There are numerous travel agents in Antigua, Guatemala, offering trips to numerous places, even volcano hikes. I wanted to do this, but a six hour steep hike to see lava was unfortunately beyond my capability. John had checked out a few prices online for a transfer from Antigua to San Pablo la Laguna, on Lake Atitlan, and some prices were around US$60 per person. Perhaps that was with a chauffeur – we didn’t bother checking as we considered the price too high. We wandered past Yellow House Hostel purely by chance. They had a sign advising the price at US$10 per person in a shared minivan – we settled for that.
On Monday 13 May we departed Antigua. Our minivan headed northwest – the entire journey was approximately three and a half hours including a brief food/toilet stop. Lake Atitlan is ringed by a series of volcanoes and mountains. The minivan turned off the highway – the altitude here was approximately 2,450 metres – and commenced an extremely steep descent down into the first village. San Pablo la Laguna was the second stop at an altitude of approximately 1,500 metres. We think this road may win the contender for being one of the steepest roads we have travelled.
Above: map showing all the townships around Lake Atitlan.
Above: the San Pablo township is tucked behind the hill where you can see buildings in the foreground – our minivan drove slowly down from the top of the hills in the rear of the photo. Photo taken in San Marcos looking back to San Pablo.
We booked six nights at an Airbnb property in San Pablo la Laguna, San Pablo for short. If you choose to look at Airbnb online it is the property with a picture of the lake and volcanoes, a pink lenticularis cloud in the sky. The advertisement states: Bungalow in San Pablo, Solola; on the following page: hosted by Stuart. The minivan dropped us off in San Pablo, and Stuart had provided excellent instructions on how to find his property. We walked rather than taking a tuk-tuk…and headed along the main road leading out of town to San Marcos la Laguna. Stuart has been in the process of opening a pizza restaurant for a few years now – it is not up and running due to a number of issues – and next to his dusty pink ‘Pablo Pizza’ building is a stairway – his Airbnb property is located down these stairs and along a back alleyway, actually in the bottom of his garden.
The two storey small residence has a kitchen, dining, living space and bathroom downstairs, bedroom upstairs. Wonderful views of the lake and three volcanoes. A sitting area outside. Herb garden with thyme, basil, marjoram and others. A fresh loaf of bread baked by Stuart was on the kitchen bench, and also a packet of his own ‘San Pablo Select’ ground coffee. Stuart’s coffee is a combination of his own plants, which we could see from the bungalow, and also beans from other selected growers. We were in heaven! Real bread! And very much to our surprise, we discovered this was the best coffee we have drunk in Central America.
Above: exterior of our bungalow.
Above: view from the bedroom window: Volcano San Pedro in the middle; Volcano Atitlan to the middle left, and Volcano Toliman on the far left of the picture.
The night view of Lake Atitlan and volcanoes was especially magical. A congregation of lights in one place indicated a town across the lake, then an area of blackness, then further along another congregation of lights. We looked into a deep grey-blackness, only broken by patches of multicoloured lights – shades of pale yellow, bright white, orange…some reflecting onto the lake. On a clear night the conical volcanoes could be clearly seen.
Our intention was to visit a number of birding places we had seen on the Bird Zone Atitlan website. We only visited one site as John came down with a head cold, and thus we had a very quiet time here. Therefore I really don’t have much to report.
When we arrived, Stuart and Elaina were kind enough to take us for a brief walk around the town to show us the best shops to purchase local supplies. Stuart is an expat Brit/Canadian married to a local. San Pablo is a ‘traditional’ town – it is not Westernised at all, more on this subject follows – and we saw only one small pizza shop which Stuart pointed out to us. Every second or third building is a small shop of ‘some sort’ with offerings such as eggs, cold drinks, packets of chips and other such foodstuffs, sometimes a few other basics. Fruit and vegetables are sold, but there is a limited choice. To my utter amazement half pound rocks are used in hanging scales to weight items.
Above: if you look carefully you can see rocks in the scales.
On our introductory walk around town we stopped at a shop that sold everything. From the outside it was simply a building with a doorway; I can’t recall if it had any signage. Inside – another world. You could purchase anything from ham to nuts and bolts, embroidery threads, towels, rope, mayonnaise, ice creams etc, etc. But you need local knowledge to do so. We stopped to buy some frozen chicken at another shop – once again, without Stuart’s guided tour we would not have known this building stocked frozen chicken…
Above: I took this photo so I could remember that the frozen chicken shop was a doorway opposite.
Stuart has lived in San Pablo for over twenty years, and it was a great opportunity to ask him about some local Guatemalan issues. Forefront on our mind was the rubbish issue. I hesitated before asking, fearing I may offend, but I really wanted some explanation, if possible.
