We’re not going to lie – for the first week or so we spent a large number of our days in San Pedro relaxing in our hammocks, reading our books and (don’t judge us) binge watching shows on Netflix. After being on the road for a while and then spending an intense few weeks learning Spanish, it was really nice to have a place to chill, catch up on sleep, and not do a whole lot else. Most of these days involved a gentle stroll into town to visit the market and tiendas, where we picked up fresh vegetables, pasta and a few varieties of pesto to cook our own meals, and then it was back to the apartment for Planet Earth II and Designated Survivor (watch both if you haven’t already, they’re awesome!).
After enjoying this hermit lifestyle for a while, we decided to catch a boat and take a trip over to Panajachel, the town we passed through briefly when we first arrived at Lake Atitlan. Panajachel is the epicentre of all things touristy on Lake Atitlan, and is generally the place where most people first arrive before catching buses, boats or tuk tuks elsewhere around the lake. According to several blogs and websites we read it is also a fun town to stay in, with lots of good cheap eats and fun bars.
The boat ride over cost Q100 return for the two of us, which comes to around £10.
Stepping off the dock, we took a right and wandered along the lake front and through the market stalls, which were selling all kinds of bright, colourful clothes, trinkets and other souvenirs. If you don’t plan to buy anything from these stalls it is best not to stop and linger, as if you show any interest at all in their wares the vendors at these stalls will pull out all the stops to try and convince you to buy something, and you will spend about ten minutes trying to delicately remove yourself from the situation with constant repetitions of “no, gracias”. We always feel bad when this happens – it’s not that we don’t want to buy anything, but purely that we don’t have any room for souvenirs in our backpacks! It is definitely worth visiting the markets though just to see the huge variety of things that are on offer, and to pass all the stalls selling delicious smelling food – which, still feeling a little put off after our disastrous experience with street food in Antigua, we decided not to try.
We stopped at a lakeside bar for a gallo (probably the best local lager we have found in Guatemala) before wandering back and making our way into the town itself. Panajachel feels markedly busier than San Pedro, and geared even more towards gringos. Most signs outside bars and restaurants are in English, and the tuk tuk drivers shout at you in English too. We stopped in a cute little restaurant for lunch that had an exclusively English-speaking clientele, along with an English menu – though menus in both English and Spanish are common in San Pedro as well.
Another busy town that we took a day trip to was Santiago. Larger than Panajachel but not as touristy, Santiago has fewer foreign visitors and as a result has much more of an authentic Guatemalan feel to it. Most advice we read online said that you shouldn’t pay the boat driver until you reach your destination when catching boats around Atitlan, but for this journey we were asked for payment on boarding the boat and given a ticket for our return. We felt a little apprehensive about this at first having read a few stories about people being scammed in this way, but luckily it all turned out fine and we had no problems. We wandered through the Santiago market – geared much more towards the locals than tourists and consisting mainly of fresh fruits and vegetables – and went to sit in the Parque Central for a while. There we got to listen to chirpy Christmas jingles being blasted from the park’s speakers and watch some locals putting up a Christmas tree – though for us, in 25 degree heat we struggled to feel quite so festive!
After these town visits we decided to attempt our first lakeside hike: Indian’s Nose. All of the tourist centres in San Pedro advertise this trek, mostly as sunrise tours that depart at a crazy early hour in the morning, but we decided to save a bit of money and try it on our own – entrance to the trail only costs Q30/around £3 per person. The start of the trail is in San Juan, so we hopped in a tuk tuk and asked the driver to take us there – which turned out to be more difficult than we anticipated, as the locals don’t actually call the trail Indian’s Nose! After our driver stopped to ask a few different people we eventually found ourselves at the start of the trail, where we spotted a few other hikers sprawled in the dust who ominously shouted “good luck!” at us as we walked past.
And we needed it – Indian’s Nose is tough! The trail winds basically straight uphill for around 2 hours, and the footing is rocky, dusty and uneven. I fell over twice and swore under my breath more times than I could count – and that was only when I actually had enough breath in my lungs to speak. I began to wonder how on earth anyone managed to do this hike, until I was overtaken by an elderly, barefoot Guatemalan lady who chirped “buenos dias!” at us merrily as she passed, and then began to feel very ashamed of myself. This shame was compounded further about half an hour later, when two local girls passed us wearing wedges. Wedges! I can’t wear wedges or any sort of high heels even on flat ground, so to say I was full of admiration would be a huge understatement.
As with all of these difficult treks, however, it was all totally worth it for the view. When we got to the top we were rewarded with incredible views of the lake and surrounding volcanoes, and sat for a while enjoying our peanut butter sandwiches and admiring the scenery. A word of caution for anyone attempting this hike, however – if you don’t want to pay extra, make sure you stop at the lookout point just below the summit and don’t go any higher. The lookout at the very top of Indian’s Nose is controlled by a separate group, who we were told can be quite intimidating and won’t let you leave without paying up to an extra Q50-80 each (depending on who you talk to) if you accidentally wander into their territory. So after enjoying our vantage point for a while we began to make our descent – mostly sliding down on my bum, in my case – before heading back to San Pedro for a well deserved beer.