Bucket List Moments

Guatemala, Part I: On Lake Atitlán

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In 1988, aged 16, I made my first solo trip overseas. Back then I traveled to Poland and Israel, for a month, to represent Australia in an international youth quiz.

At the study camp that preceded the quiz (held in Krakow, Poland) I bonded with some of the other contestants: Steve, an old friend from South Africa, Jerome, from France, David from Belgium, and Igal, from Guatemala. For three weeks we lived together, and became friends. Steve and I orchestrated rugby games in the hallway; Igal, being Latin, took care of soccer. Meanwhile Jerome and David made it their duty to ensure a constant supply of decent cheese.

Most nights we stayed up late, way past curfew, talking shit as kids on holiday are prone to do. Having grown up in South Africa though, there wasn’t much new for me in Steve’s stories. And Jerome and David’s tales of daily life, in the suburbs of Paris and Antwerp, seemed pretty similar to mine in Sydney.

On the other hand, every word that came out of Igal’s mouth was enthralling to me. He came from Guatemala, a country I had never heard of. He described his backyard as having active volcanos and jungle rainforests. He spoke of the chaos of Guatemala City, and of his family’s holiday pad in nearby Antigua Guatemala, “the most beautiful village in the world”. He told me how once he had stayed home from school for a few weeks because of a military coupe. And how on a school excursion he and his classmates had climbed some ancient Mayan ruins – “just like Indiana Jones”, he’d said.

When we left Poland we swapped addresses so we could stay in contact (old-school, I know, but there was no Facebook in the ‘80s). Which we largely managed to do: a few years later I stayed with Jerome’s family in Paris; Steve was a groomsman at my wedding; last year Steve, David and I spent a weekend together in New York.

Sadly, I never got to see Igal again. We exchanged a few postcards but then lost touch, and sometime later I heard he had succumbed to teenage depression, and taken his own life.

Thanks to Igal though, the idea of “Guatemala” – a faraway place filled with unimaginable wonders – has always held a special place in my heart. Thus explaining why, when earlier this year a Guatemalan friend living in San Francisco invited us to attend the christening of her newborn daughter, to be held in Guatemala City, I got pretty excited. Then I learned there was a direct 4 hour flight there from Los Angeles, and I was sold.

I seldom get butterflies arriving in a new place. But two weeks later, as we stepped off the plane in Guatemala City, I was practically giddy, and my stomach was a knot. I really, really wanted Guatemala to be as amazing as I had imagined.

[We took A LOT of photos in Guatemala – like about 3,000 in 8 days, that is how damned photogenic the place is. So for something new, I thought I might turn my Guatemalan blog posts into a photo essay of sorts. This is Part I: On Lake Atitlán. Stay tuned over the next few weeks for Part II: Antigua and A Christening; Part III: Mayan Ruins in the Rainforest; and Part IV: Climbing a Volcano. I hope you enjoy the journey. All photos are unedited and are either my own or courtesy of Kate Sims – see http://www.katesims.com].

***

 

Lake Atitlán is a large volcanic lake about four hours’ drive from Guatemala City that is widely touted as being one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. Aldous Huxley, for example, described it as “Como, with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes”.

Quotes from long-ago writers did nothing, however, to prepare me for the visual spectacle of Lake Atitlán in real life. It really did take my breath away.

Partially just from getting there: the lake is in the Guatemalan highlands, and the journey to Atitlán involved winding up a narrow, incredibly steep mountain road, while rickety overloaded buses barreling down in the other direction constantly tried to kill us. And partially from its sheer natural magnificence: the lake is around 20 kilometers in circumference, a perfect natural caldera surrounded 360 degrees by the cones of three volcanoes, towering escarpments and lush green jungle.

 

Being so scenic Atitlán is, not surprisingly, a popular tourist destination. Yet it remains first and foremost a place where people live and work, with a dozen or so local villages dotting the shore. Owing to their relative remoteness these villages have also remained bastions of Mayan culture – the inhabitants still tend to wear traditional clothes, and the local economy remains rooted in centuries-old cottage industry.

There are no roads circling the lake, so the best way to see Atitlán is to charter a small boat for a day and then just cruise about, from village to village, enjoying the staggering views as you go.

 

Our first stop was at the small village of San Juan de la Laguna. At the boat dock we hopped into a three-wheeled motor taxi – basically an Asian tuktuk that had been transplanted to Central America. It was brightly colored, and like all the hundreds of other tuktuks in Atitlán’s villages, individually named. Ours was the most excellent Elvis de San Juan.

