We left Antigua last Monday to take a shuttle to the lakeside town of Panajachel, Guatemala. We used EcoAdventures for our shuttle arrangements, as well as for our tour of Iximiche, and we found them to be mostly prompt and professional. We were scheduled for a 12:30 p.m. pick up, and they arrived about 20 minutes early. Luckily, we were just about ready to go when they arrived. We said goodbye to our kind hosts at LaCasita de Roca, and were the first on the shuttle to Panajachel. By the time we left Antigua, however, the shuttle was packed! The four of us squeezed into the back row in order to sit together.
The drive was a of couple hours, and the beautiful road to Lake Atitlan was quite curvy; we just hung on and tried not to look out the window during the last 30 minutes of the ride, as we switchbacked our way down towards the lake.
When we arrived, we drove several blocks, past markets and restaurants and vendors, through the busy streets of Panajachel. In town, the driver pulled up to a side road near the lake and told everyone, in Spanish, to hop off. Those who got off before us were immediately swarmed by tuk tuk drivers offering to transport them to their lodging. While I’m not usually one to make a big fuss, we had been assured, when booking the transportation, that we would be driven directly to our hotel. This was even written on our ticket, which was in the driver’s possession at this point. I was not trying to be difficult, but there was no way I was going to drag my husband and two kids, with all our bags, through an unfamiliar town when we’d paid to be dropped off at our hotel. The driver kept telling us to get off, and I kept telling my kids not to move and telling Jon, who was out on the sidewalk, not to let him take our bags off the roof. The driver finally gave in, asked a vendor the directions to our small hotel, Hospedaje El Viajero, and drove us to the entrance. It was only a few blocks away, but I honestly could not have handled lugging our stuff around the busy, cobbled streets with no clear idea of where, exactly, we were going.
Despite my annoyance with the shuttle driver, I was immediately charmed by the small, family hotel where the staff spoke no English. It was two stories, at the end of a flower-lined, cobbled walkway, built around a small, lush courtyard that was inhabited by a green, talking parrot. So lovely! It only had 9 or 10 guest rooms, and we were in a family room, with a private bathroom, upstairs. With an extra twin bed, it only came to about $45/night.
After learning about the hotel and the area from the staff, and settling in, we decided to walk the two blocks to the lakefront and then check out the town. Panajachel is a busy town, and we explored much of it on foot that evening. We finally ended up too tired to go to the market for groceries, so we ate dinner at a delicious restaurant, Guajimbo’s, up the street from our hotel.
We ordered way too much food, and, with a final tab of about $45, blew our entire budget for dining in Panajachel, but it was delicious! In addition to our bread and cheese appetizers, I had chorizo, Mic had a veggie soup, Daisy ate pasta, and Jon enjoyed stuffed chicken (the Super Pollo)! We relaxed at the outdoor restaurant, with a view of the busy Calle Santander out front, and drank lemonades and horchata. In the end, it was a lovely dinner, which was only slightly marred by the numerous, persistent vendors trying to sell us items while we sat in the restaurant.
It’s hard to avoid the street vendors, all desperate to make their sales, and many of them children. Jon is so polite that he couldn’t help but make eye contact and compliment their wares, but that just made people more hopeful for a sale and, therefore, more persistent. There were times when, due to his reluctance to be rude, he was surrounded by multiple old women or children and he literally couldn’t move forward. I felt bad, but I eventually got to the point where I would just firmly say “No gracias. Adios,” and walk on. I did not want to give vendors the hope that we were going to buy something if they persisted; I’d rather they try their luck elsewhere, where they might have the chance at a successful sale!
After dinner, we walked down the busy, main street back to our hotel, where there were many families upstairs and out in the courtyard. People were talking, eating, drinking coffee, and playing cards. Some spoke Spanish, others French. I loved the cozy, family-friendly atmosphere combined with the international flair!
