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Chichicastenango & Panajachel

Volume 17: Wed Jul 24, 2002


This church had incense smoking, flowers decorating the steps, and guys walking around swinging cans with smoke coming out of them—a bizarre but interesting custom to watch

I expect this to be my last mass mailing from the wonderful country of Guatemala, but based on past experiences I won't put money onto the fact. =)

Last Saturday, I said my goodbyes to my family in Xela. It was rather a sad affair, because of all the families I've stayed with, this is the one I felt closest to and where I felt like I really was part of the family. Maria, the mom of the family, kept telling me, "Un mes más", or in English, "Stay one more month!" But alas, it was time to move on....


Have I mentioned how much I loved the bright, colored garbs that the indigenous people wore?

After my previous, failed attempt at trying to get from Xela to Chichicastenango, I decided a bus direct to Chichi was the way to go. Can't get lost that way, right? Except there weren't any buses going directly there when I arrived at the bus station. So I hoped onto a chicken bus heading to Guatemala City (making sure it was actually taking the route I expected all buses to Guatemala City would take) and hoped for the best.

An eleven-year-old boy sat next to me, who was a delight to talk to. I told him about where I was from, where I had been in Guatemala, and so on. He told me stories about his life in Xela in return. One of the first questions he asked when he learned I stayed in Xela for the past month was "Did you visit Hiper Paiz?!" He really meant the huge shopping mall there—most people call it Hiper Paiz which is technically just the name of the anchor store and the sign for it is larger than the sign with the name of the mall. This happens to be where Taco Bell is located, so I told him, "Claro que sí! (Of course!)" I was very familiar with the mall! He offered me a piece of candy. I offered him a one limpera bill, which really wasn't worth anything being in Guatemala and all, but I figured it was very possible he had never seen a limpera in his entire life.


This man was swinging around a smoking can on the steps of the church

At Los Encuentros, I jumped off the bus to hail down another bus heading to Chichicastenango. Strangely, I was surrounded by a bunch of French speaking people. Their English was horrible, and their Spanish was nonexistent. So I didn't talk to them much while waiting to hail down the next bus to pass by going in my direction.

After about ten minutes, I found myself climbing into another, extremely crowded bus where I didn't really talk to anyone, since I was still surrounded by those same French speaking people.


The bus dropped me off by this particularly decorative bridge

Chichicastenango has one of the prettiest bridges I have ever seen, where the bus dropped us off. Nobody ever told me about this beautiful bridge, so I hope I don't spoil the surprise for anyone else who visits. It's not very large spanning over one, narrow street, but it's has the look and feel of an ancient ruin. After taking a few pictures, I picked up all my stuff and started hunting for a hotel room.

After the first two places I checked said they were full, I started having concerns that I wasn't the only person with the brilliant idea of getting to Chichi the day before market day and spending the night, and perhaps ALL of the hotels were full, but fortunately on my third try I found a small nondescript room, without a bathroom, for Q25 (or about $3.21) per night.


I walked to the top of the bridge as another bus arrived to drop off tourists and locals. The bus driver is on top unloading luggage to the passengers waiting off to the side.

Seeing how incredibly dull and uninteresting my room was, I headed out to a cute little restaurant on the second floor of the main drag to watch the people passing back and forth while eating french fries and drinking Coke. (Hey, when you're surrounded by Frenchmen, what else are you supposed to eat?)


Chichicastenago is a favorite tourist trap on market day. I took this picture early in the morning before the crowds thickened.

The next day, Sunday, aka Market Day, arrived foggy and cloudy. The market itself was pretty much what I expected and similar to other markets around Guatemala. Fascinating, interesting, magical, packed with people bargaining for the best bargains obtainable. There's a church there, pretty but nothing particularly noteworthy compared to other churches in Guatemala, except for the abundance of rituals taking place in front of it. I can't begin to tell why these things are done, but it's an amazing thing to watch. Men walking around swinging back and forth cans of—something. I'm not really sure what the smoke coming out of them was coming from. Lots of incense. One side of the entrance, the steps were absolutely covered from top to bottom with beautiful flowers.

In Chichi, there's another interesting place to visit called the Shrine of Pascual Abaj. I didn't actually visit it myself since my guidebook warned of bad things happening to the lonely tourists such as myself visiting it on their own, but I've seen pictures of the place and it's interesting enough to note. My guidebook reads:


Later in the day, the crowds become quite thick! I took this photo from the steps of the church, looking back at the market.

