Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Guatemala Journey: Lago Atitlan - December 8 - 14, 2015

Vulcano Lodge

Lake Atitlán has long been a magnet for travelers and other seekers. 

Would One Ever Become  . . . 

. . . Immune To The Beauties Of Lake Atitlán?

We took a break from our tourist-y / museum-y activities in Guate and Antigua and slipped into traveler mode for almost a week at the Vulcano Lodge in the little lake-side village of Jaibalito. We enjoyed our time there, but sadly we believe we may have been the last visitors to stay in its incarnation as a guest lodge.

The Grounds at Vulcano Lodge

As we were leaving, the present owner, a young Dane named Gustavo, told us that he had decided to go back to university and was planning to leave the hotel in the hands of a friend who would operate it as an Airbnb. So it may still be available for those planning a visit to the lake and, as an Airbnb, we believe guests will have kitchen privileges. 

While it would be great to have kitchen privileges during a long stay, we hope that the very nice little restaurant that has been operating at the lodge will still be open - the lovely local woman who cooks there made some great meals for us and she also makes some spectacular fruit preserves (we began to really look forward to breakfast). During our stay the restaurant and bar were managed by two young Swedes who sometimes joined us for dinner. It was very interesting to meet and discuss the world with such engaging and optimistic young people.

The lodge was also a gathering place for some of the many expatriate Americans, Canadians and Europeans who have purchased or rented homes in the area. Bryce is convinced that some of them were once famous rock musicians . . . if we only knew who they had been! 

On our first night at the lodge the "neighbors" had gathered for a Thai buffet and we shared a table with a couple operating a women's maternal health clinic in the village on what sounded like an "if-it's-needed-God-will-provide" financial plan. We hope she does.  


The village of Jaibalito is not on most tourist itineraries in large part because it can only be reached by foot or boat. And, probably not coincidentally, once visitors arrive they will find only one tourist shop (with undetermined hours) and a holistic health massage studio. All of this suited us just fine - we prize tranquility over tchotchke - but anyone looking for shopping or "night-life" might want to stay in one of the other towns along the lake.

The Jaibalito Town Dock

There are two streets in Jaibalito and all directions are given in relation to where they cross (the "main intersection"). The rest of the village is composed of paths, some of which are paved or were once paved. 

We visited the Thursday afternoon "market" held on the beautiful grounds of a home owned by a lovely Persian woman (downhill from the main intersection). There were a few market activities - two women selling a small selection of vegetables and one woman selling table cloths. The food being offered was prepared by local expats and sold to raise funds for a community improvement organization. We enjoyed the lunch, a beer and chatting with some other neighbors (who had a lively discussion about the price of various internet connection options). We made a date to purchase a table cloth later at the lodge, and  did not have an alternative medical treatment (it had something to do with a kinetic sculpture held over one's head . . .)

The young Maya woman who was selling table cloths brought the one we had picked out to the lodge to close the deal. We had agreed to pay her half the price that she had asked for three table cloths for the one we wanted (leaving her two cloths to make a bigger profit on later, one would think . . . ) because we really didn't want more than the one cloth and it didn't seem like a big deal to us to pay a "reverse volume discount". But when she arrived to exchange cloth for Quetzales it finally became abundantly clear that, for reasons we will never know, she wanted/needed to have 200Q that day. Having 150Q and two cloths to sell to someone else was not her goal. So we bought a second cloth (which we don't really have room for on Abracadabra) for only a few Q more; Molly made room for the extra purchase in her bag; and the saleswoman went away happy. An efficient marketplace . . . depends on the needs of the marketplace.

In Jaibalito there are very few restaurants, but one night we felt the call for a dining venue outside of the Vulcano Lodge. We went to La Pata Negra (The Black Duck) where we were the only guests in the pleasant backyard of the home of a young German man. We enjoyed the delicious "burritos" his cook prepared (more like baked chimichangas than burritos, but very tasty), were introduced to a new Guatemalan beer and heard the story of floods of previous years in town.  

