Lake Atitlan: Santa Cruz

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I took a shuttle from the quiet city of Antigua for the two hour drive through the mountain country side to reach Lake Atitlan. The drive was captivating and I couldn’t take my eyes from the road, starring out bright eyed as the sights blurred past me: mountains surrounded us on all sides, farms were scattered here and there, hardy crops of maiz perched on steep slopes, the occasional small village, and now and then plumes of smoke from small rubbish fires dotted the distance. As we got closer and closer to the lake the land became more mountainous, the roads became steeper and cliffs began to form as we hugged the hillside, looking over precariously steep drops with no guardrails. We began the switch backs to descend through the mountains as we closed in on Lake Atitlan. The huge body of water finally came into view, with the three massive volcanoes standing sentinel around it. We cruised down, down, down the winding, tiny roads, hardly wide enough for two vehicles and entered the bustling center of Panajachel or Pana as everyone calls it. Much livelier than Antigua, this place was a hustling town that served as the main port to connect to all of the small communities or ‘pueblos’ on the lake. I was dropped off down at the dock and found a boat that was heading to Santa Cruz and hopped in awkwardly with one massively heavy backpack on my back, another on my front and purse to boot (damn me and my overpacking!). I sat at the front of the boat against several people advising against this, telling me I would get soaked, but I wasn’t comfortable leaving my huge bag alone at the front of the boat so I didn’t heed their advice, and decided to stay where I was. When we went to leave, the boat driver untied the boat and threw the rope directly on my head/face, which elicited a collective gasp from my boat mates. A local man dressed in all white shrugged and said, tongue in cheek- “Welcome to Guatemala!” and we both had a chuckle. Luckily I didn’t get wet at all, but it was one hell of a bumpy ride that left me with a bit of a sore bottom.

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The boat dropped me at La Iguana Perdida, an amazing little hostel in Santa Cruz which is conveniently about 20 feet from the dock. The hostel is run by a motley crue of folks from all over the globe. The local workers were those behind the scenes who did the cooking, cleaning and landscaping. I was shown to my dorm room which was the very last hut on the grounds towards the back. To say that I spent the next 4 days in a tree house is not an exaggeration! It was a tall A frame that you had to hike up 10 steps to get to the entrance, and I say entrance because there was no door – instead you entered through a 2 foot high fence like gate into an open concept hut with 4 sets of bunk beds. The bottom half of the hut was screened in, but the rest was left entirely open. At first I worried about bugs, but seeing as I had not seen a single mosquito in Guatemala yet, I figured I’d be okay, and I was right. While the evenings were nice and cool, there were plenty of blankets to cozy up with, and the cool breeze blowing across my cheek, accompanied by the sweet chorus of sounds played by the crickets, frogs and birds was like a lullaby.

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My bed was the top bunk at the back of the hut, and it looked back out over the little open area they used as a dive shop and then out into mountainous jungle. It gave you the feeling of being camped out in the open. This was definitely a special spot. Although, the bed was hardly anything to boast about – in fact it was more like something to complain about- it was of wooden construction and had a very small, nearly useless 1 inch thick foamy atop it- not ideal for us side sleepers and our hips! Nevertheless, this didn’t much diminish from the amazing atmosphere of the tree house hut.

That afternoon I was feeling a little anxious; this was my first time truly on my own, having left my first travel buddy behind. I sucked it up, grabbed my book and headed down the common area. I saw two familiar faces from the last hostel and felt a little relieved. I signed up for the family style dinners which I cannot recommend enough – while expensive for Guatemalan standards, ($9 Canadian- if you don’t want to pay the steeper prices for the hostel dinner you can walk 30 seconds from the hostel to either the café or the little house shop which serves super cheap and more traditional style Guatemalan food) you get a massive amount of food – vegetable soup, vegetarian curry, salad, oatmeal cookies – and it’s the best food I’ve had so far abroad: hearty, healthy homestyle stuff. I began chatting to fellow guests and started to feel the anxiety slipping as I easily began to make friends.

After dinner, something magical happened. They cleared the tables aside, and brought in a huge assortment of cushions from outside and set them up in a big circle. They placed a bench in the middle with 3 candles on it and people began to sit around on the cushions. It was open mic night. The circle filled up and people were scattered around with instruments. If you had a good joke, a poem or played a song, you were given a shot of tequila. Everyone was a little timid at first, but slowly the jokes came out and songs were played. We sat around in a circle for over 4 hours, as the candles slowly burned down, and the tequila flowed more and more freely. From Van Morrison to Neil Young, Tragically Hip to Flight of the Concords, Gloria Gaynor to The Doors… song after song played into the night around us, as we all laughed and encouraged each other. Two girls had voices to make your heart melt and we would all join in on the songs we knew, creating harmonious choruses. It was truly enchanting. As exhausted as I was, I just couldn’t drag myself away from the beautiful communal music fest until nearly 2 in the morning.

I went to bed, that first night at La Iguana Perdida absolutely content and full of life, and happiness. So this is was traveling is like.

