A week in the Mayan world of San Pedro la Laguna, Lake Atitlan

At 4:40 AM our alarms chirped us out of a sleepy dreamland and into the reality of a very early morning.  Our ride out of this wilderness was a man that helped run the hostel who was a combination of an uncle back home and a Guatemalan Rob Schneider.  He was all whistles, jokes, and smiles on only 3 hours of sleep while we were packing ourselves and our gear into the back of his pickup truck.  A Mayan family waited patiently at the end of the driveway for us to back out onto the road and give them a free lift.  A mother and father helped their kids into the covered bed before sitting contently on the tailgate.  The mother wore a traditional woven skirt while the husband was wearing dress pants, a button up shirt, and shoes that were a few sizes too big.  We set off, picking up more hitchers en route during the long, bumpy, and slick road back into Lanquin.

                                          

                                          

The route to San Pedro was very, very long.  The mountains that morning held a thick fog close to them that I refused to look away from.  Every once in a while our driver would zip around slower moving trucks, weaving through moving and oncoming traffic in these seemingly unpredictable mountainous pathways.  After only a few days in Guatemala I am convinced that if they had a Formula 1 racing team they would be the unprecedented champions of the world.  The driver knew every single square inch of his machine.  Trucks packed to the extreme limits of human capacity passed us going in the opposite direction.   Volcanoes and steep hillsides began dominating the landscape as we forged on westbound.  Villages and communities would momentarily appear and disappear, separated by the hilly terrain.   Road cuts were often vertically constructed into the clay rich soils to provide a flat hillside surface for the highway.  The lack of engineering in road construction is something to be aware of in these countries.  I spotted numerous natural disasters waiting to happen and those that already did along the way.  Some hair pin turns looked more like someone was smoothing soil-based frosting with an earth-sized spatula rather than bolstering the slope for landslide and rockfall prevention.  Huge, car sized clumps of clay appeared roadside from time to time when too much rain saturated the exposed hillsides.  But this soon became normal too, like everything that is a bit shocking at first, with a little more exposure.

                                          

                                          

Gigantic volcanoes began rising from the earth as we encroached on the lake.  When the road began descending down into the crater our crammed van began switch-backing the seriously steep entrance, affording chance views of the enormous body of water that is Lake Atitlan. My window side view looking over the edge of the asphalt was not for the faint of heart.  There was no more than worn guardrails offering protection from certain death on the opposite side of the road’s extremities.  We entered several rough-and-tumble Mayan villages prior to San Pedro.  We sat wide eyed behind the looking glass watching the lives of indigenous locals in these smoke filled cobble roads.  When we entered San Pedro we were in the middle of an ex-pat lakeside village filled with bars, hostels, hotels, and restaurants. After a 10 minute walk we had found our destination and the main reason for our tenure: the Cooperativa Spanish school of San Pedro.  20 minutes later we were at Rosa’s casa getting settled into our Mayan family home stay for the week.

                                          

Rosa’s family instantly stole our hearts.  Rosa was a short, weathered, hard working Mayan woman who established a relationship with the Spanish school to provide food and housing for home stay students.  Every morning at 8 am she would make her daily trip to the market to buy the necessary food items for the day’s meal.  We were very fortunate to have our home stay here as she was an excellent cook and a very friendly, warm human.   She prepared fresh tortillas daily to serve with a simplistically delicious mix of rice, beans, eggs, fruit, pancakes,  some meat, and lots of veggies.  All of her meals were cooked using a wood burning stove.  Domingo, the father, worked up in the volcanic hillside cultivating beans, corn, and coffee.  His pay was the fruits of his labor, getting portions of each of the three crops harvested to use for food and bartering purposes.  He was up and out the door around 5:30 every day, regardless of the weather, and appeared again late in the evening around supper time.  They had three children, the youngest of which was 18, and a beautiful 1 year old granddaughter named Flor de Maria.

                                          

                                          

Flor was the daughter of Sebastien and Rosa’s daughter-in-law Andrea.  Flor literally learned how to walk before her eyes, needing guidance and helping hands with each little step when we first arrived before graduating to full on stumbling around, kicking cans, and general exploration of a new world of opportunities.  Andrea couldn’t have been more proud of her daughter.  She spent her days  helping with house chores of cleaning dishes, tidying up, and hand washing the family’s laundry.  Spanish was practiced at all times during our visit for the complete language immersion experience and the conversations with Andrea were always pleasantly genuine.

