Logbook: Guatemala - San Pedro La Laguna, Lake Atitlan
Guatemala covers an area of 42,000 square miles (109,000 square kilometers); it's slightly bigger than the U.S. state of Ohio. Total population is 11.2 million, and over 50% of the people are indigenous Mayan. Although Spanish is the official language of Guatemala, there are over 20 separate (and often mutually unintelligible) Mayan languages.
Like most Central American countries, Guatemala has had a history of instability, but this country seems to have experienced some of the worst problems. Crime and corruption have been ruling forces in their government since their independence from Spain in 1847. Civil war broke out in 1960 and lasted 36 years, with 200,000 Guatemalans killed, a million left homeless and thousands who "disappeared." The war ended in 1996 with signing of peace accords, and the country is making progress, but it continues to be a rocky road.
Guatemala has also had its share of natural disasters. A 1976 earthquake killed about 22,000 people and left about a million homeless. (And, unfortunately, most of the aid sent to help the people in need never reached them.) Also, just last year, Hurricane Stan brought heavy rains, and mudslides wiped out entire villages. Some of the mudslides were attributed to deforestation, which is an environmental issue that faces this country. There is an awareness of the problem, but they are still working on an effective plan to control it.
Lawlessness and violent crime have been problems in this country, so one doesn't travel here without caution. Fortunately, in the past couple of years, several of the areas that want to attract tourism have taken steps to make it safer. Tourist Police forces have been organized, and they accompany tourists in areas that have historically been sites of robberies or assaults.
Roman Catholicism is still the predominant religion in Guatemala, but it appears to be losing ground to the Evangelical Protestant sects. The Evangelicals have been in Guatemala since the 1980's and their numbers are growing. We saw many Evangelical churches throughout Guatemala.
We hope that this country continues making progress because it has a lot to offer. The countryside is incredibly beautiful - it ranges from mountainous forest highlands with 30 volcanoes to jungle plains. The history of the Mayan people and the temple ruins are very intriguing. And, the people of Guatemala are some of the warmest and nicest we've ever met.
San Pedro La Laguna (Lake Atitlan) - 6/16-7/1
We have friends who attended Spanish School in San Pedro and highly recommended it. To get to San Pedro from San Salvador, we took a first-class bus (very nice!) to Guatemala City (4½ hours), then a chicken bus to Panajachel (3½ hours), then a lancha (water taxi) to San Pedro (about 20 minutes).
San Pedro sits at 5,155 feet (1,562 meters) above sea level. If the sun was out, the days were warm, but not humid. Evenings were cool, and rainy days could be downright chilly. We had a mix of weather there - some rainy and some sunny days. San Pedro's population is about 8,000, mostly Mayan. Most of the women wear traditional clothing consisting of colorful woven skirts and embroidered blouses. Most of the men wear Western clothing, but we saw a few wearing traditional outfits. Many of the residents of San Pedro are members of the Evangelical churches.
San Pedro also has a number of residents from other countries, many of which are flashbacks to the 1960's hippies - they look, dress and act the part. Probably half of the restaurants in San Pedro are run by non-Guatemalans, and one can find a great variety of food here, from traditional rice and beans to French, Italian, Middle Eastern, Indian and American cuisines, and lots of vegetarian options. One unfortunate part of the presence of some of these folks is the presence of drugs, which concerns the local Mayans. We understand that there is a Mayoral election coming up, and one of the candidates is an Evangelical who wants to make San Pedro a dry town. It will be interesting to see what happens.
San Pedro's El Centro (downtown) is located on top of a hill. There are two main cobblestone streets leading into El Centro from the lake - one goes up the hill from the Principal Dock (where we arrived from Panajachel), and the other goes up the hill from the Santiago Dock (used by lanchas from Santiago, another town on the lake). The streets are very steep, and walking up and down the hills to El Centro was quite a workout, especially with the altitude. One would think that there would be another main street at the bottom of the hill connecting the Principal and Santiago Dock Streets, but not so. There is a "Main Trail" (a dirt trail) that runs between the two (about 1/2 mile), and there are several restaurants, hostels, schools and churches along the main trail. When it rained hard, the two main streets developed streams down the middle, and the main trail developed some big puddles. Fortunately the trail was pretty sandy, so it wasn't too muddy.