"Before you have been in Chichi very long, some village lad will offer to guide you (for a tip) to a pine-clad hilltop on the town´s outskirts to have a look at Pascual Abaj (Sacrifice Stone), which is the local shrine to Huyup Tak'ah, the Mayan earth god. Said to be hundreds—perhaps thousands—of years old, the stone-faced idol has suffered numerous indignities at the hands of outsiders, but locals still revere it. Chuchkajaues come here regularly to offer incense, food, cigarettes, flowers, liquor and Coca-Cola to the earth god. They may even sacrifice a chicken—all to express their thanks and hope for the earth's continuing fertility."

Who'd ever imagine it: A Mayan god that liked Coca-Cola and cigarettes?


Sololá turned out to be a nice town with an impressive tower in the center of town

After wondering around Chichi for most of the morning, I was back on the road, and this time I wouldn't stop until I reached Panajachel. I jumped on a chicken bus. First heading to Guatemala City, where I had to get off at Los Encuentros to hail another bus down. I jumped on the other bus which headed to Sololá, which was actually a few miles short of my destination, but I figured it would probably be easy to jump on a THIRD bus and make it the rest of the way to Panajachel.


Need a dentist, anyone? I'd have to be dead or unconscious before volunteering to get my teeth worked on here! Is that a bottle of beer the rabbit is holding? Actually, no, it's supposed to be a tube of toothpaste, but still....

As it turned out, Sololá has a pretty little central park with interesting looking buildings, and I was thrilled to death to jump off the bus and admire them before continuing my journey to Panajachel. The fact that there was also an absolutely filthy, crazy (I'm taking certifiably insane kind of crazy) man was sitting next to me on the bus, it wasn't a great burden to have to change buses. =)

I might point out, while I was crowded on a chicken bus with standing room only, and I was standing, these people here are SHORT. I don't really consider myself THAT tall—maybe average?—but I TOWERED over the next tallest person on that bus. After that revelation, I started noticing other things also attesting to their shortness. In beds in hotel rooms, my feet dangle out of the end of them. Doorways, I've had to duck to get through. And going down stairs can be a downright danger for tall people. These people are so amazingly short, and I had no idea until after I rode that first chicken bus where I had to stand.


Tortillas are one of the major food groups in Central America. Other food groups include eggs and beans.

Finally, I jumped onto the last of the three buses for this journey. The bus snaked down an impossibly steep canyon with views overlooking Lago del Atitlán. It really is breathtaking scenery too. Lake Atitlán is a caldera (collapsed volcanic cone) surrounded by very impressive, very sinister looking volcanos. I'd have taken a picture, but some dumbass built a freaking 15 story building near the shore. Why the hell someone would think it's a brilliant idea to build a skyscraper on the shore of what is unarguably one of the most beautiful areas in Guatemala in a town with 5,000 people is beyond my comprehension. Actually, make that THREE skyscrapers. Fortunately, by the time I actually reached the town of Panajachel, I discovered that the buildings where just outside of town tucked away in the next canyon and not really visible from the town. From anywhere else on the lake, yes. From the air, yes. From the road down to Panajachel, yes. But FROM Panajachel, no.


Can you see the rows of crops on this hillside? I would have never guessed such steep land could be farmed!

My guidebook has been pretty good about where things are located, providing suggestions for places to eat and stay, but for some bizarre reason, I have yet to find a single place mentioned in my guidebook here. None of the restaurants or hotels are where they should be, and I finally gave up. There's so many restaurants and hotels to choose from, I didn't really need a guidebook anyhow. So I picked a place more-or-less at random and found myself another cheap hotel costing me Q25 per night.

After walking around the town for a while, I discovered something very interesting. Most people here speak French. Not the locals, of course, who speak Spanish with a few words of English, but tourists. For some bizarre reason, I have met more people from France than from any other country, hands down. If I ever wanted to go somewhere to learn French really cheap, Panajachel is a great place to do it! Speaking of tourists, Panajachel really is a major tourist town, and it seems to have developed a nicknamed of 'Gringotenango' to both locals and tourists alike. Rather amusing, I thought.


