Our journey to Guatemala was a long and bumpy one. A supposedly nine hour shuttle ride from San Cristobal de las Casas turned into thirteen hours, no doubt because of the speed bumps that litter Guatemalan roads – in some cases, every ten metres or so. On a later road trip from Antigua back to Atitlán, we learned that the people of the roadside towns erected the speed bumps, and the government was desperately trying to cull their being built in an attempt to improve the condition of the roads. At the border, we crossed into Guatemala on foot – a proud moment – and we were in Central America, an extra two stamps in our passports! Our first stop was Panajachel, a small town on the north side of Lake Atitlán which served as the perfect jumping off point for the rest of Guatemala.
We past the day by souvenir shopping, with a stop for grilled chicken and guacamole at José Pinguino’s (the name admittedly being the deciding factor). Strolling down to the lake in the evening, we were astounded by its majesty. We had glimpsed the lake through gaps in the mountains and low lying clouds during our drive down the previous day, but that was nothing compared to seeing it laid out before you at almost 1500 metres in altitude, the hint of a mountain silhouette outlined through the clouds across the lake. Boats bobbed gently in the lapping waves, friends relaxed on the wooden pontoons and restaurants touted the stunning views from their deckings.
I was hoping to return to Lake Atitlán, it was an incredibly relaxing setting and I knew that the backpacker town of San Pedro offered some amazing activities and nightlife. That being said, there was equally the possibilty of visiting a friend at her lakeside property…
The following day was Sunday, the busiest market day at Chichicastenango, a small and prodominantly indigenous town an hour from the lake. We had booked a shuttle through Mario’s Tours, an independent travel agency who seemed happy to haggle over the price, as long as we kept it quiet. We had a few hours to wander around, contemplating the beautiful textiles, handbags and chickens on offer. We witnessed a chicken deal, and much like the dodgy cheese deal we were party to in Cuba, it seemed to be conducted in secrecy. Our attempts to photograph it were met with bemused laughter and turned backs.
We purchased a few items while wandering around, trying our best to haggle in Spanish. In an attempt to curb any spending and textile induced insanity, we each had a list of what we wanted. I was on the lookout for a small bag for nights out, and a shawl for long bus journeys. I ended the day with two bags, and a tablecloth. I may get a few stares for wearing it as a shawl, but it is pretty.
The rest of the week was spent in Antigua, the former colonial capital of Guatemala before it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1717. Much like Trinidad, it is a city of uneven cobblestones and terracotta and ochre houses.
Like most of Central America, Guatemala is known for its coffee, and its chocolate. On our final day, we succumbed to the delectable smell emanating from the Choco Museum, and signed up for a ‘Bean to Bar’ cooking class. We were talked through the history of the cocoa bean, from its preparation as a drink by the Mayans, to the mass popularisation and commercialisation of the milk chocolate bar throughout Europe and the United States. Alejandro talked us through the fermentation and drying process, before taking us to the kitchen and handing us bowls of melted chocolate, moulds and various toppings.
It was fantastically delicious messy fun. While the chocolates set in the fridge, we set about making drinks. Beginning with cocoa tea, made from the empty husks of the peeled cocoa beans, we ended with European and Mayan hot chocolate – a fiery blend of freshly ground beans, honey and chili.
In planning this trip to Central America, I had spoken to a friend living in Guatemala City, who I had met a few years previously while at a language school in Florence. We had arranged to spend the weekend at her grandmother’s lakeside property near Atitlán – a little taste of lavishness after five weeks in hostels. We hadn’t prepared ourselves for quite how luxurious the property (complete with pontoon, motor boat, jetski and hot tub) would be. The views over the lake were breathtaking, the San Pedro volcano rearing up a mere few hundred metres away.
Sat on the pontoon with a gin and tonic, the breeze whipping our hair around us, we never wanted to leave. It was a small taste of a different Guatemala: a Guatemala of plantations, jet skis and bullet proof windows in the cars. Surreal, and a far cry from hawking chickens in the markets.