Time to learn spanish
After a 12 hour, cramped and terrifyingly beautiful shuttle ride from San Cristobal de Las Casas, we arrived in Panajachel to a beautiful sunset and twilight over Lago de Atitlán. Surrounded by silhouetted volcanoes and a quicksilver lake, the grime and chaos we experienced while completing our first land border crossing was replaced with a friendly, serene and peaceful vibe. Along with most of the other passengers from our shuttle, we then boarded a small boat for the 35 minute crossing to our intended destination.
Not my photo, but closest as to how we remembered the sunset. Taken from http://vivsie.com/?p=536
We are in San Pedro as we have enrolled for a two-week intensive Spanish course with the La Cooperativa School http://www.cooperativeschoolsanpedro.edu.gt, while living with a local family.
Our hosts met us and brought us back to their humble, yet clean and comfortable house, about a 5-minute walk from the San Pedro Dock. Our newly adopted family, the Yojcom’s, consisted of husband and wife, Jose and Maria and their seven year old son, Felix. Jose is a primary school teacher, Maria is a cook at a local restaurant and Felix, as happy as any seven-year old could be, was on school holidays. Our family prepared us 3 enormous, varied and delicious meals per day, 6 days per week.
Our family repainted their entire house in one weekend to a lovely guacamole green.
Our weekly schedule was simple. Four hours of one on one Spanish instruction, with a 20 min coffee break, from 8am to 12:00pm. We’d then walk the 15min back to our house through the winding streets, dodging tuk-tuks, back to our house for lunch. After helping clean up, the routine was then to head to our favorite Café Cristalina’s for wonderful coffee, Wi-Fi and a few hours of homework.
View from my classroom
Studying hard in our bedroom
We managed to stay fairly focused and committed to the studious side of life in San Pedro, as we both wanted a decent level of Spanish under our belt for the next 8 months of travel through Latin America. But on Friday and Saturday nights, we inevitably would venture into “Gringo Alley” and join in the revelry.
It was curious how two different worlds exist in San Pedro: You have the Spanish students, who come to learn Spanish in excellent schools at incredibly cheap prices – Our school was $160US per week including accommodation, 3 meals per day and 20 hours of one on one Spanish! And then you have the party side, which attracts back packers for the ample bars, pubs and really cheap accommodation - $12US per night for a clean private room with ensuite. They all party hard.
The quality of the Spanish school was fantastic, Amber and I got a lot out of our experience. The workload was comfortable and rapid progress was made. Our first night with our family I could barely string a sentence together, so basically sat there and smiled while Amber ran the show. By the end of our time, swollen with confidence, I could comfortably carry a conversation in somewhat imperfect Spanish. Now ready for the rest of Central and South America!
Lago de Atitlán is rimmed with many small towns, easily accessed by boat or tuk-tuk, and volcanoes for hiking. We made two visits to San Juan, the closest town to San Pedro, to explore their fabric cooperatives. Women in this town decided that while the men were up on the hillsides farming coffee or corn, they would team up, pool their resources and skills and begin producing beautiful, hand woven and naturally dyed fabrics into scarves, table cloths, bags, clothes – you name it. All original, high quality and very affordable. Often the item will have the name and age of the lady who produced it, and she would receive 90% of the sale price.
Weaving on a traditional hand loom
explaining the different dyes and where they come from
From the dock at San Juan
Flooded buildings litter the coast. After a decade of drought people deemed it safe to build along the receded shore line.
Another town we visited directly across the lake is San Marcos. This was a very relaxed, almost sleepy hippie community on the lakeshore, with a busy, dusty and gritty town behind. We paid a visit here, as it is a nice place to go swimming. It is sheltered from the strong afternoon winds and has a wooden platform (disappointingly called trampolines) 6-7m high that you can jump off into the lake. There was a funny group of 10 year olds who followed us, trying to be tour guides so as to score a few bucks. They wanted sunscreen from us after swimming, which we gave thinking they were being sun smart, but it all went straight into their hair to slick it back correct.
On our middle weekend, we and some other students hiked the dormant volcano behind San Pedro. It was a 5hr return trip and due to being far from our regular level of fitness, was quite brutal. Fortunately when we reached the summit it was not shrouded in cloud as two other friends had experienced, and it offered stunning views of the lake, other volcanoes and the towns at their feet. Needless to stay, thanks to our recent sloth like inactivity, the next few days were incredibly difficult walking around, particularly downhill/stairs.
View of San Pedro from halfway up the volcano
sun bursting through the jungle
From the traditionally and colorfully dressed locals, the delicious food and warmth of the people, San Pedro provided a fantastic experience and we were very sad to leave. Thanks to our host family and the school, Amber and I could have happily stayed for a whole month, but a booking and deposit paid in Honduras meant we needed to move on.
Marimba players in traditional dress
"Day of the disabled" parade. Our langauge school helped to organise a parade for all of the disabled children from the surronding towns to promote awareness and raise money for special schools.
Before heading to Honduras, we spent 3 nights in the beautiful colonial city of Antigua. Set in the central highlands and ringed by volcanoes, originally the capital of Guatemala, the town suffered devastating earthquakes in 1717 and 1776 so the capital was relocated to its current location of Guatemala City. What remains is a charming, UNESCO world heritage listed site, with well preserved spanish-baroque architecture and a number of spectacular ruined churches. Thanks to its seismic history, there are no buildings, except churches, over a couple of stories high, and those churches still standing, such as Iglesia de La Merced, are squat structures, with incredibly thick walls. It is still luxurious and ornate and filled with relics and brutal gilt statues. There are several other churches to visit that have fallen victim to tremors of the past and it is tragically beautiful to wonder through a church with no roof, surrounded by huge sections of stone that have crashed to the ground.
Antigua is another popular destination for Spanish immersion schools, so with a large community of travellers and expats, there are many delicious cafes and restaurants and plenty of nightlife to keep things interesting.
Facade of La Merced
Santa Catalina arch looking towards Volcano de Agua
Watercolour purchased from local artist
Most media and government travel advisories profile Guatemala as an extremely dangerous and violent state, and while I am sure those warnings are not without validity in certain parts, it is entirely different to the Guatemala we experienced. We found it easy to get around and the population in the areas we visited to be warm and friendly, ready to assist with directions and rarely indifferent. It was also wonderful to see indigenous Maya culture so alive through food and dress, adding yet another dimension to this captivating country.