Three Days in San Pedro La Laguna

It’s believed by many that Guatemala’s Lago De Atitlan is one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. With impossibly sky blue water and surrounded by three looming volcanos, acting as watchmen over the lake as if guarding a prized jewel, this truly is one of the most stunning backdrops a traveller could ask for.

San Pedro La Laguna

San Pedro La Laguna

Sitting proudly on the shores of Lago De Atitlan is the lakes’ darling town of San Pedro La Laguna. Fitting somewhere in between the chaos and noise of Panajachel and the hippy meditation village of San Marcos, San Pedro is a lively little option for those seeking some fun and adventure with a sprinkle of cultural delight.

San Pedro has been rewarded with the reputation of one of Central America’s most popular backpacking destinations, and rightfully so. The town is far less touristy than Panajachel (the original Lago De Atitlan party town) and it is this fact that has brought crowds of international backpackers swarming. Souvenir stands are replaced with fresh fruit stores, thumping electro music is replaced with the soft strumming of acoustic guitars, and Spanish schools seem to be the order of the day.

However, despite the town’s maintenance of traditional ways it would be foolish to expect a unique cultural experience. Due to the sudden influx of tourism to this small town the tourism industry is well and truly flourishing. Every bus load of tourists seems to bring a new hostel catering for both the rich and the ragged. The town is in full swing, though is thankfully all the more wonderful for it.
But how should you spend your three days here?

Here we go.

Day 1:

Morning-On day one you may just want to take a morning stroll down the pleasant lakeside esplanade. You don’t want to make this too strenuous as you will be stretching those legs out this afternoon. However, with a relaxing walk through town you will be able to interact with the friendly locals, stop off at any of the numerous deliciously fresh fruit stalls and organise your trek for this afternoon (as well as the following day’s activities). On the way back ensure that you stop off and try the mouth-watering street food on 7th avenue, near the Pana Dock. For a mere 8Q you will be able to fill yourself with a generous helping of chicken and sausage with beans, complimented with fresh guacamole and a tortilla.

Volcano Climbing

Volcano Climbing

Afternoon-After a relaxing morning it is now time to get those legs moving with one of San Pedro’s famous hikes. If you missed out on the fantastic volcano climb in Antigua you may like to try scaling the equally impressive Volcano San Pedo. This is a fantastic hike which will have your blood pumping and your adrenaline rushing.However, as a reward for your hard work you will be rewarded with one of the best views in Guatemala. Before starting this climb ensure that you have organised a guide with a local tour outfit or you may run into some problems on the way (whether it be from daring locals or accidently falling head first off a volcano).

Evening-After a big day it is time to unwind. Before finding a restaurant to feed your now grumbling stomach (I recommend Humus-ya for the best Humus and Falafel in Central America) you could visit the unique thermal spas situated on the edge of the lake. For approximately AUS$2-3 you can take some time for yourself to relax in a selection of volcano-fed pools. Flickering candles will silhouette your view of the magnificent lake which is but a stones throw away, and you will realise that there is no other place quite like San Pedro La Laguna.

Caitlin relaxing in the lake side thermal spa

Caitlin relaxing in the lake side thermal spa

 

Day 2:

Morning-On day two it’s time to hit the water in a rented kayak or canoe from one of the numerous tour operators near the dock. Mornings in San Pedro bring with them pleasant temperatures and little wind, resulting in a calm expanse of blue turquoise ready to be enjoyed. However, ensure that if hiring a kayak or canoe you rise early because once lunch time hits the wind picks up and the lake can become quite unmanageable.

Kayaks in Lake Atitlan

Kayaks in Lake Atitlan

Afternoon-After a bit of fun in the sun it is time to return to San Pedro before the wind starts to make paddling tricky (note: if you get caught too far from San Pedro I suggest paddling to the closest town, and from there you can hop on a ferry back to San Pedro).

After you have filled your stomach at a selection of San Pedro’s lakeside restaurants it’s time to loosen those muscles and experience the soothing power of the lake with a dose of yoga. Situated just under The Buddha Bar in the hip ‘Otro Lado’ (a mere 5 minute walk from the dock), you will receive one and a half hours of lakeside yoga for under AUS$5. If this doesn’t limber you up nothing will.

Day 3:

Morning-Before grudgingly finding your way to your onward transportation you can choose between the early risers climb up Indian Nose or Zip-lining through the hills. Both are worthy inclusions to your time in Lago De Atitlan, and will depend largely on your departure time.

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The glorious hike up Indian Nose is best done early in the morning (4:30am), which will allow you time to reach the top for a spectacular sunrise. This hike is strenuous, though no more than any of the previously mentioned Guatemalan hikes. The most painful part of this trip is waking up, though after reaching the top and seeing the sun rise over the expansive lake you will soon forget about those tired eyes.

Atitlan zip-lining

Atitlan zip-lining

Alternatively, if your transportation is later in the day you may have time to try the 400m zip-line which will shoot you between two mountains and offers yet another great view over Lake Atitlan. If you are lucky with your timing you may even have the chance to witness the local Catholic/Mayans performing a service at the Mayan alter. For a mere Q150 this is certainly an experience worth careful consideration.