Once we were all tucked into bed, Monday night was spent listening to the wind roaring outside, wondering if it was going to tear off any parts of the hotel. Whenever the wind died down, we would hear the snarling of the street dogs, so lethargic during the day, and so determined to guard their territory and prove their superior fighting skills at night! Finally, roosters next door started crowing around 4:00 in the morning. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep much on our first night in Panajachel!
Tuesday, we got a late start and explored a bit beyond the immediate vicinity. We dropped off a bag of laundry at a shop down the road, and then wandered through busy streets to another part of town, where we bought baked fruit pastries and meat pies for breakfast. Moments later, on a street lined with food vendors and produce booths, we bought fruit cups overflowing with watermelon, mango, pineapple, papaya, and honeydew. In the end, our entire breakfast cost us less than $8, which almost made up for our dining extravagance the previous evening.
After a quick stop back at the hotel, we made our way to the Atitlan Nature Reserve. It was a short, but steep walk up a winding highway, then down a long, quiet road past some hotels and farms. We finally got there only to realize that there was an entrance fee (not mentioned on their website)! I had dragged everyone out there, so I felt that we had to check it out. I grudgingly paid the entrance fee, and it ended up being worth the $30 it cost for all of us to get in.
At the reserve, we immediately saw a group of coati crossing a creek. Next, we explored the butterfly garden where Daisy was completely enchanted by the numerous, brightly colored butterflies. After the garden, we hiked uphill, through a forest, over swinging bridges hanging across ravines, and then down a steep, rocky slope to the lakefront. There, the girls splashed in the water for a bit. I tried to find a way to walk along the lake back to the visitors center, but it was fully blocked. So, after relaxing by the water for a time, we made the steep trek back up, over the bridges, and through the woods (to the visitors center we go)!
Back at the center, though we were tired, we couldn’t resist hiking another trail to view some spider monkeys. After a short walk to an observation deck, we saw two of them in the trees, and they came a bit closer as one of the staff tossed bananas towards them. It was cool to see them, but I’m more excited to catch distant glimpses of monkeys in their natural environment.
Finally, thoroughly exhausted, we left the reserve and located a tuk tuk driver right outside the parking lot. Daisy asked and informed us that it was 10 quetzales for a ride into town, which is only a couple dollars. We were like, “Great! Let’s do it!” It was a brief, bumpy ride into town, where we asked the driver to drop us off at the supermercado. When Daisy handed him the 10q, he seemed confused. Turns out, it was 10q per person. Still well worth it to avoid the walk, but I had to laugh at our ignorance and his confused look!
Since the hotel offered use of a small kitchen (very important to us on these travels) we stocked up on supplies for our remaining meals. Our usual kitchen staples include meat, veggies, fruit, yogurt, Nutella, bread, cheese, bottled drinks, and some easily portable snacks such as crackers and granola bars.
Daisy and I carried the groceries home while Jon and Mic picked up the laundry, which only cost about $20 for them to wash, dry, and fold. We have not yet found any self service laundry facilities in our travels outside of North America. Back at the hotel, Jon made us nachos, upon Mickie’s request, and we ate outside on the small courtyard patio. We had scheduled a hiking tour, so we prepared for an early start to the following day.
Wednesday was spent engaging in an exhausting and exhilarating adventure around the lake. Our guide, Alejandro, from Los Elementos Adventure Center, came by the hotel at 8:30 to pick us up. He walked us down to the boat dock, where water taxis come by every 20 minutes or so to ferry passengers to the many towns around Lake Atitlan. We hopped on a crowded boat and took a short ride to the neighboring town of Santa Cruz. There, we started our Lower Mayan Trail hike with Alejandro!
It was an incredibly beautiful hike, but we were not prepared for how strenuous it would be! Much of it was along a narrow, rocky trail, up steep hills. While everyone else in my family was wearing boots, I was still wearing the only pair of closed-toe shoes I’d brought with me- Skecher memory foam sneakers with the right toe seam that was gradually ripping further and further free from the sole. I had bought a pair of fake Timberlands the previous day, but, unfortunately, they gave me blisters after three blocks. Serves me right for buying $25 boots from a random, but very nice, street vendor!
