San Pedro, Lake Atitlan: City of Sounds

At first glance, San Pedro can be summed up in a few words: tuk tuks, gallos (roosters), maiz, churches, dogs, coffee, Spanish schools, tiendas, motorcycles, tortillas and music. But it’s so much more than this. I was warned time and again by other travelers prior to arriving in San Pedro that I was walking into a tourist trap- a loud and obnoxious city with nothing but tourists and partiers, no charm and no culture of its own. I was told if I wanted to see authentic Guatemalan life, I should go elsewhere. How wonderfully wrong those people were.

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Like all of the small communities perched on Lago Atitlan, the roads of San Pedro cling to the mountain side in steep mazes, hardly wide enough for two tuk tuks to pass side by side. You arrive by lancha (boat) and within 30 seconds of walking off the dock your calves are burning as you begin the steep clamber up the main road. The two main roads are undoubtedly tourist traps loaded with cafes, Spanish schools, hostels, travel agencies and bars. They are full of tourists, ex pats and travellers rambling around, full of people and noise, and locals in tuk tuks calling out ‘taxi!’ as you walk past replying ‘no gracias’.

There is no doubt that I had a unique experience in San Pedro because I was taking part in a homestay program through my school, so I was set up to live with a local family. Maria, Armando, Elenita and Brenda were my new family for two weeks. I had my own room and ate three incredibly delicious meals a day by the masterful chef Maria. If you decide to come to San Pedro for Spanish lessons, I can’t recommend the homestay program enough- you will get a truly unique and immersive experience. It will also increase your learning curve of Spanish drastically as they will speak to you only in Spanish and you will have that much more exposure and practice.

I arrived in San Pedro on a Sunday afternoon and had to find my school. I made the mistake of saying ‘No gracias’ to the tuk tuk calls, thinking I could find my school on my own. After a half hour of wandering around with 55lbs of gear strapped to me and getting lost in the strange alleyways, I gave up and found a tuk tuk and had them bring me to my school. As I was dropped off I cringed at how close I had come to the school on my walk, just barely missing it.

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Spanish Cooperativa school in San Pedro – the view from my lesson hut – spectacular!

A young man in his mid 30’s with a darling little girl in tow showed up at the school and I was introduced to my home stay dad Armando, and his 6 year old daughter Brenda. They spoke only Spanish to me, and tried to help me keep my bearings as we walked home so I could figure out how to get back to school in the morning. Brenda told me I had a beautiful name and I told her in my terrible Spanish that she had the same name as my mother, which made her bashfully excited.  We got to the house and I was introduced to Maria, my home stay mom and their other daughter Elenita, who was 11. I knew immediately that I had lucked out with this warm and welcoming family. They invited me to church with them that evening and, wanting the full immersion, I jumped at the chance. While I couldn’t understand the sermon, I got they gist of it (you don’t need money to be rich, you need love, god and family) and the music was amazing. After church we made a mad dash downstairs and were fed a mouth wateringly delicious traditional Guatemalan meal of tamales (a corn like porridge with salsa and chicken all rolled up into a steamed banana leaf or corn husk), rice with vegetables mixed in and some tender pork all smothered in sauce and loads of tortillas, piquante (hot sauce) and of course, cafe. During the whole service my stomach had been growling and I devoured the food, simply smitten with my first taste of Guatemalan home-style food.

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My amazing homestay family in San Pedro on the roof of the huge yellow iglesia (church).

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The adorable Brenda and I, all smiles as always!

My life in San Pedro for the next two weeks consisted of getting up at 7am each week day, heading down for a delicious breakfast and a cup of fresh, sweet black coffee, a walk to school through the already bustling town to get to class, and then four hours of one on one Spanish lessons. After class I would head home for lunches and then head back out on my own to explore the town and meet people. If you only come to San Pedro for two days you will likely find yourself stuck on the gringo streets in the tourist trap and won’t really experience what the place has to offer. San Pedro can seem like a party town because those first two main streets are nothing but hostels and bars for tourists. I spent my first few afternoons wandering around the streets of the town ensuring I left the main drags to see what life was like on the quieter streets.