Could’ve, Should’ve, Would’ve…

If you have the time these activities also come highly recommend. Unfortunately time was not on my side and sacrifices were to be made. However, I hope to return to Lago De Atitlan soon and satisfy my burning desire to finish what I started.

•Paragliding over Lake Atitlan (this was not a time issue. Make sure you are in the area when there is enough wind to make it possible, otherwise you will be out of luck.)
•Horseback Riding
•Scuba Diving
•Exploring the surrounding towns and villages.

A Lesson In Religion

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I could feel my heart thumping in my chest. Beads of sweat began trickling down my face like I’d just run a marathon. But I wasn’t running at all. I was standing still, using all my energy to remember where I had come from, to remain calm and concentrate. Through the eerie silence I could hear the soft sizzling of my candle, a slowly burning wick threatening to thrust my companions and I into a world of suffocating darkness. We push through a seemingly never ending river of mud, climb over a succession of jagged rocks and try to distinguish one column from the next. We question whether this was the same formation we passed an hour ago and come up with the same anti climatic conclusion: it all looks the same.

Exploring The Laquin CavesInitially the plan was simple. We would explore Guatemala’s Lanquin Caves armed with nothing more than a burning candle and a healthy sense of adventure. We had read that these caves were home to thousands of different species of bat and when the sun sets a flurry of wings will come out to play, exploding from the caves entrance in a wave of brown and black. This was something we had been longing to see, but what’s a memory without a little adventure, right?

Coming from a country such as Australia where rules, laws and restrictions are over-enthusiastically enforced the sheer simplicity of this ‘tourist attraction’ caught me by surprise. There was no external lighting, no guide (apparently you can hire one, which in hindsight may not have been a bad idea), no map and no way of knowing if our healthy sense of adventure had led us into hell-quite literally.

The Lanquin Caves were, and still are, accessed by Mayan Indians who believe whole-heartedly in the role of the caves in linking our world to the underworld. Essentially, the caves act as a bridge between the two realms and many believe that to venture too far into this system would expose not only a maze of unexplored and unnavigable tunnels, but hell on earth. We were lost. Hopelessly, inexplicably, terrifyingly lost in hell. Why hadn’t I thought to put this on my bucket list? Meet Hades, tick. Daylight ceased to exist and I instantly felt as if I was one of those unfortunate characters in The Descent (if you haven’t seen this film do yourself a favour: never watch it if caving is on the agenda).

caves 1Yes, I was lost in an unexplored cave system with Caitlin, a member of the Guatemalan Peace Core and a man who bore a striking resemblance to Jesus-in fact that’s what we called him. Coincidence? I think not. For many Guatemalans these caves are literally the ‘heart of heaven’, and I was being led by a man known only as Jesus-I struggled to make sense of the irony in this. Take from this what you will, but to be exposed to a strong cultural belief in such a real way was truly confronting.

For two hours we fought with the darkness, fought with each other and fought with our minds. When faced with the terrifying realisation that no one knows where you are-that you yourself don’t know where you are-it is frighteningly easy to begin recollecting past Bear Grylls episodes and asking: what would Bear do in this situation? Unfortunately my mind insisted on wandering back to The Descent, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether I would soon turn into a cave dwelling evolutionary marvel who would begin growing gills, learn to hunt by scent and get kicks out of scaring the pants off lost cavers. My mind was a mess, and as the wax on my candle slowly burnt out so did my spirit.

Hello new home, you’re a little darker than I’m used to but at least I won’t have to wash the dishes.

caves 4As we forged through the caves, leaving a sizzling trail of melted wax in our wake, a sense of familiarity began to welcome us. Fresh boot prints had been imprinted into the muddy ground, a candle we had sacrificed on the way still burnt on the mossy rock we had left it on (at least we did something right) and up ahead was a railing which led to the caves entrance; a railing that we foolishly left behind what seemed like an eternity ago. Soon after some much needed cheers and pats on the back we had once again welcomed the light. My gills began to shrink, my sense of smell went back to normalcy and I no longer wanted to scare the pants of cavers.

Not today Hades, not today.

We jubilantly exited the cave, rejoicing in our new found freedom which we had once taken for granted. Though despite the mud that covered us from head to toe, the melted wax that left a painful and indelible reminder on our palms and the bat poo caught in our hair we had come here for a reason, and by god we would see this through (or should I say by Jesus?). We sat at the entrance of the caves and waited for sundown. We waited for the bats that we had become so well acquainted with over the past few hours. We joked, we laughed, we recollected and we soon forgot about the darkness we had just escaped. Despite the fear I had felt in my bones I knew that this experience would be one of those defining moments in my life-the type of moment that highlights the reason for travelling in the first place.