                                          

                                          

The Cooperativa de San Pedro was built into the hillside offering gorgeously distracting views of the lake.  Our one-on-one classes were spent under mini thatched roof huts equipped with rain flaps and a light.  Being a cooperativa, all teachers were payed fair wages by the school making it much more appealing than a purely for-profit organization.   Classes were taught by Mayan men and women who learned Spanish as a second language and spoke very pure and clear.   The pace and homework load depended solely on you and your teacher.   After school activities offered us a movie about a Guatemalan protest that stopped a strip mine and a conferencia about the Guatemalan genocide during the 80’s.  Further discussions with our teachers shed light on the indigenous culture in respect to the problems they encountered with the government.  Our travels are constantly exposing a lot of US involvement with Latin American governments, specifically concerning communistic fears with indigenous populations in Guatemala.  Our casa’s father, Domingo, lost his only brother during the genocide and has that painful memory burned into his mind forever.

We usually tend to get deeper into what life is like in such unique, simple villages and easily became aware of how tightly knit this little family town was.  The entire village knew each other and was very involved in church, holidays, birthdays, and fiestas.  It was refreshing to see the impact that the preservation of family traditions had on this culture and community.  It was unheard of for families to break apart and children were always celebrated as one of the best joys of life.   During our stay news broke that a Guatemalan girl from the village had died in California.  That same day we saw a Mayan funeral procession going up the hill to the church in the city center mourning the death of this native villager.  Women were dressed in their ornate, traditional dresses with scarves over their heads with their children and husbands carrying candles in the rain.  They were all singing a slow, low song in remembrance accompanied by guitars and accordions matching the tune of their painful pace.

Tourism here is both a blessing and a curse.  It brings in money to those that can capitalize on the influx, but it also twists the culture in ways that are not natural to the town.  The lower tourist section is a bevy of attractive hostels, bars, cafes, restaurants, and tourism agencies and is almost completely segregated from the town itself.  I’ve since spoken with travelers who didn’t even know there was an actual Mayan part of town just up the hill from the ex-pat center.  Tourism in San Pedro has also brought drugs into this small town.  Any walk around town has a younger crowd of Mayan teenagers offering you a wide array of hallucinogenics, narcotics, and pot.  Conversations with other travelers confirmed that drugs were readily attainable and cheap.  My teacher at the cooperativa made sullen, honest comments about how younger adults resort to selling drugs because the money is better than other types of work available.  A hotel owner died the previous year on a drug overdose, which is a world that these honest Mayan people would never know of if not for negative tourism.  I saw this as a wedge that was creating a gap between the traditional family ties in a rapidly changing modern world.  We choose to travel consciously knowing the impact our presence can have and wish that more would do the same.

                                          

                                          

Our week at school came and went, and our stay with Rosa’s family also concluded, coincidentally, on Father’s day.  For our parting gift to our Mayan family we wanted to give them useful things that would actually help out in life.  We left a care package including new clothespins (they had been tying clothes on the lines to dry in the sun), a butane grill lighter for their in-house wood fired stove, chocolates, flashlights, and a card thanking them for everything.  During our first supper there I noticed that their kitchen was devoid of family photos.  At the end of the week we asked if they were interested in a portraiture session.  Rosa said she would love that because they didn’t even have a single photograph of Flor who was just over a year old.  We set up a time one morning and shot away.  The only place to print out large digital prints was in Panajachel, a larger city across the lake.  We spent an afternoon taking a boat taxi, hunting down frames, and printing out their new memories.  We were amazed by the quality of the prints and the amazingly touching moments that were captured of Rosa and her family.  When we handed them the photos I heard “precioso” for the first time.  It was around then when we came up with the idea for Penny Karma, a small micro-donation page set up to help pay for Flor’s additional cleft-palate surgeries that were tormenting the family.  Over the course of July we raised approximately 200$ that we are sending through a teacher at the cooperativa to give to the family.

If you like what we are doing and want to help keep our virtual piggy bank going then you are only a few clicks away from spreading some good karma.

                                          

Below is an excerpt I wrote one morning in San Pedro.  It might be obvious that I was in love with the experience in this Mayan village.

