We Fell in Love with San Pedro (La Laguna)
Incredible scenery, ideal weather, friendly locals, a wide selection of restaurants, cheap booze, new friends, fresh limonada everywhere, our own bread lady, hammocks; what more could one want?
After spending an extra week in Antigua recovering from illness and starting to become overwhelmed with the tuk-tuk exhaust fumes, I was very much looking forward to moving on to San Pedro La Laguna, one of the many towns dotted alongside the shores of Lake Atitlan. San Pedro had been recommended to us by another traveler we met who – like Goldilocks – perceived it to be just the right size: neither too big like Panajachel , nor too small like San Marcos or Santa Cruz .
The shuttle ride from Antigua to San Pedro was somewhat hair-raising, firstly because many of the tourist shuttles are lacking in seat-belts (and after decades of socialization, not wearing a seatbelt feels like one might as well be jumping out of an airplane), secondly because of the (presumably) stray dogs jogging alongside the lanes of traffic, threatening to dart in front of the cars, and thirdly because the last several miles were spent winding our way down narrow, pothole-infested roads, as the automobiles proceeding up and down honk their way around the corners to prevent meeting each other head on. Wheee!
As we careened downhill we only caught fleeting glimpses through the trees of what awaited. On the southern edge of Lake Atitlan there are three dormant volcanoes: San Pedro, Atitlan and Toliman. They sit astride the towns of San Pedro and Santiago and provide a magical backdrop to one’s activities, particularly at dawn and dusk. One evening we even witnessed a strange phenomenon at sunset: antecrepuscular rays of light emanating from both sides of the horizon.
When we looked closer along the shores of Lake Atitlan we discovered that some of the houses are not only on the lake, but in the lake. They are literally semi-submerged. Upon further investigation we discovered that this was because the lake has been rising for the last 10 years or so. After an earthquake in 1976, a fracture in the lake bed drained the lake a few meters over the course of two months. People began to build on the new foreshore not knowing that the lake would start to regain its former level over the next few decades. Rumour has it that the locals sell the lakeside homes and land to expats who don’t know any better. Caveat emptor !
At least our hotel wasn’t under water. That being said, things didn’t start off so well with respect to our accommodation in San Pedro.
Discovery #3: TripAdvisor rankings should be met with scepticism. Try to get first-hand accounts if at all possible.
In short, our first hotel room was like a prison cell. It was dark, dank, and had a metal door that clanked when you shut yourself in for the night. And we had a single rusty nail available for hanging up our stuff. And have I mentioned the neighbourhood roosters battling one another to see who could start crowing earlier than the other? I believe one of them got going shortly after 1 am. So after two nights we moved up the hill to another hotel where a new friend from our Antigua days was staying and that she recommended. Ahhhh, being released from prison was such a relief (thanks Cindy)!
Once suitably accommodated, our days in San Pedro had a lovely, slow rhythm. We basically ate, walked/explored, rested in hammocks, ate some more, swam, kayaked, met with friends, rested some more, etc. What a life, eh? San Pedro is really a tourist-friendly little town, with many eating/drinking establishments and hotels dotting the road along the shoreline. If you head up the hill, however, you quickly discover what seems to be another town, but this too is San Pedro. Actually, up the hill is San Pedro proper, as it is where most of the local Guatemalans live and work (if they don’t work in the hotels/restaurants in tourist central). There we encountered a bustling outdoor market, with women (mostly) in traditional Guatemalan/Mayan dress selling everything from plantains to locally-caught fish to handmade textiles. And we had to dodge the ever-present tuk-tuks rumbling their way through the streets (I’m sorry to report that we didn’t escape those when we left Antigua).
It is probably because San Pedro has numerous inexpensive Spanish schools that it is so tourist friendly. Many people studying Spanish in Guatemala also do a “home-stay”, which means their school puts them up with a local family who provide 3 meals/day for the duration of their schooling. We met Chris and Gayle, a couple from England (embarked on a similar trip to us) who were doing a week’s Spanish school and home-stay in San Pedro. They were assigned to live with an impoverished and very large (13 kids!) family and, though it must have been pretty hard going, they did their best to maintain a positive attitude. We met them for a lakeside breakfast and evening drinks a few times to give them a break from immersive Spanish and their new extended family.
Apart from meandering the streets of San Pedro in our shorts, t-shirts and flip-flops in the perfect weather (ah, the weather!), we made some forays into a few of the other towns on the lake via the local “lanchas” (taxi boats) that zip to and fro during the day.
is like a hidden town, with a long, meandering, jungle-flanked path leading up from the jetty. You have to jump off onto one of the smaller, side trails to find the hidden gems within. Doing this, we ended up having lunch in a Mayan family’s front room overlooking the lake, with chickens milling about our feet (and one poor duck with its foot tied up with a string to prevent escape). Further up the main trail the town opens up to a nice small park and lovely little amphitheatre. Our general impression is that the town is a bit of a hippy haven, so make a beeline for San Marcos if you are into yoga, meditation, and anything else the stereotypical hippy enjoys. From the boat we saw a great diving platform into the lake…something for another time perhaps.
Is even less touristy, with a beautiful Spanish school and a very nice-looking hostel, tasty restaurant and dive centre on its shores. Higher up on the hill sits the real, working Guatemalan town. The walk up is fairly gruelling, however, so catching a lift with a tuk-tuk might be worth it here! On the day we visited, the skyline above the town was rather ominous: the ridge shrouded in dark cloud had a very lost world” aspect to it. Once in the town, the smell of wood smoke pervaded and small children peeked at us out of every dark doorway. The braver ones smiled and shouted “hola!” repeatedly. Though quiet on the whole, Santa Cruz possessed a welcoming feel.
(Which we didn’t really rate) seems to be the bustling metropolis of Lake Atitlan. The main street is lined with self-similar stalls selling the local Mayan jewellery, bags etc. Perhaps we don’t do it justice though.
Although we didn’t make it to San Pablo, at the ATM in San Pedro we overheard an interesting conversation. Some expats were discussing why people never mentioned it. One of them remarked that she lived close by, but the townspeople were very insular and not so welcoming of tourists. As such it retains a different and authentic character, but is perhaps somewhere to think twice about visiting.
Discovery #4: Being a vegetarian in Guatemala is rather easy, likely because meat is expensive for the average person here. Even in a small-ish lakeside town such as San Pedro, there are vegetarian restaurants. If you are vegetarian and ever in San Pedro, I highly recommend visiting the 5th Dimension and Home Cafe. The former has great vegetarian and vegan smoothies, friendly service and a home-y feel (plus a kitten running around, always a plus), while the latter does a mean fresh-mint limonada and great lunches.
After spending 10 days in San Pedro, we felt ready to either live there forever or that it was time to move on, lest we get too lazy to ever do anything of use again. So on Friday, tanned, well-rested, and with some regret, we left San Pedro behind. I suspect, however, that we may have to find an excuse to return in the not-too-distant future.