Since the end of the year is dead in the capital city--except for parties--and everything slows down, we decided to take a road trip to the highlands, using the town of Panajachel--Pana--as our headquarters. The idea was to spend several days wandering aimlessly around.
Most of the way there is extremely curvy, but the roads are wide and spacious. Photo above is one of the few straight portions of the road.
We stopped for late breakfast at a town called Tecpán which is known for having a series of great smoked-meats and deli restaurants. These are Paulino's and Katok.
Turns out there is a very sizeable German expat colony in the region, dating from before World War II, which settled nearby and brought their sausage and ham prepping skills with them. Mixed that with local products. The tradition dates since that time. Or so I am told.
The food is delicious and inexpensive. Less than US$6 buys you a humongous breakfast with meat, eggs, toast, oatmeal, beans, fried plantains, bread, coffee and juice. It'll sustain you for the rest of the day!
They also sell smoked meats and locally made dairy products from Jersey cows. These are curiously small-ish animals with a lump on the back. The fresh cheese is delicious and artisanally made at a pretty nearby dairy farm called Pajinac (I think) which allows visits by the public. This farm is about 10 mins., at your left hand side, right before arriving at the restaurants. You cannot miss it.
The restaurants are wide and pretty, the food is good, and the clientele is tremendously diverse. Local farmers, middle class city people, vast Mayan families, tourists ...
Most of the view on the drive is of farmland and mountains. It is so picturesque, green and pleasant to the sight.
I could feel myself going all bucolic and stuff, considering a life on a farm. Not happening, of course, since I need urban spaces and pollution in order to exist in any long term fashion. But looking at fertile farms does have that sort of narcotic effect. Must tap into some sort of primeval drive or something. The farming gene.
The road is of the type that might keep a car full of kids entertained longer than usual. Nothing like hearing piping little voices penetrate one's psyche with a constant "Are we there yet?"
Anyhow, it was only my husband et moi on the road, so that was nice. Till...
We got lost and ended up way beyond a place called Nahualá (the last town whose name I recall, but we were beyond it). This meant we had passed quite a long time ago the turn where we had to take in order to get to Pana. We were also running out of gas and this being January 1st, the few gas stations available were not open.
We finally found one (photo above), but like most rural gas stations of this nature, it does not take debit or credit cards, so it is best to travel with Guatemalan quetzales. Remember, bring enough cash national currency to tide you over a small emergency. (We were relying on a Visa debit card!).
The weather here may look sunny, but it was very cold and very dry. You can actually feel your skin become parchment at a record speed. Bring moisturizer. (I hadn't brought any).
At this point we were very high up in the mountains.
Problem with asking locals for directions is that basically, they want to be polite so they tell you what they think you want to hear. Add that to a culture in which nobody is ever in a hurry to get anywhere--plus many don't speak much Spanish, but rather a Mayan language--and you got a recipe for missing crucial information on how to get to where you want to go. It's a good idea to have a map. (We didn't have one)
You must add to all of the above that a man was driving and most men don't like to ask for directions. Ever heard that before?
Eventually ... we got to the major town of Sololá. From there one goes on to Pana. After that it was much smoother going. We weren't in any kind of hurry anyway.
You can see, from the road, small lakeside towns such as Panajachel. Some seriously awesome sights to be enjoyed around there. It is good not to be in a hurry so one can stop several times and just take it all in.
We stayed at lovely Hotel Utz Jay, whose manager, Ms. Howell, is from California and speaks perfect English and Spanish. She has a PhD from UCLA, despite of which she is absolutely happy living in Pana and managing her hotel.
Her husband is a very experienced mountain trekker, speaks French, Spanish and English. He is also an expert in the Mayan calendar. The serious kind, not the, you know, world-is-coming-to-an-end kind.
The hotel has plenty of spaces to read and chill, a small little library, hammocks under the trees and so on. It also has a Mayan sauna (a Tuj?) which is heated with wood. It has a nice jacuzzi and aromatic teas they cultivate there.
Some French tourist had left a few recent French magazines, so I made out like a thief! Love to read French magazines. Can't speak the language to save my life, though.
We met at this hotel a large group of people from North Carolina, guided by a very cool Presbyterian minister, Dr. Edmonton. They were in the region helping improve the living conditions of a very poor Mayan village. Most of them are in business and banking. They all love their county in N.C.--lots of old Colonial history there--and some love and others hate Chapel Hill. Friendly arguments ensued.
We all made friends (nothing like meeting other "gringos" in foreign lands to spark a spirit of camaraderie). With true Southern hospitality they invited us to sit with them--there were bottles of Jack Daniels and Spur Cola on the table--and we spent a long night debating national and international politics (there were quite diverse points of view around the table) and laughing a lot. And I do mean, a lot. What a fun night!
I love that, people who can have a friendly discussion in good cheer. Helps that they were all long-time friends and of an amicable disposition. As these things go, we exchanged emails and since they will come back some day, one hopes to meet again. We did meet again for breakfast, but then they were all off to the far-away Mayan village they are working with.