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San Pedro is a small but bustling little town. The streets are steep and constantly abuzz with tuk tuks ripping past you at terrifying proximities, while motorcycles drive on what you surely thought were only walking paths and you have to jump out of the way. There is a tienda (store) on every corner, internet cafes and laundromats galore. If you’re thirsty, you need only walk for a couple of minutes before a local woman will call out “Naranja! Jugo!” and make you a glass of fresh pressed orange juice for 5Q.  If you’re hungry, you need only walk 2 minutes before another calls out “Pan! Banano, pina, coco!” with her basket of fresh baked breads.  You have to dodge dogs nearly as often as you have to dodge tuk tuks as they have a serious stray problem which makes itself most apparent at night when you hear an endless chorus of dogs barking, howling and fighting- only to be broken up by a gritty cat fight or one of a thousand roosters that is confused and seems to think 2am is sunrise.

San Pedro is not a quiet town- it is full of life and thus full of noise. If it’s not the roosters or the dogs, it’s the music. San Pedro must have a church every 50 feet- they are as numerous as the dogs and tiendas. Churches here are not like churches in Canada; they are exceptionally loud and wonderfully open. Sometimes I’m not sure if there are even any sermons and all they do is sing! At any time of day it seems you can hear a service going on with voices pouring out the wide open doors into the streets to mix in with the cacophony of other sounds.

San Pedro is a city of sounds. It is it’s own unique cacophony of boisterous and wild sounds that assail your ears day and night. San Pedro is the barking of dogs, the hawking of local women selling fresh juice or banana bread, the fighting of cats, the honking of the tuk tuks, the roar of the motorcycles as they whir past, the chorus of church voices singing praise, the slightly off tune blasts of a child learning the trumpet, the squeals of children, the ringing of church bells, the chopping of fire wood, and the ever present call of the king of Guatemala, the Gallo.

San Pedro also has a plethora of delicious places to eat and I was only able to sample the smallest of them as I was fed the most amazing home cooked meals 6 days a week. But I highly recommend the Buddah Bar for their Pho, salads and incredible balinese chicken wings. Try Hummus Ya for their falafel and Jakuu for their smoothies. If you want authentic Guatemala food, look for where the locals are eating in the small taco shops on the side of the street. If you see someone selling crispy tortillas slathered in avocado and bean paste, piled high with shredded beets, lettuce, powdered cheese and salsa, GET ONE. No wait, get TWO. Or three. Or find someone selling tamales-all of this local food is shockingly cheap compared to what you pay in the restaurants and will fill you up wonderfully and save you from burning a hole in your pocket.

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Heaven on a plate – fresh fruit with granola and yogurt, cafe con leche and a little Spanish studying on the side!

Aside from the busy buzz and noise of the city and the delicious food, San Pedro has something far more incredible- the people. Guatemalan’s keep surprising me with their friendliness. They are some of the happiest people I believe are sure to exist on this lovely little planet of ours. Walking the streets of San Pedro you will constantly be greeted with “Buenos Dias!” from people as they go about their day. I said hi to nearly every one I passed on the streets and was always greeted with not just a polite response, but a genuine and sincere response. Sometimes you get more than just a ‘Buenos Dias!’ and you get a string of Spanish wishing you a great day and a huge smile to boot. Everyone is willing to stop, smile, say hello and have a laugh with you.

I was walking home one evening around 1am and felt pretty nervous even though there were still a fair few people on the streets. I was making my way down the side street towards my house and a group of about 5 men walked past- they stopped walking and stayed exactly where I needed to pass into the alley to get to my house about 20 feet away. I felt my heart lurch into my throat. I tried to look confident and as I got closer to them I smiled and said “Buenas Noches!”to which they all smiled genuine smiles and wished me the same as I walked past to the house. Another night, I was walking home late, again alone, with 4 young guys in front of me who were drunk. I felt nervous as my quick walking caught me up to them. One turned to me and said ‘Senorita, don’t worry! We are the good guys here in San Pedro!”. We had a small conversation as he eased my mind and I found out he was actually the brother of one of the teachers at the school I was attending! Another day, I was walking home again in the day light, and a young man wearing a dirty wife beater shirt was coming towards me- he had a bit of a rough look about him and I felt intimidated- I smiled and said “buenas dias” and the rough look immediately disappeared, replaced by a beaming, disarming smile that transformed him into a sweet looking young man. I had been warned that Guatemala was an extremely dangerous place, and so I went in assuming every man was a bad one, only to have the lovely people of San Pedro prove that they are an amazingly warm town, welcoming even to strangers.