There is one very fancy hotel with a nice restaurant (Casa del Mundo) which can be reached from town - but only by a path that didn't seem OSHA-approved for those who might want to share a bottle of wine with dinner and return by flashlight. We did look into the other big tourist attraction place in town; once again, reachable only via a somewhat sketchy path: a lake-side day spa/bar/restaurant called Club Ven Acá (Club Come Here) that seemed like a great place to be a young sun worshiping person. Since neither of us are, we kept walking to the next town.

Club Ven Acá

One reason we didn't feel at home at the Club Ven Acá was that it seemed so out of place in Jaibalito. Life in Jaibalito is hard for many people. Tourism is giving some people more options, but many still make a living by carrying stuff. Literally. Carrying stuff.

Child Carrying Concrete Blocks

Mom Carrying Concrete Blocks

Woman Carrying Avocados

We had thought it was amusing when two young boys swarmed us at the dock when we first arrived in town, vigorously demanding to carry our bags to the lodge. Bryce let the 10-year-old carry one bag and tagged along behind the 7-year-old, holding up a strap to take most of the weight of the bag he insisted on carrying. [Bryce first went to work cleaning equipment at the family cheese factory at age 7, so he has a more informed view of child labor than many of us who grew up operating on allowance money.] We tipped them and sent them on their way. 

Young Boys Carrying Our Bags

But somehow when we later saw the young boy and the woman we assumed was his mother carrying concrete blocks, it seemed less likely that these two boys were working for money to pay for sodas and chips.

Transportation Options

Part of the fun of traveling is learning to negotiate the variety of transportation systems one encounters. 

As noted, Jaibalito is accessible only by boat -- or by foot. The walk between Jaibalito and the next village to the east - Santa Cruz La Laguna - is a hilly hike with spectacular views. We were warned not to hike west to San Marcos La Laguna as some tourists had been robbed on that trail. Other people we have talked to have done this walk without any trouble. 

The View During Our Walk To Santa Cruz

The water colectivos, which travel around the western half of the lake also offer spectacular views. They cost tourists about 5Q for each village stop (e.g., from Panajachel - via Santa Cruz - to Jaibalito) is about 15Q ($1.75+/-). We expect non-tourists pay less. That makes some travelers feel taken advantage of. We consider it a form of tourist tax similar to the price reduction Napa locals get at valley wineries.

The Water Colectivo

Travel Tips:  The last departure from some spots along the western shore of the lake is as early as 5:30 p.m. so ask a local when the colectivos operate to your destination. In Panajachel (one of the largest towns on the lake and a primary launching point for the water colectivos) there are two docks; one for private water taxis and the other for the public colectivos. A private boat to Jaibalito will be about 150Q ($20+/-) but will run whenever you want it to run (even at night). A colectivo will depart from each stop when the driver or the dock-side conductor thinks there are enough paying passengers to justify a trip. 

The private water taxis (that look just like the colectivos) can be hired by groups and also act as delivery vans. For example, if you buy a new mattress and box springs set . . . 

Delivery Service, Lake Atitlán Style

In-town transportation is by mototaxi - little three-wheeled two-stroke engine vehicles that will be familiar to anyone who has traveled in Asia as the tuk-tuk. Even Jaibalito has two tuk-tuks that run along the up-hill street.

Mototaxis Waiting At The Dock

Transportation to or from Panajachel and other towns that are accessible by the highway which rings the lake can be by tourist van (14-passenger vans with fixed schedules) or by "chicken bus". We never rode the chicken bus. We decided to enjoy their charms from the outside when we heard that actually getting a seat required luck and fortitude.

Chicken Buses

Day Trips

We took several day trips around the lake - lunch in Panajachel and, another day in San Pedro La Laguna. It was nice to see the other towns - and confirm that we made a good choice when we decided to stay in quiet, non-touristy Jaibalito. Our biggest day trip was a tour to Chichicastenango where, aside from giving us the opportunity to say that we've been there (really, with a name like that - don't you just have to go?), was very interesting. 

And we'll blog about that next.

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