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~


Birding in Panajachel

Near my hotel just outside of Pana, there were two birding attractions, aside from the many trees surrounding my own hotel, which were full of warblers, hummingbirds, tanagers, orioles, and grosbeaks. First was the botanical gardens at the neighboring hotel, which also had a very nice restaurant with an excellent view of the volcanoes – perfect for a sunset dinner, especially since the restaurant at my own hotel was closed for lack of guests (!).


Second was the nature reserve (above), which was just down the road and a little different from what I was expecting. As it turns out, most of Guatemala is very dry, at least on this side of the mountains. So hiking up there, especially in the oak forest part, felt a lot like hiking in California. However, other areas were quite different, like the shade-grown coffee plantations with monkeys and coatis in the trees and suspended bridges over streams and waterfalls. Here are some of the cool birds I saw there (and before you ask, sadly no, these are not my pictures):

Grey Hawk
I got a great look at this handsome bird, which I have only seen once before from a distance in Arizona.

Rufous Sabrewing
This picture hardly does this giant hummingbird justice. One of the largest ones I have ever seen, brilliantly colored green along the back and cinnamon underneath.

Yellowish Flycatcher
Now you might not think this anything much, but it has a very limited range and I was happy to see it :)

Long-Tailed SilkyFlycatcher
This one is prettier, I admit.

White-Faced Ground-Sparrow
Also one with a very limited range, but easily one of my favorites as he looks just like a little clown-face :) Found him feeding peacefully in the grass at the botanical gardens.

Slate-Throated Redstart
A pretty little bird that continuously fans his tail feathers, flashing the white spots on them.

Panajachel – to buy, or not to buy (or just go birding)

Back to Guatemala :) I arrived in Panajachel, which is the largest town on Lake Atitlan, and also the most touristy. Which explains why I had a timeshare out of town, near a nature reserve – a funky place that looked like it had been a 4-star destination in the 90s and was now a bit down at the heels. The rooms were in brick buildings with rounded tops, and large glass windows, surrounded by tall trees filled with birds. My room was neat because I could practically bird from the room, which I did many mornings while getting ready to go out. I also had a nice view of a volcano over the top of the restaurant that I woke up to each morning.

It was a couple days before I actually went into Pana. I was content watching hummingbirds and warblers zip around the grounds, and visiting the botanical gardens at the truly 5-star hotel next door. I had a “date” on Tuesday to visit with a fellow traveler I met sitting around the Houston airport in the wee hours of the morning, waiting to change planes. His daughter ran a jewelry store in Pana and his son ran a hostel in San Pedro, across the lake. He and his daughter owned a house in Pana, so I was curious to find out what it was like to live there.

We spent the day walking up and down the streets of Pana, while I got a crash course in which restaurants were clean and safe and had good food, where to get the best coffee or pastries, and how to bargain – something I’m really bad at and truly hate doing. I guess this is how you get the lay of the land when you move to another country. According to him, the expats all know each other and are very helpful to newcomers. There are also a lot of local events where you get to know people, both foreign and otherwise.

About that bargaining – Guatemala probably has the best markets I’ve seen for buying gifts, and I had a lot of people I wanted to buy gifts for. I’m a thoughtless traveller, I usually don’t buy gifts or take pictures, too busy being in the moment. This time I was determined to do right by my friends and family. I’ve never seen so many textile and jewelry stalls of every description packed into so small a space – and everything in Guatemala is so colorful – it was just a visual riot of color.

I was becoming frustrated at the constant singsongy sales pitches. Everywhere I would turn, it was “Special price for you, lady. Mas colores. Just looking, no problem.” The exact same phrases in every single stall. Apparently these were the few words they had learned and thought they were supposed to say. Of course the “special price” was especially high for us gringos, which just made it more annoying. I would have given anything to shop peacefully in someone’s stall, without them dragging out more and more examples of things with every second I was there.

I guess what bothers me about this is that you can’t make eye contact, you can’t acknowledge their presence, you can’t compliment them on their beautiful goods – or you’ve lost all possible advantage in negotiating a price and you will be followed down the street. Vendors will try to actually put things in your hands, or over your shoulder, and then expect you to pay rather than walk off. Give the slightest acknowledgment and you are lost. Which sucks, because it means you can’t interact with them as a person. I found myself only buying from the places that gave me a little space and responded with some pride, rather than running over with the special prices the second I approached. This is utterly unfair, I know, because the others are probably the ones that really need the business and are just doing what they see as trying hard.