Despite my footwear issues, the hike was awesome and Alejandro was amazing! He answered questions, chatted with the kids, took frequent breaks for us, and shared local history and knowledge, all with an amazingly upbeat attitude and infectious laugh. He and Jon shared similar childhood stories and interests, so they joked that either Alejandro might be from rural Alabama, or Jon is actually a Guatemalan country boy. They were too funny with their stories and jokes about milking cows and hunting squirrels and growing their own food.
We hiked for about three hours, through lots of wilderness and two small towns, before stopping at a tiende for snacks and drinks, and then hopping on a water taxi to our ultimate destination, the hippie town of San Marcos. There, we explored a little, visited a chocolate shop, and bought some produce for our dinner. Back at the San Marcos dock, we hopped on another water taxi for a VERY bumpy ride back to Panajachel. Daisy had the time of her life bouncing on her seat with each wave and sticking her head out the window to get splashed in the face. Jon and I, on the other hand, were nervous that we might actually break something in our less flexible backs!
Alejandro dropped us back off at our hotel, and, being short on quetzales, we tipped him with every American bill we had left in our possession. We truly could not have imagined a better day on the lake!
After our long day of exploring, we rested a bit before Jon and Daisy ventured out into town to buy some fresh tortillas. They came back to make us a fabulous dinner of tacos with carne asada, tomatoes, peppers, onions, and avocado, which we ate out on the patio.
On Thursday, our last day in the area, we had booked a shuttle with EcoAdventures to the nearby town of Chichicastenango, with its world-famous, weekly outdoor market covering 40 square blocks! There, we spent several hours exploring the market, admiring the handcrafted items for sale at hundreds of booths, checking out the stalls of food and produce vendors, and avoiding the persistent street vendors. We practiced our Spanish, and our bargaining skills, and walked away with some of the few gifts and souvenirs we have allowed ourselves to purchase during our world travels.
When we became overwhelmed by the crowds, we stepped into the oasis of a small courtyard, Restaurante Casa San Juan, where we sat down and ordered some fruit drinks and light snacks. This provided a necessary respite from the busy maze of the Chichicastenango market. We made it to our shuttle with a few minutes to spare, and I think we all dozed a bit on the ride back to Panajachel!
After a bit of a rest, we spent our last night in town on the always-busy Calle Santander, where we bought three types of Argentinian empanadas and got some chimchurri sauce and green picante sauce to go with them. We brought them back to the hotel to enjoy one last meal in the courtyard!
We had a shuttle pick up scheduled for 9:00 the next morning, so we packed up and showered on Thursday night. Our Friday morning shuttle from Panajachel to Antigua only had two other passengers, so it was a comfortable two hours. We walked around and got mochas during a short wait in Antigua, and then another pretty jam-packed shuttle took us the final leg, which was the hourlong ride from Antigua to Guatemala City.
We had a 5:40 a.m. flight scheduled from Guatemala City to Lima, Peru on Saturday. We had found a hostel on Booking.com, with a private room and bathroom, that was right next to the airport. The accommodations at Guatefriends were simple and a bit pricey, but the hostel was clean, friendly, and offered free shuttle service to the airport at 4:00 in the morning. Pretty much just what we needed for our last night in Guatemala! We couldn’t find a quick, inexpensive dinner in the immediate vicinity so, with the help of the kind lady at the front desk, we ordered delivery from the recommended pizzeria, Romano’s. We ate an early dinner on the rooftop patio and, after a couple games of Battleship in the game room, we set our alarms for 3:00 a.m. and tried to get some sleep. Hostels aren’t known to offer an especially quite environment, but by about 10:00, we were all fast asleep.
After our 3:00 wake up, it was a long and sometimes stressful day of travel (don’t even get me started on the insanity of our layover in Mexico City’s international airport). But the girls are incredible travelers and, late Saturday evening, we finally arrived in Lima, Peru!