30 Jan – 6 Feb 2017. From San Cristobal de Las Casas, Mexico to San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala. The first part is easy. We don’t even have to get up before eight, and have plenty of time for breakfast at Namadi, our favourite San Cris café. We take a taxi to the bus station and climb aboard an OCC bus headed for the border. It is a slow journey, taking four hours to cover just 180 km (110 mi) over a continually curving narrow mountainous road. It is a leisurely pace, and the journey goes by quickly enough.
The border with Guatemala is mayhem, with crowds of people milling about, and many stalls offering food and souvenirs. It’s raw and gritty as border towns tend to be, but in a dingy building directly across the road from where the bus pulls in we find what we’re looking for: Mexican Migracion. Even though we’ve been assured at the Migracion office in San Cris that we had indeed paid the exit tax when we bought our Aero Mexico ticket in Vancouver, we are still charged 500 pesos (CAN$37) each to leave the country – corruption in action.
Looking around for the next step we are promptly piled into a decrepit taxi smelling strongly of gasoline. The driver and three other people are also squished in and we travel for five minutes or so over a rough road through no-man’s-land to the Guatemalan border. Here in the rough and dusty border town of La Mesilla we check in with Migracion where it costs us only 50 pesos each to enter the country.
We find another taxi, which also smells of gasoline, to take us fifteen minutes or so down the road to a hotel in the village of La Democracia. It’s enough for one day, and this is the easy day.
I have a long-time friend who I’ll call T, who has lived for many years in San Pedro La Laguna. At about ten in the morning T and her Guatemalan ‘son’ Santiago arrive at the hotel, and after a coffee we pile into his new van and begin the long drive to San Pedro. The distance is not that far, about 240 km (150 mi), but a lot of it is through mountainous country over rough roads. We follow the Pan-American Highway, stopping for lunch at a favourite restaurant of T’s in Quetzaltenango. The original indigenous name for the city is Xelaju and locals refer to it simply as Xela (pronounced shay-la). The last thing we expect is to be eating excellent Indian food in the middle of Guatemala.
Continuing on we eventually come to the turn-off to San Pedro La Laguna. The road gets gradually steeper and more and more tortuous, twisting and turning around the mountainous terrain, and then the potholes come. The closer we get to San Pedro the worse the road gets. Santiago does his best to avoid them but sometimes it’s simply not possible. The scenery, however, is spectacular.
We arrive late afternoon and check into our guesthouse overlooking the lake.
After unpacking and getting cleaned up we walk to T’s house five minutes away for a delicious home cooked dinner. After two long days we have finally arrived.
San Pedro La Laguna is one of several small towns and villages that ring Lake Atitlan. The lake fills the enormous caldera of an extinct volcano and is surrounded by three smaller volcanoes. Lake Atitlan has been described as “the most beautiful lake in the world”. It’s hard to disagree.
San Pedro La Laguna is described in Lonely Planet thus: Spreading onto a peninsula at the base of the volcano of the same name, San Pedro remains among the most visited of the lakeside villages – due as much to its reasonably priced accommodations and global social scene as to its spectacular setting. Travelers tend to dig in here for a spell, in pursuit of (in no particular order) drinking, fire-twirling, African drumming, Spanish classes, painting classes, volcano hiking, hot-tub soaking and hammock swinging. This is not the San Pedro we experience, though the hiking, hot-tubbing and hammocks all sound pretty good.
Lonely Planet goes on to mention the traditional life of the Pedranos that takes place around the market area further up the hill from the lake.
This gets a little closer to the San Pedro T shares with us. T has lived for many years full-time in San Pedro and has completely integrated into the Mayan culture. Her Spanish is fluent and she has even learned some Tz’utujil, the language of the indigenous people who have inhabited the area for centuries. She dresses in the traditional Guatemalan Mayan trajes and almost all her friends and ‘family’ are indigenous. She shops at the market like a native, she knows what all those strange things are that they sell, and it’s impossible to walk any street in town without her seeing, and stopping to chat with, someone she knows. We get an inside look into the real San Pedro.
On our last night we eat out, Don and I and T, at a nice restaurant in the more touristy part of town. The meal is made all the more interesting because there is a power outage and we eat by candlelight. Apart from that T cooks us fabulous simple vegetarian fare every night: potato soup, quiche and salad, pizza. On pizza night friends join us: Lola and Agapito, and their daughters Melissa, and Heidi. We speak a little Spanish and T translates. It feels comfortable, like family. On another night Santiago and his wife Telma come to eat with us. More family. One night, of course knowing exactly who to go to, T orders the most delicious potato tamales for our dinner. We feel very well taken care of.
