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Haight-Ashbury in the Guatemalan Mountains: San Pedro and Lake Atitlán

I'm writing this in a hammock on the balcony of a lovely hotel in San Pedro, a quiet and very hippie town on Lake Atitlán, Guatemala.

This may be the most laid-back, mañana place I've ever been, even more than Jamaica. And it starts with the stunning three-hour drive from Antigua.

The road goes through dramatic mountains—the Guatemala I've seen in pictures. Many of them are divided into tilled plots: primarily corn, and often on such steep slopes that hand cultivation—or perhaps a burro—would be the only possibility. Sometimes the corn is closely interplanted with beans, and sometimes there are fields in the altiplano (high plains) just planted in beans, zucchini, or tomatoes. I saw one bean plant actually winding its way around a cornstalk. Unfortunately for the scenic vista, there's also a surprising amount of heavy industry in these mountains

Then through some Mayan villages, including one with a vast market and colorfully dressed Mayan vendors and buyers converging from all directions.

Next, first up and then down a series of steep and narrow curves to the lake district, featuring fabulous views of the much-photographed volcano-ringed lake, the mountains, and San Pedro. As we emerge from the mountains, we pass through the villages of San Juan and San Pablo, working-class Mayan towns where the only other foreigners I saw were two German tourists on a motorcycle.

But we were discussing San Pedro. See how easy it is to get distracted here? And I haven't smoked anything here, although it was offered to us twice on the street.

San Pedro is completely different than those two other Sans we just passed through. San Pedro's waterfront district is about tourism for the counterculture. (From what we heard, the much smaller village of San Marcos, built around a Norteño-oriented holistic healing center, is even more so.)

The compact downtown, probably well under a mile in length, offers more vegetarian cuisine per capita than practically anywhere. Tofu-mango curry? Tempeh with shitake mushrooms? No problem!

There also seem to be massage therapists every 25 feet, a dozen places to take yoga classes, and tons of tourist services: hotels, language schools, thermal spas, laundries, travel agencies…

San Pedro is built around a series of very narrow lanes, many accessible only on foot. Two main streets run parallel to the lakefront, and these are (barely) wide enough to accommodate a car, minivan or small truck. Our hotel, Tepepulka'an, with its patios, balconies, gardens, and a hammock outside every room, is on a sidestreet, and our clean and quiet second-floor room (80 quetzales, or about $10.65 US) for a double bed) has a lovely view of the lake and one of the nearby volcanoes.

When we checked in, the manager (Mayan, named Amalia) told us she didn't have change, don't worry, you can pay later. So we went in search of lunch.

Within five minutes, we'd found Zoola. Walking through a courtyard, we entered a large tiki hut, complete with palm-thatch roof. Two rows of roughly shaped but smoothly finished wooden tables—benches, really—surrounded by lots of pillows on the outer sides, with a wide aisle between. As I lie on my pillows, shoes off, supported comfortably by a log of just the right height underneath those pillows, I feel like a prince in some distant and exotic land.

To add to the exotica, the owner, much of the staff, and many of the menu items are Israeli, and the menu notes in Hebrew that Hebrew-language books are available. So are assorted games, wi-fi, rolling papers, and hammocks placed conveniently just in front of each low table (though not the conventional tables in the inner hut). Various signs encourage visitors to relax and enjoy their stay.

I order a cup of locally made Diego's hot chocolate, and Dina has her usual black tea. The tea is ordinary Lipton, but the macadamia flavored hot chocolate, made from a cigar-shaped lump and barely sweetened, is divine.

We also order falafel, borekas (Middle Eastern cheese-filled phyllo pastries) and a soup-sized bowl of guacamole. The portions are generous, the food is scrumptious, and we are very pleased with our choice. Pleased enough that we return two days later and try some of the best lebaneh (yogurt cheese) I've ever had, along with eggplant and chopped fresh tomatoes and an entire small loaf of good bread. It would have been ample for both of us, but we couldn't resist another big bowl of the wonderful guacamole.

