Getting From Cancun to Lake Atitlán, Guatemala

We had an early morning flight from Cancun to Guatemala City; and from there, we had to get to the village of Santa Cruz la Laguna at Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. This was a long, rather complicated process with several hurdles to overcome.

The first problem was just getting to the airport. As we’ve mentioned before, Uber and Lyft are not an option in Cancun. And since we needed to be at the airport to check in at about 4:30 (yes, that’s in the morning), taking a bus was really out of the question — the best we could do was walk the two and a half miles to the bus terminal (starting about 3:00) and catch the first bus of the day at 4:30, arriving at the airport at least half an hour later than we wanted to. There are several shuttle services that pick you up at hotels, but when it comes to getting transport from a private residence, the odds get really dicey.

And if you’re not staying in one of the resort hotels by the beach, getting a taxi can be quite problematic. If you look up taxis online, you just get tour companies that operate only at certain times — and, again, cater to the hotels. There is one taxi company that apparently is affiliated with the city somehow. And you see them all over the place — white cabs with green trim. But these conveyances do not have any kind of contact information on them. No phone number, no web address, nothing. You just have to catch one at a bus terminal, airport, hotel, or other such location — or else you can flag one down in the street. But the chances of spotting one at such an ungodly hour in a residential area are… well, we had no idea.

After mulling over this problem for a couple of days, we were out for a walk when we saw one of these cabs parked at an Auto Zone store, with the driver in it. So we decided to approach him and ask him (using our very limited Spanish) how we could arrange a taxi from his company to pick us up at 4:00 a.m. on Friday. He said “I will do it.”. Whereupon we exchanged phone numbers and names — his was Cecilio. So after that we crossed our fingers and hoped for the best.

On Friday morning, we got up at the ungodly hour of 3:30, got ready, and stepped out onto the sidewalk. If he didn’t show, we were just going to start walking until we saw another taxi or city bus, and hope and pray that we could somehow get to the airport on time. Before long, we looked down the street and saw headlights turn the corner, approach us, and slow down. It was him! Our hero!

Riding in the front of the cab was a young woman who, we learned, was his niece. She worked at a restaurant, and he was delivering her to her work shift on the way to the airport. Though he spoke no English, we managed to have a nice chat with him on the way. The fare was 350 pesos (less than 20 dollars) which we were very glad to fork over for his tremendous assistance. We didn’t have quite that much left in pesos, as we’d been reluctant to withdraw more Mexican currency from the bank, and be stuck with it upon exiting the country. He told us that either he’d wait while we went inside the airport to an ATM, or he would just accept U.S. currency (we got the feeling that he was off the clock, and just picking up some extra cash on his own). So we gave him all our remaining pesos and supplemented it with some of Uncle Sam’s scrip, a total sum that included a healthy gratuity.

The flight to Guatemala City went without a hitch (well, except for the long wait at the Cancun airport in a temperature that was made us wish we’d brought our winter coats), and we landed at about 8:30, having gained an hour along the way. Meanwhile, we’d had to arrange transportation to Lake Atitlan. There are several options for the 4-hour trek, including taxi and tour bus (both out of our budget). There are also the legendary “chicken buses”, which are repurposed school buses from the U.S., colorfully painted in an almost hippie-ish fashion. They’re all over the place in many Latin American countries, and they’re incredibly cheap, but, they’re also rumored to be not the least bit comfortable. We considered taking one just for the experience, but the best choice for us seemed to be a collectivo:, which is a shared shuttle.

Meanwhile, we’d been in contact with our host at the Airbnb where’ll we be spending our first week at Lake Atitlan, a German lady named Thilda. Later, we’ll be volunteering at a nearby independent school by the lake. But since our communication with the director there has been difficult, and the whole opportunity sounds a bit sketchy, we decided first to spend a week at this Airbnb, and get a feel for the place, and consider our options if the volunteer gig falls through — and in the process, still manage to spend some time at scenic Lake Atitlan. Plus, Thilda says that she has done volunteer work with children there in her own community, so there might be a chance for us to get involved.

Anyway, when she heard of our travel plans, she decided to arrange a ride for us with a collectivo driver she was acquainted with, a fellow named Melvin. And when we landed and were able to get online, we saw that there was a message from her saying that he would be there at the airport to get us at 8:00 — which was already half an hour in the past. And we still had to get some Guatemalan currency, or we would have no way to pay for the ride, or for many other things. So we were afraid that we would miss him, and still be at square one.

After a confused search that involved asking a ticket agent for assistance, we located an ATM — it was a 5B, which is a popular ATM network here. But when we tried it, we discovered that it was not functioning. So then we started on a search for the other ATM that supposedly existed somewhere in the dim recesses of the airport.

Then, when we stepped out into the pickup area, we saw a gentleman holding a sign that said “Kimberly and Dennys”, and we figured he was Melvin. So we greeted him and explained that we were trying to round up some moolah. (Again, our Spanish was very limited, and he spoke no English.) He informed us that there was another ATM on the way to where he was parked in the garage. So we made our way there, and happily, this one worked. Since we knew we would have to pay a fee for each withdrawal, we’d planned on withdrawing 4000 quetzales (about 500 dollars). But the machine had a limit of 2000, so we settled for that.

