Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
We awoke at 7am for our 8am minibus to Lago de Atitlan or Lake Atitlan. The bus already had a few backpackers filling seats but it wasn’t completely full. However, turning the corner we waited at the curb while two Brits and a Canadian pulled mountain bikes apart and launched them along with a load of gear onto the top of the little bus. They had cycled down the western side of California, through Mexico and were planning on heading across Central America. I guess a pretty cheap way to travel albeit not the safest. We were more content with four wheels that sped us through one of Guatemala’s most dramatic highland stretches that reached all the way through to the Mexican border. The scenery was either sparse mountain tops or towering pine trees, small children waved furiously at us by the side of the road possibly hoping for a vehicle to pull over to give them money or buy some of their parents produce, men carried burdens of firewood and, as we approach 2000mtrs in altitude, the temperature dropped significantly.
The curvy Inter-American Highway carried us down the mountainside that lead to the first fabulous view of Lago de Atitlan. A deep blue lake set in a crater with peeking mountains around the edge and a view of five volcanoes of various sizes in the distance. Driving through the narrow streets of Panajachel, the primary tourist village and jump off point to other villages around Lago de Atitlan, we were dropped off at Calle del Embarcadero. A few touts promoting their lancha services crowded the bus but as we had all the time in the world, we opted to have breakfast in a small little cafe on the side of the road. Boasting a selection of croissants and doughnuts in a small glass cabinet, we were beckoned in by a lovely lady wearing a little white frilly apron and holding a squeaky little voice. After some pastels and a home made cappuccino, we approached the wooden pier and were ushered on to the next lancha leaving for Jaibalito. Casa del Mundo was the accommodation of choice for the next three nights. Recommended by Lonely Planet and voted top two on Trip Advisor, this place was not going to disappoint.
Crowded in the lancha with Guatemalans transporting themselves and their sacks of rice, petrol and other necessities they could only buy from the mainland we bumped across the waters in ore of the spectacular view. After a quick stop at Santa Cruz, the little boat span around the corner to where our accommodation was perched into the hillside, overlooking the lake and the distant volcanoes. Casa del Mundo was only accessible by boat or by foot from the closest town so we disembarked on the hotels own private little pier. Piling out of the boat we approached the stone staircase that took us a few flights to reception. Sweating it out, our room was up another few flights but finally arriving to our gorgeous habitation with private balcony stretching out high over the hillside, the view was incredible and made for perfect sunset drinks.
The casa was built by an American and Guatemalan couple that had brought the land 30 years before knowing quite what to do with it. But in a short time they came up with the most magical architecture taking on a Spanish and indigenous flavor. The site had immaculate gardens with all types of exotic flowers twisting and turning up the hillside path. Every direction you turned you found yourself at a private viewing area or hammock to take in the surrounding views. There was a private hot tub heated by a wooden fire and perched overhanging the lake 300 meters up. And on top of that, all meals were supplied (for a reasonable cost) and the food was excellent. Dinners were “family style” and lit by candlelight. We met a British trio to which Jo was traveling on independently for six months making her way down through South America. She had lived in Melbourne and of course, in the same street as both Murray and I, Domain Road and Park Street (another crazy coincidence). The other couple had also traveled extensively and told us stories of their adventures driving across Australia, watching cricket in India, taking the Tran-Siberian Railway all the way to Hong Kong and more. The three of them were a riot and we enjoyed a few bottles of red wine listing to their banter. We spent our three nights taking in the ambiance, looking forward to the three course meal supplied each night and taking in a walk to Jabilito township, a tiny little village where naughty little boys greeted us by poll dancing on the basketball court and throwing a few stones. There were an abundance of tracks around the lake leading from one village to the next but unfortunately they had become occupied by bandits and the advice was to take a guide, go with no less then six and bring a machete. Fair to say, we decided against the trekking.
Our three nights were up and it was time to take the small village boat back from Casa del Mundo across the flat waters to the Panajachel port. This was our first taste of “Pana” as the locals called it and the small tourist city was one of those places that had that weird mix of local and western influence developing haphazardly. Its fairly dusty streets were filled with tourist agents, restaurants, jade and coffee shops. Most people seemed to descend on the town for a night as a day trip from Guatemala City or Antigua taking a boat across the lake to other little towns or partying in the few select bars. Our hostel was located off the the main road Calle Santander and after getting lost momentarily, we were finally directed to Hostel Souz, a small yellow house of two levels with no sign. The Spanish German owner showed us to our room perched on bare concert and wiring rooftop overlooking a big hotel in front and mountainside at back. This was no Casa del Mundo. Over the next day and a half we wondered the streets which came alive with sellers from the surrounding villages. The women were dressed in traditional attire selling their incredible weaving’s for just a few dollars. I desperately wanted to buy something just to support their trade but again had the problem of carrying it.
Our next stop was far north, deep in the Guatemalan mountain range to the natural river wonder of Semuc Champey. We had seen the photos from fellow backpackers and it was clear that this place was not to be missed. Working through the transport options, we were on a 5am bus that turned out to be a private service traveling “directo” rather than requiring a change and lengthy wait back in Antigua. The morning was cold, the stars were still out and a lone dog approached us for a pat as we shivered with out packs on the side of the road with another German couple. Another van pulled up and it was time to wave goodbye to the magic of Lago del Atitlan, the incredible Casa del Mundo and the trippy little town of Pana. Vamos!