Whatever Floats your Lancha (Boat)

Trip Start Nov 15, 2006
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Trip End Ongoing


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Flag of Guatemala  ,
Saturday, March 17, 2007

Lago Atitlan - we've heard a lot about the beauty of this lake and I've seen wonderful photos before, and the lake is stunning. Volcanoes surround the shore, and the sides rise steeply where small villages with white houses perch precariously.

We are unprepared however for the level of hassle at Panajachel. We have spent most of our time "sheltered" in the Guatemalan highlands (in the west) where there is comparatively little. Now we can see why tourists describe Guatemala as a high-hassle - you would if you spent most of your time here.

"You want a lancha" (boat)... "No gracias"

"You want to buy a shirt/souvenir/bag"... "No gracias"

Over and over again.

At one stage we're sitting on a wall and Isabel uses the expression "whatever floats your boat." A guys head pops over the top of the wall. "I have a boat"... "No gracias" in unison.

One theory we're told is that the tourist season has been bad because many were scared away by the cash flow problems that Guatemala experienced over Christmas. Whatever the reason, it's ferocious.

The three of us wander along the lake shore, and lunch on fresh fish from a wooden balcony overlooking the lake. Isabelle goes crazy in the afternoon and buys a backpack load of souvenirs.

The next day we're almost flying on a bus to Chichicastenango, a pueblito famous for its markets. It's a small chicken bus, the aisle only a foot wide (no exaggeration) and 3 people squeezed into 2-person seats on both sides. The bus is seriously crammed full and people have to climb over seats to reach the door, especially to pass some of the larger ladies. The driver is treating the winding mountainous road with contempt, passing other vehicles on blind corners. Our arse-cheeks are white from the strain of maintaining purchase on the seats, but Isabelle has a big grin on her face - this is one of the reasons she came to Guatemala.

Chichicastenango is a fantastic market, with a bewildering array of items and colours. It's crowded with gringos and locals alike. In one way I'm missing the markets in the tiny villages round Xela. They seemed more natural, without the focus on the tourist dollar.

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We stay in a fantastic value hotel in San Pedro La Laguna recommended by our German friend Thomas (How does he find such gems?). It's a good 15 minute walk past a gauntlet of Guatemalan men offering tours, cruises and accommodation. But, to be fair, once the local touts recognise your face and you've said "no" a few times, the constant attention diminishes.

Anna is sick one night, and Isabel and I test the local Thai restaurant, a hangout for what appear to be resident tekno hippies (=dreadlocks, wristbands and ipods). The food is average, but the people-watching great.

One of the evenings we walk to San Juan la Laguna a peaceful place without the marijuana-smoking imports. We share some strange vanilla flavoured tropical fruit in beanpods with school kids, and buy a painting from a local artist. She is apparently the originator of the stylized birds-eye-views of markets that you can find in souvenir shops around the area.

Another day is spent at the very traditional village of Santiago Atitlan, a village with a small reputation for theft around the marketplace. We have great fun chatting to a couple of young kids who want money.

We ask "Why should we give you money? Shouldn't you be in school?"

A short pause "Yes, but we haven't got pens."

We say, "We can sell you our pens if you need them." They look very confused. A gringo has never tried to sell them anything before. They're really good kids, just mischievous and trying their luck to get some extra pocket money.

Isabelle our French friend also finds some local coffee that's up to scratch. You can almost stand your spoon up in it, and at times in the café we suffer partial asphyxiation from the smoke of roasting beans. San Pedro has a distinctive smell that permeates the air of drying coffee and this flavour is encapsulated in the coffee.
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