Then we loaded our bags into Melvin’s dented van, and we were off. First there was a considerable amount of time getting out of Guatemala City itself, and it was enough to convince us that we don’t really want to spend much time there. Then it was out in the country, with a narrow road that tied itself in knots through hills, hills and more hills. When we got out into the country, we got our first glimpse of the “real” Guatemala, with women in traditional colorful clothing hand-washing their laundry and carrying it in baskets on their heads. One town we passed through was called Zaragoza; and it seemed to be a place where there were far more police than crime, as the police just seemed to be using their time to arbitrarily pull people over for questioning. Fortunately, we slipped through the cracks.

About halfway to our destination, Melvin stopped at a little roadside diner in the middle of nowhere for a lunch and bathroom break. We didn’t really need the former, as we always try to pack food. But the latter was somewhat welcome. Melvin himself sat at a table, ordered a rather tasty-looking lunch of refried beans, fried plantains, and something made with eggs, and consumed it leisurely. Meanwhile, we were locked out of the van.

We did avail ourselves of the restrooms, and then a couple of boys who were part of the family that ran the restaurant, approached us and began saying something to us about the bathrooms. We finally had to tell them that we couldn’t understand what they were saying, and we went outside. They followed us, still trying to communicate something; which, as we at last understood, was that there was a charge for using the restroom: 5 quetzales (about 65 cents) each.

After we’d shelled out the cash, the boys (ages 8 and 10, we learned) still hung around us and bombarded us with questions — only in Spanish, so we couldn’t understand all of them. They wanted to know where we were from, if we were married, how long we’d been married, how old we were, if we had any kids, and on and on. But most of all, their attention was drawn to our gadgets. They asked how much Kimberly’s camera had cost, and they ask about the Go-Pro Dennis carried, and they admired our Garmin watches. And they wanted to know if we had any dollars on us. And the older one tried to convince us that he didn’t have any food to eat — even though his family operates a restaurant. We quickly pretended not to understand, and excused ourselves.

Melvin made one more stop before we reached our destination, at one of the first overlooks above Lake Atitlán. Ostensibly, this was so we could admire the view and take photos. But we’ve no doubt that the real motive was so the vendors stationed there could hawk their trinkets at us. He surely has an arrangement with them, just as he does with the diner.

Not much longer afterward, we pulled into the lakeside town of Panajachel, our terminus. Melvin dropped us in a parking lot, and we paid him 400 quetzales (52 dollars). Then we walked across the street to a grocery store that we’d had recommended online. It had a fair selection of food, though we were disappointed by what it didn’t have (e.g., tea decaf coffee and sunscreen). But it did have packets of refried beans at a very low price, and a huge thick bar of local chocolate that was also reasonably priced and — as it turned out, heavenly tasty. After leaving there, we passed a health food store that looked promising. It also had a few items that we welcomed, though its selection was also incomplete — and a bit expensive for Guatemala.

Panajachel (commonly called Pana — probably because we outlanders have such a difficult time pronouncing it), one of the largest and most developed towns on the lake, is a major transportation hub for boats, buses, shuttles, chicken buses, and what have you. We walked down to the dock to catch a boat to Santa Cruz. It’s never hard to find the right boat at these docks, because as soon as you get within a block, you’ll be approached by men (or more often, young boys) asking you where you want to go, and pointing you to the right boat. There are both public and private water taxis, and there seems to be little difference in service or price. Generally. But if you’re a foreigner, and especially if you’re a gringo, you can expect to pay higher fares than the locals — and depending on the pilot, they can be quite a bit higher. As we learned on our very first ride. While the residents paid 10 quetzales each, tourists usually pay 15; but our pilot stuck it to us for 25! After you’ve been here a few days, you learn which boats to avoid. (Subsequent excursions of this length set us back 15 or 20 quetzales each, and on one occasion we paid only 10.)

Loading our gear onto the correct boat, we waited about 10 minutes before it took off — they typically leave at least every 20 minutes, but try to wait for as many passengers as possible. Then it puttered out onto the lake, and took off at a zip. It went so fast that the front end of the boat, where we were seated, spanked the water with a hard thump at times, and we felt as if our butts were being used as pile drivers. We resolved then and there to try to sit closer to the rear in the future.

When we were dropped off at Santa Cruz, we had about an hour to wait for our host, Thilda, to come and greet us. Normally, an Airbnb host sends you the address of the property, but in her case it was just a rather vague location, and a promise to come meet us and escort us there. (It turns out there’s a good reason for that — it would have been virtually impossible to find the place on our own.) We seated ourselves on a bench next to the Iguana Perdida, a popular hostel/ restaurant/ bar. Next to it was a free restroom, which is a rarity around here.

During our wait, we watched the boats pull into and out of the dock, negotiating tight squeezes and turns with amazing skill. The same can be said of the tuk-tuks, which gathered there to pick up passengers off the boats. And some of the drivers looked not even old enough to shave. Near us were several large plastic jugs filled with gasoline, which the drivers used to fuel the tuk-tuks. They did so by inserting a hose in the jug, and starting suction orally. Also while we were waiting, a dog approached us and dropped a ball at our feet, expecting us to play. Except the “ball” was actually an avocado.

Thilda came with her own dog, and led us up the hill to our quarters. Up and up the hill. A very steep hill. Loaded down with our bags. It was a very good workout, and by the time we got into our room, we were glad to be “home” after a very long day.

Dec. 10, 2021

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