We go to the market, where T seems to know just about everyone. Ninety percent of the local population is indigenous Maya, and the market is like indigenous markets the world over except for the clothing that is unique to this part of the world. It’s noisy and smelly and crowded and full of life and strange things for sale, and beautiful friendly people.
Women in their beautiful traditional outfits dominate the scene. Only the old men now wear the traditional Mayan clothes. I’ve noticed this the world over: women continue to wear traditional clothing while men opt for regular western dress. T tells me that the men in Santiago Atitlan, another of the lakeshore villages, still wear traditional dress but we can’t get there because the lake winds are erratic making boat travel risky: it’s possible we wouldn’t be able to get back.
This man is surrounded by yucca fibre, the natural and customary forerunner to rope made from synthetic fibres. It is also used to make baskets, hats, mats, and containers. In ancient times it was used to make shoes and skirts as well.
T said that when she and her husband K first started living in San Pedro they would walk around town at a normal fast pace, flying past everyone, until she realized that that was not the way of the Mayan culture. They didn’t want to be the stuck-up foreigners who sailed past everyone. They slowed down and adopted the local ways: walk at a leisurely pace, take your time, and stop to chat with everyone you know. Be present; be open to the community around you. In this way the days slowly unfold. Because I can’t walk much we take tuk tuks most of the time and get to know Julio the tuk tuk driver. He is an artist who does exquisite paintings, and makes beautiful beaded and painted belts. And he is Rosa’s son.
We go to lunch at Rosa’s, down a narrow alleyway, one of several we explore. This time I must walk as T takes us on a mystery tour of the tiny back lanes of San Pedro.
There are so many Rosas she’s always known as Rosa Cruz, because Cruz is her last name. This is her kitchen,
and this is Rosa making tortillas for us on her tiled wood stove,
and this is lunch: green beans with a pumpkin seed dressing with the freshly made tortillas.
Don doesn’t take to it, but I love it. And I love Rosa’s big heart, and shy smile.
Outside in another area Manuela, Rosa’s daughter-in-law, is making tortillas to sell.
T says all their kitchens are the same: dark, smoky, disorganized, cluttered. Many who work at home don’t have adequate workspaces so things easily get messy. We don’t see any of the bedrooms though T says they’re generally neat and spare. It’s a whole different aesthetic than what we are used to. Their artistic sensibilities go into weaving and embroidery and painting, and their hearts go into family and community.
This is the tranquil town square dominated, in true Spanish colonial style, by the cathedral.
Back in the early 1980’s Guatemala was ruled by Efrain Rios Montt, a genocidal dictator. In stunning contradiction he was also an Evangelical Christian preacher. As a result this religion is dominant in many towns and is the religion of almost half the population of San Pedro. About half the population is nominally Catholic though many of the Maya still practice Mayan spirituality and rituals. They believe the world is inhabited by both good and bad spirits that can affect many aspects of daily life.
One day we go to the market in Santa Clara, a village a short distance from San Pedro. Back we go over the twisty narrow potholed road up the hill out of San Pedro. Bump bump bump.
In Santa Clara T has people to meet, and some things she wants to buy, and I just want to see the market, and the people of the area gathering in their customary way to buy, to sell, to socialize. I am excited by the colours. Everywhere I look bright colours call out to me having me looking in all directions and trying to inhale the richness of it.
As we dive deeper and deeper into the market I’m simply following T who is on a mission to find a particular food or spice. I’m surrounded by a kind of electric energy as people take care of errands and visit with each other. Few purchases are a simple transaction. There is always visiting involved. Then when all the purchases are made families go to the shaded town square to wait for other friends and family members to meet them there.
On the way home from Santa Clara, in a small village,
we stop at the home of one of T’s friends. The friend is making exquisite beaded flowers, petal by petal, to decorate blouses. Who cares about the clutter in your house when you can spend your time creating this kind of beauty?
One more shot of the lake:
This post is dedicated to T’s husband, and my friend, K. When I first moved to Canada from Australia 33 years ago K was one of the first to befriend me, and he remained a good friend throughout the years. Don and I had been talking about visiting T and K in San Pedro for years but for various reasons it never happened. Finally we made it, just six weeks after K passed away. As I stood at his grave marker and shouted to the heavens Wherever you are K I hope you’re having a great time and enjoying yourself I immediately heard in my mind, clear as a bell, Hasta la vista Ali. It was a sweet farewell.
And this post is also dedicated to T who was such a wonderful, kind, generous, and loving host. I’m glad we finally made it T! Thank you for everything.
*Thanks to Don’s suggestion and Rumi’s poem for the title of this post
Next post: Antigua, Guatemala. Or all about nesting.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2017.