I've got a white-knuckle grip on the grab bar in front of
my seat. Centrifugal force is sending my butt sliding to the
left, then the right, and now back again. Next to me, Nick
is also hanging on with a vengeance to avoid falling into
the floor. We look at each other and giggle. This is way more
fun than a ride at Six Flags Over Texas, and with the lush
Guatemalan mountainside dropping away into oblivion just a
few feet from our window, it's definitely more exciting.
Admission to this thrill ride is less than $4 per person
aboard a Guatemalan "chicken bus." As in Panama,
old school buses have been repainted in rainbow colors and
equipped with booming sound systems to serve the transportation
needs of the public. A placard declares "Vamos con Dios"
(we go with God), and I certainly hope this is true as the
bus leans into another curve. I swear the tires must have
come off the pavement that time. Apparently Dale Earnhart
has been reincarnated as our bus driver, a Maya Indian sporting
a straw cowboy hat who takes the mountain curves like he's
driving a Ferrari.
Gringos don't usually take chicken buses but opt to travel
with their own kind in tourist vans. Being frugal these days,
we chose an $8 bus over a $50 van from Guatemala City to Panajachel
on Lake Atitlan in the central Guatemalan highlands. The prominent
label "Turismo" on the vans might as well be a flashing
neon sign: "Bienvenidos Banditos! Rich Gringos Aboard."
Several vans have been hijacked on the well-traveled tourist
routes. There's less chance of being robbed on a chicken bus
but probably a greater risk of flying over a cliff to your
death. You roll the dice and you take your chances.
Three hours later when the bus screeches to a halt in Panajachel,
the pungent odor of burning brake pads fills the interior.
A nice Guatemalan man taps me on the shoulder to let us know
this is where we should get off.
Panajachel (Pana) is an 800-year old Maya village on Lake
Atitlan, located a mile above sea level in the shadow of three
towering volcanic mountains. In the Maya language, atitlan
means "the place where the rainbow gets its colors."
Smaller Maya villages dot the shores of this shimmering blue-green
lake where the mountain air is chilly and refreshing. The
great Maya civilization--known for its written language, mathematics,
astronomy, architecture, and art--"collapsed" in
the 9th century. Today the indigenous Maya make up about half
the population of Guatemala. The various Maya communities
speak 21 different languages and are each recognized by their
unique style of dress. Around Lake Atitlan and other rural
areas of Guatemala, the Maya culture and religion are still
Via tuc-tuc, a three-wheeled taxi resembling a golf cart,
we arrive outside the gate of Villa Rosa, home of American
Dianne Glennon. In her previous life, Dianne was the captain
of the schooner Pioneer sailing out of New York Harbor.
She now lives in Pana with three enormous dogs and rents out
her extra rooms to guests. We press the buzzer and a cacophony
of ferocious barking and snarling greets us on the other side
of the gate. Momentarily, the gate is opened by a round and
smiling woman with long red hair streaked with pink highlights.
"Hi, I'm Nancy," she beams. The three snarling "beasts"
push against us, wagging their tails and begging shamelessly
for head rubs. We explain to Nancy that we're looking for
a room, and she leads us down the cobblestone driveway to
the main house.
Villa Rosa is a spacious home built on three levels with
stone walls and varnished wood beams. Nancy leads us into
the living room where we met Dianne, the owner. Dianne wears
her long salt-and-pepper hair tied back in a pony tail and
speaks with a dry, subtle wit. Over cups of Rosa de Jamaica
(hibiscus tea), they come up with a plan to shuffle people
around and make room for us. We'll take one of two rooms at
the end of a hall and share a bathroom. The price fits our
budget, so we unpack.
Old and Breathless
Saturday is my 47th birthday, so Nick is being extra agreeable
to following my wishes (normally he does what I want but grumbles
about it). Our bed at Villa Rosa is comfy and, since the lake
is not too big, we decide to make day trips to the other villages
with Pana as our base. We take a launcha to the village of
San Marcos and then catch a tuc-tuc to San Pedro. That evening
we find a nice restaurant in Pana with white tablecloths that
is serving Lake Atitlan black bass as the dinner special.
We dine by candlelight because the electricity is out in Pana
and, we're told, across Guatemala. Fortunately, light has
been restored by the time we ask for la cuenta (the
check) and walk back to Villa Rosa.
Here I learn that my sneaky husband has arranged for a birthday
cake complete with trick candles that make me think I might
be closer to death than I'd imagined. Nancy and Dianne perform
a rousing and hilarious rendition of "Today is Your Birthday,"
and then we cut the moist and delicious chocolate cake. Dianne's
two other guests (also Americans) join the celebration. I
never expected to feel so at home on my birthday in Guatemala.
What a nice surprise.
Chichi Market Madness
On Sundays and Thursdays, a parade of tourist vans clogs
the winding road to Chichicastenango (Chichi), where a bustling
Maya market is held on the church square. Guatemala is one
of only three places in the Caribbean where we've encountered
indigenous Indians still living a traditional lifestyle. Beautiful
textiles woven on backstrap looms are the trademark handicraft
of the Guatemalan Mayas. Since arriving in Pana we've found
that there's always a gringo price, and the price is always
negotiable. I had read that textiles at the Chichi market
can usually be purchased for 25 to 50 percent of the original
price. So I'm ready to start bargaining. We take a deep breath,
step into the crowd, and let the market madness swallow us
The market consists of colorful stalls displaying textiles,
clothing, jewelry, wooden masks, and other tourist trinkets.
