Lago de Atitlan
We hired a boat yesterday morning, and spent the day on and around the lake. The lake being Lago de Atitlan, here in Guatemala. I believe there are a total of 12 different villages surrounding the lake, and we are currently staying at Panajachel (approximately 13,000 to 15,000 people). Yesterday we also visited 3 more: Santiago de Laguna (approximately 50,000 people), San Pedro de Laguna (approximately 5,000 people) and San Marcos de Laguna (approximately 3,000 people). I may not be totally accurate on the population figures, but I think I’m pretty close.
Note: The primary language in each village is Maya (and each village has its own unique dialect). Some (many in some locations around the lake) also speak Spanish and/or English. As a native English speaker (with a smattering of Spanish) I am very comfortable here linguistically. It is rather strange, however, to have the native Maya approach you and start speaking very good English—I am not used to that at all.
Santiago is big—too big for what we are looking for. But it was interesting, and our young guide David walked us up and down the hills, through the alleyways and byways, and generally walked our legs off for over an hour. Everywhere you go the lake’s three volcanoes dominate the skyline. I thought they had been extinct for centuries, but David told us that in 2005 one of them erupted unexpectedly at 3 a.m. in the morning and wiped out a local village, killing over 300 villagers and destroying their church, school and most of the village’s infrastructure. I thought that volcanoes typically gave warning signals prior to eruption, but maybe not—then again the complete story might have been lost in translation (considering my Spanish that’s certainly possible).
Santiago de Laguna – Lago Atitlan
Note: A brief mention of the local Maya—when observed in “their” villages they appear happy, friendly and confident. When observed in the cities, hawking their wares, just the opposite is true. They appear unhappy, unfriendly and sullen. Since arriving in Guatemala, and especially here on the lake, we’ve been approached many times with a smile and a verbal greeting usually in English or Spanish. Their approach is friendly and soft-sell, and a polite “Gracias . . . no” usually brings the sales encounter to a close with no hard feelings. In Yucatan, Quintana Roo, Campeche, Tabasco and Chiapas (with the exception of the rural villages) this has definitely NOT been the case.
San Pedro is more our speed, but has the reputation of being the party village. And during our short stay in the village that was certainly the impression I got. Boatloads of young folks descended on the docks of the village while we were there, and the vibe was a little pretentious—sort of: “Look at me, aren’t I counterculture?” Coming from Southern California in the USA I’ve sort of had my fill of that. I’m being very judgmental here, but at this stage of my life I am looking more for authenticity than roleplaying and costumes. There’s a huge difference between real counterculture and pretend counterculture, and the word “Dude” and a 15-step secret handshake is way overdone around the world. But to each his own—I know that I can be a cranky old fart at times, and quick to judge the actions of others (especially when they appear dumb or trite to me).
San Marcos felt just right. Goldilocks and the Three Bears kind of “just right.” It is the smallest of the villages we visited, and unlike San Pedro our boat was the only one pulling up to the dock. Joel and I felt the friendliness and the lack of hustle right away. Leaving our boat we hiked up into town—and I can’t even count how many times we were greeted with a big smile, and a soft hello (sometimes in Maya, sometimes in Spanish and often times in English). Our time in the village was short, in was late in the afternoon and we were tired, so we just parked our butts on some steps and observed. We appeared to be in some sort of community park situated under large beautiful shade trees, with possibly a school nearby and a playground for kids. There were quite a few people present, mostly young, some with children and it was softly quiet. Blessedly quiet. Lots of conversation, but muted and respectful. The Maya women kept passing us by, and appeared to be returning from a public bath. Their hair was clean and damp, they smelled really nice, and they never failed to glance at us, smile and giggle, and say “Hola, buenos dias” or even “Hello” in English. If they said anything to us in Maya, then I failed to catch it. A number of dogs came up to us (you all know I’m a sucker for dogs), and allowed me to pet them to my heart’s content. Nirvana. One young man (possibly German or Scandinavian) was softly playing an acoustical guitar, and his black girlfriend was sitting cross-legged doing some kind of needlework. People were displaying goods under the trees, and appeared to be bartering amongst themselves. The small store in front of us looked to have a community box full of used clothing, and every few moments someone would look through the box and occasionally remove a piece of clothing. San Marcos is known as the hippie village, and the reputation fits. It both looked and felt like a big commune. And it has a very international feel to it. I’m not a new-ager, counterculture freak or hippie—but I gotta tell you, there is something about this place. The energy, the vibe, the feel—it immediately felt like someplace that could be home. It felt good. I know absolutely nothing about San Marcos or its people, but I know that I am anxious to settle in and learn more. Hopefully next week sometime we’ll make that happen.
Stephen F. Dennstedt
Indochine Photography International
The Yucatan Times