Thursday, March 17, 2011

Guatemala - Panajachel or Gringolandia

Fantastic view over Lake Atitlan
from Panajachel
After leaving lovely colonial Antigua, we decided to continue to the rest of the volcanic highland region. The area is so nice and cool as the altitude is even higher in the Western Highland region.

Now for our journey to Panjachel. (Pana, for short. Most Mayan names have been shortened….thankfully!) We decided to take a simple option which means a direct big bus leaving once a day at 7 am. Otherwise, we would need to change buses at the junction of the Interamericana Highway.
Isn't this just awesome!
We expected some tourist style large bus as the advertisements were in English but instead we were directed to a chicken bus (aka a direct one). What are chicken buses, you may ask? Well this will be the topic in one our future blog updates. But briefly they are old and retired USA school buses. Enough said. We boarded and promptly left at 7am. Hey they aren’t like my Latin friends who always turn up late. Or is this just in Guatemala?

We pick up and drop off loads of people. Bus stops are only a figment of the imagination, stops are wherever and whenever people choose. Children also use the bus to get to school which seemed most appropriate! The last 30 minutes of our 3 hour trip was most interesting. Well the entire journey was a mountainous one, but the tail end was very curvy with full descent. We hoped the brakes were well maintained. Pana is in the Western Highlands at the edge of the gorgeous Lake Atitlan, so after the downhill slalom, we were rewarded (esp. when no one got sick, Julane included!).
The  hang-out area in our hotel.
Most of the time we were
the only guests
Julane took off for house-hunting anonymous while Patrick had his first real Guatemalan breakfast. She spent about 2 hours exploring the options which started out dismally and luckily improved until the final selection surfaced. A family home converted into a guesthouse, but the family no longer resides here. It is two levels with a third level unfinished (this seems to be normal here as there is always room for expansion of the family). It had a clean and nice kitchen with gas stove, microwave and refrigerator including full cooking utensils). The upper floor where we had our double room with toilet and shower also had a nice hang-out area and free good wifi. Not many places had wifi available so this sealed the deal for us! Outside on the sign it said: Lavandaria. Well perhaps it once was but instead now had a traditional cement sink with built-in “wash-board” which was perfect to freshen up our laundry. We’ve stepped back in time now although the public washeria is usually an option in most villages even Antigua where there is a plaza with a dozen plus of these sink /scrub-boards all lined up in a row. It’s clearly where the ladies would have spread some gossip!

One of the hotels in Pana,
the owner must like old cars

Once settled in, we explored a bit of town including the Pana coastline. Lake Atitlán (Lago de Atitlán) is a large endorheic lake (one that does not flow to the sea). While Atitlan is believed to be the deepest lake in Central America, perhaps 340 meters. The lake is an half circle on one side and surrounded by three volcanoes.

The lake is volcanic in origin, filling an enormous caldera formed in an eruption 84,000 years ago. After our concern about the earthquake in Japan the previous week, we wondered if we were being wise to come here?

Lake Atitlan from above Panajachel
Lake Atitlan from the Space Shuttle
Source: Wikipedia

Panorama of the lake as seen from the top of Volcán San Pedro
Source: Wikipedia

Hopefully the bugs are only in the
logo and not the candy!
On February 4, 1976, a massive earthquake (magnitude 7.5) struck Guatemala killing more than 26,000 people. But the epicenter was not in the Atitlan area. This earthquake fractured the lake bed causing subsurface drainage from the lake, allowing the water level to drop two meters within one month.
Creative use of an old car tire.
Becoming a Quetzal, the
national bird of Guatemala

Normally, the lake’s water level changes according to the season and can rise tremendously. Last year, due to Tropical Storm Agatha, the Lago rose about 3 meters and much of their crops which are planted close to the water’s edge in the nutrient rise soil, we lost. Even early a year later, numerous “waterfront” buildings are still water inundated. It seems surprising that they don’t build the prime waterfront places on stilts like in Asia? Crops here include coffee along the steep and sunny sides of the volcanoes, squash, avocadoes and (lots of) onions, etc.

Local women carrying something on
their heads... is it garbage?
Surprisingly, fish is not a big source of their diet. They have some indigenous fish, not much less now due to the introduction of a non-native species, the black bass in 1958 (to increase tourism: ie angler fishing. The bass quickly took to its new home and began eating the native inhabitants of the lake. The predatory bass caused the elimination of more than two-thirds of the native fish species in the lake and contributed to the extinction of the Atitlan Grebe, a rare bird that lived only around the lake.

The majority of Mayans of various tribes live in the Western highland regions and in this area they are predominantly Tz'utujil and Kaqchikel. But, of course Pana is a big exception; Pana is just a tourist town.

Did we turn to healthy hippies
with wheat grass juice?
Nope Mojitos baby!
But with tourism, brings good food and shopping. Since it’s too early to do much shopping (except utilitarian), we opted to eat. And eat we did!!!
... tasty food
Each night was filled with nice meals: incredible cheesy meaty lasagna, grilled mojarra (the fish that single-handedly decimated the local fish stock), burritos and so on. The meals came with soup, bread, rice and veggies and of course a few mojitos or caipirinhas. Life is tough, eh? Buen provecho!

... and more food
... see the blog update in  few days to learn
more why we are so excited about
the food choices in Panajachel

Our next blog will be about our two day trips to the local markets in the region.