Later, as we stroll through downtown, we encounter another Israeli hippie with a falafel shop. A Canadian expat who works at Zoola is in there eating a falafel, and she tells us that this falafel is even better. But despite its lake view, this shop is not nearly as atmospheric as Zoola, and we never get to try it. The owner tells in Israeli-accented English, "to get better falafel, you have to go to the Holy Land." We tell him we have been, and tell him about a falafel shop we liked in Safed. "Safed," he says, "that's a totally different league."

When we go out for drinks in the evening on the second-floor terrace at an Italian restaurant and cafe called Fata Morgana in the evening, at the next table is yet another Israeli expat—not at all a hippie; he has run a security company here for eleven years, with his visiting Israeli friend; he tells us we're in the best restaurant in town, but we've already filled up on our leftover guacamole from lunch (it had been an enormous portion). I get a thick, almost Spanish-style hot chocolate and Dina has wine.

We hear even more Hebrew coming from the third floor. And a Guatemalan travel agent wearing a Ché Guevara t-shirt tells us, "in September, it's like Little Tel Aviv."

To make things even more odd, the local Mayan language, Tzutujil, sounds so much like Hebrew I think I should be able to understand it. It's not just the guttural consonants but even the intonations, the rising and falling of the speakers, that sound so much like the modern Sephardic Hebrew one hears in Israel—but of course, I don't recognize a single word.

Still, it makes me wonder about the 10 Lost Tribes—especially because we see stars of David all over town, and some other Jewish symbology, including a menorah painted in an outside wall—some courtesy of the Israelis, but quite a bit apparently the influence of the many Evangelical congregations all over town. A sign in Spanish in front of a hotel informs us as we enter and leave that Jehovah will be our protector.

Laid-back and Israeli are not concepts I associate together. The entire country of Israel, even in tranquil places like Ein Gedi, seems totally Type A. I'm a New York City native, and we don't even begin to compare. Maybe they export all the laid-back folks to Lake Atitlán.

Even though Antigua is jokingly referred to as "Gringotenango," it felt like a Guatemalan city that just happens to attract a lot of norteños. Outside of the real tourist venues, there were 50 Guetemaltecos for every visitor. And most of the visitors were there for a purpose: to study Spanish or to adopt a child, for instance. But in both San Pedro and Panajachél, even though there are also plenty of language schools here, the ratio at least along the waterfront streets seems more like 50/50; the locals operate the tiendas and sell their crafts and drive their tuk-tuks and run the hotels—and the gringos (mostly in their 20s and 30s) walk the streets, patronize these establishments, and buy the marijuana.

San Pedro on a Sunday night is surprisingly desolate. We don't know where all the daytime partiers go, but by 9 p.m. they've pretty much rolled up the sidewalks. It was a bit of a challenge at 8:30 to find a place that felt comfortable. There are still a fair number of people for one block either side of the street that goes to the Panahachél docks and the tourist bar Nick's Place—but beyond that, we do the three minutes back to the hotel in our best "don't bother me, I'm from New York City" walk: rapid and no-nonsense. The other two nights of our stay, we didn't get the danger vibe.

In Antigua, I had been extremely impressed by the large number of places that either banned smoking entirely or at least had a nonsmoking section. Also, hardly anyone seemed to smoke. We did skip one smoke-choked coffee house, but that was the only place it was a problem. And the streets were amazingly litter-free.

Not here! San Pedro suffers from a complete lack of consciousness about either smoking or litter. We were in at least a dozen businesses on the first day, and not one had a non-smoking section. And the streets would be a lot more pleasant if every vacant lot weren't choked with trash!

But then... I'm sitting on my balcony at 6 a.m., listening to a symphony of birds—even one that does wolf-whistles—and watching the sky start to streak with light over the mountains across the lake. Ahh, vacation!

On the second morning, once we had a village map, we walked first to the Santiago docks, all the way on the east edge of town. Coming back, instead of taking a right to the tourist section, we went straight ahead, into the "real people" part of town—a place where few gringos go unless they need an actual bank and not just an ATM, or the post office.

Our agenda was only to see it. And here, there are no hippies, just ordinary Mayans going about their business. As usual, there's a big traditional market, focused primarily on food. And the Evangelical influence is much stronger: there must be at least a dozen churches, ranging from storefront to near-cathedral, and including some of the most colorful and fascinating buildings in town. And signs on a hardware store, a repair shop, a grocery store, and many other businesses boldly proclaim, "we trust in God", "Jesus is Lord", etc. And close by, two enormous barn-like church buildings a few blocks away from each other—at least one is a primary school—utterly dominate the town.