Then there’s the bargaining. I think what I find stressful about this is that I have absolutely no points of reference. I have no idea what these goods are worth, what they make in a day or an hour, how much I’m being charged relative to the locals (or even the ex-pats who live here). One alternates between feeling cheated and feeling like a jerk for trying to negotiate a lower price from someone who makes less than a hundredth of what I do. On the other hand we are constantly told not to pay too much, or all the prices will go up. Which seems like odd reasoning to me; if the people are dirt poor, what harm could it possibly do to pay them more consistently?

Not to mention that these things I’m buying are made by hand. I can’t even imagine the time that it takes to sew some of these things by hand, not to mention making the raw materials. They are the artisans, and these things cost almost nothing in terms of dollars. I’m ashamed to even bargain in the face of that, yet I know that they have deliberately set the price at 2-10 times what a local would pay. I’m expected to bargain, so I do, reluctantly. Eventually I figure out that the right place to end up at is about 2/3 of their original price, and I get a little more comfortable.

Later, a woman in the airport who volunteers frequently down here tells me that sometimes she just walks into a stall and says (in Spanish) “I have so much money for this item right here, which I will pay right now.” And is prepared to leave if turned down – she says that often works, as they know she means it and the price is more or less where they would have gotten to eventually. And she told me that most of the vendors actually know very little Spanish or English; they are Mayan and have their own languages. After hearing the stories of how they are treated by the Spanish in Guatemala, I forgave them their singsongy bargaining phrases.

The vendors are organized in a hierarchy – first those who actually have a store. These are few, and often expats and Spanish. Then, those who have a fixed market stall. Some of these are quite large and opulent, filled with an amazing quantity of goods. Then, those with temporary stalls or tables on the street. After these, the old women and children who walk up and down the street. Lastly, the little boys who ply the waterfront with frozen chocolate-covered bananas or nuts. And we’re talking little boys – 3 or 4 years old in some cases.

The women and kids pester you constantly as you’re walking the street, and if you’re just trying to get somewhere, you get into a necessary habit of “no, gracias”. You’re really not paying much attention, because you know you don’t want to buy anything. But one night, on my way to a restaurant, I suddenly realized what the old woman had offered me – a beautiful piece of handmade cloth for 5 quetzales – about 80 cents. It just made me shake my head. I still didn’t need the cloth, but how dismissive we are of someone’s effort.

After that I started talking to women who would come up to us in restaurants, rather than just ignoring or brushing them off. By this point, my Spanish was getting better. One night a woman was telling me about her seven children (each one usually has a baby slung in a cloth on her back). She asked if I had any children, and I said no, I was single. She said “It’s better that way.” Seeing that I didn’t need to buy anything, she asked for some of the food I didn’t need, and of course I was glad to be able to give her something.

This same woman I spoke to in the airport said that many of these women will go all day without anything to eat. After that I was glad I had started giving them food, for which they seemed at least as happy as money. She told me that many men will have several children with a woman, then when it gets to be too much, they’ll just go onto another one, leaving a trail of women raising all their kids by themselves. Any annoyance I had at the street vendors had long since evaporated as I started to really see these women and the lives they lead. One really feels sorry for the children, if they are starting as vendors at preschool age you know they will never have a chance at anything but that. Or maybe aspire to be a tuk-tuk driver – a kind of mini-taxi with three wheels that everyone took around town. Getting the families enough support to get their kids into school was a primary goal of the volunteers in town.

Well, that’s enough about stuff!! I came here to get away from that. It is nice to buy things without packaging though, and without bags. We found a brand new open-air food market in town and it was clean enough to buy things from safely, and make a stir-fry lunch. Even the seafood and meat looked clean (though we stuck to the veggies and fruits). More later!

On to Lake Atitlan…

Well, as you can see, my ability to access the internet on the rest of the trip was pretty much non-existent, so I didn’t get to keep up. I’ll try to catch up now that I’m home (with a cold!).

My last night in Antigua, the power went out. It had been flickering quite a bit the whole time, so not too surprising. Now I know why they have candles everywhere – the beauty of the city really came alive. Candles in heavy glass holders casting their warm glow on the paths, on the floors, on the tables, ledges, hanging from the ceiling, it was lovely. Antigua is known for its ironwork, and there were wrought iron chandeliers and wall sconces everywhere.