The ambiance of that hotel is super friendly. The rooms are clean, comfortable and inexpensive and there is an "honor system" in place, where you can grab beers or sodas from the fridge and pay for it later. The granola, bread and banana bread are all homemade. I do have to recommend their breakfasts. I loved the fresh fruit crepes and granola.
And thank goodness the hotel is off the crazy main street, Calle Santander, with all its crowds and noise! Warning: Panajachel is NOT the place for those who don't like crowded, noisy, tourist-driven places.
I like it, because the nightlife there is very fun--bistros for fine dining, cafes for dessert and places to go dance. There are some really good restaurants, shops and art galleries. It serves as a great headquarter place to go check out the surrounding villages and natural wonders.
It can get very crowded, but one walks everywhere and there are tuc-tucs to drive where one doesn't want to walk. Tuc-tucs are tiny cars powered by a motorbike (see below). One can also rent bicycles and scooters to drive around. Not a bad idea, actually.
Calle Santander leads straight to the lake. At all times and from all points in Pana, one can look around to see blue mountains and volcanoes. If one doesn't care for Santander Street, one can wander the narrow side streets or walk to the beach. But yeah, it actually is all very commercialized around there.
There are so many expats living there, there is a pretty good English-language bookstore in town. Most small grocery stores sell Chivas, Jack Daniels, imported wines and cheeses, etc. The whole place seems to cater to visitors and expats in Panajachel.
Tired of Santander Street, we went to the restaurants on the beach. No cianobacteria (sp?) in sight. Not that we had even considered swimming its frigid waters. Just, you know, nice, balmy breeze and big, icy drinks.
We spent a good time there, watching the sunset, which is the thing to do around 6 pm in Panajachel. Oh yeah. Watch the sunset at the beach with a cold drink in hand, surrounded by blue: Mountains, water, skies. The lake used to be a volcano crater, and at times it seems to fuse with the other volcanoes and the sky.
Unfortunately, that is not something one wants to do often because there is way too much reggaeton being played loudly everywhere on the beach. After a while one sort of gets attuned to it, but it is noise and it does put a damper on the view. I mean, there are some more isolated beaches, but I didn't go there 'cause... there are no tall icy drinks there ...
I have to stress how blue it all is though. Blue water, blue mountains and volcanoes, blue skies, lots of blue Mayan textiles. I now associate pink with Miami and blue with Lake Atitlan.
I saw a lot of people canoeing and rowing boats for pleasure. During the afternoons, with the strong winds known as Xocomil stirring up the lake waters into choppy hell, I can't imagine why. God bless them, but that is sooo not my idea of relaxing and having a good time! I must say, it makes for a nice visual, the far-away boats and canoes skimming the waters ...
It is enjoyable, though, to watch the crowds on the beach. People from all over the world, speaking in many languages, as well as Mayans from many different ethnic groups. Each ethnic group has distinct clothes and speaks its own language. Many of these have common roots but are not exactly the same. Probably similar to the difference between Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese.
I was leaning on a balustrade looking out at the lake when I caught the baby in photo above staring up at me. It was hilarious, he just stared at me, very seriously, for the longest time. People there are extremely sensitive to having their photo taken so I had to do it very subtly. Most of the time I ask permission, though. Many of the locals really don't like their picture taken.
Some places I liked are Circus Bar because of their great thin crust, brick oven pizzas. Try them! Pana Rock Cafe is very quaint and happening, and there are many other fun places with good food, live music and a very relaxed ambiance.
It is a good idea to have cash on hand, though, because some local restaurants--especially the ones that don't go for the "Americanized" look--offer great food at incredibly low prices, but won't take credit cards. Make sure you check for the credit card logo at the entrance before ordering or you might find that you have to dash to the closest ATM for some cash.
Some things I don't like at these places are tchotchke sellers pestering one--I really don't need any more keychains or hammocks--but I have learned that if you just say no once, politely but curtly, and then proceed to ignore them, they tend to go away. On the other hand, one can turn it around, engage sellers in conversation, and learn interesting things about their lives and the place itself. Or they realize you're just shooting the breeze and go find a likelier buyer.
What we really did most of, however, was simply sleep late, relax in the gardens, and travel many out-of-the-way dirt backroads, exploring dusty little villages.
Wandering around, we found several abandoned churches and big coffee farmhouses left over from the late 19th century, the "company housing" for farm workers (similar in appearance to the remaining slave cabins one still finds some places in the USA South), some of which are abandoned and crumbling and some still in use.
This made for some wading into tall grasses which might have had snakes and rodents, but what the hell. I had protection. I hadn't shaved my legs in a few days. Have a snake dare that!
There will be more on the lonely backroads, the ruins of coffee and sugar distilleries, abandoned churches, etc. on the next post. For now, my dears, it is getting late and I must go hunt my dinner. Ravioli sounds good, don't you think?
I will leave you with a photo of one of the restful balconies of Hotel Utz Jay. And by the way, if you stay at our inn in downtown Guatemala City, there is a shuttle that can pick you up here and take you straight to Panajachel.
Hotel - Lofts - Parking
In the Historic Center of Guatemala City
Hotel - Lofts - Parking
In the Historic Center of Guatemala City