The Lost Iguanas in Atitlan


LAGO DE ATITLÁN, GUATEMALA: July 7-10

Leah: This place was truly magical and soul-renewing; I think that after having lived in San Diego for 6 years, the calming effects of a giant expanse of water are immediate and needed for me. Even just driving down the mountains into town I felt my body relax—the lake is truly magnificent and hemmed in by 3 volcanoes, steep verdant hills and 13 diverse and traditional Maya settlements dotted around the lake. Our first two nights here we spent with Sandra, our Couchsurfer host and native Guatemalan, and her adorable dog, Chico, in Panajachel (Pana). She’s married to a German and they have a son, but both of them were in Germany for the summer and we had Sandra all to ourselves. When we weren’t playing with Chico or learning from Sandra, we explored the streets of Pana, taking in performances, marveling at the market goods for sale and enjoying cheap, scrumptious food.

Although Sandra speaks English, Steve and I threw ourselves in the deep end and went the Spanish route. Luckily Sandra used to be a teacher and was incredibly patient and helpful as we stumbled our way through the first conversations and got to know one another. We learned that she was actually her husband’s Spanish teacher way back when (which is how they met), and now her 12 year old son, Leo David, speaks Spanish, English and German. Mind-boggling and makes me sick with jealousy. We later took Chico on a walk to the next town over, Santa Catarina; the road hugged the hillside and offered the most astounding views of the water, clouds and the rest of the lakeside settlements. While working up a sweat, we grilled her on all sorts of topics only a local would know. Because of her education, experiences and current studies (she’s working on law right now and her thesis covers embezzlement at the government level), Sandra was a wealth of information regarding HIV/AIDS, government elections, human rights issues with indigenous cultures and even domestic violence. I asked as much as I could and truly appreciated her thoughtful answers, which seemed to be a fascinating mix of the realities of a Guatemalan woman interwoven with the perspective of someone from a European viewpoint. Steve and I even marveled that as complex as some of the topics are and as lacking as our Spanish is at this point, we were awash in language and found ourselves able to ask and answer a variety of questions and participate in truly intense conversations with Sandra, some of which I’ve never even had in English!

On our last night with her, Steve and I cooked an Israeli dish, shakshuka, and somehow the conversation over dinner turned to how having kids is not the top of my priority list right now and frankly wigs me out. Before I knew it, Sandra produced a school assignment her son had completed for his English school that he didn’t know she’d ever see. In it, he talks about how his mom always took him to the library for as long as he could remember and that she’d practice his English and reading with him, often concluding with an ice cream or other sweet treat if he worked hard. He cherished the skills she had helped cultivate in him and continues to do so, and he sang her praises left and right. Sandra gently reminded me that once you have your own kids everything changes for the better and they truly are a gift for the soul. The idea still freaks me out, but I was so touched by Sandra’s experience; it’s heartfelt conversations and sharing like this with other Couchsurfers that makes me love the organization even more.

After 2 nights with Sandra we were saddened to leave her warm and welcoming spirit and home, but we wanted to explore some other parts of the lake; we bid adieu to her and Chico and made our way via lancha (a small boat used to ferry people back and forth across the lake) to Santa Cruz, where we stayed two nights at La Iguana Perdida a hostel perfectly situated right on the banks of the lake.

We chose a room with no electricity, the walls covered with reed mats and bamboo poles holding up the curtains. The staff provided us with candles for the evening and we were all set for some serious chilling out. We decided to partake of the happy hour, and sat with $1.50 cocktails on the pristine balcony intending to read our books. However, the lake is truly bewitching and instead we ended up watching the evening mist roll in as spiders in the trellised plants prepared for dinner by spinning their crystalline webs, bats swooped by in their telltale erratic flight patterns and a hummingbird who reminded us of a lemur due to its black and white striped tail, performed air acrobatics as it dipped from one flower to the next. Perfection. That evening we did have to endure the prolonged and varied vocalizations of the amorous Aussie couple next door to us, as the walls are paper thin, but that’s just part of the fun of hostel life!

After another rise-and-shine session from the neighbors, we decided to hop to it and do some hiking, so off we went to Jaibalito, an isolated settlement where not much Spanish is actually spoken, mostly the Mayan dialect of Kaqchikel, and many women have never journeyed beyond the lake itself. The trail hugged the coast as it climbed, and through we were a greasy, sweaty mess, our efforts were rewarded with sweeping panoramic vistas of the lake, as lanchas criss-crossed the azure waters and people swam far below. Lunch was divine and on the way back we tried to find the waterfalls folks at the hostel tipped us off about, but the path wasn’t obvious and we decided not to turn ourselves into a lost tourist statistic. Instead, we decided to head back to La Iguana and cocoon ourselves in the brightly colored hammocks where we could watch and feel the rainstorm move in while protected under the awning. The lightning show was spectacular, our attention only diverted by various other hummingbird friends who came to dine on the flowers cascading down the eaves. We rounded out the evening with a few games of pool and I tried to show Steve how fun pool table HORSE can be, but for some reason it didn’t translate.

Once back in the candle-lit room I was starting to dry off when I heard a sharp intake of breath from my dear husband and turned around to see an old nemesis of mine from my Peace Corps days—giant, long-legged spiders that I swear move at the speed of light. The spiders themselves are pretty flat, not poisonous and noteven that intimidating, but their leg span is unreal and the way in which they can zip from place to place is truly unnerving, especially when you know you’ll be sharing your reed-covered room with them through the night. So what did we do? Shriek like little girls and use our compression sacks to scoot it out the door, while its every movement made us jump (Steve: Wow, Leah just took some serious artistic liberty there…but I will admit that my first gasp actually happened). We’re pretty badass I know, and this isn’t even the worst thing we’ll find in our room on this trip <shudder>. Of course we woke up the next morning and it was back in the same spot, along with its buddy on the outside of our room, so Lord knows what type of creepy spider convention we slept through that evening.We had decided it was off to Quetzaltenango (or Xela, pronounced Shay-la) that day, so we packed our bags, waved to our arachnid friend and off we went.

Steve: Before moving on to our travels to Quetzaltenango I should also note that while our visit to Lago de Atitlán was renewing due to its enchanting natural beauty, Santa Cruz (and also Pana for that matter) was easy to navigate as the area is fed heavily by tourism. La Iguana Perdida had the feel of a resort and it was nice to have a small break from interpreting Spanish as most staff and guests spoke English—with accents of course—evidenced in the conversations we shared with folks from Australia, the Czech Republic and New Zealand to name a few. And Leah and I discovered that we were not so unique at this lake; we came across several families from the San Diego area who have either relocated or have a vacation home in the area. I don’t blame them—it’s a great place.

Leah..A great place it is, but nonetheless we took a lancha back to Pana, waved farewell to our idyllic lakeside retreat and mentally prepped ourselves for our first experience with the camionetas, or famed “chicken buses”. These bad boys are re-decorated American school buses, festooned with stickers, prayers, myriad rainbows of color schemes and a sidekick who hangs out the door, screamsthe destinations, takes your fare and assists with baggage. As our driver carefully and slowly took his time guiding us safely up the mountain accelerated through the switchbacks and drove like the Devil himself pursued us, we climbed up and out of Lago Atitlan and its serene waters. Vamos a Xela!

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