Panajachel Travel Blog

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After leaving San Cristobal we were headed for Guatemala. The border was quite chaotic with people everywhere. I got my camera out to take a photo of the "Bienvenidos a Guatemala" sign only to find that my camera would not open the lens. Naturally I was pretty annoyed that my camera had carked it, especially since I didn't know what had caused it. It wouldn't be until I got to Antigua a few days later that I would get a chance to buy a replacement camera so my Panajachel visit went unphotographed, at least by me.

After we crossed over the border into Guatemala we had some different modes of transport to get to our destination of Panajachel. First we got tuk-tuks to a bus stop about 10 minutes away.

The buses in Guatemala are what are known as chicken buses because they are such a free for all form of transport that sometimes people even bring live chickens on board. I didn't see that happen but it wouldn't have shocked me if I did. Another interesting thing about the buses is that they are the decommissioned yellow school buses from the United States. Many of them have not even been painted over and look just like they did in the States - and sometimes they still have the original school district written on the side! It would be quite nostalgic to ride them if you had actually grown up taking those iconic buses to school as a kid. The one we took was painted over and was now very colourful.

The chicken bus went along into Guatemala, picking up people as we went along. They load more people on than there is room for sitting, but standing seems to be a last resort for the locals as they force you to cram three adults on a two child seat instead. I was lucky not to get crammed into three on my seat but Kate and Nick in front of me suffered that uncomfortable fate.

After we were driving for maybe a couple of hours we got off the chicken bus at a service station and were met by a private van to take us the rest of the way. We could have got chicken buses all the way but it would have taken a lot longer and required a lot of switching buses along with our luggage that had been tied to the roof.

The van took us a couple of hours into Guatemala along a very decent road around the steep mountainside. Guatemala is a poor country but they have clearly invested a lot of capital in this road because it was better than most you would find in the first world. Near the end of the ride we stopped at a high point on the road overlooking Lake Atitlan down below, which is where Panajachel lies on. Unfortunately it was very cloudy and we didn't get a proper appreciation of the enormous volcano-shouldered lake down below. We continued on downhill and came into the town and drove to the hotel.

We unpacked at the hotel and then went out for a bit of a walk around the waterfront. It was dark and the place is not meant to be very safe so we stuck together and went to a bar and had margaritas with views over the lake. After the drink we walked to the main street in town and went to an Asian fusion restaurant for dinner. I was promised a muy picante meal but it didn't seem spicy in the slightest.

The next morning we had booked in to do a boat tour of three of the other towns on Lake Atitlan. We went to a restaurant on the waterfront about 45 minutes before we were due to leave. The place was empty and it was evident pretty quickly that they were not really prepared at all for doing their basic function of preparing food. We saw the waiter run in and out of the restaurant a couple of times to buy food for the chef downstairs, and it was all very slow at coming out. We cut it very fine by scoffing whatever we could get down in a couple of minutes before nearly running to the dock to get the boat. Though after all that and thinking we were holding everyone up we weren't even the last ones on board.

The boat was not the newest one on the lake so it took about an hour to cross Atitlan and get to the first town San Pedro. We thought we were getting a guide to show us around the towns but none was to be seen on the boat so we just got off the boat and started randomnly wandering around. We had no idea what to look for so it wasn't really all that interesting. There was a cafe that Todd had recommended but even though we followed some signs to get there we ended up at a dead end and had to turn back. We settled on an Italian cafe in town and had a coffee before getting back on the boat.

Our next town on the boat was the nearby Santiago. This time we sat on the roof of the boat, which was much nicer with the sun beaming down on us and gave much better views of the huge volcanos that lined the lake.

At Santiago there was a lot of commotion at the dock as locals tried to hawk tours to us of the Maximon idol that is famous for being in the town but is moved from house to house fairly regularly. We figured we could find it ourselves so we walked up into the town but soon realised we had no idea how to get there. We decided to jump in some tuk-tuks who drove us out of town to the house where Maximon was currently at. The first thing we noticed outside the house was two European guys sitting out the front who were beyond stoned. With the scene set we walked into the front room that housed Maximon. This is where I was pretty frustrated I did not have a working camera because it was such an amazing sight.

Maximon is this bizarre wooden idol that as far as I could tell houses the Maximon Mayan god along with the spirits of a number of other gods. He has a weird face that, no joke, has a cigarette in its mouth. The Maximon is covered in layers of strange clothes, including a tie. Around the room are very strange ornaments including fairy lights and an open casket with a full size Christ body inside! Taking it further there was a local kneeling in front of it praying frantically and loudly, and kept doing so the whole five minutes or so we stood there trying to act serious while mentally laughing at the whole situation. It is definitely worth a look if you happen to find yourself at Lake Atitlan.

We got tuk-tuks back to the dock after visiting the strange smoking god and took the boat to the final town back all the way across the lake. We sat up on top of the boat again and took in the sun and the great views. I would have liked to have climbed Volcan San Pedro the next day but you have to stay at San Pedro the night before and even then its a 5am start for a full day hiking. Instead I admired its perfect cone shape from the boat going across the lake.

The last town was much smaller than the other two and we couldn't even find somewhere to buy food in the short time we had there. We had a beer and soon enough we were back on the boat to head back to Panajachel.

For dinner that night most of us went to the Uruguayan steak house on the main street. Gary and I went halves in a huge meat grill and did not regret it for a moment. There was a big variety of meats and they were all so well cooked and spiced. We were pretty impressed.

The next day I didn't get up to much exciting. I wandered around town and got breakfast in the morning and then worked on my blog in the afternoon. That night we had a tasty group BBQ at the hotel.
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photo by: Biedjee