The Frothers Guide to Panajachel, Guatemala

24 hours in Guatemala: Panajachel and Lake Atitlan

Guatemala: a country with a tainted past of civil wars and political instability, described on Wikipedia as one of the most violent countries in the world and a dangerous place for tourists in general.

However, for those who dare to challenge the hype, there lies a country of breathtaking natural beauty, incredibly rich history, colourful and welcoming locals and a true sense of adventure.

After crossing the western border from the Chiapas region of Mexico into Guatemala, we boarded a minivan bound for the lake side town of Panajachel. Affectionately known as ‘Gringocastenango’ to the locals, due to the number of ex pats living there in a pseudo-hippy inspired segregation from the real world.

The driver of the van sped through the winding roads up into the mountainous western region of Guatemala, overtaking around blind corners and even stopping in the middle of the road to change a break pad on a blind corner himself. I made sure I watched this from the safety of the other side of the road.

The several hour journey from the border culminated with spectacular decent into Panajachel, during which we could see the grey glass waters of Lake Atitlan, sitting eerily still in the shadow of its three volcanoes.
We were staying in an ornate, traditional Spanish-Latino style building, painted vibrant red and gold, with views from the roof top out over the lake. After a good night’s sleep we were greeted in the hotels immaculately kept courtyard by a man who – through a thick Maya-Spanish accent – told us we could call him ‘John’.

John took us to his boat moored at a wharf just across from our hotel. On the way, the soft glow of the morning sun had just begun to kiss the incredibly calm waters of the lake and I couldn’t help holding up the group by taking some photographs in this amazing light.

Our day was filled with visiting the traditional Mayan villages surrounding the lake. Tasting and smelling the robust and rich scent of freshly roasted Guatemalan coffee in San Pedro. Paying our respects to the drinking, smoking, party loving deity ‘Maximon’ (pronounced musheemon), worshiped as a medicine man by the people of Santiago de AtitlanWe also ventured to San Juan where we were able to visit both an artist and a weaver’s workshop, complete with demonstrations and gentle encouragement to purchase something as a means of thanks.

From San Juan we headed to a beautiful restaurant/hotel, for lunch overlooking the lake: a delicious selection of traditional Guatemalan cuisine laden with chilli, tomato and of course corn tortillas.

On the boat ride back that afternoon, as the sun began to dip behind the volcanoes, casting rays of pink and gold over the glassy lake surface, there was a quietness to the group as the cool spray from the lake gently kissed our skin through the open sides of the old wooden boat. Everyone seemed at peace and lost in thought. For me, my world seemed suddenly artificial, empty compared to that of these Mayan villagers, deemed to be living in poverty by western standards but so content with what they have and their way of life. We could all learn something from these incredible decedents of the ancient Maya people, who have fought the influence of the western world through devastating civil wars, to keep their culture alive today.

When we arrived back to Panajachel we were left with this incredible sunset as we walked back to our hotel.

It was an understatement to say that today had been a day that would resonate with me on so many levels and Guatemala had cemented its place, as somewhere truly unique, in my heart.


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