Photo: Lake Atitlan | Panajachel, Guatemala
When you enter Mexico on a tourist visa, 180 days is the longest time they can give for your stay. 180 days may seem like a lot but when you get distracted by the beauty, culture and adventure in Mexico it all goes by pretty fast. Even in retirement there are a few deadlines and we were finding ourselves needing to get us and our car out of Mexico if only for a few days to renew our tourist visas or face a pretty hefty fine.
A few weeks ago we were talking to our friends Billy and Akaisha Kaderli who were in the midst of an extended trip to Guatemala. For some reason Guatemala has always been one of those places I have heard about but never visited. About all I could recall about Guatemala was that it was a big exporter of coffee and bananas and recently embroiled in a punishing civil war. Given its location in the little latitudes I figured that it would be steamy and hot. I also imagined miles of jungle, millions of mosquitoes and none too little hardship getting around. Was I ever wrong?
After only a few days many of my misconceptions have fallen away. I have found an utterly beautiful country with an extremely diverse topography and climate, an amazing culture and a charming and accessible population. Where we are staying for the week, Panajachel is right on the shore of volcanic crater Lake Atitlan. The lake has that deep blue color that is associated with many deep mountain lakes and is ringed with volcanoes; some that have been active within the last few decades. A beautiful place.
Because we had to take our car out driving was the best option but not the only one. Apparently there is daily direct bus service to and from tiny Panajachel to San Cristobal de las Casas. Crossing borders in a vehicle is not difficult but it is definitely and exercise in meticulousness and patience; two personality traits I am working on but still have not mastered. What should have taken less than an hour turned into two and a half hours because we got behind a Maya 2012 adventure tour bus. Now, I don’t know about you but to me it seems a little unfair that a single handler can take thirty passports and process a bus full of people and delay all the individuals behind them. Arguably it is more efficient but shouldn’t the people on the bus get the same experience of waiting in line as everyone else?
Another reason that I wanted to take the car was so to drive a bit more on the Pan American Highway. Jake Silverstein is quoted as saying the Pan-American Highway is “a system so vast, so incomplete, and so incomprehensible it is not so much a road as it is the idea of Pan-Americanism” and south of the Mexico border it feels that way. From Ciudad Cuauhtémoc, Mexico the road does take on a decidedly more exotic feel.
You can see the mountains from Cuauhtémoc but it is only when you are climbing the Pan-American up into them you get the real feel. Enormous vistas, impossibly tight switchbacks and cloud shrouded pine forests give an almost unworldly feel. There are places where the road mysteriously and directly drops a few feet; probably the result of recent seismic activity. Occasionally you have to pass some of Guatemala’s deservedly famous “chicken busses” opposite direction on a blind hairpin turn. That is exciting. It has kind of given me a taste for what lies further south and I think it would be fun.
Anyway, sorry for the digression. Panajachel is a locally famous town that sits precariously on a shelf in the crater that forms Lake Atitlan. Panajachel (or Pana) is actually an ancient Mayan city that serves as a hub for many other villages that surround the lake. Each city has its own flavor and is easily accessible from Pana by boat taxis. There are villages that are mostly indigenous, some that have a “New Age” vibe and others that exist mostly to serve tourists however none of them seems to be too overrun.
Pana has a few nightclubs, many restaurants and a lively food market. It is relatively small and a ride anywhere in town on the ubiquitous tuk-tuks is only five quetzals (a bit over fifty cents). Restaurants run from simple rice and beans to “Vietnamese / Mayan fusion”. There is even a spa in town where you can soak in steaming water fed from a nearby volcanic spring.
During the four days here so far I have seen some but not that many bananas. I have seen and drank lots of amazingly fantastic coffee. I haven’t seen many direct signs of the civil war but I have talked with people about it and it is apparently still too fresh but most people are ready to move beyond it. We had originally planned to spend only four days here. It looks like we may be extending.