Dear faithful followers – the internet was down in San Marcos on Wednesday and Thursday morning, and we travelled all day today, so this is a bit of a catch-up. Our last two days in San Marcos were actually quite restful – the blaring music finally ended at 8 pm Monday night and we got a good night’s sleep. Still, no one could tell us for sure what the celebration was all about, other than to accept our guess it had to do with the installation of a new mayor.
On Tuesday we took a water taxi over to San Pedro de Laguna, another small town on Lake Atitlan with the same dusty streets as San Marcos, and people going about their daily activities mostly oblivious to touristas. On Wednesday we took a water taxi to the bigger, tourist-town of Panajachel, same dust but much more effort to drain tourists of every last quetzal. We resisted all the sales pitches; our suitcases are already heavy enough trying to anticipate what we’ll need for a year on the road anyway. Instead, we stopped by a small bar open to the road that advertised that it had a beach – sure enough, around the side they had put in a bed of sand, obviously making up for the loss of beachfront around the lake itself.
Later we talked to another local resident, originally from Belgium, who had lived on the lake for five years. He lost two cabins when the lake rose and was concerned that if the rains were heavy again this year he might lose his house as well.
We were told today that there is a saying in Central America, “blind curves: ideal for passing”. We lived that today, crammed into 13-passenger shuttles, first for the ride from San Marcos to Antigua, and then for the much longer drive from there, and eventually across the border to Copan Ruinas, Honduras. Although we were in the back rows, the swerving and regular gasps from the first two rows were scary enough. With late drivers, road construction, and heavy traffic through Guatemala City, it took 11-1/2 gruelling hours to get to our accommodation tonight, a delightful B&B-style hotel operated by the mother-son team of Elena and Nery. So we’re looking forward to another restful night and tomorrow, we’ll pay a visit to the ruins themselves, just a 15-minute walk from here.
These "tuk-tuk" taxis are everywhere!
Lining up for the water taxi
Promoted as a place for meditation and relaxation, San Marcos de laguna is anything but. Live Guatemalan music randomly booms across town day and night from a community hall on the hillside, numerous dogs bark throughout the night, and the roosters start crowing at 5:30 am. We might put up with all of this but we also learned to our huge disappointment that the beach was gone. Exceptionally heavy rainfalls in 2010 caused Lake Atitlan to rise several meters, destroying many lakeside facilities and washing away all the beaches around the lake in the process. Because the lake is basically a large volcanic crater there is no natural drainage, so the fear is that if the rainy seasons continue to be as heavy – one local we talked to believes they will and that climate change is to blame – more land, hotels, and homes will be washed into the lake. Not only will this effect tourism income in the area, but from town you can see the steep hillside plantations and fields that sustain the local Mayan population – heavier than usual rainfalls would likely wash much more of the topsoil into the lake as well.
On the brighter side, our room at the Paco Real is very comfortable, full of light, and spacious – feels like a rustic cabin but with laminate wood flooring. We’ll have to get used to the noise – something tells us that this is a fact of life in Latin America!
San Marcos beach: washed away
Between finishing classes, doing some final wandering around Antigua, and travelling, we didn’t have a chance to connect to the Internet over the weekend. We’re now in San Marcos de laguna, a small town on the north shore of Lake Atitlan, but on Saturday we wandered into areas of Antigua we had missed so far, and visited the ruins of Catedral de Santiago, built in 1542 – one huge column had been left where it fell during one of the city’s many earthquakes in the 1700’s that eventually convinced officials to move the capital from what then became Antigua (“old”) Guatemala to Nuevo (“new”) Guatemala. Big chunks of the ceiling are gone, especially the elaborate domes, and the vast underground crypts are empty but still creepy. It was a huge building at the time with numerous ornate chapels, carvings, and statues: an extravagant show of the power of the Catholic Church, in this case financed by the king of Spain. Sadly, Spain’s wealth at the time came from taking resources and enslaving the people from the lands they conquered. Antigua does lay claim to a modest offset – the only sainted Guatemalan, Hermano Pedro, devoted his life to working here with the poor, hungry, and diseased in the 1600s. By the way, it is the rebuilt façade of the cathedral, facing a traditional town square, that one often sees in brochures and ads promoting tourism to Guatemala.
On Sunday we stuffed into a mini-van (“colectivo”) with 10 other tourists heading for San Marcos or San Pedro. At high attitudes we were driving through heavy misty rain, but as we approached the area of Lake Atitlan, the sun came out and the lake came into view, and down a very narrow, steep, winding road we reached San Marcos. People were gathering at a covered basketball court on the main road and after we checked in we returned and there were a few hundred people gathered for a community feast and music provided by a 14-piece marimba and brass orchestra. We listened for a while and went for a late lunch. When we returned because we could hear the band was still playing, there was only a handful of people left, the tables and chairs had been cleared, the food was gone, but the orchestra was in full swing as if there was a full house. We couldn’t find anyone with enough English to be able to tell us what the occasion was. It was a Sunday but there was no obvious church or religious connection that we could see.
Cathedral ruins in Antigua
We landed in Guatemala City Sunday night and happily our ride was waiting to take us directly to the old colonial town of Antigua, about an hour west of the capital. Antigua was once the capital, but lost that title after several earthquakes in the early days destroyed many of the military and government buidings, along with many churches. One of the attractions of the city are the ruins, which are everywhere. The other is the proliferation of spanish schools for touristas like us, and for people planning to volunteer or work in Latin America. We opted to stay with a host family for the week we’re here — and they’re a very happy and friendly family with three children under 10 years, but our room is like a cell! It’s about 8 by 8 feet, low ceiling, a low and narrow metal door, no windows, and quite cold at night. We’ve also learned that lunch is the main meal, usually quite a good plate of food, while much less effort goes into breakfast (cereal or fruit) and dinner (soup and buns).The instruction is one on one, so we’re getting a lot out of each four-hour class, although we both know it will take a lot of practice before we can hablemos espanol (we also need to figure out how to generate accents!). The sun is out and we’re headed out for a hike up the hill for a panaromic view of town and the volacanos all around. The photo below is from a rooftop restaurant and bar called the aptly named Cafe Sky near our host casa.
Antigua - view from Cafe Sky