I clearly needed some encouragement to tear myself away from Antigua. So when Anna said she was going to Lake Atitlán for the weekend I decided to pack up my trick bag and join her or I may never have left.
Lake Atitlán is not a huge lake (area of 130 km2) but it is beautiful; flanked by 3 volcanoes and cute little villages all with their own unique character along its shores. We headed to the village of San Pedro which is usually the party place. I think it was having a week off while I was there as it was fairly tame, but it was September and it did pour every day I was there, which I'm sure had a lot to do with it. Our first night we wandered about in the monsoon rain for a while searching for the promised nightlife but had to give up and settle for an Israeli restaurant. We asked the staff where the party was and after looking completely baffled by their directions the waitress decided to take us personally, in the pouring rain. Thank God she did as it involved going down a tiny lane that we'd completely missed, which now was more of a muddy river and pitch black. However at the other side was the promised nightlife, well a few bars at least.
The main place to be day or night was Buddha Bar with its three levels covering all moods. The bottom floor had more of a bar vibe with pool table and most nights some live music. Second floor was all cushions and low tables and had movie nights and the terrace was more for smoking, and there was a lot of 'smoking' done at the lake. Honestly more dreads and jewellery sellers in this small village than the rest of Guatemala put together. At weekends there is a massive influx of people from Guatemala city here to party so be prepared. One of my favourite days here was Sunday when most restaurants and bars close, however The Deep Bar & Pool comes to the rescue throwing a pool party complete with incredible BBQ and fantastic cocktails for dangerously cheap prices. It seems every tourist and member of the (quite big) ex pat community was there so the craic was good.
There is a really nice 2km walk from San Pedro to San Juan. Lots of the houses in this village are covered with fantastic brightly coloured murals. There is also a great woman's co-operative there who produce& sell some of the most beautiful & original, naturally dyed textiles I've seen in Guatemala.
To visit further afield we had to take a boat across the lake. First stop was the spiritual haven of San Marcos with lots of yoga, reiki and meditation centers. It definitely is the most beautiful of the lake villages and has a really nice walk up to some Mayan altars where you have a good view of the whole area. It's also the best place to swim, they even have a 'trampoline'. No idea why it's called that, as essentially it's a 'safe' spot from which you can cliff jump about 9m into the crystal waters below. I decided not to bother- was a little chilly!
Panajachel is pretty big and has fairly good road connections to Antigua & Guatemala City. However for exactly these reasons the village is much more touristy, with the entire street towards the docks lined with stalls selling all manner of tourist goods. But this also means it has more hotels and restaurants to choose from which worked out well for us that day. Normally I wouldn't have chosen to spend the entire day there but since it was pouring again, the 45 minute journey across the lake in a fishing boat didn't seem quite so appealing, so we held up in a bar drinking margaritas- what else could we do! The rain didn't stop but it did seem to ease off a little (probably more to do with the alcohol) so we made the break for the last (very wet) crossing of the day.
After a few days I had to say my goodbyes to the amazing Anna from Germany, who'd lived with me in my host family house in Antigua for about a month and we'd had some amazing times together. However as they say when one door closes another one opens somewhere else. The next night I met Tristian (who had also previously lived in our house) playing his fiddle in a jamming session in Buddah Bar- where else would I find him! He was such a character. Leaving his really hippy mum in California, he had decided to move to the Deep South to follow his love of Country music. He looked an unlikely 21 year old in his flat cap, playing his violin and smoking a pipe. He wavered between dreams of various career callings whilst living with us; map maker, organic farmer, but he never faltered from his dream to someday be the mayor of a small town in the states. He had it all pictured; down to his white picket fence and married to a nice girl with a big nose (he figured a girl that had lived her life with a big nose would be much more grounded and not be bothered by the little problems in life.) Honestly you couldn't guess what gems he would come out with next. This guy was a ray of sunshine- a genuinely lovely guy that in no way conformed to any social norms, and it was great to see him again.
He was your typical story of what happened at the lake; he came for a week, four weeks later he was still here and was looking at signing for a house for a further 4 weeks. We hung out for a few days and as always, never a dull moment!
By far my most interesting visit was to Santiago Atitlán; the largest of the lakeside communities, which has a much more commercial and less touristy feel. However intrigued tourists like me do come to visit the shrine of Maximón; an idol formed by the fusion of traditional Mayan deities, Catholic saints and conquistador legends. The effigy of Maximón is under the control of a local religious brotherhood and resides in various houses of its membership during the course of a year, being most ceremonially moved in a grand procession during Semana Santa. But this guy is no ordinary saint, oh no. He is an all smoking, all drinking guy wearing a black suit, bowler hat and dark glasses, who takes 'offerings' of alcohol, cigarettes and hard cash to help people with their requests.
The legend has it that one day while the village men were off working in the fields, Maximón slept with all of their wives (at once). When they returned, they became so enraged they cut off his arms and legs (this is why most effigies of Maximón are short, often without arms). Somehow he became a god following this, perhaps he was possessed by the god prior, or they just though hey- if he can sleep with that many woman he must be a god! Later, with the introduction of Christianity, Maximón's effigy replaced one of Judas Iscariot in Holy Week carnival rituals
I had quite a mission finding him, but when I did I was lucky enough to arrive when there was a ceremony going on. A woman was asking for help, not sure what for, but rumor has it he's your saint if you're looking for revenge, or success at the expense of others. The guardians of Maximón were getting her to drink some straight Quetzalteca (cheap alcohol) to make the request. Seems quite familiar- go sit in a dark smoky room, drink some alcohol, chat to some strangers about your problems and leave thinking your dreams will come true!
But it wasn't just San Maximón that I found a little weird. I did the obligatory visit to the church in town, where I found all the wooden statues of saints dressed in, I kid you not, flowery plastic rain coats! I was completely baffled as to what was going on so started asking around town where I was told the saints were dressed in new clothes every year- but seriously flowery raincoats! Truth be told the joke was more on me as I could've been doing with one myself, they were just well prepared!
After a week I gave up on the rain ever stopping and decided to move on. It was a bit of a shame that I didn't get to see the lake more in its glory because when the sun was shining it truely was one of the most beautiful places you could imagine.