Altitude Fitness: Wandering Guatemala’s Highlands

After a long ride through steep mountains and around hair-raising bends, we caught our first glimpses of Lago Atitlan sparkling below us as we began to descend toward the western village of San Pedro de la Laguna.  Weaving between trees, road construction, and evidence of a few rockslides, we finally reached the town where we immediately set out to find our way to the docks.  The next boat to Santa Cruz de la Laguna was filling up quickly, and we piled in with several other backpackers, a few local expats, and many Mayan villagers.  Out on the lake, breezes blew strong and cool, refreshing us as we watched the shore scroll by.  Finally, we reached our destination and hopped out at the Santa Cruz dock.  Our hostel, La Iguana Perdida, was only a few footsteps away and we collapsed in a heap at their reception desk.  We dropped our bags and went out to find ourselves some food to tide us over until the scheduled communal dinner at 7pm.

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The following morning, we caught another boat to the largest town on the lake, Panjachel, where we had to walk across town to find yet another boat that would carry us on to Santiago de Atitlan, a village tucked in an inlet along the southern edge of the lake.  The dramatic scenery of crossing the lake was half the fun of the journey, as was the older man who pulled us into the dock wearing the traditional striped half trousers and intricately embroidered shirt that denotes that he lives in this village.  As it was Friday, the large market was underway.  We shrugged past the stalls set up for tourists and shouldered our way through the crowds to the village’s church, where we stopped to people watch over the square, before diving back into the thick atmosphere of the market.

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In some of the areas, especially the rough, multi-story building where local women sold everything from fresh fish to oranges to toothpaste, the crush was so bad we felt we needed to escape down the back stairs.  On our boat back to Panajachel, the wind had kicked up some major waves…we even had trouble docking!  The boat back to Santa Cruz de la Laguna was equally bone crushing.  We arrived just in time for me to hike up steep mountain road that led to the main part of our village, where I took a weaving lesson on a traditional backstrap loom.  In the open-to-the-street kitchen of the teacher’s home, we wound our colorful threads and then set them into the loom.  It was extremely hard work that left me with a sore back, sore fingers, and a great appreciation for the women who earn their living this way!

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Around lunchtime the following day, we packed up our bags and caught the boat back to San Pedro, where we stumbled across a German couple we had met in Antigua.  They led us back to their hostel, where we scored a room at a cheap price with lake access directly out the back gate.  We spent the afternoon meandering through the village that has almost entirely grown up around the hippies and partiers who have been coming here since the 60s and 70s.  We had excellent falafel and even better coffee in the various restaurants and cafes that line the blocks near the lake.  In the evening, we sat out on the deck over the lake, where I wrote and Sangbyeong fished.  We ran into an older Korean couple (the second ones we’ve met in Guatemala) and shared a conversation over beer with them before dinner.

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Our days in Guatemala were drawing short, so we headed out the next morning for our last destination in the country…one that was far off the tourist trail.  Antigua and Atitlan had been lovely, but they are very much on the beaten track and we were missing the simple adventures of exploring unheard of villages in the middle of nowhere.  We certainly found that in Momostenango.  We pulled into town in the early afternoon, after having to change buses twice…once by running across the highway in the middle of a mountain peak!  After asking around for the hostel I had seen online and discovering it had long been abandoned, we found our way to the lone hotel in town, which boasted shared bathrooms and a dog on the roof.  We wandered the streets of town, noticing that it was their market day.  Inside the church, we noticed that they were also preparing for Holy Week with white and purple banners draped overhead.  Back in our hotel neighborhood, we found a tiny café that served us hot tea to battle the oncoming chill of the mountain nights (the elevation here was 2400 meters above sea level).

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The next morning, we set out late, as we had to wait out the frigid rains that fell over the town.  We walked clear across the village and out the other side, searching for the granite rock formations that showed up on local maps.  There were no signs and asking for directions resulted in me finding several people who spoke less Spanish than I do.  Eventually we spotted the Los Riscos rocks in the distance and went crashing through the pine forest and several people’s backyards to reach them.  It certainly was an experience of being in the back of nowhere.  Children crowded in their doorways to watch us pass, smiling and giggling at the appearance of such mismatched strangers.

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As we climbed around the ridges of the rock formations, the sun finally came out and started to warm the air.  By the time we came back down to the village, we were famished, stopping in the market for corn, chicken, tortillas, and huge mangoes that were almost the size of my face.  We took an early evening walk in the fine weather up along the road that leads out of town and enjoyed the views that stretched off on either side.  Our ambling took  us past the Mayan school where shamans are still trained in the traditional mysteries of the culture.

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The next day, we woke for the last time in Guatemala and hailed a bus that took us back down to Cuatro Caminos.  From there, we found a bus that took us to Huehuetenango…on which we passed over the highest spine of Guatemala’s mountains and were treated to absolutely stunning views out both sides of the bus.  At last, we hopped our last bus from Huehue to the border and made ready to cross into the last of our new countries on this trip…Mexico.

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