Guatemala // Discovering Mayan villages around Lake Atitlan
It took us quite some time before we decided to go to Guatemala. Plenty of horror stories go around about this sometimes notorious country, but oh boy did we enjoy our stay there!!!
Crammed with a dozen other tourists in an undersized minivan – original seats are taken out and replaced with smaller benches to make sure every cubic centimeter is used to the max and any luggage is expertly strapped on the roof rack – we crossed the border from Mexico and headed for the first stopover in this intriguing country, Quetzaltenango (my favorite city name ever by the way)!
The city itself has not much to offer, but it is a good starting point to explore some of the peculiar villages in the area.
Taking a bus from Quetzaltenango to these villages is definitely part of the fun! All you need is a little bit of Spanish vocabulary… and a lot of patience.
The bus “station” for the so-called chicken buses (in fact these are worn-down American school buses than have often been colorfully repainted for a second life in Guatemala) is nothing less than an open area where dozens of buses are arriving and taking off again while bus drivers’ assistants or ayudantes are shouting destinations all over the place. An excellent place to test your Spanish skills!
We first visited Zunil, a tiny town at roughly 10km from Quetzaltenango and known for being the home of San Simón (aka Maximón), a dressed up life-sized dummy placed on a wooden throne that locals still worship as one of their Mayan gods.
Once again a superb opportunity to test your Spanish, as you need to ask the locals for directions because the doll is moved to a different house in the village each year.
Thanks to the gifts from many visitors that come ask him for his help, San Simón is able to enjoy a comfortable lifestyle with plenty of alcohol, money and cigarettes (seriously!).
3. San Andrés Xecul
Another great daytrip is a visit to San Andrés Xecul, a municipality that has one of the most remarkable churches in the country. The front façade of the church is painted bright yellow and depicts hundreds of religious and agricultural figures and symbols.
Although the Mayan culture is also represented, we have to admit the final result of this extraordinary mix is pretty Christmassy!
Next up, the astonishing Lago de Atitlan! This pristine volcanic lake is beautifully located in the Guatemalan Highlands, and known to be the deepest lake in Central America (about 340m or 1,120ft).
The lake is in fact the result of a volcano collapsing (also known as a caldera), and is surrounded by other volcanoes that give it a truly impressive backdrop. Panajachel is the largest lakeside settlement, from this town you can catch a ferry acros the massive lake.
We simply couldn’t get enough of the magnificent scenery, so we decided to stay at one of the hotels with the best views you can imagine: La Casa del Mundo. The fact that it’s impossible to get there by car or bus only adds value to your trip. After all, who wouldn’t want to go on a boat ride on this lake?!
Our trip to the hotel was quite remarkable to say the least. As we had arrived around dusk in Panajachel, the main tourist hub around the lake and take-off point for our aquatic adventure, we had no other choice than to catch the last water taxi of the day towards the hotel.
The small motorboat made several stops along the coastline of the lake, which was why dozens of Guatemalans wanted to hop on in order to make it home in time for dinner. The vessel started submerging more and more and it was obvious that the rickety floating device wasn’t built for this kind of mass transport.
The journey to the hotel in pitch dark was probably the scariest and most nerve-racking 30 minutes we had ever experienced on a boat… and we couldn’t feel more relieved when we finally arrived in the hotel and were invited to calm our nerves with a savory beer and delicious dinner.
For more information on this amazing hotel have a look at our post about the 7 most memorable hotel stays in the world!
The next morning we dragged ourselves out of bed at an outrageously early hour and got comfy on one of the many terraces overlooking the lake to witness a stunning daybreak. Watching the sky and lake change colors as the sun came peeping over the hills was an absolutely amazing spectacle!
After spending a few days in Guatemala, it soon became clear that our fears were unfounded and that this is an exceptional country with so much to offer.
Keep an eye for new posts about the beautiful colonial city of Antigua, the precious natural swimming pools in Semuc Champey and of course the most impressive Maya site in Central America, Tikal!