Originally, we’d planned to spend 4 nights in San Pedro at the home of our rescuer Rene, which would get us through New Year’s Day, and then we’d have more options about where to go until our next gig. But we soon developed such a fondness for San Pedro, Rene’s home, and Rene himself, that we decided to extend our visit for another 6 nights. And we loved every day of exploring this magical, colorful town with its mazelike series of narrow, hilly streets that lead you to all kinds of unexpected sights.
Of course, plenty of other people use these streets as well. Some of them whip around the corners on bicycles or motorcycles, or horses, or in tuk-tuks (which often take up almost the entire width of the street itself), so you have to be alert. Sometimes it even gets a bit unnerving. But that’s all part of the fun.
Rene’s house was, he pointed out, one of the few around Lake Atitlan to boast a microwave in the kitchen; and it was certainly a welcome luxury. As was the rooftop patio with a hammock and a splendid view of the lake and the mountains — including the Fuego volcano, which was constantly spouting steam that created quite a scenario in the right kind of light. The best time was at dawn; and every morning just before sunrise, both Kimberly and Rene would head up there with their (rather similar) cameras to snap a slew of photographs.
One night there was a power outage, which Rene had already warned us, occurs in these parts once a week or so. Sometimes, the juice might be off for hours. This time, it only lasted long enough for us to resign ourselves to living the rest of the evening by candlelight.
Next door to the house is a quaint little used bookstore that contains books in many languages, including English. It’s operated by a talkative 75-year-old Inuit woman, Anita, who says that many years ago she was a biologist working in medical research. After she moved to San Pedro from Alaska, she became acquainted with the former owner of this shop, and because of some kindness she had done him, he left the place to her in his will. She now sits there every day with her cat, and warmly chats with browsers who come in. That included Dennis, who to Kimberly’s consternation, has always had a habit of stocking up on too many books. He found several that he liked, and after reading a couple of them during our stay, went back to exchange them for another one under Anita’s 2-for-1 policy.
New Year’s is a very big deal around the lake, with a lengthy fireworks display beginning at midnight. (The same thing happened on Christmas Eve, when we were in Jaibalito.) We didn’t stay up for it, but we did hear it begin. We’d already set our earplugs to warp drive earlier in the evening when the amplified sound of a band from a nearby bar made itself impossible to ignore — at least they were much better than the terrible singer who performed the night before. The fireworks, by the way, did not disappear after New Year’s Day. For several days afterward, a firecracker with the decibels of a cannon would detonate in the streets quite frequently, and often startlingly close to you.
On both New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, there was a rather curious exhibition in the public square of people dancing in costume to a live band. No, the costumes weren’t traditional Guatemalan threads, as we’d expected when we heard about the event. They were costumes of a much more imaginative and contemporary (sometimes even futuristic) sort. They performed, or at least grooved, in sessions of half an hour or so each day. It was a strangely compelling thing to watch, though it was made difficult by the painfully high level of amplification of the band’s music.
Rene alerted us to that spectacle, and he also gave us useful tips about other things to see and do in the area. One of these excursions was a shoreside hike to the ruins of an old coffee plantation. When we got there, we saw that apparently someone was living in one of the old buildings, and had their laundry hung up to dry.
On New Year’s Day, we hiked to San Juan again. But this time, instead of taking the treacherous climb on the lakeside boulders, we opted for the “easy” way, along the road that climbed rather steeply through the hills. At least it afforded us a view that we wouldn’t quite have had otherwise. To our disappointment, San Juan was not nearly as much abuzz as it had been a week earlier on Christmas Day. Still, it’s an intriguing town to visit any time. Rather than tax ourselves by repeating the strenuous hike in reverse, we decided to grab a tuk-tuk, our first time riding one.
Another recommendation Rene made, particularly for purposes of photography, was Santa Catarina Palopo, a Mayan village where residents paint their houses various shades of blue and adorn them with folk motifs. To get there, we took a boat to Panajachel, then walked about 3 miles. As soon as we rounded the bend and began descending the hill into town, we got a painter’s eye glimpse of the town’s vibrantly varied canvas of blues — and other colors.
The mood of the town itself was certainly not blue, though it was low-key. There was a main thoroughfare that was, at the same time, sleepy and folksy, and bustling with modern tourism. Little side streets featured a number of vendors offering folk-flavored craftwork. We stopped at a stand selling fresh tortillas and bought 10 of them for a very cheap price. We’d been trying to accomplish this feat in San Pedro for several days, but there is always a line of eager customers waiting for the dietary staple to jump off the grill, resulting in a typical wait of 30 minutes or so. This time, our timing was good, and we were able to immediately snag a batch, not only handmade but hand-handled, along with the money to pay for them. It may not be terribly sanitary, but there’s nothing like the experience of savoring one while it’s still hot.
When we were ready to head back to Panajachel, we again chose local mass transit rather than shoe leather. This time, instead of a tuk-tuk, we partook of a mode of transportation even more economical: the back of a pickup truck. You can see these trucks everywhere around here; they’re specially equipped with seats in the back, as well as bars to hold onto if you have to stand — and it often gets rather crowded back there. Our vehicle wasn’t very crowded, but we still decided to stand, and hold on for dear life as the truck sliced its way through the hills, sometimes negotiating what Dennis’ grandmother always called a “harpin” (hair pin) turn. You only live once.
But we really didn’t have to go anywhere outside San Pedro to feast our senses. All we had to do was take a stroll through the town itself. And this we did at least once a day. It was not a chore, but a delight, to go to the crowded marketplace every day to pick up some produce. The vendors in their boldly colorful habiliments offered all kinds of wares, including live turkeys — which presumably didn’t remain live for long after purchase. Dennis has become addicted to certain varieties of “pan” (Spanish for bread, usually rolls or buns) — namely those that have a yeasty flavor, are not too sweet, and are baked nice and crisp — so he made a frequent expedition to ferret them out.
Even the cemetery was fascinating, despite (or maybe in part because) it was not very well kept. It’s actually a mausoleum, with vaults stacked on top of each other and labeled with photos of the deceased, as well as dates and other information. Some of the photos were taken by none other than Rene; and relatives of the deceased contact him about using his portraits for commemorating their loved ones. Admiring some of the tomb fronts, Kimberly remarked that “they even die colorfully here”. Whereupon Dennis whipped out a pen to write the line down for some future use.
After considering it for days, we finally decided to break down and splurge on dinner out one night; after all, it couldn’t be terribly expensive considering how low prices are in general. And we really wanted to enjoy a traditional Guatemalan meal, though it turns out that’s rather difficult if you don’t eat meat. So we finally settled on a nearby restaurant called The Clover because it has an Irish owner — but Rene assured us that there was nothing particularly Irish about the cuisine. Great, so we’d have Guatemalan food cooked at a restaurant owned by an Irishman. When we got there, however, and were seated at a patio table and began perusing the menu, it turned out that what appealed to us most was the Indian curries and other dishes. So what the heck, we gave it a shot and ordered a couple of them. And they both turned out to be absolutely exquisite. And the bill for both was only 100 quetzales (13 dollars).
So there we were, savoring Indian food in an Irish restaurant in Guatemala. Which was playing Beatles tunes. Somehow, it strikes us an experience that really sums up San Pedro.
Dec. 29, 2021 – Jan. 6, 2022