I chose to take my trip to Panajachel, Lake (Lago) Atitlán and Chichicastenango on a weekend. The colorful and large market at “Chichi”, as Chichicastenango is locally known, is open on Thursdays and Sundays and I didn’t want to miss it.
Mario, the owner of the Casa Luna Hotel, where I was staying in Antigua, set-up a shuttle for me. A normally two-hour ride to Panajachel (“Pana”) took over three hours the morning I traveled due to heavy traffic through the narrow streets of Sololá. Sololá the regional capital of the area is also one of the very few places in Guatemala where the men wear their traditional Maya dress. But no male traditional dress was noticeable from the van that day. Most of the trip was devoid of eye-catching scenery until the shuttle began the descent out of Solalá down to Panajachel and Lago Atitlán.
Dramatic views of the lake and the volcanoes Tolimán and San Pedro were seen as the shuttle wound down the steep road and entered “Pana”. In the 1960’s Panajachel was a favorite stop for hippies because of both the beauty of the area and the supposed presence of mystic vortex energy fields. A few aging hippies remain but today the town reminds me of typical hustling tourist areas the world over. The main reason for visiting Panajachel, to me, is to see the beauty of Lake Atitlán and the surrounding volcanoes or to visit the villages across the lake by taking the for hire boats that are available along the lakefront. The shuttle dropped me off at the Hotel Kakchikel in the center of “Pana” where Mario had reserved a room for me. At $30.00 per night the room was clean, spacious and had plenty of hot water for my morning shower. After a hearty breakfast the short walk to the lake, through the main street, passed by many stands and shops selling Maya textiles and obvious tourist souvenirs.The beauty of Lake Atitlán can unexaggeratedly be described as breathtaking.
I walked along the lake front and passed by restaurants decorated with thatch and docks where mariners asked me if I would like to ride to the villages across the lake. Offers I regretfully declined. My time was limited – but not limited enough to leave before sunset. As the puesta del sol (sunset) approached people began gathering for the view. They were not disappointed. As I sat on some stone steps by the lake taking photos of the splendid sight two women seated next to me began chatting to me in very good English. They were single mothers from Quetzaltenango (Xela), a teacher and a businesswoman, said they had taken the weekend off from children and work to relax and enjoy Atitlán. We had a very pleasant conversation as the sun gracefully set over the lake and behind the volcanoes San Pedro and Tolimán.
On Sunday, the following day, an 8 AM shuttle came to my hotel and off we went to Chichicastenango to visit the Sunday market. An hour later we were bouncing over the cramped, cobbled streets of “Chichi”. The driver parked the van two blocks from the marketplace entrance. I had been to the Chichicastenango market in my Peace Corps days but I did not remember how large and crowded it was. The narrow paths were lined with all types of Maya artesanía.
Colorful shawls, scarfs, table runners and purses on tables and hanging from wooden racks. Carved primitive wooden animals and birds and visual art were displayed. Peanuts and cashews. A spectacle for the eyes. Marimba music played in the background and vendors – women in traditional Maya dress with textiles hung over their arms and shoulders and men in straw hats – walked the tight aisles selling their wares. Tourists, it seemed like hundreds of them, were strolling, taking photos and examining and buying the offered merchandise. I wandered through the brightly hued market and came upon an area where women were selling chickens and turkeys. Carrying them in their arms or in baskets the traditionally dressed women were busy with what appeared to be brisk sales.
After a time I tired of meandering I found a quiet lounge at the beautiful Hotel Santo Tomas to have a coffee and a snack. The waiter, traditionally dressed, was friendly and said that he lived in one of the aldeas (villages) that surround Chichicastenango. He told me that the hotel had hosted a tour group from Israel the previous evening and that business was good. While sipping my coffee I heard tourists speaking in French and English. An international entourage.
The morning went by quickly. As I made my way back to our shuttle for the two-hour ride back to Antigua I heard loud music with a lively Latin beat and followed the sound. To my surprise I came upon a colorful parade of masked revelers joyfully celebrating a local holiday. A perfect ending to a very pleasant two days in a fascinating environment.
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