Rain is falling at an unprecedented rate outside, pummeling the aluminum roofing of our little Mayan abode in San Pedro while I gather my thoughts about life in this wonderful little Guatemalan bubble.  I’m learning more and more that the trick to writing while in a location is to lightly touch the delicate microcosm before it pops in your hand, wiping out the important flavors that your tongue can only appreciate while in direct contact with the food itself.  Details are best described while still looking at the bubble, watching the colors swirl around the world in your hand and seeing the people, the land, the air itself all while completely immersed inside of its churning gears. 

Everything appears more clearly while writing in moment. The sweets taste sweeter and the rain feels like it has always been, the same rain that has passed over the pores of the dozens of generations before you.  Its the same sweet water that brings life to the land while the land gives back life in return.  Holy rain.  Rain clouds have been looming around San Pedro on and off all week and tend to float in daily and then stick around like a bad mood until they finally can’t let out any more deliciously cool drops.  When the rain finally does stop I’ve never seen greener greens in the trees and plants of this unprecedentedly deep volcanic laden lake.  I’ve never seen skies bluer than when the clouds disperse mid morning.  I’ve never tasted crisp, cooler air than when heavy rains roll in, stopping all outdoor routines for the day.  The rains produce torrents of water gliding on top of the over sized cobbles beneath your feet.  These things are all a daily normalcy this time of year.  Come October there won’t be a drop of water for months.



Life starts early in San Pedro.  This small Mayan town greets the sun at around 5 AM but daily chores, routines, and rituals can start before the deepest lake in Central American can see it’s own reflection.   During our stay it was not uncommon to hear the school’s marching band creating a pulse in this tiny hillside village with deep rhythmic percussion accompanied by horns at dawn. The smell of burning pine wafts throughout the village as families prepare food in their open wood burning stoves.  From the roof top just about every house has smoke billowing out from little chimneys or even through the gaps between the aluminum metal roofing held down by cinder blocks, rocks, or other forms of stationary placeholders.   Small woodworking shops cut through the smoky mountain air while dogs join in harmony barking out their concerns.  Deafening cannon-like blasts shoot off randomly throughout each day as part of a ritual of some sort from sources unknown but always seemingly cerca.  Birds weigh down the citrus and avocado trees hanging over the small yard of Rosa’s casa and chime in when the sun rises as well.  Andrea begins washing clothes and dishes in the outdoor laundry station just before breakfast.

The clouds and fog hang over the lake every day and on great days disperses, letting iridescent light shine onto the deep, teal water.   Small fishing boats bob around on the surface of this seemingly abyssal body of water as part of their everyday routines.    Fresh, good coffee can be easily procured in this small hill town.   Banana bread is never that far away from you when you walk through the more frequented paths.  Fresh fruit, vegetables, poultry, woven fabrics, clothes, and household items can be found in the center of town at the mercado.   Guatemalan’s taking a siesta during the day appear the small walking alleyways between houses. 

I am in a land where tuk-tuks can be found humming down footpaths seemingly too small for their own dimensions.  Mayan women dressed in beautiful, traditional clothing are accompanied by their tiny daughters dressed in the same.  It was a refreshingly safe hideout where trouble could only possibly be around if you went looking for it, but the place was devoid any reasons to begin with.   I’ve found myself right here, completely absorbed by a 5AM sunrise over looking the rooftops and onto the completely still lake.  I think I could live in a place like this.

18 thoughts on “A week in the Mayan world of San Pedro la Laguna, Lake Atitlan

  1. Thanks so much to share your pictures with us! I was also in San Pedro and had a beautiful life experience there, I loved to swim in Atitlan lake every morning 😉

    • We didn’t get a chance to swim there because it was very cold when we stayed. One day we had a chance to take a boat to a smaller village where the swimming was supposed to be better but we didn’t bring our suits! It was a beautiful day and we regretted it a little. But oh well! Glad to have brought you back there!

    • Thank you, that’s one of my favorite photographs from the Lake as well. But it’s hard to choose because it’s just a landscape photo that speaks about life (with the boats, volcanoes, etc) while the other photos show the actual day-to-day of life there. The culture there is too amazing to put into words, so I tried with images instead. Thank you again for stopping in Hollis!

  2. Me and a friend also spent a week learning Spanish and living with a wonderful host family in San Pedro! What a great place- perfect for a week of lessons. And we particularly enjoyed the sunrise hike up the Indian Nose!

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