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A Taste of Tranquility: Life on the Shores of Lake Atitlan – San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala

The view was stunning; a circle of volcanoes sloping gently down to the blue Lake Atitlan. The crops growing to almost the very tips of the volcanos separated the fields into squares of yellow and green like a haphazard, natural chessboard.

It was postcard picturesque, and would have been a lot more enjoyable if I hadn’t been hiding in the cornfields from potential marauders, with only a ratty dog that I’d named ‘George’ to keep me company. Welcome to Guatemala.

I had been culled like a lame animal from my hiking group and left stranded halfway up the side of Volcano San Pedro, a behemoth that towers 3020 metres above its namesake town. The next few hours were spent cursing the black heart of my travel companion and the persuasive travel agent that had laughingly told me that the round trip would only take four hours and would be “suitable for hiking beginners.” I was fairly proud that I had managed to struggle for six hours up the almost vertical path before it was necessary to find a nice place in which to be sick.

There was an abundance of stories about travellers being violently robbed, often at machete point, in the place I had just been unceremoniously dumped. It was hard to imagine however, as it was truly one of the most exquisite places I had ever seen. And this is the paradox of travel in Guatemala – it seems to contain in one country all the extremes of Central America: the most striking natural beauty, the most extreme poverty: the most violent crime, and the warmest people.

Luckily, I was reunited safely with my trail group as they staggered back into view. The local travel agent’s advice began to make sense as we were passed on the equally gruelling downward journey back into the village of San Pedro by local men who bore huge bundles of firewood as they nimbly skipped up the steep slopes without even breaking a sweat.

San Pedro La Laguna on the shore of Lake Atitlan is the kind of town that well worn travellers get excited about, and it is not surprising that it has become a small bohemian enclave. The price of living is so cheap that everyone but the most frugal can afford to live well and partake in all the many activities that the area has to offer.

As one of the small towns tucked away in a curve of the great lake it also provides the opportunity to experience close hand how the villagers of the area conduct their day to day lives. Every morning the majority of the villagers pick up their baskets and ascend into the fields high above the township to pick the local produce, namely coffee beans and fruit.

View from restaurant of Lake Atitlan
View from restaurant of Lake Atitlan
The town has managed to maintain a village atmosphere; the steep winding streets are paved with cobble stones and splashes of brilliant turquoise paint and bougainvillea flowers add pockets of colour that contrast to the worn and pockmarked buildings. Dirt tracks that meander along the foreshore of the lake lead the wanderer right across the doorsteps of rundown homes, where chickens and children scamper around in equal numbers. The pungent smell of coffee beans that have been laid out to dry in the sun permeates into everything and takes a little time to get accustomed to.

The locals coexist peacefully alongside the long-term tourists who have failed to muster the willpower or inclination to leave . And while some people bemoan the influence these western expats have had on the village, the town has still managed to retain an authentic feel. It is a little hard, however, to not cringe slightly as you come across dreadlocked hippies setting up shop on the sides of the road to peddle their homemade jewellery.

In addition to the hippies who thrive on the peaceful serenity that envelopes San Pedro, backpacker tourists flock to Lake Atitlan to take part in language courses and the numerous outdoor activities on offer. It is common for visitors to spend much more time than they first anticipated here as they are seduced by the low prices and the sedate lifestyle. For the villagers, life goes on, one visitor to the area said that it was commonplace to see the Guatemalan women “in various stages of undress washing their traditional [clothes] while a little further down the shore travellers [are] lying around swimming and tanning.”

The local markets near the central square are a wonderful cacophony of life and vibrancy as the villagers crouch and squat in their local dress with their colourful assortments of local fruits and vegetables on display.

The majority of the inhabitants of San Pedro are Mayan Indians. This local population of Guatemala constitutes the second largest concentration of indigenous people in Latin America (after Bolivia), and 64% of the Guatemalan population live in the rural highlands. The villagers are Tz’utujil, one of the 21 mayan ethnic groups that dwell in Guatemala. Visitors regularly describe the local people of San Pedro as one of the areas’ main attractions. Joel Richardson, a backpacker who spent 3 weeks in San Pedro explains, “you are in such close proximity to the farms and the people you feel like less of a tourist here.”

It is amazing, when the history of the locals is considered, that they are willing to greet visitors so warmly.

