Needing a break from 4 weeks of Spanish immersion we decided to get out of Xela for a weekend. Seeing Lago Atitlan seemed like the way to go and, for once, we traveled without Marlin. We caught the direct chicken bus to San Pedro from the bus station at 2pm though there are buses which leave at all hours – you just have to ask around. Sonia, the best home-stay mom ever, was appalled that we were skipping almuerzo (lunch) and packed up a tasty meal for us which we devoured on the bus.
Chicken buses are not the most comfortable transport but they are the cheapest way to get around Guatemala. There are tour companies that offer direct transport (with probably more comfortable seats) all over Guatemala but they charge you for it. It costs $14 USD/person one way to San Pedro whereas taking the chicken bus was only $3 USD/person one way. Personally, I don’t think the private buses are worth it as you take the same bumpy roads. Save the cash, experience typical Guatemalan transport and stay in a nicer hostel.
During the Vietnam war, Lago Atitlan (particularly the town of Panajachel) was a place where war-dodgers fled to avoid conscription. Once the civil war in Guatemala started most foreigners left the area while the battle for human and civil rights raged for nearly thirty years. In 1996 the hostilities ended and the Lake slowly returned back to a tourist destination.
The lake is beautiful. And it was warm! After freezing in Xela we were pretty excited to be in flip-flops and t-shirts. We spent the Friday night in San Pedro, a popular hangout for the bohemian set. Marijuana and coffee are the main crops and we were approached by more than one young guy trying to sell ‘the lake weed’. We did see signs for pretty cheap Spanish classes, about $55 for 4 hours a day, 5 days per week and accommodation is relatively inexpensive. Personally I think it would be a bit boring after a week or so but there were a number of bohos who looked like they had been there for a long time.
The next day we took a boat over the lake to the esoteric San Marcos. The small community is home to mediation courses, reiki, yoga and many other holistic therapies. People come here to complete courses in new age theology which last from 1 to 3 months, or just to participate for a few days. The most famous center in San Marcos is called, Los Piramides, a place where you can take the Moon-course or the Sun-course, both which end with compulsory periods of silence. We had a look around and wandered into their herb garden, in the shape of a pyramid of course, where just about every type of medicinal plant is grown and they can be purchased in the small store for fairly hefty prices.
We had to head back to Xela on Sunday and were lucky enough to catch a bus. On Sundays the bus leaves at 8am, we had been told 10am, and when we reached the bus station we were told there were no buses to Xela. Luckily, we met some people from Xela who knew the route back. We grabbed the bus headed to Guatemala City and then switched buses where the road meets the main highway to Guatemala City. Turns out the bus to Xela wasn’t in the best condition as the seat Tom and I had was broken and had slid forward making it a tight squeeze for two long-legged gringos!