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A weekend trip to Lago de Atitlán for the the first time.

A weekend trip to Lago de Atitlán for the the first time.

Patrick Gartrelle No Comment

My name is Patrick Gartrelle, 22 and I am currently Interning at IBA. A little bit about myself is I am a recent graduate with a degree in International Business. I am originally from New York City and have done a fair amount of travelling in my short 22 years. I have traveled to Latin America before but never to the Central America region. My time here at IBA allows me to travel on the weekends and recently I traveled to the famous Lago de Atitlán.

San Pedro la Laguna was most likely the most exciting trip I have taken so far, but the events that took place during the weekend trip and leading up to my arrival truly made the trip worth it.

A friend of mine from the United States Cindy, joined me on our weekend travel to Lake Atitlan and I am glad she came along. About 4 hours before we were supposed to depart Guatemala City our shuttle company informed us that they did not have room for us, which honestly almost killed the entire trip. I live fairly close to the airport so we walked over and Cindy was able to negotiate with her fluent skills to get us to San Pedro with an alternative shuttle company. We left about an hour later than we planned but this is where the most memorable bus ride I have taken throughout Guatemala began.

Our first leg of the trip was from Guate City to Antigua which was simple and quick and then we connect shuttles to the lake. The real fun began after we changed shuttles and embarked on what should have been a three hour journey. After Cindy and I boarded the shuttle we were greeted by some fellow Americans and a few Europeans. In the front of the van was a family of Guatemalans sharing the passenger front side seat which is more common here. Sometimes you see motorcycles with families speeding down the street, so at this point I was not surprised by anything having to do with transportation. About 30 mins into the journey we ran into dead stop traffic in practically the middle of nowhere. To make matters worse our shuttle sat behind the exhaust of a chicken bus for roughly an hour.

A chicken bus for those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, is an old American yellow school bus painted in crazy colors, blinged out with chrome rims and LED lights. You can hear chicken buses from miles away because they blast some of the best Spanish music and the exhaust is extreme loud. These are used to transport goods, people and of course chickens all throughout Guatemala. The chicken bus is essential to the local economy and the underground economy because of they’re in expense of operating. It cost about 1-3 USD to get anywhere in Guatemala via chicken bus. I have yet to take one but many travelers say it’s an “experience” and I’m just being a Pollo (a chicken). These buses blast huge piles of black smoke from its exhaust sometimes and being behind one in stop and go traffic is less than ideal. I am positive we all got a mouth full of fossil fuels at some point, but I didn’t die from it so no complaints.

We sat in traffic for about an hour and after finally seeing the source of the holdup which happened to be a car accident we were off again. The Shuttle at this point was very heavy and every seat was taken plus some improvised seats. Our shuttle was rattling and every a couple of miles it would die or the engine would just cut out. Without exaggeration our shuttles engine cut out over 50 times during our “3 hour journey”. As our shuttle struggled to make its way to the Lake we stopped along the route to pick up a random Guatemalan lady and she also just added to the weight and improvised seats in our bus made for 12, carrying now roughly 17 people. Somewhere along the drive the American crew received cabin fever and many songs were being sung in the rows behind us. I will not lie I chimed in for a few rounds of song. About 4 hours into our journey the shuttle pulled into a mechanic and they evaluated the car for about 20 mins. Eventually the shuttle was back on the road again but on the most death defying road I have ever been on. The street would give Lombard Street in San Francisco a run for its money. Our shuttle engine roared down these steep inclines making sharp hairpin turns about every 200 meters and I think it was the scariest road I’ve been on in my life, not to mention it was unpaved, had zero guard rails, plagued with potholes and the decent was extremely steep. The driver informed us that the engines noise was due to the lack of brakes he could apply on the hill because the breaks were too hot. Exactly what I wanted to hear…… in Spanish, that he wouldn’t use his brakes on the hill at around 15-20 mph, but yet again I didn’t die and we made it down the hill safely, so no complaints.

Eventually we made it to San Pedro about five and half hours later in the pitch dark. We checked into our hostel and were going to just call it a night but some friends I had met on a previous trip were standing right in front of us.