I went out to a restaurant called Meson Panza Verde – if you’re ever in Antigua, you must go there. Especially if you’re a foodie… this has to be one of the best restaurants I’ve ever been to, anywhere. And beautiful – dining in a courtyard filled with lush greenery, candles hanging at various heights from the ceiling as if they were floating there. I had duck in a chocolate, port, and plum sauce… mmmmmmmmm. A little sweeter than mole, fabulous. And even the tabouli salad that came with it – perfect. Added bits of olive made the flavor distinctive. The whole meal was perfect, down to the last touches.

The next day I took a collective bus up to Panajachel on Lake Atitlan, where I would be spending the week. I kept waiting for the scary Guatemalan bus ride that everyone talks about – and eventually it did arrive, though not through any fault of our driver, who was quite good. Just aggressive enough to get us through the insane mishmash of city intersections, while no more so than was safe. He even honked going around curves and stayed mostly to his side of the road.

I did not have the nerve to take the “chicken buses” – the brightly painted, diesel-belching, colorfully-named testosterone driven buses that most locals ride from town to town. There appears to be no such thing as traffic lights or lanes – everyone just crowds into the road or the intersection and shoves their way forward. The chicken buses usually have someone that hops down and directs traffic long enough for them to get through the intersection, then the free-for-all resumes.

Anyway, back to the road. Things were going along well enough until we got to the mountainous areas. It wasn’t the driver, or the bus. And the roads were even in relatively decent repair, and there wasn’t a lot of traffic, nor any rain. The roads themselves were just scary, even terrifying in places, in a thrilling sort of way. Full of switchbacks, extremely steep up and down, narrow, no shoulders, amazingly abrupt drops to one side and boulders and rocks dropping into the road on the other. At one point we were high on a ridge, with cliffs falling away to either side. One could certainly see how if a driver were passing recklessly, death could certainly ensue – a fact which the crosses at various points along the road reinforced.

It’s hard to describe how incredibly steep all the landscape here is. And this is where people live and farm, their little houses precariously perched on the hillside, walking stoically up and down the hills with heavy loads of wood or food on their backs (men and mules) or heads (women). The people here are hardy and weatherworn, and used to hard labor in ways that I can’t even imagine. And the women all wearing their bright, cheerful, handmade clothing, which seems a good reflection of the Mayan temperament.

I found out later we came up the back way because the main highway was under construction, leading to long delays that the drivers weren’t willing to tolerate. So, that meant we would be taking that way down again too – something I filed away and decided not to worry about for a week :) At last, we reached the lake – much larger than I imagined and ringed with conical volcanoes. From a scenic standpoint, the one disappointment about that week was that the air was quite hazy most of the time – only once did I have a clear image of the mountains at sunset (and of course, didn’t have my camera). Still, they were quite beautiful and the ever-changing light on the volcanoes and lake was fun to watch.

Antigua, Day 2

This is such a nice end of the day, when it´s too late to be out and about, sitting by the fire and blogging about the trip. My mom does the same thing in her journals, but I´ve somehow never caught the journaling bug. It´s so different when other people can read it…

Anyway, this morning I enjoyed my breakfast on the rooftop terrace. When I heard that Thursday is market day in Antigua, I decided to postpone my trip to the hillsides until tomorrow, and make today a shopping/city exploration day. What a market it was, too!

I was joined for that part by a couple who are flying around Central America in their own small plane – what a way to travel. Nice people too. She helped me haggle, which I am notoriously bad at. I´m always like, oh, that seems reasonable :) they seem to happily drop their prices to 2/3 of where they started though, so now I at least have a benchmark.

The textiles here are amazing; I´ve never seen anything like it. Most of the fabrics are too colorful for me, the market is just a riot of color. But I do really like the woven placemats and tablecloths, I may end up with some of these before the trip is through. There is also wonderful work with leather and suede in every possible form – purses, shoes, handmade books…

And of course the food market, which is extensive. I am always sad that I can´t buy and eat things at these markets. I would hope that if you lived somewhere like this your system would eventually acclimate and it would be safer. But we had fun puzzling out the fruits and vegetables, mystery meats and fishes, and even a bowl of very small seeds, of which some were dyed various colors (there`s those colors again). That one is still a puzzle.

I shopped for jade a while longer, not really finding the right thing exactly, and had lunch in a beautiful garden courtyard. It´s strange to stand out this much – I am taller than almost everyone here, with very few exceptions. And of course much lighter of hair and skin, as almost everyone is Mayan.