The eager vendors assure us that the jade necklaces are real,
the Pieces of Eight coins are authentic, all textiles are
handmade, and the dyes are colorfast. Uh-huh. Pressing their
way among the crowd are colorfully dressed Maya ladies hawking
their weavings. Often a baby sleeps in a blanket slung over
the mother's back. If I show the slightest interest in her
product, the woman follows me for blocks down the street,
the price declining with every step. Seeing a potential hot
prospect, other women join in, pressing their weavings in
front of me and asking for my best price. It's a bit overwhelming
at times, but fun too. The Chichi market is definitely something
you have to throw yourself into with a spirit of fun and a
high level of stamina. Chichi is definitely not the orderly
domain of Internet shoppers.
Exhausted from our trip to Chichi, we're delighted when Dianne
invites us to join her and some friends for a fajita dinner.
Since it's cold and rainy, Dianne lights the gas fireplace
and we have a cozy and enjoyable evening with an interesting
and well-traveled group of guests.
Back to the River
The remainder of our time in Pana is relaxing, and we enjoy
the chilly air and beautiful backdrop of Lake Atitlan. After
five nights at Villa Rosa, we board a tourist van to Guatemala
City (only $12 per person through the Plus Travel Agency).
Before departing, I make a quick trip to the pharmacy for
something to tame the Maya Revenge (cousin to Montezuma's
Revenge in Mexico) that Nick and I are both suffering with
this morning. The van driver goes nice and slow around the
mountain curves, but the seats are hard and the van is crowded.
By the time we reach our room at Apartamentos Las Torres in
Guatemala City, we're too tired and sick to go sightseeing.
After two nights in Guatemala City, we feel sufficiently
recovered to board a Litegua pullman bus for the five-hour
trip back to the Rio Dulce. The Litegua line are Trailways-style
buses with varying levels of comfort. The seats recline and
are comfortable, but there may or may not be air conditioning
or a movie. In our case, the air conditioning blows through
open windows, and the entertainment is a blood-and-guts, Spanish-language
movie. Good thing we brought our books.
Back in the sauna we call the Rio Dulce, we find Caribbean
Soul still floating and everything in good order. The
next day, Dakota returns from his stay with Jennifer, an American
expatriate who owns a home on the river. It's time to finish
a few more boat projects before our next adventure into the
beautiful Guatemalan countryside.
Travel Notes for Cruisers:
If you'd like contact information for Dianne at Villa
Rosa in Pana, send us a message at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Apartamentos Las Torres is popular with budget-minded
cruisers and conveniently located just 10-15 minutes from
the international airport in Guatemala City. They're located
at 13 Calle 0-43 in Zone 10 across the street from the Holiday
Inn (3 times the price). Their phone number is 2334-2747.
There are many restaurants, a grocery store, and a mall within
walking distance. The desk clerks speak English and can arrange
your transportation by taxi, van, or bus. The discounted rate
is $30/night and they allow pets. They also have lockers you
can rent to store your excess luggage while you travel outside
the city. Each room is different but has a telephone, refrigerator,
TV with some English-language stations, and Internet. The
hot water may only be lukewarm. If you don't like your room,
ask to see another. They can provide a floor fan if the room
is stuffy. There's a break room with free coffee, water, and
wi-fi. Zone 10 is probably the safest area in Guatemala City,
but normal caution is still advised. An armed guard sits at
the hotel entrance all day, and at night he's joined by Layla,
the beautiful and imposing Akita (looks scary but enjoys a
good head rub like most dogs).
The Litegua bus line has several departures
each day between Fronteras and Guatemala City. The cost is
Q60 per person (about $7.50) one way. The trip takes about
five hours with one 20-minute stop at a clean facility with
food and bathrooms.
In Fronteras, a number of tourist agencies and some of the
marinas offer private van service to Guatemala City.
Mario's Marina charges $40 one-way in their van.
The "chicken bus" from Guatemala City to
Pana costs Q30 (about $3.75) per person and takes three hours
with no potty stops. We were quoted $25 per person to take
a van to Pana.
Tourist van service is provided by numerous agencies
in Pana, and you might pay half as much by walking across
the street to another agency. We used the Plus Travel Agency
and were satisfied with their service. We paid $8 each for
a round trip to Chichi and $12 each for a one-way trip to
Guatemala City via Antigua with drop-off at our hotel.
Within Pana, tuc-tucs charge Q5 a person.
To get around Lake Atitlan, take a launcha. You'll
probably be charged a gringo price unless you haggle. We paid
Q25 each to go from Pana to San Marcos after first being told
Q30. I'm sure this was still much higher than the local price.
" Guatemala Bus" is Oscar Peren's
depiction of the country's famous "chicken" buses.
There weren't actually any chickens on our bus, but there
weren't many gringos either.
Painting of Lake Atitlan
Painting of Lake Atitlan
To see more pictures, view
our Lake Atitlan slideshow.