After all the pre border anxiety, we were the only tourists at La Mesilla, and no lineups. Using a step by step description from the internet, it was pretty straight forward. But still stressful. First the Mexican side where at one office we cancelled our van permit and at another office we had our passports stamped. Then we drove through the entry into Guatemala where we were stopped to have the van fumigated for 39Q. Then to an office to filled out a form for entry. Then park and stand at Ventana 1 where a guy made out a new permit for our van. Then move to Ventana 2, I don’t know why, and the same guy handed us an invoice. Next to the bank to pay 160Q and back to Ventana 2 with the receipt. An hour later, and with a sigh of relief, we were all legal for Guatemala.
Guatemala greeted us with towering mountains, rugged jagged mounds sloping steeply to the valley. We drove along a river, wide but shallow, rushing over rocks on its way toward Mexico. The steep land here forces homes, shops, and people to cluster along side the road. Being Sunday everyone was dressed up, probably returning home from church. Every pickup truck was a small Toyota. Many had rails around the box allowing for about 30 people, all ages, to stand in the box. Buses, looking like a fairly modern school bus, were repainted in golds, reds, or greens, an abundance of brilliant chrome on the grill, further adorned with lights and horns and fancy scrolled lettering. We drove for at least an hour before we were away from the border chaos. Average speed 60 kph.
At some point the highway turned into a very good double lane with fewer speed bumps, and less garbage along the roadside than in Mexico. We meant to stop early but it was hot and we decided to push on. Our next two choices did not work out and we found ourselves only an hour a way from Lake Atitlan. So using IOverlander, we picked a campsite in the village of Panajachel, and set google to get us there. We made good time and arrived at 5:01. When we missed the sharp right turn to the hotel, google promptly re routed us to go around a few streets and in the back. Good, right? Wrong. We ended up driving through a street market in the center of town. Now our van does not look that big sitting in our driveway at home, but in the middle of a Guatemalan market it is ginormous. There were crowds of people, kiosks full of wares, a few motorcycles, and us. I dared not make eye contact cause I knew I would see daggers. We crawled through there, turned right for a few blocks and then what was supposed to be a left turn, was blocked by the docks on the water. The right turn was blocked for construction. There was no choice but to turn around and go back toward the market. We turned google off.
We found the right road and soon arrived at the hotel. Do you have camping and do you have space left for us? Two best words we heard all day were “yes”and “yes”.
To get to the camping area we drove down a little path, through the white iron gates, around a building and between two large trees. The van popped up onto a grassy yard. Looking across the yard we had a full view of the lake just beyond. Rimming the lake were large hills and in between the hills were volcanos. It was near dusk and the hills and volcanos had turned to dark blue, contrasting with lighter blue ripples on the lake. The sun was sinking, sending pink and orange rays over the hills.
The view stunned us to silence. And then the sun was gone, it turned dark and we set up camp. An unexpectedly beautiful ending to an arduous day. We spent three days in that campground. How lucky we are.
Known as one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, Lake Atitlan is surrounded by three volcanoes and numerous small Mayan villages. Boats cross the water on the half hour, dropping villagers and tourists at the various communities. Bob booked us into a day of Mayan cooking in San Pedro directly across the lake from Panajachel. We left the dock just after 0730 AM. In San Pedro we were met by Anita, the chef, and another young couple from England who were also enrolled in the class. Before heading for the kitchen, we headed for the market. Anita spoke Mayan at the market as she explained that the locals are shy about speaking in Spanish. Local women were crowded into the narrow aisles, making their way through the rows of kiosks filled with vegetables fish and fruit. The women here dress in traditional handwoven blouses and skirts, the material interwoven in intricate and colourful designs. I marvelled as much at their clothing as I did at the massive array of foods.
We cooked in Anita’s open air kitchen overlooking the lake. There were two propane stoves, and a blender. She assigned us each tasks, showed us new techniques, and kept us very busy. One of my jobs was to wash and prepare the banana leaves by cutting them into two sizes using my thumbnail. For this I had absolutely no experience.
We chopped, blended, stirred, washed, and finally stuffed our banana leaves with tamale dough and spicy meat sauce. It was not easy to get them wrapped and tied before the insides got out. But they held together once they were placed into the steamer. The guacamole was different-good because it had pineapple in it, the tamales were tasty and the chocolate mole with fried banana was spicy sweet and very yummy.
While we ate, Anita shared her story of learning English while selling bananas to the tourists. Because of her ability to speak English and Mayan, she was eventually hired as a translator for a medical group who were volunteering on the island. Over the years, the doctors from Vancouver continued to encourage her entrepreneurial spirit which led to the cooking school. As well, on the lower floor is a woman’s collective, selling handwoven material. The threads are handspun from cotton growing on the island, then woven into material using a back strap loom.
Our next stop was the city of Antigua. It was a short drive from Lake Atitlan mileage wise, but congested traffic held us up in several spots. When there was only about 10 km to go, google still predicted over 20 minutes. We checked into the Casa del Cerro hotel, steps away from the old city square, with parking in a fenced yard down the alley. The doorway to the lot was large enough but the turn was a bit of a squeeze and so papa and daughter stood at the front and back of the van using hand signals to help Bob maneuver. It seemed they were well used to this parking technique. The hotel has a gated courtyard where they serve breakfast, and hang laundry. Our room is very large, decorated with Mayan bedspreads, tiled floor and wood beam ceilings.
Antigua is a favourite tourist destination and the many people walking the streets are mostly young backpackers, or older couples.
To help understand the city we took a tour with Luis, just Bob and I, so we could easily ask questions. Antigua was the capitol of Guatemala in the 1700s so many of the larger buildings are preserved colonial Spanish architecture, with previous political or religious importance. By design, these buildings are situated within an 8 by 8 grid of streets and avenues. So that is pretty cool and makes it easy to find your way. But the rough cobblestones are ornery to walk on. As a treat Luis thought we would like to see the first ever female mayor of Antigua, so we stood waiting in the municipal building until she came out of her office, wearing a navy suit, and handed her secretary a paper. Luis seemed quite pleased that he had shown us something unique.
Most of the regular buildings are very plain on the outside, but when you enter you discover rooms, courtyards, restaurants, books or art shops that you don’t expect.
The city is surrounded by volcanoes which you can see in the distance as you walk the streets.
One of the three active volcanoes in Guatemala, Fuego, erupts constantly, black smoke billowing upwards. In June of this year it erupted violently, with little warning, and nearly 200 people were killed. So you are not allowed to climb it.
But you can climb Pacaya, a smaller active volcano, so of course Bob booked us on the trip. We left at 6 AM on a mini bus with 18 other enthusiasts. The day turned sunny and clear so although the climb was tough (1.5 hours) it was quite doable and the views were great.
At the top we could hear Pacaya sounding much like a grunting pig. A few times she erupted sending rock and red lava over the lip and down her face. We walked over black lava from 4 years ago when this volcano made a surprising grand eruption, and spewed ash all the way to Guatemala City. The guides dug down to find heat in the lava stones, and roasted us all some marshmallows. I asked how we knew it would not erupt today, but no one else seemed to care. They were just happy with the marshmallows.
The Plan we are moving on to Honduras where we hope to stop at the Copan ruins and then find a spot near Lake Yojoa.