Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
My second weekend here in Guatemala got off to an instructive start on Friday afternoon as I was wandering around San Pedro, looking for legitimate wifi connections (a new favorite pastime of mine in this wifi starved town). Spotting a cafe that boldly advertised their wifi, I entered, ordered an espresso for 10 quetzals, and then rooted into my wallet for some cash. All I had was a 100 quetzal bill (the exchange rate is roughly 7 quetzals to the dollar, so a 100 represents approximately 14 dollars), which I handed to the barista and then waited for change. After an oddly long period of digging through the cash register, the barista handed me a nearly complete set of Guatemalan currency denominations: 2 one-half quetzal coins, 10 one quetzal coins, 4 one quetzal bills, 9 five quetzal bills, and 3 ten quetzal bills. (Just a 20 quetzal bill short of Bingo!) As I moved from the bar to a table to sort through my cornucopia of cash, I asked the barista for the wifi password. “No esta trabajando. No hoy,” she said with a smile on her face. Both the Spanish (“Wifi does not work, not today”) and the smile (the barista’s personal amusement at denying wifi to this Internet-addicted gringo with 28 new pieces of Guatemalan currency) were easy to interpret. I took my expresso to go and headed into the weekend, having learned a few key lessons to apply in Guatemala moving forward: ask if the wifi works before you order and avoid large discrepancies in cash payed versus cashed owed.
This past Friday evening began with dinner at my host family’s place, where they asked me questions about my plans for the weekend in extremely slow, “present-tense and simple words-only” Spanish (“QUE…HAC…ES…ES…TA…NO…CHE…REEEEEE…CHARD?”). After dealing with this now familiar mix of discomfort and amusement I experience when interacting with my host family, I headed over to Hostel Fe’s bar for the weekly trivia game. This game, hyped up by the Spanish schools and hostels in town, seems to be what kicks off the weekend nightlife in San Pedro. And we fell right into proper form: San Pedro Spanish School students were split between two teams, the La Coopertiva Spanish school students comprised another team, and the guests of various hostels throughout town formed 5 or 6 more teams. The game itself, however, did not quite live up to the hype. The 40-question, 2.5 hour death march was conducted by a drunk Australian making angry jokes of scant comedic value. My new Australian friend Bill even apologized to me after the game for this poor showing by his fellow countryman, affirming that the humor was not lost in some cultural translation (“No mate, not even funny for an Australian!”) The highlight was mostly certainly the guy who jumped out of the bar into the lake in response to a 50-quetzal challenge issued by the honorable master of ceremonies (as the bar is situated on Lake Atitlan, this is actually possible if you can hurdle the barrier that keeps sane, rational humans inside the bar and out of the lake).
The evening improved as I stopped into San Pedro’s premier dance club Sublime for a few hours where I got to witness the “who’s who” of San Pedro nightlife, which includes the hard partying Israelis (who notoriously make their way through Central and South America after they complete their time in the IDF), the Spanish school students, the local Guatemalans who party with (or creep on, depending on who you ask) the tourists, the mish-mash of international travelers (mostly from Europe), this local frat star guy named Sergio who seems to know everyone in town, and, of course, your smattering of drunk Australians (for the record, there are absolutely respectable, not drunk Australians; I’ve met two real, live examples of them in this town that buck the stereotype). The night ended at a hostel pool party, which I left on the “early” side to make it safe and sound into my homestay a little before 2 am.
I awoke Saturday morning at 9 am (painfully early after a late night) in order to eat breakfast with my host family, where it quickly became clear that they were aware of my late arrival home last night. “Muchas fiestas anoche, Reeechard?” my madre said with a grin. “Solo una fiesta pequeña,” I fudged with questionable grammar and pronunciation. My padre then chimed in with a grin “Trabajas las chicas?” (Translation: “You are working the ladies?”). I smiled, shook my head, and dove into the bowl of cornflakes in front of me, deflecting further lines of questioning by these newfound comedians.
