of rain is replaced with the sound of music - drums beat and horns blare - the local school has a band performance.

Hotel Paco Real - Room rates vary, but I stayed in a room with a double bed and a private bath for Q150 each night (based on double occupancy). Towels are included, and the water gets warm, but not hot (it helps if you barely turn the water on). Wi-Fi is not available in the room, but I could connect when I sat outside near the reception area. Water is available to refill your water bottles, but it costs money; a 2-liter bottle costs Q6 to refill.

If you want to stay in San Pedro de Laguna instead, here a couple options that I found with good reviews and low prices:
Tepepul Kaan - Q75/person
Hotel Pinocchio - $6.50/person

Of the places I’ve visited in Guatemala, the best overall restaurant experience was in San Marcos. Maybe because they’re not serving only typical cuisine. Maybe because I can get plates full of fresh veggies, which I love to eat. Probably because I just like United States American better than Central American meals. There are also plenty of American treats here - cookies, cinnamon rolls, carrot cake, brownies - very convenient if you have a sweet tooth, and I personally find our pastries more tasty.

Often, the same woman that takes your order walks into the kitchen to prepare it for you. I feel like I’m getting “home-cooked” meals. But a good meal at home takes time, and it’s no different in the restaurant. Expect to wait at least half an hour for your meal, but it’s worth it. For this reason, I also like getting to the restaurant early, around 5:30 - 6:00. If it takes almost an hour when there’s barely anyone in the restaurant, imagine how long it can take when the tables fill up with hungry diners...

El Dragon - We very much enjoy our dinner here - one of the best meals we’ve had in Guatemala. I had the vegetables almondine (Q55), and Nick had the burger (Q55). We also brought some dessert back to our room: granola cookie (tastes like breakfast, but in a good way), brownie with walnuts (very standard and maybe a little dry), butterscotch haystack (gooey and tastes more like dulce de leche), and cosmic cookie bar (Nick liked it more than me). Oh, and in case you’re wondering what “Ying Yang Dragon Dream Balls” is (because I sure was), it’s ice cream topped with chocolate sauce and cream. Total cost, including drinks and tip: Q268. It’s a little tricky to find because there is no sign on the road. From the bus stop, take a right and follow the street to Hostel del Lago. Just in front of the wall that’s painted with the hostel’s name, there’s a stone path. Follow the path around and past the soccer field. You’ll see a dragon, and keep going down until you reach the restaurant’s patio. When we visited, it was under construction, but it was still open. (Note: We returned for dinner on Wednesday, but it was closed. It’s not a far walk, so no big deal, but you might want to check their regular hours, so you can catch them on an open night.)

Moonfish - This cafe is on the main road, and we went there for breakfast. We both had a cup of black coffee (Q10) that is made using locally roasted beans, and we heard the beans ground up before being put into the french press. I think the coffee here is better than the coffee in Costa Rica, another country known for their coffee beans. I had an omelette with tomato, onions, and ham (I declined the cheese) that’s served with refried black beans and homemade wheat toast (I also declined the brown rice) (Q33). It’s very good. Nick ordered the pancakes, which are whole wheat with a nutty flavor, with fruit, yogurt, and honey instead of syrup. They were good, but be warned: Nick has a big appetite, so he ordered the double serving (six thick pancakes) but could only eat half. I also purchased a brownie (Q10) to bring home (ask for it pareva, to go) because it was made with local cocoa. I ate it for dessert after dinner, and it was yummy - you could taste the cocoa. Our last night in San Marcos, we returned here for dinner. I had the banana sandwich (Q23), made with local honey and homemade peanut butter on homemade bread. As always, the banana is delicious (they are soooo good down here), but unfortunately the sandwich is skimpy on the tasty honey and peanut butter. Also, while the bread is good, I think the bread I had at Il Giardino is better. Nick had the falafel plate (Q45), served with pita bread, salad, and garlic bread. The falafel is overcooked, and the filling is more consistent with a hushpuppy. He enjoyed the falafel wrap at Il Giardino much more. For dessert, I had one of the chocolate cookies (Q5), but it was overbaked to the point of being past edible. I’m surprised they would even serve cookies in this condition. This is the only disappointing meal we had while staying in San Marcos.

Blind Lemons - This restaurant and hotel is on the main road right next to Moonfish, and we went there for dinner. I ordered the sauteed vegetables with sweet and sour peanut sauce (Q40), and I received a huge plate of fresh green beans, pepper, broccoli, and more - it was delicious, and the sauce really added a nice flavor. Nick had the supreme pizza, and it was really good, too - it has a good, thin crust and is large enough for two. We both leave stuffed.

Fe - This pricier restaurant is on the same path as Paco Real, just a little further down on the left. We shared the roasted red pepper and crispy bacon soup (Q40), which was good. It is a HUGE portion and really enough for a meal in itself or for four people to share as a starter. I ate the chicken and spiced onion with sweet chili and tomatoes with a red wine jus (Q65), and I thought it had a delicious flavor. Nick ate the chicken masala (Q60) with garlic naan (Q20). The masala was good, but I think my dish tasted better. The naan was actually pizza dough topped with garlic - it was okay, but no naan. Our total bill, which included tip, was Q225. Also, the service was a little strange: we ordered the soup as a starter to share, but the waiter brought out the soup and my dish at the same time. He brought the naan, meant to be eaten with the curry, immediately after. The curry didn’t arrive until after I was finished eating my dish (I didn’t wait, or else it would have gotten cold). So, ordering a starter, especially if it’s a gigantic portion anyway, might not be a good idea. As always, food and service was slow, but that’s to be expected by now. A keyboardist began playing during our meal, and that was nice. The next morning, a plate of freshly baked cookies in their display case caught my eye, so I ate a yummy oatmeal coconut pumpkin seed cookie (Q10) for breakfast.

