After over thirty years of dreaming of this place, I have finally come to el lago de Atitlan in Guatemala. I am so fortunate to have my good friends, Rick and Treeza, here – they’ve been spending winter here for the last five years or so and are now preparing to build a house in the lakeside community of San Pedro. Although they, and others I spoke to while staying in Antigua for a couple of days, describe this place as a village, I think that the place is growing up around everyone faster than they are aware. There are between twelve and fifteen thousand inhabitants, or more, now. Certainly it is a bustling place that laps the lakeshore and then winds its way in a series of paths, alleyways and terraces up to the volcano that looms behind – to this Canadian, it is definitely a good-sized town.
I came to Guatemala with the high expectations of a magical landscape that would be home to a colorful and friendly people and so far I have had these long held ideals met by the people and the place. Since I have some familiarity with other parts of Latin America, especially Costa Rica, I felt quite at home when I walked out of the modern airport in Guatemala City and saw the crowd of people pushing against the barriers, waiting for family and friends or to hustle a taxi fare out of the arriving planeloads of tourists. Arriving into that chaos in a new place always makes a big impact until you’ve done it a few times. Speaking the language helps to take away some of the confusion.
An elegant modern tipica Mayan – notice the great shoes…
The first language in this country is a variety of the different dialects of the Mayans but Spanish has been here for centuries and the Mayans speak it in a more understandable way than anyone else I’ve heard, probably because it is their second language. They speak it very cleanly and patiently and politely for the most part, and so my personal version of Spanish – learned in the campo of Costa Rica, spoken with a French accent that I picked up in the northern bush of Quebec, colored by my lack of attention to detail and perfection – well it works very well here. I find very little problem in understanding anything except the new vocabulary that is indigenous to this place.
I took a $10 shuttle van to Antigua as people uniformly seem to recommend getting out of the city, or Guate, quickly. Antigua is a smallish ancient cobble-stoned city where people have headed for years to study Spanish. The Mayan population there is accustomed to the ways of foreigners and tourism runs the economy but the traditional aspects of the place are still strong. Although I just arrived in this new country and city, I was eased into its comfortable slow and friendly pace.
I met a nice guy from Montreal, Georges, on the shuttle and we stayed at the same hotel, the very pretty Mayan-family run San Vicente Hotel, right downtown but off the street with a plant-covered courtyard, very colonial looking, with Hugo the talking parrot and Toby the terrier mascot. Georges and I discovered the joys of the city together, heading out by foot and just walking and circling, visiting the big cemetery that houses the ancestors, taking pictures in the amazingly clear mountain light, and trying out a variety of restaurants – great breakfast at La Escudilla, sunset at Cafe Sky.
Antigua sits on a flat table at the base of volcanoes – one of those places where you feel peaceful and protected by the shadowy mountains but are aware that this tranquility can be fleeting if one of those volcanoes decides to roar or an earth tremor wants to well up from below. Signs of destruction are all around in the old churches and traditional houses but there is a very modern energy that permeates out of the painted facades and old stone walls.
The mercado central, as is present in so many communities in the world, takes up blocks at the northwest end of town, where mostly Mayans dressed in their bright woven clothing are selling everything from fruit and fresh patted tortillas to bootleg CDs and plastic conveniences. Because of it being Christmas time, there was a whole section of decorations – many cornstalk and grass nativity figures, seasonal plants, and religious figures, but also tables of singing strings of Christmas tree lights that made me crazy just walking past as well as the aluminum-foil wreaths, hanging stars and garlands. I have been amazed in the past when I’ve spent December in Costa Rica at the art form I call tinsel-creations – I bought an intricate tinsel snowflake ball to take to Rick and Treeza – an Antiguan snowball.
Everything about Antigua was low key yet vibrant, steeped in the past but with signs of the 21st century all around. I will return for my last night to Antigua before heading to Costa Rica and already have ideas in my head of what food I want to taste and what streets I want to visit more closely. I have really enjoyed the food here – access to lots of fresh fruit and tropical vegetables as in Costa Rica, along with traditional corn tortillas and a variety of salsas. And because there is a significant foreign population here now, you can enjoy fusion cuisine made with local products, something that often takes food to new heights.
Hand-painting La Merced, a beautiful decorated cake of a cathedral…
From Antigua, it was a two and a half hour drive in another comfortable shuttle van up to Panajachel on the other shore of Lake Atitlan. From there you take one of the many lanchas, small boats, across the lake to San Pedro. I have now been here over a week – Christmas just passed, and I have a couple of days before heading back to Antigua and onward to Costa Rica before New Years. I’ve been writing this but actually have been too busy to finish up – and now just want to post it with a few pictures. It will surely be next year before I’m writing about this great community that I’m loving called San Pedro. Instead of trying to carry on, I will just leave you with what’s been said and will write about the lake, the food, the people and the beauty of Lake Atitlan later.
Suffice it to say, it’s been a comfortable, friendly and truly gorgeous place to spend the Christmas season. I hope that wherever you are, you have felt the same joy and contentment that I have, and been able to partake of the wealth of love that comes from family and friends. I am finishing 2008 in a very beautiful, peaceful place and hope that bodes well for the future. May 2009 be better in every way than anything that has passed before – and if it is meant to be a trying year, as fate sometimes predicts, than may we have the strength and humor to survive it gracefully. Hasta la proxima chicos.