We arrived in San Pedro on a Friday, and on Saturday, we checked in at the San Pedro Spanish School and completed our registration for classes, which would start on Monday. As part of our immersion program, we chose to live with a local family while attending school. The total cost for two weeks of instruction, accommodations with a local family and three meals daily (except Sunday) was $208 per person - an incredible deal!
The next day, we moved in with the Mendez family - Cesilia, Antonio, Ruth (age 11) and MariElena (age 7) - whose home is about a 10 minute walk from school. Cesilia and Antonio are in their early 30's and have worked very hard at making a comfortable life for their family. They are originally from San Pedro, but for ten years, they lived in Guatemala City and worked in the home of an affluent family - Cesilia as live-in help and Antonio as a chauffeur. Three years ago, they moved their family back to San Pedro because they felt it was a better place to raise their girls. Until just a few months ago, however, Antonio continued to work in Guatemala City and came home on weekends. He is now driving a van for a local travel agency, so he works from San Pedro but still spends a fair amount of his time on the road. In addition to hosting Spanish students, Cesilia is a seamstress. Her parents own a clothing tienda, and she sews women's blouses to sell in their tienda. They have three sewing machines in their front room, and we've seen all four members of this family operating them. They also have a helper - Vicenta - who sews and watches after the girls if Cesilia and Antonio are away.
Afternoons, we often walked to the opposite end of the main trail, where we found a favorite bar, internet cafe and cafe for coffee. Nick's Bar sat next to the Principal Dock, and it was a popular place to go for a beer and cheap, good food. We were in San Pedro during the World Cup football (soccer) competition, and although we're not big professional sports fans, we got caught up in the excitement of this event. The games were aired at 2 p.m., so we could usually watch a game and then go for a coffee and/or check e-mail and do some studying.
In addition to classes, our school sponsored some other activities. Most evenings, for an hour, they offered a "Conversation Club" in which we spent time conversing and practicing our Spanish with other students. They grouped us according to experience level, and an instructor participated and guided the conversation by asking questions. Other school activities included salsa dancing lessons (Rich's favorite), a local museum tour, movies and presentations/orations by some locals. One of the presentations told us the Mayan folkloric tale of the creation of the world, which was a bit hard to grasp since the story was told in Spanish. The next week, a local man told us of his experiences when he was taken as a prisoner and tortured during the civil war. Fortunately, this time someone helped to interpret, and it was an incredibly moving story.
On the weekends, the school offered a couple of different excursions. Every Sunday, they sponsor a trip to Chichicastenanago, which hosts one of Guatemala's largest outdoor markets. We went one Sunday, and when we arrived in Chichi that morning, it was raining, so we stopped in a small local restaurant for breakfast. This was the best deal we've ever gotten on a meal. We each had a big plate of scrambled eggs, rice, beans, blue corn tortillas, bread and pinol (a tea made from corn) - all for about $1.35/person. Although we're not big shoppers, we enjoyed the Chichi market more than we thought we would and couldn't resist buying a few souvenirs and gifts. On one Saturday, the school organized a hike to "Nariz del Indio" (the Indian nose). The day was clear and sunny and offered oustanding views of the lake. There was a good group of people who did the hike, several of whom we had gotten to know from school and the conversations clubs, so we really enjoyed that day.
One of the things we liked best about San Pedro was its people. The locals seemed to appreciate and enjoy having students in their town, and they went out of their way to make us feel welcome. When we walked down the street (or the main trail), we needed to pay attention and greet the locals because they would always greet us. These were some of the nicest and friendliest people we've ever met. Some of our favorite locals were the young girls who sold bread. For 65¢, they sold cinnamon rolls, and coconut, carrot, pineapple and chocolate breads. Rich became good friends with a little girl Angela who sold him bread every day during our break from school. There was another young girl named Flora who stole Jan's heart.
During our last few days in San Pedro, our friends Pat and Carrie (s.v. Terra Firma) showed up. They had been traveling through Guatemala for several weeks and were near the end of their trip. Since we were just starting our travels, we were eager to get their impressions and input on places to go and sites to see. We had lots to talk about while we shared some drinks and meals.
Our two weeks in San Pedro flew by. Although we learned a lot in Spanish school, two weeks was not nearly enough. We've got so much more to learn! Our stay with the Mendez family was very special, and Jan was fighting back tears when we hugged them good-bye. We also met a number of interesting travelers here, from all over the world, and several of whom we ran into again as we continued to travel throughout Guatemala.