The market experience at Chichicastenango turned out to be very pleasant. We spent half of the day wandering around the narrow passageways of the market browsing the local crafts and talking to local vendors and shoe shining kids. I had the intention of not buying anything but my itch to use my bargaining skills was too strong to ignore. I ended up buying a few strings of jade beads to tie into some hemp jewelry. We took a hike up to the sacred Mayan site of Pascual Abaj, an idol and shrine up in the pine trees that locals pay homage to mother earth for a good growing season and future fertility. I shared a work trade idea with our hotel owner, the possibility of me making websites for hotels in exchange for room and board. He was very encouraging and wanted to be my first customer, but unfortunately we had to move on to Lago Atitlan.
Leaving Chichicastenango, we experienced our toughest climb yet, ascending 1000 ft in just 2 miles. It was a grueling work out, but we eventually made it to the highest point of the trip, 8120 feet. Our reward was a nice long descent to the lake through small mountain towns, and a nearby village called Solola. The fog was thick and the temperature was cool. We caught our first glimpse of Lago Atitlan through the clouds and then had a nice long descent into Panajachel. My hands intensely gripped the handlebars and held on to the breaks as we crept down into this giant caldera (collapsed volcano).
Panajachel is a lively town filled with everything a tourist could want. Because it is accessible by road, it serves as hub for most of the smaller towns around the lake. It is where most people go to shop, check email, and leave on the next chicken bus out of town. We hit the docks and took the next boat to Santa Cruz. We met up with our Dutch friends Tim and Femka who had been working at one of the hotels, La Iguana Perdida. We got settled in and enjoyed the relaxed lakeside atmosphere, tasty vegetarian cuisine, and beautiful view of the volcanoes, San Pedro and Toliman. Before I took my first swim, I expected very cold waters, but on a warm day with the sun shining, the lake is refreshing and a pleasure to swim in. I ventured out to San Pedro, a fairly large town on the lake with a reputation for good ganja and a decent party scene. I successfully encountered some good San Pedro Ďskunkí and met some friendly older American expats, Bud and Sid, who just opened up a burger joint in town. I ended up spending all night chatting with them and a couple other friends, drinking Cuba libres, smoking, and eventually passing out on their couch. I returned to Santa Cruz the next day with good feelings. It seemed like making friends around the lake would not be too hard. I got together with a traveler from Uruguay and did a nice scenic hike from Santa Cruz to San Marcos, passing through the towns of Jaibalito and Tzununa. The views of the lake and volcanoes were wonderful. The trail was challenging at times but it is hard to complain when you see women walking on the same trail carrying a heavy load of firewood on their head barefoot. San Marcos is known for its meditation retreats, massages and yoga classes.
After a couple more days of chill time in Santa Cruz, Adrian and I organized to take our open water dive course in the lake with our cool Swiss instructor named Serge. We read through the diving manual and discussed theory and techniques. We got right in the water with all the equipment and were soon after were checking out the cool underwater scenes 30-50 ft down. We saw fish, crabs, underwater plants, beautiful rock faces, and trees that had been covered by a rising lake. We learned about diving at altitude, and keeping our buoyancy in fresh water. I even got a free t-shirt! Hanging at the Iguana Perdida for almost 2 weeks gave me the opportunity to meet some cool locals and many of the travelers that passed through. I was able to get into the kitchen and make some of Dadís famous cookies for all to enjoy.
I decided to head over to San Pedro for a few days and Adrian chose to cycle to Antigua. We planned to meet up later. In San Pedro, there are quite a few ways to get high. One way is to climb Volcan San Pedro, right next to the town. A few people had been robbed on the trail last week but Brooks, an American traveler from California, and I decided to go anyway, just without any money, camera, or watches. We started out around 8am and walked through fields of coffee plants. I had never seen coffee live on the tree before this. The berries, which contain the famous coffee bean, are green and round and turn red when they ripen. We passed through some corn fields and then for the next 2 hours were climbing up a steep trail through the trees, eventually getting high up into the clouds. We reached the top, tired but smiling. The view was wonderful. Brooks and I descended fast, jogging most of the way down the windy trail. We stopped at a couple vines and took a swing out on a steep patch of vegetation. It was exhilarating, especially when on my second swing, the vine snapped and I fell 10 feet into the bushes. Amazingly, I survived without injury. We pounded our way down the rest of the trail and for this I suffered 3 days of extreme soreness in my legs. While healing the legs, I returned to Santa Cruz for the famous Saturday Chicken BBQ. There was drumming and fire dancing after dinner. Simon and Kirsi, a German and Finnish couple who fire dance, among many other things, invited me use their oven to bake space cookies. Nice! I returned to San Pedro to help out Sid and Bud for the Guatemalan Independence Day festivities. They were making a Texas style BBQ, pork and chicken, to precede a big techno dance party. Yea, it seems a little strange, but thatís San Pedro, a big mix of international ideas. The pork was deelish! The next day I was at Simon and Kirsiís making a huge batch of cookies. We christened the oven in their new place with space cookies and gourmet pizza and had a great night eating, listening to music, and hanging out.
In San Pedro, I found many cookie lovers. I have become quite the traveling entrepreneur! I hung out with my Israeli silversmith Ofer, who sold his handmade goods out on a blanket. He puts my hemp jewelry out on his blanket for me to sell. Iíve had fun waiting out evening downpours or just chilling at his place designing jewelry. I met a couple cool girls from Arkansas, Kate and Jane, who had found jobs at one of San Pedroís busy restaurant bars. We three found the local chocolate maker, Diego, and signed up for a two day apprenticeship. We observed the roasting and grinding of the cacao beans which was very interesting, then mixed in pure unrefined sugar, milk, and natural flavors like peanuts, cashews, raisins, mint, coffee, and many more. Seeing wonderful chocolate being made before our eyes in such a close and personal setting was a great experience. Diego let us jump right in to mix and taste at many stages. Quality control! Diegoís chocolate is little different. It is not as smooth as the American or European stuff, but it has a very rich chocolate taste from the cacao.
I returned to the Iguana Perdida in Santa Cruz for my last Saturday chicken barbeque with Ofer, Jane and Kate. After a couple days in Santa Cruz, Iíll return to Panajachel and ride out to Antigua. I will surely miss Lago Atitlan.
Thanks for reading!