Bats fly free from Lanquin's Bat Cave

Bats fly free from Lanquin’s Bat Cave

Suddenly the caves began to echo with a deafening screeching which could only be described as thousands of nails on a jumbo chalk board. We held our ears, smiling from ear to ear and waiting patiently for the explosion we had longed to see. The screeching suddenly stopped, and was replaced with the distant sound of flapping-a sound that was quickly upon us. Suddenly a wave of bats whooshed past our heads in a flurry of excitement, covering the sky in a blanket of brown and black (as promised). We sat in the eye of a storm of wings which dodged and weaved past our exposed faces and made a bee line for freedom. I couldn’t help but compare the excitement of these creatures, who call these caves home, with our very own joy when leaping out of the same exit. Their elation was contagious.

After fifteen minutes of dodging flocks of giddy bats the skies began to clear and give way to a bright, full moon. I sat where I was in silence, recollecting the events that had unfolded in a mere four hours. Never in my life had I experienced the range of emotions that I had undergone in this relatively short period of time: fear, exuberance, impatience, giddiness, acceptance and courageousness to name a few. However, I knew that as a traveller these were the moments that I lived for and I will forever cherish each and every one of these feelings. I hadn’t met Hades, but I had been to hell and back with a man named Jesus. And that is a memory that will last forever.

Bat Cave Entrance

Volcan De Pacaya: The Guatemalan Volcano Experience

In Australia we are blessed with some of the world’s greatest natural attractions. From the aqua wonderland of The Great Barrier Reef and the countless pristine beaches that speckle our coastline, to the mystifying Uluru and The Northern Territory’s barren Red Centre.

However, despite these breathtaking attractions there is one scene that is sorely missing from our landscape-volcanos. And if these lava spewing mountains really are the pimples of the earth, erupting without warning and requiring a great deal of respect, Guatemala is trapped in a kind of adolescent limbo. And for that I am eternally grateful.

For inquisitive gringos like myself Guatemala offers an array of organised volcano hikes and tours, varying in duration, intensity and overall quality. However, one of the most popular volcano treks in Guatemala is the famous tour up Antigua’s Volcan De Pacaya; a 2,500 metre monster towering over the quaint, cobble stone streets of the city.

volcano1  Volcan De Pacaya is an active volcano which last erupted in 2010, covering Antigua in a thick blanket of ash. This eruption came as a shock to the people of Antigua, and guides tell stories of having to hurry off the volcano as it spat fire and bellowed smoke into the peaceful village below.

Thankfully, it was raining, so as the volcano belched fire and many houses burned, it was extinguished by the welcome rain and many house and people were spared. However, one eager journalist decided that the scoop was more important than his life, and by getting too close to the action his life was unfortunately lost.

The trek itself is truly remarkable, beginning in lush forestation and reaching a barren, lunar-like landscape which can only be described as ‘out of this world’. Steam rises from blackened craters as rocks glow red from surreptitious lava, which covertly flows underneath the volcanos’ rocky surface. img_1773-2

Many tours will also provide marshmallows and a stick, creating one of the most unique roasting experiences going around.

The trek is no marathon, however it certainly is not recommended for the faint hearted. A steep climb will get your heart racing, and a certain degree of fitness is needed if you don’t want to be stranded halfway up a volcano.

img_1752-2 However, for those requiring a helping hand a number of children will be following close behind offering a “Taxi” which will take you as far as the molten rock. This taxi will most definitely look, smell and feel like a horse, though their sense of humour will put a smile on even the most sour of travellers’ dial!

Antigua: the city of contrasts. Oh, and volcanoes.

After four days of little to no sleep, a short stay in the all-too confronting Los Angeles and picking up an equally exhausted girlfriend, a four-hour flight from LA brings us to the start of our journey through Guatemala and Latin America.

First stop: Guatemala City.

Well, what can be said about Guatemala City? It is a soundscape of bustling trucks and cars, a visual eye sore and smells of-well, shit. This smell was later confirmed by our friendly shuttle driver who apologised, stating “I’m sorry for the smell. Our sewar system is not good”. Great, we have flown over 15,000 kilometres to visit a country that has a permanent stench of human waste.

Alas, a quick escape ensued and one hour later we arrived at one of the most charming town’s I have seen and my reasons for flying to Guatemala were quickly realised.

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Driving into Guatemala’s Wold Heritage Listed tourist magnet, Antigua, is like stepping back in time. From the cobble stone roads which are cursed by local drivers but loved by fascinated travellers, and the Spanish Baroque influenced architecture; to three looming volcanoes which beg to be explored, with the highest standing at over a menacing 13,000 feet above the city. Antigua is a truly captivating scene.

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What is truly remarkable about this place though is not just its surroundings, but the people that inhabit it. From the proud locals who place their city high above any other, to the countless ex-pats and volunteer workers that seem to have fallen in love with the relaxed vibe and have found a new place to call home. It is heart-warming to witness such pride and happiness in a country which is struggling both economically and socially.

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We have a few more days in this magical city, and I am sure that I will feel much like the many suckers before me who have loved and lost. I will miss the friendliness of the people, the contrast of white washed streets with cheerful pastel houses under terracotta rooftops and the gorgeous landscape-as beautiful as it is menacing. But for now it is time to scale an active volcano, while trusting my safety in a man who I can’t understand. Wish me luck!

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