Spending two weeks in San Pedro, I’ve had the most memorable time. I got to live with the sweetest family in all of Guatemala, I’m sure, and had an incredible teacher at the Coopertiva School who not only exercised a gargantuan amount of patience teaching me, but also invited me to the beach with his Sunday school. The Spanish school was wonderful and I learned so much. If you want more information on the school send me a quick message and I would be happy to share my full experience.

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I hiked up la Nariz De Indio (Indian Nose) at 5am to watch the sunrise and had fresh mayan coffee made while the sun rose over mountains and a smouldering volcano spewed smoke, silhouetted by the orange glow of the looming sun.

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I spent endless hours wandering cobblestone streets greeting locals and exchanging conversations in my broken Spanish as they curiously asked where I was from. I met some amazing and lifelong friends and practiced Acro Yoga on a wooden balcony overhanging the lake.

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I was picked up from a beach in a boat by someone I met the day before and spent the day on the lake with a bunch of new friends, making lasting connections as the sun set behind Nariz de Indio.

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I met a lady in San Macros across the lake on a day trip who invited us all up to her house to practice arcoyoga with her on her lawn and then brought out her guitar to share a little kirtan with us.

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Photo by Kajsa – truly capturing the moment of this magical afternoon.

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My homestay mom Maria took us to the market with her on my last day at the house so that we could learn how to make a traditional Guatemalan meal with her.  We were included in every step, from taking the maiz to the shop to be pressed into corn paste, to perusing the stalls at the market and selecting the reddest ripest tomatoes, a freshly slaughtered chicken, and other ingredients needed for our lesson, including a piece of bull meat to try (yikes!) Back at the house, Marie and her mother Teresa suited my roommate and I up with the traditional aprons the ladies always wear and set us to work: one cleaning banana leaves, the other crushing tomatoes to make the salsa. Maria cut up a massive papaya she had grabbed at the market when she overheard us exclaiming about the size of the delicious looking papayas and we got to eat massive slices of juicy papaya in between our work in the kitchen. We kneaded the corn paste, filled and folded the banana with it, made the salsa, and watched as Master Chef Maria cut up and cooked to perfection over an open flame wood stove the chicken and bull meat. We then stuffed the chicken pieces and salsa inside more banana leaves and then set everything into a huge pot layered and covered with more banana leaves and let it steam for two hours. We sampled some salty lime drenched bull which, while terrifying looking when it was raw in the market (grey meat?!?), tasted delicious!

Getting to eat a meal we helped prepare was a wonderfully unique experience. We were filled with pride in ourselves and awe for Maria and all the work she does each day to feed her family such delicious meals. The kitchen was filled for 2 hours with laughter, smiles, jokes, children, mothers, grandmothers, mouthwatering smells and tasty samples. This was my last day with my home stay family and it couldn’t have been more memorable or precious to me. I’m so blessed to be able to take away these memories from my short two weeks in San Pedro.

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Selfies with Abuela in la cocina!

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I had originally planned to stay for 3-4 weeks in San Pedro to study my Spanish, but the opportunity to go to a Music and Art Festival in Costa Rica came up and I jumped on it promising myself I would return to Guatemala as I was nowhere near finished with it.  This special country, and the lake in particular, have so much to offer – I can’t wait to come back!

3 thoughts on “San Pedro, Lake Atitlan: City of Sounds

  1. Pingback: Ninjas, Laser Tag and Chocolate Pancakes: A Week With My Favourite Swedish Girl! | BorealBlonde

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