The Journal  

23 December 2005

Panajáchel and Santiago de Atitlán

Author: Jeremiah

Photographer: Holly


Panajáchel and Santiago de Atitlán, Lago Atitlán, Solola, Guatemala

December 6-9

The waters of Lago Atitlán fill the crater of a long-dead volcano that you enter after topping the surrounding ridges at 8,500 feet above sea level, before descending a quick 3,000 feet to the water's edge. The village of Panajáchel sits on a narrow strip of land that lies trapped between the water and the sheer cliffs of the crater.

  Panajáchel is the largest town on the lake with a population of 14,000.

  Lake Atitlán at night.

  As we sat in an open-air restaurant we were approached by a family of children selling jewelry, clothes and dolls. The children went around to all the tables before heading back out to the street without any success.

Five years ago, I visited the lake on a trip I took to Guatemala . Much of the scenery on my journey back was unrecognizable. On October 4, the day that Latin Americans celebrate as “La Dia de los Muertos,” hurricane rains wrecked havoc on the region. In the area around the lake alone, several thousand people lost their lives when the steep mountain ridges, acting like funnels, channeled flood waters that washed away hillsides, roads and houses, adding more suffering to an area still recovering from the ravages of a civil war. The road to Panajáchel was still under construction to repair sections of pavement and bridges that had disappeared in the storm. Running through the middle of Panajáchel is a sluggish 10-foot-wide stream, know as the Panajáchel River . But as we walked through the little village of 14,000, we encountered a street that suddenly ended in a canyon, 50 feet deep and 200 feet wide, where the raging river had literally torn the tiny puebla in two. In the early morning the canyon filled with workers, moving boulders and sifting through the debris.

  Early morning before sunrise at the docks of Panajáchel.

We rose to a lake-side breakfast the morning after our ride from Tikal and decided to visit Santiago de Atitlán, a small village on a lagoon tucked between two volcanoes across the water. We bought tickets for a round trip boat ride on one of the large vessels that make the voyage. We haggled with a man trying to offer his services as a tour guide as the boat made its one hour journey, repeatedly refusing as his price dropped from $200 to $50.The surface of the lake was peaceful in the early morning hours, our wake the only disruption to the crude, box-like fishing boats that shared the water with us.

  Lago Atitlán is situated in a volcano crater. Locals take boats out to fish early in the morning.

  A shoeshine boy works on my shoes as I look at his own that have gone weeks without being cleaned.

  The two boys walked away after earning money by shining our boots. Jeremiah and I couldn't understand what they were saying as they worked because they did not speak English or Spanish, instead it was some kind of indigenous dialect.

As we rounded the edge of the lagoon, Santiago appeared shrouded in a haze of the smoke of breakfast fires. Despite being a hot spot for tourists, Santiago retains much of its indigenous charm, with its dirt and cobblestone streets and small houses with open windows and doors and farm animals in the back yard. The area around Lago Atitlán is known for its indigenous Mayan people, most of whom don't speak Spanish. We encountered them everywhere in Santiago , from the craft sellers to children begging for money. The street that climbs up from the docks is filled with both.

  Women with handcrafts wait on the shore of Santiago de Atitlán for our boat to dock.

  Wooden masks carved and painted to resemble horses, jaguars and dogs hang for sale along the street.

  Many of the people in Santiago de Atitlán were dressed in either traditional clothing or modern jeans and t-shirts. This man had on colorful traditional pants, a sports coat and a cowboy hat.

We walked through the town and to the Parque de Paz, a memorial garden dedicated to the victims of a 1990 massacre by government soldiers. It's a simple monument to a dozen among thousands of victims that the violence claimed. Nearly two months after the hurricane, business was back to normal in Santiago , with road workers erasing the last memorials to the flood victims.

  A child's grave is adorned with flowers in the Parque de Paz.

  Women around the lake take laundry to wash on the shore. Using flat rocks, they scrub the clothes clean with the lake's blue water.

  This little girl looked like she was on her way back from running an errand in town for her family.

We spent the rest of the morning visiting the shops of Santiago , encountering a mundane stream of identical “hand made” crafts and tourist souvenirs. As we stood in one little shop, I was surprised to hear the thumping sound of a large, single cylinder motorcycle. Peeking out the door, I recognized the back end of a Kawasaki KLR 650, parked in a hotel lobby. The bike was equipped with aluminum saddlebags with maple leaf flag stickers on them. We walked across the street to find two Canadians, the other mounted on a 1983 Honda Nighthawk 550, who were also heading south. The pair had started their journeys as individuals, meeting as strangers at a gas station in Mexico and deciding to travel together. Besides seeing a BMW GS touring bike parked in Oaxaca and passing another BMW rider in the rain on the road to Tulum, these were the first foreign riders we had encountered heading south. For an hour, we swapped road stories and travel tips, before wishing each other luck and parting company.

  Jeremiah swaps stories with the Canadian rider of the Honda Nighthawk 550 (left).

  The other Canadian rider, Jim, checks the tread on the tires of his Kawasaki KLR 650. The two riders met up at a gas station in southern Mexico and decided to travel together for a while to watch each other's back on their journey through Central America.

  I never found out what this kid's name was but he was very fascinated with my camera. I took pictures of him and showed him the image on the digital display on the back of my camera.

We arrived back at the dock at precisely 1:30 P.M., the time when our captain had told us our return voyage would depart. Our boat was no where to be found. The men at the dock said that it had returned to Panajáchel and would not come back that day. We bought tickets for one of the smaller boats. The afternoon water was chopping and the tiny boat made for a wetter, wilder, but faster journey back to Panajáchel. We sat in the bow of the boat, getting sprayed by the water and talking to an American couple who had paid twice what we did for the same ride. Back at the docks, I found the captain of our morning boat and convinced him to refund half of the cost of our round trip tickets.

We used the next day to rest and check the bike over before continuing on to Guatemala City . I found an auto repair shop with a power washer and blasted the inches of mud and grime off the motorcycle. Besides being filthy, the Guzzi was no worse for the wear.

  I gave Jeremiah a much needed trim after days of riding had begun to mat his hair in the back. Photo by Jeremiah.

All photographs © Holly Marcus / Page design by Robin Marcus