Thanks to our extremely helpful Spanish teachers who took us on a walk around the main bus terminal in Antigua, we found out that there was one direct public bus per day that left Antigua for Panajachel, the tourist centre of Lake Atitlan. After speaking to several different people, they informed us that we needed to wait outside El Mastil restaurant opposite the entrance to the bus terminal from around 6.30am, and watch out for a green and beige bus that had “Pana” written on the front – a bus that could apparently arrive at any time between 6.30 and 7.30, and we would need to look out for it closely because unless we flagged it down, it would not stop.
By 7.25 the next morning, having sat on the pavement for nearly an hour scrutinising every bus that whizzed past on the dusty road, we suddenly spotted the Panajachel bus that seemingly sprang out of nowhere on the other side of the street. Fortunately, after a bit of frantic waving and yelling (on my part, Dan was able to retain his cool), the bus screeched to a halt diagonally blocking the road, and we scrambled on board amid shouts of “Vamos! Vamos!” from the driver.
It was by far the most comfortable chicken bus ride we’ve had – for the first hour, anyway. Gradually, as more and more people piled on, we realised that we had somehow become involved in an intricate game of human tetris. As we approached Panajachel the bus, which was originally a school bus designed to fit two children per seat, had seven fully grown adults squeezed across our row, one of whom had a child in her lap. Amidst all of this, the man who collected money from the passengers was performing a series of acrobatics that would not have looked out of place at Cirque du Soleil in order to reach everyone on the bus – at one point I’m almost certain I saw him swing from the ceiling one-handed in order to collect the fare from a passenger near the back. However, my face was squashed up against the window at this point, so I could have been mistaken.
After what felt like an eternity wondering if we would ever be able to untangle ourselves from the people around us, we arrived in Panajachel. A short walk down the street took us to the ferry terminal, where we hopped on a boat to take us to San Pedro, our home for the next month.
When we arrived at the San Pedro dock we were met by Daniel, the host of our stunning Airbnb that we had managed to book for the absolute bargain price of £15 per night. It is about a 15 minute walk from the centre of San Pedro, and has a view of the lake that looks like it came straight off a postcard. The thing that sold it for us was the hammocks on the balcony, and we spent a great deal of time over the next few days swinging in the hammocks, reading our books and admiring the beautiful view of San Pedro and the lake beyond.
One thing we quickly realised about San Pedro – it is most definitely a party town. At night you can hear the sounds of a multitude of backpacker bars and hostels drifting up the hill over the water, which is actually not entirely unpleasant when you are lazing in your hammock feeling smug at the lack of hangover you’re going to have the next morning. One night however we did decide to give the nightlife a try, and went for dinner at a newly opened Spanish tapas restaurant called Porta de Barcelona that sold £2 glasses of wine. This was the first time I had had any red wine since we left the UK, so to say I got a little over-excited is an understatement. They also had a great dark ale for Dan to indulge in – and somehow, after a few hours of eating, drinking, and chatting with other people at the bar, the wine and beer morphed into shots of fireball whisky, and one heck of a hangover the following morning.
Apart from the nightlife, San Pedro is a great town to wander around and explore. We took a long walk around one day and found lots of cute, quirky little shops, including a health food store selling everything from vitamins and herbal supplements to travellers probiotics and activated charcoal, and a second hand bookshop that I could probably have spent a whole day in. There are also tonnes of places to get cheap but delicious food, including Bar Sublime where we stopped one day for an incredible brunch, and The Alegre Pub that offers £3 pitchers of beer and an extensive selection of traveller comfort foods like burgers and chicken wings – and it also shows UK football, which Dan was thrilled about!
There are a number of different towns around Lake Atitlan that can be reached either by boat or tuk tuk, and one day we decided to take a short boat ride to the nearby town of San Marcos. We had heard a great deal about San Marcos before we arrived, as it is hailed as the “hippy” town of Lake Atitlan. And it’s true – if you want to indulge in yoga, massages, meditation, vegan food, green smoothies, and any other kind of healthy, mindful activity you can think of, San Marcos is the place to be. It’s quite a small town, and the alleyways are narrow and winding and buried amongst the tropical plants and trees, but all the walls are popping with colourful murals and paintings, and you could easily get lost there for days exploring all of the cafes, yoga centres, restaurants and meditation spots.
But as much as we enjoyed our short visit to San Marcos, we had some hiking to do and other towns to explore…