I call this a YAC—short for Yet Another Church

The next day, I decided to take a hike that followed along the edge of the lake from Jaibalito to San Pedro. I jumped in a launcha to take me to Jaibalito—a small town only accessible by foot or by boat. And I started to hike. It was a wonderful hike. I hid a letterbox along the way. I passed maybe five lonely souls working their crops on impossibly steep slopes. And the slopes these people grow crops ARE steep. I never thought anyone could grow anything on slopes so steep where if you slipped, you'd probably roll down the hill to your deaths. These people are amazing!

Upon reaching the lakeside village of Tzununá, people started to become more common. There was actually a small road that reached the town, at which point my hike left the trail and followed the sparsely populated road. For a couple of miles, I didn't see any cars at all, just an old man carrying an ice chest on his back. I walked with him for a half hour or so, chit-chatting about the weather, where we were headed, and so on. But finally he reached his destination and I continued on without him.


Some of the sights around Lago del Atitlan, including a funny-looking sign trying to sell an hamburgesa gigante (giant hamburger) and a statue of a man holding up a chicken (dead, presumably)

By the time I reached San Marcos, traffic and people were becoming much more common. Cars would pass every five or so minutes and people were all over the streets. I talked to a few more who were walking in my direction. One man tending his crops near Santa Clara asked me why I was walking and didn't hail down one of the passing cars to get a lift to San Pedro, since it was only Q3 (38 cents). I told him I wanted to walk so I could see more. I was in no rush. And he warned me that I could very likely get mugged, and I shouldn't be walking around there like I was by myself.

While that certainly didn't sound very encouraging, I have to point out that at least he didn't say I would likely be KILLED walking around there by myself—only robbed. But still, I started thinking that maybe hailing a lift to San Pedro wouldn't be a bad idea....

A few minutes later, I ran into two Germans that were also walking the same way I was, so I hooked up with them thinking there's more safety in numbers. And I had some real life non-French speaking people I could talk to! As it turned out, they knew French as well, but at least it wasn't their native language. After about five minutes with me, they ditched me in favor of a beach we were walking past.

Once again, I continued my trek to San Pedro on foot and alone.


The view from San Pedro, looking over Lago del Atitlan towards Panajachel

I stopped briefly in one small town for a Coke, and stopped briefly again in another to take pictures of a cute little church that was there. You know it had to have been cute, because I actually stopped long enough to take out my camera. There are so many cute little churches in Guatemala, they all start to look alike and not very impressive, although by United States standards they're works of art. But this one was distinctive enough where I felt justified wasting more film on Yet Another Church (YAC for short).

By now, traffic was SOOO frequent, I felt the likelihood of a mugging was rapidly diminishing, so I continued walking all the way to San Pedro at which point I boarded another boat back to Panajachel.

It was the worst experience of my life. The seats are specially designed to be as hard as possible. The boat was designed to magnify whatever swells were on the lake surface. My butt was not designed for such an experience, and it was with some pain I finally got out of the boat. There was a really cute looking girl sitting across from me, who turned out not to know a word of English—only French. Her parents—I assume they were her parents (who were hideously ugly, I might add, so maybe they weren't!)—knew some English and I chatted with them briefly which is how I learned they were from France, and I had to ask why there were SOOO many people from France in Panajachel. They just shrugged and said it was really cheap. I wanted to point out that ALL of Guatemala was pretty cheap, but only in Panajachel have I come across so many French citizens.


This may have to go down in history as the most beautiful sunset I ever witnessed, taken from the shore in Panajachel

While walking down the street here checking out places I might like eat lunch at, one persistent man pulled out a menu, explaining everything they had to me in English even though I was talking in Spanish. It was with some pleasure I finally cut into his dialog and asked if he actually knew any Spanish, because I'd rather discuss the menu in Spanish since that's the language I want to learn!

And that about wraps up my Guatemalan adventure. Tomorrow (Thursday) I have a flight from Guatemala City to San Jose, Costa Rica. I was going to head to Guatemala City to spend the night there tonight and catch my flight tomorrow afternoon, but after reading the newspaper here I discovered that due to the Pope's visit in another five days, most of the hotels in Guatemala City are already full and those that still have rooms left are charging outrageous rates. So I've decided to spend my last night here in Panajachel and take a chicken bus to Guatemala City first thing in the morning tomorrow.

I'm kind of looking forward to the flight. I've heard rumors from other tourists that they actually let you flush TOILET PAPER down the toilets there! Amazing, I know. It's a strange novelty I'm excited to try out. =)

— Ryan

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