Lake Atitlan (and a bit of Guatemalan/US history)

After I had gone birding and visited Panajachel for several days, I decided it was time to get out on the lake itself and explore some of the communities around there. Until this point I had not seen any birds on the lake at all, so I was keen to get over to the other side where I heard there were reeds and marshes. I chose the town of Santiago to head off to first, and went down to the embarcadero to catch a boat.

The small vessels were run by a group of young men who were, well let’s say, not very nice. They tried to charge me too much, which I had been warned about. I talked them down partway, but not to what the locals pay. Then I got on board and waited for about a half-hour as they filled up all the seats. Next to me was another man in his boat, fishing while he waited for ours to fill. He’d throw a little line under our boat with a little critter on it (probably an amphipod, I saw them being dug up along the shore by the river). Every now and then he would catch a little fish about 6 inches long and throw it into a bucket. Thus entertained I whiled away the time watching.

Finally we were off. It took about half an hour to cross the lake. When we got to the other side I did see some marshes in the protected bays, along with beautiful houses in the lush vegetation along the shoreline. Unfortunately, the harbor was dusty and hot, and the town was harsh, with concrete buildings and little to recommend it. I spent a while hiking around town trying in vain to find a way down to the shoreline, and then gave up in frustration. There didn’t seem much point in staying, so I headed back to the harbor planning to return to Pana.

However, now the boat guy was going to charge me even more money to return, as if to make up for my earlier success. He refused to back down and was surly and mean. I believe he thought I didn’t have a choice and would have to pay. Offended by his manner, I turned to a nearby boat and asked where it was going. It was headed to San Pedro, another interesting town, for a reasonable fare – no fuss, no fighting. I got on, and enjoyed a leisurely boat ride past the volcano to a new destination to explore.

Upon arrival, it turned out the dock to Pana was on the other side of town entirely, which turned out to be a plus. This town had a shoreline that you could walk along – with birds :) Not mention farms, villas, Spanish and English schools, and other interesting sights. Eventually I reached a breakwater that I couldn’t climb over and followed some small winding paths among the small farms and houses in the general direction of the dock, where I found the boat had just pulled out. This gave me an opportunity to appreciate the town a little more and enjoy coffee and a meal overlooking the harbor. San Pedro had a completely different feel from Santiago or Panajachel – more laid-back, less touristy, but still pleasant, eclectic, and creative (not to mention that I got totally hit on by the cute young bartender, but resisted :D). Next time I come here I will probably spend more time there. In the end, I returned to Pana feeling pleased with the day.

Relating this story to my ex-pat friend, I learned some things about Guatemalan history and our place in it that is pretty sordid (which has to do with Santiago and why it is the way it is).

~we now interrupt this blog to present things not learned in US history books~

It turns out that once upon a time in the 50s, a company known as United Fruit owned about 2/3 of the land in central America. Hard to imagine, but true. Most of the farmers were essentially indentured servants to this company, living on the land but not owning any of it, working for the sole benefit of UF. In the early 60s, a well-educated peaceful reformist was elected as President of Guatemala, with the intention of conducting land reform and making life better for the vast majority of Guatemalans. The people loved him and backed him 100%.

Enter the nefarious CEO of United Fruit, who was none other than the brother of the US Secretary of State. First brother complained to second brother that this president was not acting in the best interests of the company, which had everything to lose from land reform and nothing to gain. Second brother enlists the aid of the CIA, who promptly deposes said benevolent president and replaces him with a puppet. This sets off a bitter civil war that has lasted up until not that long ago, and made Guatemala the dangerous, corrupt place it has been until recently. Many of the farmers formed unions and political parties and began a violent battle against the puppet president.

The now-President of Guatemala reacts to the civil war by cracking down on the population, sending in battalions of thugs to beat and kill the villagers, placing militias in most of the villages where uprisings were common – including Santiago. These thugs terrorized the essentially peaceful Mayans, especially as they had weapons and no-one else did. Only the villagers of Santiago resisted. They secretly enlisted world media to arrive on a day when they were planning a peaceful demonstration. Hidden among the crowd, the media recorded the events of that day, in which the militia beat and killed many of the marchers. This video was broadcast around the world, creating major public embarrassment for the regime and pressure to change its policies. As a result, the militias were eventually withdrawn, not only from Santiago, but from all the villages.

Santiago is famous to this day for being the only village willing to stand up to the armed militias. And even now, it allows no police force to enter the town. The people are known to be tough and self-reliant, and they take care of any problems that may occur among themselves. And of course, tough and unfriendly to outsiders has its downside, which I experienced.

Turns out there may be a good reason not to want a police force. My friend took me to a coffee bar run by another ex-pat (for all the fabulous coffee grown in Guatemala, coffee bars are not a local phenomenon, so it took an ex-pat to start one up in Panajachel). His was a very friendly fun place, one of those where ex-pats gather for coffee and home baking, to exchange stories and tell jokes.

He told us about being robbed one day as he was closing by two gunmen. The next day when he went to the police station to file a report, he found that one of the policemen was one of the robbers. Seeing that, he just turned and left and was quiet. Most agree the police cannot be counted on for any kind of help, and being the only ones with guns and radios, are a danger in the town at night as the temptation to supplement their income is high. Nevertheless, the crime rate has dropped considerably and politics seems to be entering the modern age. I did not feel unsafe at any time, and the ex-pats say that violence is almost non-existent.

~we now return you to your regularly scheduled travelogue~

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One thought on “Lake Atitlan (and a bit of Guatemalan/US history)

  1. judithornot says:

    I actually remember some of that history, though it certainly wasn’t from any school classes. Something very similar happened in Hawaii. It was my first realization that Big Business was running the show, and not the people of the U.S.

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