I feel like I’ve just discovered Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World. I’m in a small water taxi – a lancha – bouncing across Lake Atitlan in the highlands of southwestern Guatemala. Surrounded by Maya women wearing traditional colourful skirts and blouses, I do my best to blend in with the bicycles, sugar cane, bags of potatoes, and appliances. The women giggle at my flowery shirt and embarrassingly white legs. I smile back, happy to be in one of the most beautiful and affordable places in Central America.
These days, travel, especially international travel, has become a luxury. Many people think that with today’s economy, they have to give the getaways up. Luckily, there are still places that are not only affordable, they might be the best place to ride out the recession.
You may have heard about the Maya calendar and the supposed end of the world this coming December. Don’t let this throw you off. The calendar simply resets and doesn’t portend doomsday.
It’s the middle of the dry season and the weather is perfect. A couple of puffy clouds hang lazily against the bright blue sky. It’s warm, about 25 degrees. It’s like this almost every day. No need for a weather forecast.
Between the bounces on the waves, I catch fleeting glimpses of a small town in the shadow of a big mountain. The mountain is actually the dormant volcano San Pedro that towers more than 3000 metres above sea level. The town climbing up it is San Pedro la Laguna. The la Laguna suffix distinguishes this San Pedro from dozens of other San Pedros in the region and denotes its lakeside location.
San Pedro is both typically Guatemalan and uniquely not. It is one of several towns that ring Lake Atitlan. The lake, formed by massive eruptions 85,000 years ago, is cradled by dormant volcanoes, thick with lush green vegetation. Lake Atitlan is so deep (340 metres) that portions of it have never been explored.
Over the years I’ve found that most destinations sit on a sliding scale: If they’re beautiful, they’re expensive. If they’re cheap, there’s always a drawback: crime, bugs, war. Guatemala certainly has a very serious crime problem in many areas and you should exercise caution wherever you go (especially in the capital and near the border with Mexico).
But San Pedro la Laguna really is the best of both worlds. There is very little serious crime, the area is breathtakingly beautiful and it’s easy on the finances. You can live here very comfortably for about $25 a day including accommodation.
Most visitors first arrive at Guatemala City’s La Aurora International Airport. There are several ways to make the four-hour journey to San Pedro, but private shuttles are the most comfortable and reliable. There are direct shuttles to San Pedro, but to really experience the setting, take a shuttle to Panajachel ($28), the most developed town on Lake Atitlan. This will give you the opportunity to ride a water taxi across the lake. For a mere $4 you’ll be left speechless by the spectacular view.
Of the 13,000 people that live in San Pedro, most are indigenous Maya. Amongst themselves they generally speak Tz’utujil (soo-too-heel), one of three traditional languages spoken around the lake. However Spanish is the working language. Another of San Pedro’s charms is that locals greet you when you’re out and about – a rare thing anywhere.
There is also a small English-speaking ex-pat community made up of people who came here on holiday and never left. Knowing that I too could live comfortably here for very little, it makes me wonder if I might become one of them.
San Pedro sits at 1500 metres above sea level and there are some serious hills to contend with. You’ll hit the first one at the town’s main dock, where there is a short, steep climb to the area known locally as “the vortex”. This is where most people enter San Pedro’s tourist area.
In addition to a number of bars and restaurants, there are also several affordable hotels here. You’ll also find tourist agencies that offer transportation services and can arrange activities ranging from kayaking to horseback rides up the volcano. But be warned, this part of town is noisy and attracts the hippy crowd.
There isn’t much traffic in town, but you will notice dozens of red tuktuks buzzing around. These are the small three-wheeled bubble taxis that are so common in Southeast Asia. They’re also a great deal: a flat rate of about 70 cents anywhere around town. Stay out of their way, though. Pedestrians have few rights.
Away from the vortex, things become more relaxed. Heading east takes you to a tuktuk-free path that parallels the lake and leads to the far side of town. Officially, this is 7th Aveneda, but everyone calls it the Gringo trail. It’s home to more hotels, restaurants, shops and friendly bars.
At the end of the Gringo trail is my favorite place to relax: La Piscina – a swimming pool/bar that is a little oasis in the middle of an oasis. You can swim in the lake, but the pool is a better and cleaner option.
Despite its amenities, San Pedro is still a genuine Guatemalan town. Walking up the road to the centre of town you’ll discover that the higher you go, the more traditional San Pedro gets.
At the top is the real heart of San Pedro: the mercado (the market). Some visitors never make it here, which is a shame because this is where you get the true flavour of the area. It’s where residents buy their produce, traditional fabrics and goods of all kinds. I love coming up here to try bargaining in my fractured Spanish.
Spanish schools are one of the town’s big draws. A week of four-hour, one-on-one classes costs about $100, although that much instruction can be a little overwhelming. Start slow and ramp it up, otherwise you’ll be conjugating verbs all night. There’s an added benefit to taking Spanish classes: it’s a great excuse to stay longer.
If you don’t feel like sitting in class, you can fill your days hiking the local mountains, visiting neighboring villages, horseback riding, exploring the two museums, scuba diving, kayaking or doing nothing at all.
With all the positives, there is one drawback you should be aware of: you may not want to leave.
San Pedro official website: www.tzununya.com
Inguat – Guatemala’s tourism agency: www.visitguatemala.com