This hostel stole my heart so quickly, and continued to do so over the next few days I spent there. One of the great things about La Iguana is that they don’t have wifi- you can pay to get 15 minutes of internet, but that was it. It really encourages people to connect with each other, instead of the wireless world. Instead of seeing everyone sitting around thumbing away on their phone screens, you saw people swinging in hammocks, chatting to each other over meals, kayaking, hiking and truly connecting to the people and beautiful land around them; I met people so quickly and so easily. That first day, we made plans to hike the 3 hours to San Marcos, a neighbouring pueblo in the morning. The hike was beautiful and only moderately difficult. I would recommend doing it earlier in the morning however as it became scorching hot in the afternoon while we were on the most difficult part of the hike and were sheltered form the wind, left to bake in our own sweat. San Marcos is a bit of hippie town, and has a reputation for being a holistic center, a sacred ground.  You’ll see loads of hippies and Shambalovie’s as I like to call them: young folk decked out in Aladdin pants, crop tops, dreadlocks, strange piercings and wild tattoos. It smells of incense and everywhere you look are posters for yoga this, thai massage that, palm and crystal readings, cleanses and acupuncture. It’s quiet, tranquil, and wonderfully relaxed with loads of beautiful souls wandering around. It’s a really unique spot that I’m looking forward to seeing more of before I leave the lake, but for now it was just a walk through to get to the ‘trampolin’ as they call the raised platform above the lake. For 15Q you can enter the little park, and use the platform to sunbath and jump the 25 feet to the lake below to cool down. The jump was terrifying for me, but I did it twice nonetheless, trying to conquer some more fears of mine. The water was perfect and so refreshing. Instead of hiking the long 3 hours back, we took a water taxi, which my legs and feet thanked me kindly for!

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Dinner again was amazing (spicy squash soup, vegetarian chili, salad and chocolate cake) and further plans were made to hike San Pedro Volcano bright and early in the morning. I was able to cross off ‘climb a volcano’ from my bucket list, as well as a mountain, since really, it’s pretty well the same thing! San Pedro towers around the lake at about 3000 Meters but is by no means the largest peak in Guatemala. I knew I wasn’t ready (mentally and physically) to hike a mountain and I was worried that after hiking 3 hours the previous day I would be wrecked, but I didn’t want to miss my chance to go up with a few friends, so I bit the bullet.

The hike was much more difficult than I expected- I mean I knew it would be hard, but it kicked my ass. We all seemed to start off at a decent pace, but the last hour was excruciating. My legs felt heavier than lead, and I could hardly put one in front of the other. My pulse was pounding so heavily in my throat, I felt like I was choking just trying to get breaths pulled in. The altitude was definitely getting to me, as this was my first experience with it. All conversations stopped as we focused only on getting our tired asses to the top. But we did it. And it was incredible up there. The height was truly dizzying (although the altitude may have contributed to that effect!). The air was cool yet clear, and we had outstanding views of the whole lake and surrounding mountains. We hugged the warm rocks to steal their heat, put on an extra layer and just sat there taking it all in, while catching our breath. There is something truly remarkable about sitting atop an old volcano, looking down on an old caldera lake after working so hard for that view. You really feel as if you’re perched atop the world, looking down admiringly at this wonderful place we call earth. It sort of puts things in perspective for a little while, humbles you.

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The trek down was easy, although a little hard on the knees. I was so thankful to be going down instead of up though, that I hardly noticed. We did the accent in two and a half hours and the decent in just over an hour. It usually takes people at least 3 to ascend and one and a half to descend, so we definitely made good time, and that makes me feel a little better about how hard I found the hike to be! The hike costs 100Q to enter the park and you can elect to have a guide, which we didn’t, however a guide still walks you up about 20 minutes and then sends you off on your own. It’s impossible to miss the trail so you really don’t need a guide. I recommend the hike if you’re looking for something to do on the lake that involves massively strenuous exercise, but if you’re looking to hike a volcano to get a volcanic experience, skip San Pedro and head to the Volcanoes around Antigua which are much more active and volcanic like. There was no way you could tell you were on a volcano, nor even see a crater from the top, it was basically just a mountain, but the views were of course incredible.

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Martin (one of my fellow volcano conquerors) and I decided to get ingredients at the Market in San Pedro when we got down to make Guacamole since we missed the sign up for dinner at the hostel. I have to say, the guac was amazing and later as I lay in a hammock, swinging gently, while Martin strummed his ukulele beside me playing things reminiscent of Bedouin Soundclash, with only the light of his headlamp to guide him, I wondered… can life get much better than this?

The next day some of my friends took off and new ones arrived. The day was spent hiking to some lost waterfalls (that ended up being more of a dribble due to dry season), getting a little lost on our way down, playing some pool with some fellow Canadians and making fast friends with Margarita from Portugal who was like my own little lonely planet edition for Portugal and Spain (she drew me maps and all with her suggestions which I’m so thankful for!) The evening was spent dressing up with costumes from the hostel, dancing and eating another absurdly delicious dinner (4 different salads, bbq’d chicken -or a beet burger for the vegetarians -YUM-, and brownies!).

On my last day, Margarita and I walked up to the Pueblo of Santa Cruz which is about a 15 minute walk up wildly steep roads (I can see why the locals all take tuktuks up and down!). It’s a tiny, quiet town perched on the mountain side with perilous streets that are only suitable for motorbikes and tuktuks though they do have one resident vehicle, but it can’t turn around so it has to back up and down the streets. You get a glimpse of a more laid back, more traditional life in Guatemala up in Santa Cruz: A dead chicken is wedged between a wooden post beside the road. Children scream and run as they play a game of futbol in the court outside the church. A young girl walks past holding a flapping, squawking chicken by the wings- lunch! Rooftops are corrugated tin with old glass bottles of cocacola piled on them. A small boy asks for a quetzal from the door step as his mother calls him back in. From the little we saw of the town there isn’t much to see or do other than watch the daily life as it slows down in the heat of the day.

We headed back down and I said goodbye, hopped on a lancha (water taxi) and made me way over to San Pedro across the lake for the next part of my journey of mine- Spanish lessons and living with a local family for the next few weeks. The four days at La Iguana Perdida were wonderfully rejuvenating. Life there is slow and relaxed, with loads of good food. It was so easy to meet and connect with people here and explore what this quiet side of the lake has to offer. It’s a perfect place to disconnect from the tech world and connect with people. If you need a few days to recharge, I can’t recommend Santa Cruz and La Iguana Perdida enough.

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