So over the next few hours we were ferried about in Elvis. First stop was a weaving collective, where a dozen local village women worked together, their hands a blur as they threaded colorful bales of hand-dyed cotton onto big, ancient-looking looms. Then we went to small organic herb farm, where another women’s collective grew over fifty varieties of plants and herbs to be used in traditional Mayan medicine. Next a quick look around a coffee plantation, and finally Elvis dropped us outside of a chocolate factory. There locally grown cacao beans were dried, ground into a past on a heavy stone, blended with molasses, and turned into delicious chocolate. Everything was done by hand, employing methods that haven’t changed in hundreds of years.

 

From San Juan de la Laguna we zipped across the water to Santiago de Atitlán, the largest of the lake villages, for a spot of textile shopping. Santiago is famous throughout Guatemala for its hand-woven and embroidered fabrics, which were being advertised especially well by the local women. Every one of whom was dressed in purple-striped skirts, and tops heavily embroidered with colorful motifs, birds and flowers.

And from there another short hop across the lake brought us to San Antonio de la Palopo, a small village that dramatically cascaded down a sheer mountainside to the water’s edge. A group of old women and young children accompanied us as we walked up a steep path to the village church. A squadron of ladies with brooms was sweeping the terrace out front of the church clean, oblivious to the jaw-dropping views right in front of them.

 

Heading back to the boat a wizened old crone bade us to follow her. Bent over almost double she led us to a pottery workshop. There, in a warren of pokey workshops and kilns, a small army was churning out a huge assortment of cups, plates, bowls, dishes and vases. Every item was hand-made, hand-fired, and then hand-painted in a blue-white pattern for which San Antonio is renowned. A young lady told us that everyone working there – ranging from teenagers to elderly folks – was part of one extended family.

 

Finally, in Panjachel, a mountain village set a few kilometers back and uphill from the lakeside, we walked through a covered market. And even though Panjachel has a reputation as  being a bit of a hippie / backpacker tourist hub, there was not a souvenir in sight. Instead, the market seemed like a locals-only kind of place:smiling vendors in traditional dress going about their business; mounds of ripe avocados; cuts of meat hanging from wooden beams; chili and tomatoes; Mayan clothing for sale side by side with racks of jeans, t-shirts and football shirts.

Not to mention a whole section of the market devoted to Mexican-inspired men’s gear –cotton jackets and pants, heavily embroidered with gold and silver thread woven through them. If I may say so myself, I think I looked rather fetching as a Guatemalan cowboy ….

 

***

However, as so often happens on my travels, my personal highlight at Lake Atitlán came in edible form.

In one of the small villages we visited we had stopped to buy a bottle of water from a corner store, on the side of a steep, cobbled street. Across the way a man was toiling over an outdoor barbecue of sorts. He looked hot and bothered, and his face was engulfed in a cloud of thick white smoke. But something smelled really good, so I went to check it out.

The man was cooking bits of steak, sausages, and thick strands of spring onion on open grills. He was turning everything frequently so as to achieve a perfect char, basting the meat with oil and other sauces to keep it juicy, and all the while furiously fanning the coals to keep the temperature even (and thus explaining the immense amount of smoke). It was still early in the day, but quite a few locals were milling about, buying paper plates piled up with steak, sausage, and accompaniments: guacamole, grilled spring onion, soft-corn tortillas, and a green sauce made from herbs, garlic and cilantro.

 

Never one to pass up the opportunity for a feed, I ordered a plate as best I could in a mix of broken Spanish and sign-language. Although I needn’t have bothered: the man behind the grill turned out to speak passable English. He immediately threw some fresh steak on the barbie for me, and while I waited we got chatting.

He told me that the meat was all locally sourced, grass-fed, and organic. He also said it had been marinated overnight in his own special blend of herbs and spices, all of which were grown in and around the village, and which he harvested personally each morning. The sausage – a kind of blood pudding – was also made by him. And the accompaniments were equally all hand-made, by his wife, who presided over a tiny kitchen out the back. Again, everything she used – corn, avocados, herbs, spices – was organic and local.

Both the man and his wife seemed truly passionate about what they were doing. They cared about the quality of the ingredients, their cooking technique, and the provenance of what they were serving. More than that, their care felt genuine – not so much a trendy fad du jour as it was an authentic, deeply ingrained respect for what we put in our mouths. Even if the whole experience felt kind of bizarre: I was, after all, in a remote Mayan village on the shore of Lake Atitlán, eating street food that would have been more at home on the menu of a hipster “farm-to-table” restaurant in Los Angeles or Sydney.

Although let me say this, too: that plate of BBQ steak, sausage and sides was the best damned thing I have eaten in 2017, hands-down, no contest, the end. Everything about it was perfect: the freshness of the produce, the skill in the preparation, the balance of flavors, even the simple presentation.

And that, to me, is one of the greatest joys of travel: the ability to stumble onto a guy dishing up $1-a-plate Guatemalan street food, that was so darned good it would put all those hipster farm-to-table restaurants I mentioned to shame.

***

[Next Week, the journey continues: Part II: Antigua and a Christening]

 

 

 

 

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