Refusing to let a late night derail my Saturday, I linked up with Will — an American from Atlanta I met on the hike up Volcan Pacaya the week before last — and three friends of his that he had met while hostel-hopping through Central America. Our goal for the day was to climb up Indian Nose, a mountain ridge near San Pedro whose outline is shaped like a man’s face with the peak being the “nose.” (See pictures below). This ridge offers stunning views of Lake Atitlan and is one of the most popular hikes in the area. To get there, the five of us took a local “chicken bus” out of San Pedro to the trailhead for the ~30 minute hike up to the ridge (Quick note on chicken buses: These are hilariously tricked-out old school buses from the United States that bus operators in Central America buy via auction, tow down to Central America, and repaint with outrageous color schemes that include the newly christened names for the bus. The one we took on Saturday was named “Melissa”.) The bus dropped us off in the local village of Santa Clara where we struck out on a trail through a cornfield. After only a few minutes of hiking, we got to a fork in the trail. Looking up the trail to the right, we could see a local Guatemalan man ~100 yards away, waving at us with a machete, encouraging us to follow him. To the left, we could see another Guatemalan man also ~100 yards up the road, waving us down his path. We choose the path on the left given this man was not waving with a machete.
After following the man on the left for about a quarter mile, we arrived at a makeshift gate in the trail that the man opened and ushered us through. The little man (who topped out at approximately 5’5”) introduced himself as Miguel, the owner of the property that includes the trail to top of the ridge. Miguel seemed very happy to see us, as evidenced by the hugs he gave each of us as he introduced himself. Miguel seemed especially happy to see the three girls with Will and I, as evidenced by the kisses he snuck in while hugging them. Miguel’s friendliness made quite a bit more sense once he asked us for a fee, which we negotiated down to 20 quetzals/person. After paying, he guided us up the ridge, stopping us at prime lookout points to gaze down to the lake below and take pictures. The views were absolute stunning of Lake Atitlan and its surrounding volcanoes. (Check out the pics below!) When we arrived at the top of his property, we realized we had not yet made it to the very top of the ridge, which we could see further above along with a few more Guatemalan men waving us up towards them. Miguel called these men “bandidos” and told us to stay away. (The likelier story is that these “bandidos” owned the property further up the ridge and were just some old fashioned competition for Miguel.) After a few minutes at the “top”, Miguel led us back down the ridge and, at his property line, pointed us the right direction down. We said goodbye to Miguel and headed down, but not before some more hugs…and kisses for the girls.
After a relatively relaxed rest of Saturday, I woke early on Sunday to meet some of my schoolmates to make the trek over to San Marcos, the hippie town across the lake from San Pedro that features classic hippie activities like meditation, yoga, crystal healing, flower healing, drum-making, mushroom growing classes, and tarot card readings. I am at least 4 to 5 months of unemployment away from feeling the sense of desperation that would motivate me to engage in most of these activities, but I figured a yoga class on the lake with some of my schoolmates would be cool.
The yoga class was in a beautiful location in a dock by the lake with a clear view of several volcanoes across the water. The class itself was a relatively normal sequence of hatha yoga poses; however, our instructor informed us that she was on a bit of a tight schedule as she needed to consult a local shaman over a mug of cacao promptly 25 mins after the class was scheduled to end. This, understandably, elicited some questions from our end, and we learned that this consultation would last 5 hours, the requisite amount of time for both the chocolate and the shaman to do the work needed to take clients to a spiritual plane. Curious about the identity of this “chocolate shaman”, my classmates and I did a bit of research found out this guy’s name is Keith. Keith is from the well-known spiritual homeland for authentic shamans (Pennsylvania), and charges tourists up to 200Q to attend his biweekly cacao ceremonies. The Internet has quite a bit to say about this chocolate shaman which you can find if you search “cacao shaman san marcos.” I do think I trust this TripAdvisor review the most.
I spent the rest of the afternoon swimming off of a San Marcos dock with my hiking friends from Saturday before taking one of the last boats back to San Pedro last night to get a good night’s sleep in before classes this week. I switched my classes to the afternoon this week in order to get some free-time in the relatively drier mornings. And Keith, the chocolate shaman, has a ceremony on Wednesday — if the chocolate spirit calls, I will answer and report back!