My friends I refer to as “The Germans” were a group of guys respectively from Germany that I met the prior weekend in Livington. We planned on meeting up in San Pedro but it was kind of a shock that we booked rooms in the same hostel directly next to each other. So it made the trip a little more satisfying to have some new friends to explore the little town with and their names were Freddie, Simon and Christian. That night the five of us all hung out and went to a local bar which had a disco, its actually satisfying to see a Guatemalan disco. We called it quits for that night and agreed after breakfast the next morning to meet up and do some exploring.

The next morning I opened the door of our room into the open air hallway similar to motel where the hotel is inside and outside and saw the most beautiful view ever. It was really nourishing to see these ridged mountains but Lake Aitilan is known for its green waters and 3 volcanoes, which we had yet to spot, I truly came to this region for the volcanoes. After breakfast the very punctual Germans met up with us and we walked around the very small town which you could cover in less than 4 hours and snapped some cool photos. I think this place lands in the top 10 places in natural beauty for sure and the fact that the region around the lake isn’t plagued with luxury hotels made it that much better.  We eventually made it to the end of the town and climbed up a series of rocks probably not our best idea but the view was one that I will always remember. That afternoon we rented kayaks for an hour and set out on the lake to get a new vantage point and one of my biggest regrets was not buying disposable cameras or risking my iPhone for these photos. I really wish I did because it was the clearest day and the sun was setting behind us and we were looking east so the volcanoes had a green and orange tint which was extraordinary. It was a once in a life time memory engraved in my mind which is okay, but I will try again to get that shot.

As we were in our kayaks we came across three young Guatemalan men. They were extra friendly and offered to show us around San Pedro but were originally from Guatemala City. They were speaking English very well, it was surprising for San Pedro because most locals didn’t speak more than one language. So a few weeks back Trevor (my boss) mentioned to me that call centers are making there way back to Guatemala. The government and Multi National Companies are reinvesting in call centers here and moving them back from the East. The only reason I mention this is, because one of the guys mentioned “the only reason I speak English is because of the call center jobs”. I was in shock, sort of, everything Trevor had told me had even made it back to the local people. It also just came to show how quick businesses change their models in order to stay competitive and save valuable dollars.

My friend Cindy, I forgot to mention is here in Guatemala on business so her job entails signing up hotels and guesthouses in South and Latin America. So the next morning (Sunday) we boarded a lancha which is similar to a boat and took a 30 min boat ride to Panajachel which is the largest city on the lake and by large no more than 15,000 people live in the town. Saying goodbye to Germans was a little hard because we had spent a series of two weekends together but all good things come to an end. The new view from the boat was even better than the last few views I had on Saturday because I could actually see all three volcanoes. This boat ride was not as terrifying as the boat ride I took the week prior to and from Livingston. As I mentioned Cindy was in Panajachel for business so we decided to split up and meet back at 3:30 for our shuttle back to Guate.

So I had time to myself where I could explore the markets. Here everything is colorful, with practically every color being used on an items such as shirts, quilts and worry dolls but I decided I rather explore than to spend money. So after Cindy and I separated I bought this shaved ice treat which turned out to be possibly the worst thing I had ever eaten. The man put hot sauce and black pepper on a shaved iced treat and I tried to have respect for the culture and eat it but it just tasted horrible so I attempted to give it to a little kid. The little guy unfortunately wasn’t to fond of my offer and didn’t except it, I don’t blame him. So I began to walk through the outskirts of the town. It was really nice in fact and I could say it was the most enjoyable walk I had taken in a long time. I just followed the shore line trying to find a great place to swim. I wanted a nice secluded spot where I could read and swim and take time to play with my Nikon and get some photos. About 30 mins along the lake and eventually found this awesome “spot” with no one around with a view of all 3 volcanoes. It kind of reminded me of all the generic photos I saw wen I googled Guatemala prior to my visit. Anyways I found this “spot” and I have never been so silent in my life, I swam alone, took some pictures and conquered about 100 pages in the 800 page book I am reading. The time spent by myself I reflected on a lot about life and solidified my decision to come to Guatemala, knowing it was the correct choice. I was making friends here even if they were travelers themselves and I knew everything was going to pan out okay for me in Guatemala. Every so often a local would pass right through were I was sitting but for the most part I was the only one there.

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