Stuart explained that in San Pablo the rubbish truck drives around and people personally take their rubbish to the truck. It is a ‘user pays’ system, costing Quetzal 1 – that is approximately A$0.20 cents. Given this charge, many people either cannot afford the service, or choose not to pay and hence there is a huge amount of rubbish discarded in the town and elsewhere. I do not know if the ‘user pays’ system applies to all of Guatemala, but now having seen the Discarded People Exhibition and read the numerous factors contributing to impoverished lives, I understand rubbish is a symptom of many issues. The Discarded People post is in the May archives.
Above: San Pablo la Laguna mural – there is hope…
The indigenous people speak Mayan, not Spanish, and the language sounds distinctively different – far more interesting guttural sounds. Stuart’s residence is most likely the only accommodation in town.
The weather was always changing. Sometimes we had misty mornings. On these mornings the volcanoes were completely obscured, as were the towns on the opposite side of the lake. Some mornings were sunny, and by the afternoon it could be raining briefly. Lightening at night. Heavy rain one night. Always changing…
We walked to San Marcos la Laguna one misty morning. (A tuk-tuk takes approximately ten minutes…) The road was very degraded with bitumen washed away in places, and numerous potholes. San Pablo la Laguna and San Marcos la Laguna are as different as chalk and cheese.
In contrast, San Marcos la Laguna could potentially be referred to as the next Ubud, Bali, or maybe it already is and has been like this for years. Clothing, rugs, jewellery, and trinkets for sale – not seen in San Pablo. Lots of hostels and hotels; vegan and vegetation restaurants; an ice cream-gelato shop – even selling vegan ice-cream; a bakery – I bought delicious sour-dough bread; a quality fruit and vegetable shop – you could buy broccoli here – I did not see that in San Pablo; a small supermarket selling alcohol and everything under the sun a Westerner could desire, including kombucha and yoghurts, soba noodles, packaged gnocchi, and various goudas and other flavoured cheeses. I bought a tin of chickpeas, amongst other items.
I mentioned Ubud as we saw notices advertising various ‘well-being’ possibilities: yoga; soul therapy; psychic healing and soul medicine; sunrise stand up paddle yoga (on Lake Atitlan); meditation retreats; silent retreats; reiki; anger management courses; massage – expensive at US$50 per hour; and courses offered by ISTA – International School of Temple Arts. ISTA offers courses around the world and I just had to take a photograph of their brochure – I was curious. Course locations include: Bryon Bay and Dysart in Australia, Goa in India, Cape Town is South Africa, Hawaii and Oracle in the USA. I have not mentioned all the locations…
Curiosity got the better of me and I wanted to know what ISTA was about, so I googled it. Oh my goodness! What a can of worms! I didn’t read the various articles and pages, except for Wikipedia – if the words cult, sexual healing, non-profit religious and educational organisation and so on make you curious, have a look…I think you may get the picture already.
We had booked six nights at San Pablo as the Bird Zone Atitlan website detailed quite a few sites to visit. We only visited the Municipal Park Tzankujil, located on the lake edge near the San Marcos boat harbour. It is dry forest habitat, and the stepped walking trail and facilities were excellent. We were thankful there were seats along the trail…we managed some nice views of Rufous-browed Peppershrikes and Blue and White Mockingbirds.
Above: walking trail at Municipal Park Tzankujil.
Above: misty morning view of Lake Atitlan.
So, we had an extremely quiet time in San Pablo. Lots of home cooked meals – a pleasant change from dining out…San Pablo was a great place to stay for a quiet time. The only bothersome noise was the dogs sometimes barking at night – the same can be found anywhere in rural Guatemala.
From Guatemala our next destination was Mexico. That was going to be a big travelling day, commencing with a 6am boat from San Marcos to Panajachel on the other side of Lake Atitlan, then a minivan all the way to San Cristóbal in Mexico. We decided getting a tuk-tuk at 5.30am or so from San Pablo was probably going to make for an even ridiculously longer day, so we stayed overnight in San Marcos before our ‘big day’.
Here are some photos taken in San Pablo and San Marcos:
Above: wood delivery version one.
Above: wood delivery version two.
Above: making gravel the old fashioned way.
Above: building site in San Pablo – I think we counted twenty-four men working here. The concrete mixed by hand on the road, and shovelled into buckets and passed up to the roof. I passed this site the following day and there was no sign that the concrete had been mixed on the road – everything cleaned up.
Above: a farmer watering his onion crop on Lake Atitlan shore. He was also growing corn – you can see the plants behind and to the right hand side of the onions. The corn plants were over two metres. Something got lost in the translation and I ended up telling him it was very pretty, when I meant impressive, or words to that effect. He was delighted…
Above: Reptile on concrete post
Above: early morning at San Marcos – yoga session completed.
Above: the walkway from the harbour in San Marcos. The ‘tourist area’ is located between Lake Atitlan shore and the main road; most enterprises are located on this walkway or close by along some narrow paths.
Above: detail of ‘bottle wall’ seen in above walkway.
Above: another detail of the bottle wall.
As mentioned previously, our next destination is Mexico.