The very best thing we found in San Pedro was off the tourist track, on the street that runs parallel to it—a street we first discovered because it ran from the back entrance of Zoola directly to our hotel. And on that street, very near the Evangelical primary school, is a small but wonderful museum on the land, people, and customs of San Pedro. After a short film in your choice of Spanish, English, or Tzutujil, a guide walks you through each of the five small galleries, covering the volcanic origins of the lake, lives and customs of the locals, cooking, water-carrying (in large gourds carried on the head), and textiles. As she explains the exhibits (in Spanish), our very friendly guide shares several Mayan creation stories and other folklore. One I remember was that a large male volcano was in love with a female volcano, but she was headless, didn't return his affections, and instead married the smaller male volcano right next to her, leaving the first one permanently a young single. She also discussed the symbology of the Mayan altar, which involves many colors and sizes of candles, each representing multiple things: sun and darkness, blood and skin, different races of humans, etc. And all this for 35 quetzales per person.

We conclude our exploration in a cafe just on the border between the working town and the tourist town, on the street that leads to the Panajachél docks. Mayan-operated Cafe las Cristalinas served by far the finest cup of coffee we had in Guatemala, and one of the best I've had anywhere. We went back twice more, but the first cup was the best. This cafe roasts its own daily, using a tiny, tiny roaster, and the effort pays off. There's also a decent selection of Bigelow and Celestial Seasonings herbal and green teas—a pleasant change from the common local hibiscus ("té de jamaica," or "té de rosa de jamaica") or lime ("té de limón") herbal selections.

Arriving back in San Pedro ravenous after a day spent completely circling the lake and visiting several villages, we head straight to Jarachik for dinner. We choose vegetables and rice in a mango curry broth and an Indonesian rice noodle soup, both with tofu, and once again are grateful for the wonderful things hippie culture has done for the culinary arts.

Elsewhere Around Lake Atitlán: Santiago and Panajachél

Santiago Atitlán is the town we chose for our shopping. While the market is nowhere near as big as the legendary Chichicastenango market, from everything we heard, it has pretty much the same craft items, comparable prices, and a much saner atmosphere. And some people say that a lot of the stuff for sale in Chichi is actually made around here.

We made two trips to Santiago, first in a tourist boat that visits several towns and stays only an hour, and the next day on the local "public bus" boat, a much smaller and more crowded craft with few tourists.

The "welcoming committee" met the tourist boat: a noisy gauntlet of craft vendors and pushy tourist guides—some of them not yet 10 years old—but getting off the local boat, there are only a few hopefuls. The market proper starts almost immediately, just on the other side of the small park at the docks—which include not only the launchas (20-seat launches) and tourist boats, but also simple, tiny, boxy, apparently hand-made single/double-seater wooden rowboats, which some brave locals use to commute around the lake, despite zero protection from the elements. Most people take the launchas, which I call "bus boats"; they circle from town to town, picking up and dropping off passengers and trying to get every seat occupied. A rather different experience than the much larger and pricier tourist boats, and one used heavily by the locals.

Before we'd gotten two blocks into the market, a licensed guide offered to take us to a worship ceremony for the Mayan god Maximon (the x is pronounced like a soft sh).

I'd heard about Maximon from a few different places, including the Mayan culture museum at Azotea and Dean Cycon's wonderful book Javatrekker. So after protesting that we didn't have time and would be back the following day, and being assured that we'd be back in plenty of time to catch the boat, we followed Francisco through several twists and turns to the small room where Maximon's cofreido kept watch. This particular Maximon was 89 years old, according to Francisco's whispered Spanish. However, he also made the highly dubious claim that this was the only Maximon still in active worship in all of Guatemala.

Maximon was a mannequin somewhere between three and four feet tall, wearing a U.S.-style suit from perhaps the 1940s. He clenched a cigar in his mouth, a cigarette in his hand, and money all throughout his suit. His smokes weren't lit but the darkened room was full of strong incense. Members of the cofreido chatted softly in a mix of Mayan and Spanish, and Francisco took our mandatory 10-quetzal offering (on top of his own fee, if course) and offered it with a prayer in Mayan; photos were extra, and we chose not to pay—not because of the fee, but because the idea of snapping pictures there felt like a sacrilege.

