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August 2009

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Thrill Ride

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 practiced.

Villa Rosa

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 up.

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 crew@caribbeansoul.us.

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.






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