Neatly summarised by Lonely Planet, the region’s history reads like a movie script. From the time the conquistadors first arrived in Guatemala centuries ago, outsiders have brought violence and repression to the people of the rural highlands. Recent conflict between guerrilla groups and the Guatemalan government plunged the country into over three decades of bloody warfare, and this only ceased in 1996 when a peace treaty was signed with the Marxist-guerrilla Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unit (URNG). Over 200,000 people were killed during this period, and countless thousands simply disappeared.

And while westerners flock to Lake Atitlan to bask in the tranquillity it offers, it has not always been so. Lake Atitlan was the scene of a brutal ‘scorched earth’ governmental policy as the indigenous people were assumed to be supporters of the guerrilla faction. At least 300 Maya from the Lake Atitlan area went missing during this period of unrest. Even the colourful striped dress they wear has a sad history; the Spanish invaders made the people of each village wear different colour combinations so that they could tell them apart.

After the peace treaty was signed, many of the foreigners who had fled Lake Atitlan because of the violence began to slowly return. It is now difficult to imagine the brutality that this pocket of paradise once experienced. Visitors to the area feel as if they are being let in on a wonderful secret; a beautiful corner of the world where life slows down and simplifies. This feeling is aided in part by the ridiculously cheap price of living here.

One traveller comments on a popular travel website that ‘everything seems to cost $2.’ The Lonely Planet guidebook states that the accommodation in San Pedro is amongst the cheapest in Guatemala. For slightly more than $2 (around US $6) we managed to stay in a scrupulously clean bedroom at the vibrant Hotel San Francisco with an ensuite bathroom and a verandah that looked out over the lake.

Accommodation options are plentiful and the tourist boats arriving in San Pedro are met with scores of local touts who are more than happy to point you in the direction of an empty bed. A warning however; San Pedro is a town primarily for the budget traveller; those who come here expecting five star comforts will be disappointed.

After surviving for months on the Central American staple meal of frijoles con arroz (beans and rice), the food of San Pedro was a delight. Whilst many people may bemoan the fact that westerners have descended here and set up shop, the quality of the food available is unarguable.

After experiencing such culinary pleasures as rocks in a Mexican enchilada to a lump of glass that I almost swallowed in Costa Rica, it was heaven to be able to finally relax while dining. Munchies Restaurant quickly became a favourite – gourmet vegetarian meals at bargain basement prices, served while you sit in lush gardens overlooking the lake.

Wherever there is a community of hippie travellers, there is always going to be yoga. Inspired by the healthy lifestyle I had been partaking in, I decided to swallow my slight disdain of all things ‘new-age’ and sign up for a three day workshop. I was pleased to discover that the class contained at least a few people like me; slightly embarrassed that they were being so obvious but interested nonetheless. After the three days were over I felt wonderful: rejuvenated and at one with the world.

View of San Pedro from Halfway up the Volcano
View of San Pedro from Halfway up the Volcano
My newfound suppleness did not last for long. After my disastrous attempt at hiking, I had decided that if I was to experience the country side, I was going to require a little help. Hiring a horse seemed like the perfect solution, until Pedro, my guide, appeared leading a horse with a wooden saddle. He proudly informed me he had made it himself, which was just as well, as he was able to fix it when the stirrups fell off. Aching bones aside, it was a wonderful way to see the land around the town and was ridiculously cheap–-a four hour horse ride cost $10US. I had a sneaking suspicion that my horse Richo was living on a diet of coffee beans; he was definitely more enthusiastic than I had been about charging up the side of the volcano.

One of the main attractions of San Pedro are the Spanish language courses on offer – it is possible to pay under $75 US for a week of one-on-one tuition, which includes the option of board with a local family and three meals a day.

While my hiking story ended well, it is a regrettable fact of life that when foreigners meet with local people who are surviving on very little, there are always going to be cases of robberies and violence. Some incidents are due to cultural differences and care must be taken in Guatemala when taking photographs, particularly of women and children.

San Pedro La Laguna is a gem unto which a traveller stumbles across only rarely; a mystical and beautiful retreat from the chaotic outside world. It is common for those that have experienced it to have misgivings about touting its appeal; it is the kind of place that should perhaps not be spoken of in order to shield it from further change. Doing so would be unfair though–people who are seeking a meaningful travel experience may find just what they are looking for by spending time there. It is difficult to not come away from the place with a sense of serenity. The added bonus of having a little insight into the lives of rural Guatemalans adds to the rich cultural experience that is time spent in San Pedro La Laguna.

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