True to his word, Francisco released us to wander the markets again within about a half-hour of our first encounter. The next day, of course, he found us again and offered to take us to a goldsmith and various other points of interest. We declined and headed into the market for some serious shopping.

All Guatemalan craft markets are an explosion of color; the textiles are justly renowned around the world. Each village has its own special huipil (blouse) pattern—imposed by the Spanish hundreds of years ago so they could differentiate among villagers form the different towns. Beyond huipiles, wall hangings, bags of all sizes, table runners, potholders, and of course, rugs both large and small provide eye candy at every turn. And many of the vivid blues, purples, greens, reds, yellows and browns are created with natural dyes, hand-woven out of cotton or wool.

At Santiago, we found the textile quality and variety a cut or two above what we'd seen elsewhere, and the Mayan paintings and pottery were several notches above. Prices were very reasonable and usually somewhat negotiable, and within about an hour and a half, we'd gotten something for everyone on our list and several items for ourselves. For 1120 quetzales, roughly $160 U.S., we bought:

  • A gorgeous tapestry of assorted birds (our big splurge at around $40)
  • Five potholders, each with a different design related to Mayan culture
  • Two high-quality (machine-made) sun hats with colorful hand-made belts
  • An unusual flowered purse
  • An embroidered blue suede belt, elegant enough to wear in a corporate setting
  • Several small purses for our nieces
  • An embroidered duffle bag
  • A beaded turtle
  • An embroidered wallet in a bird pattern
  • Three beautiful carved wooden jaguar masks, each painted differently

Panajachél is a much bigger town than San Pedro; it's the most popular tourist destination on the lake. It's not nearly as laid back as San Pedro, nor as pollution-free, but it's still a lot quieter than Antigua. We had several hours to explore between the arrival of our boat and the departure of our shuttle bus for Xela.

Prices are a good deal higher here, and high-pressure tactics are common. The alternative restaurant scene is actually much smaller than San Pedro's, although we did find a very nice lunch at the vegetarian Bombay Cafe. All the staff during our visit were Mayan, but the menu was mostly Asian-eclectic. Dina had a Malaysian tofu sandwich with peanut sauce in whole wheat pita, while I chose one of the few Guatemalan options: pepian, a delicious sauce of pumpkin and sesame seeds with cinnamon, served over a tamale and steamed or boiled veggies. It was a bit pricier than our meals in San Pedro, but worth it.

Once again, we got off the tourist strip and into the locals' neighborhood: a fascinating street of hardware stores, street food vendors, crowds of tuk-tuks, auto repair shops, and lots of school kids collecting donations. On a different street in that neighborhood, actually a continuation of Calle Santander—the main tourist street, we first found a wonderful bookstore, the Centro Cultural El Romero Libreria, on Calle Principal next to the Centro de Salud. Then we continued several uncrowded blocks up to 5a Calle Peatonal, and then to tiny Callejón el Rastro, where we found Raul Vasquéz, artist in painting, sculpture, and drawing, eco-visionary, and owner of a museum of his work at his villa in Panajachél—and Raul himself showed us around. He hopes to add an educational center and restaurant on a sacred Maya spot within his grounds, already home to a ritual cave. Meanwhile, he continues to create large canvases showing influence of painters like Miró and Klee but depicting Mayan and contemporary Guatemalan life, and creating massive outdoor sculptures that incorporate the trees and rocks on his property. He says he's been painting all his life and started using vivid colors at age nine, in 1966. Many examples of his work are posted on his web page (see link above).

Frankly, the Vasquéz museum is the best reason we found to go to Pana. The hour we spent with Raul was the highlight of our day; the shopping was better in Santiago, and the hippie scene more interesting in San Pedro. Still, it was worth the stop.

Shel Horowitz has written about travel experiences from meeting with peace activists in Israel to cooking in Mexico to getting around Los Angeles by bus. He is the editor of Global Travel Review and the author of The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook and six other books.


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