I quit carrying my backpack as it was just too obvious and we were warned against it. I´m leaving almost everything in the safe and just carrying a few things in my pockets. It´s liberating actually. There´s all these older women self-consciously decked out in patagonia-type traveling gear, and students wearing very little compared to the locals. This seems to be a center for Spanish language study, and there are many extended stay schools here.

Of course, it´s hard not to stand out when the women here are wearing traditional highland clothing, carrying their babies in cloth slings or baskets and their purchases on their heads. The older women seem to carry that off with aplomb. I only saw one tourist attempting to push a baby stroller, a near impossibility in the cobblestone streets.

I got up after a nap just at sunset and spent a couple hours walking in the city at night and sitting in the central park, reading and people-watching. There were lots of young people smooching on the benches, families strolling and tourists out as well. I ate at a Peruvian restaurant which brought back good memories. The food was unusual, a pastry made of black beans and rice, filled with seafood and covered with a mild pepper sauce.

One wonderful thing is the candles that are everywhere. They light the stepping stone path to my room, and are on the floors and walls of every building at night. Another thing many stores are selling is beautiful wrought-iron candle sconces for walls, often with spreading leaves.

The quetzal, Guatemala`s national bird, is everywhere, on weavings, jewelry, art, and even the money is named after it. They´re very hard to see here though, they are more likely to be found further south in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama. I had the good luck of seeing one in Monteverde. I did add one bird to my life list this morning, the azure-crowned hummingbird :)

Hope these aren´t too long, but it´s my way of remembering what I saw. I did actually buy a one-use camera, so I´ll have a few pictures, too.

Antigua, Guatemala

Here I am, after a night and day of travel, enjoying my pretty little hotel in Antigua, Casa Encantada. The airport was efficient and the driver was waiting as promised, he was relatively restrained and the road was reasonably wide so no hair-raising moments yet, though I´m sure they will come later in the trip.

Antigua is an enjoyable colonial town set deep in a valley with green-clad mountains ringing it. My room is reached from the sitting room of the hotel through a flooded courtyard garden on stepping stones :) It has a lovely rooftop terrace where one can sip drinks while gazing out over the town. And a house computer with wireless, hence the blog!

Today I fought off the urge to sleep though I was too tired once I got here to do anything much useful – I wandered out into Central Park and enjoyed the people and the warmth, browsed through the shops, and explored some neighboring streets.

Odd impressions – the beautiful central square was ringed with expensive shops and banks, hence many more men with guns than I am used to seeing – mostly private guards I gathered, for the banks and shops. I dodged the men with guns and got some money from an ATM, and spent some time poring over an interesting jade shop.

This is apparently a very famous area for jade and they did have many fine specimens, though more worked into fancy jewelry than I prefer. There are very unusual colors here, light lavender, orange, yellow, and all shades of green, red, and black. The salesman did a great job interesting me and even gave me unworked specimens in a little Guatemalan purse, but I did not buy anything – I am told the market is very good at Pantajachel where I am going next and I expect the prices will be lower.

I next went in search of trees, as Antigua is remarkably birdless. This is not too surprising if you just glance at the contrast between the town and the surrounding hillsides, no self-respecting bird would prefer the town (other than the ubiquitous white-winged doves which are the rock doves of Latin America). However, I could see an area with trees so I headed off in that direction.

Of course, it turned out to be a private gated community, with tantalizing trees over high walls. Everything in these Spanish towns is like that – all the good stuff is in courtyards behind high walls with enormous polished wooden doors. Someday I want to have one of those lovely courtyards with exotic plants, hammocks, arches and shaded areas with outdoor living. Further down the road I found that another area with trees was a coffee plantation.

On the other side, I finally saw an open gate and went through it, to find a large nursery. This was interesting, I wandered around it for a while, looking at exotic irises and fruit trees, until I came to the coffee plants and realized you could grow your own coffee :) Now that would be a fun project – but extremely complicated to actually make coffee, as I understand.

I had a simple dinner at the cafe there and headed back to the hotel for a nap, getting up later to try to stay up late enough to get back on the right schedule. Tomorrow I´m going to get up in those hills one way or another :) I talked with some people at the rooftop bar about places to go – coffee plantations, musical instrument museum, churches and hotels on the hills with great views of the town. I also need to buy some disposable cameras and take some pictures or my Mom will kill me!

Hasta mañana!