Il Giardino - This vegetarian restaurant is a short walk down the path from Paco Real, on the right. Everything about my veggie burger (Q35) is delicious: two thick slabs of bread just baked this morning, beetroot hummus, slices of avocado, a smattering of sauteed peppers and onions... except the burger. I found the burger, which I think was made mostly of ground chickpeas, dry and crumbly. All together, it worked and I enjoyed it, but it could have been better, and I have had better veggie burgers. Nick really enjoyed one of the daily specials: falafel, vegetables, and beetroot hummus wrapped in a homemade tortilla and served with tzatziki sauce (Q35). Lots of people were ordering the carrot cake, but I was too stuffed to even contemplate dessert. Right next door, there is a little cafe, and I enjoyed a strawberry-banana smoothie (Q15) one morning for breakfast.

Nick’s Place (San Pedro) - This restaurant is right next to the Panajachel dock (where you land from San Marcos). I had a piece of banana cake (Q10) and a cup of strong coffee (Q7) for breakfast. Banana cake and banana bread are common (it’s not hard to understand why), so I wanted to eat some at least once.

Cafe Atitlan (San Pedro) - This restaurant is on the way to the Santiago dock. We ate lunch here. My mango curry (Q33), including the still unidentifiable green vegetable, was good, but Nick’s Holy Moly Loaded Nachos (Q35) were ridiculously good, especially the guacamole. Another San Pedro restaurant that looks good for lunch is Cafe Puerto.

Artisanal Chocolate “Diego” - These cigar-shaped chocolates are made with natural and organic ingredients in San Pedro. Orange juice is used instead of sugar for the sweetener, which I think is very cool. Healthy chocolate? Yes, please! They come in many variations, such as cinnamon-flavored or with bits of cashew, and are very yummy. Of the ones I tried, my favorite is cocoa. I’ve seen them sold in Panajachel, San Marcos, and San Pedro, always for Q10 each.

San Marcos Reserve - The reserve is along the coastline, and it’s a pretty place with a walking path and Mayan alters (which look like fire pits). There are benches for relaxing and enjoying the view. There is a terrace that has a break in the guardrail for those who’d like to jump into the lake. The entrance fee is Q15.

You’ll have no problem finding meditation, yoga, massage, or a variety of other spiritual or healing or indulgent experiences.

Visit Santiago - Santiago is another small town, and it has a market running up it’s main street. The official market days are Friday and Sunday, but I visited on a Monday. I don’t think I missed out on whatever other stalls might be open on larger market days - I find plenty of nice items - and I definitely don’t miss potentially larger crowds. It’s quite a pleasant experience, meandering through the stalls. To get there, take a five-minute water taxi for Q10 one-way to San Pedro. Then, walk to the other dock (it’s a winding path, but it somehow manages to be easy): Walk up the street and take a left before heading uphill, then take a right into the alley below the “Cooperative Spanish School” sign. Keep following the path around, and you’ll get there. Take a thirty-minute water taxi for Q25 (I bought a round-trip ticket for Q50) to Santiago. If you buy a round-trip ticket, it will show you the return times available (you don’t have to choose one ahead of time). Walk up the hill, and it’s lined with market stalls. When you get toward the top, you’ll find the produce section of the market as well as a park. Here’s what I bought and the cost (with the original asking price in parentheses):
    • Large purse - Q60 (Q100)
    • Two pairs of earrings - Q65 (Q80)
    • Earrings - Q20 (Q40)
    • Two scarves - Q40 (Q60)
    • Small purse - Q30 (Q70)
    • Scarf - Q20 (She started so low, I was too startled to haggle.)
    • Earrings - Q20 (Q30)
    • Belt - Q60 (Q150)
    • Freshly squeezed orange juice - Q5
The total asking price was Q555, but I only spent Q260, so I saved Q295. I love the haggling game! Other than shopping the market stalls, there isn’t much else to do in this town, at least
that I’m aware of. There are restaurants, of course, but we choose to wait until returning to San Marcos for dinner.

Visit San Pedro la Laguna - We took the water taxi (Q10 one-way), but it really isn’t worth visiting unless you want to check out the Spanish schools or expand your breakfast and lunch dining options. We found the market, but it’s geared toward the locals, with produce and some street food vendors. There are also some streets vendors, selling mostly jewelry, along the street between the docks. I bought a few gifts at the restaurant where we ate lunch, but that’s it:
    • Artisanal Chocolate “Diego” (Q10 each or 6 for Q50)
    • Cafe Atitlan coffee beans (Q25 each or 5 for Q100)
You can also pick these up at the Panajachel market; no need to make a special trip.

There are plenty of other activities, included guided hikes, boat excursions, kayaking, and horseback riding, but we opted to slow down and take it easy for a few days.

Traveling to San Marcos La Laguna from Chichicastenango
We decided to leave Chichi a day early, since we didn’t need nearly as much time at the market as I anticipated. We found men wearing vests near the Hotel Tomas, and we weren’t able to purchase a ticket (it’s difficult to arrange for shuttle transportation on the same day). However, we were told to come back at 1:30, and sure enough they got us on a 2:00 pm shuttle to San Marcos for Q75 each. The shuttle ride takes about two hours, and it drops you off at the bus stop/fruit stand. To get to Hotel Paco Real, there is a path immediately to the right of the bus stop (if you’re facing it), and you should see the sign for Paco Real. It’s only a short distance down the path, and the entrance is on the right.

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