I bought some empanadas from a couple of young girls wandering around selling them to foreigners. I asked to take a photo of them in their beautiful clothes, and they said I could do so only if I would buy them a box of sugary, corn-flavored western cereal, something like Corn Pops. I asked why they wanted it, and the older girl said, “We want to be fat.”
Lake Atitlan! This is one of the jewels of Guatemala, no one will deny, but if you don’t have much time, you could make the mistake of spending it in Panajachel, the transport hub. It’s not ugly, but the main drag is turning into a wannabe Khao San Road full of tchotchke crap, overpriced shops, dozens and dozens of market stalls selling the same thing, and most emblematic, a restaurant called Maya-Vietnam Fusion. Need I say more?
The thing to do is to visit the smaller villages around the lake. I only visited two, San Marcos and San Pedro. Wikitravel.org, a website I am slowly losing faith in, made both sound awful, but they aren’t bad at all. San Marcos was said to be “less party, more meditation" than hedonistic San Pedro, but it just means a different breed of hippy. (I asked a guy running a hostel if there was a “hippy season” and he said there sure was, starting in September. September is also the beginning of hurricane season, which means it’s the cheapest time of year with the fewest travelers around.) I did feel like the only heathen scum in San Marcos, the only one not into the holy trinity of yoga, massage, and meditation. I can’t even juggle and I left my drum at home.
We stayed in a very beautiful rustic place called Hotel La Paz, getting a big discount because the owner and my friend knew someone in common in Hawaii. Just the mention of the Big Island melted the owner into a deep reminiscence about its good vibe, but I broke the bonhomie when I asked if he had wifi, which didn’t go over well. It’s bad enough I am turning into one of those travelers I used to ridicule for being addicted to wifi, and here I was, ruining the poor guy’s moment.
The La Paz owner’s name is Benjamin, which sounds very evocative when pronounced in Spanish. Everything sounds better in Spanish, and names in particular have a flair in Spanish that English doesn’t have. Doesn’t Giovani dos Santos (a Mexican soccer player) sound like a name you’d want to have? Of course! It has panache. Translated into English, Giovani dos Santos is Johnny Two Saints which sounds like a Jersey thug. Take Spaniard Antonio Banderas, the actor. Classic name. Senor Rico Suave! The English equivalent, Tony Flags, sounds like a 1970’s British TV host with wide lapels.
Israelis are in San Pedro in full force. Actually, on the road you either see Israelis in full force or not at all, and in San Pedro they have found a solid base. There is an Israeli-owned hostel and bar called Zoola that was promising a “420 Sacred Herbalife Ceremony” the day we left, giving me no time to counter with a 420 Sacred Amway Ceremony. I checked Zoola out anyway and it is very nicely designed, but it seems that all the foreigners who built next to the lake built too low. Water levels are rising and the pollution in the lake gives off a rancid smell. Mayans have always built their homes on much higher ground, I read. This may be due to cyclical water levels every 50-75 years or just some better foresight as natural drainage points are clogged with garbage and algae.
Some people in San Pedro are poised to head up to Palenque, Mexico for a Rainbow Gathering next month that will culminate on December 21, the supposed end of the world in the Mayan calendar, which means that in December there are two bad reasons to open a laundry business in Palenque.
Further Reading with More Coherence Than Anything I’ve Written:
The New York Times has this interesting first person narrative of a woman trying to save her house from Lake Atitlan’s the rising waters. Time Magazine reports on how the lake got to its present messed-up state. This is a stranger-than-fiction Guatemalan murder mystery by the great David Grann in the New Yorker.