Once you settle in, the fun thing to do is take day trips. There are villages all around the lake. I got to visit a number of them. In each town, the women and girls wear the beautiful and colorful hand woven huipil symbolic of their village. Everyone is very friendly – is considered polite to always say hello, Buenos dais (or tardes…). The people are so beautiful – though, compared to most North Americans, tiny: I feel so huge and lumbering!
When I first arrived I came through Panajachel, known as Pana, which was the first area to become well known by tourists and has many hotels, restaurants, nonprofit projects, markets, etc. It is a great place to shop and access services but lacked much charm or atmosphere. You can hop on a boat for a 20 to 30 minute trip across to San Pedro for just 25Q (quetzals – about 7.5 to a dollar, so the ride cost $3.25).
I found San Pedro quite enjoyable – easy to walk around through narrow alleys that the ever present tuk tuks managed to squeeze through, with a steep hike up to the central market, church and lovely tiny city park. I enjoyed heading to the outskirts of town where my friend Nancy is living in a friend’s house that she has helped to landscape and decorate exquisitely. With an incredible view once you hike up to the upper house and climb up three steep flights to the terrace! Wowowowow.
One day we headed to nearby Santiago – a more traditional town where even the men still where their village trajes. It is beautifully situated on the shore of a deep inlet of the lake. This is the town told about in Martin Pechtel’s colorful and amazing memoir of how he became a shaman, Secrets of the Talking Jaguar – a great read, especially while here. This town was the capital of the Tz’utujil since pre-colonial times. During the war Santiago was especially hard hit with state-sponsored violence. Many villagers were murdered, tortured, disappeared – including the assassination of Roman Catholic Priest Stanley Rother by right-wing death squads on 28 July 1981, and the massacre of 14 people (and wounding of 21 others) when the Guatemalan Army opened fire on a crowd of unarmed civilians on 2 December 1990. Today there are collectives of women’s back-strap weaving and many Mayan traditions continue. For example, there are Cofradías (religious brotherhoods) who are the guardians of the modern and ancient religious practices: one task is to take an annual turn in guarding the cult of Maximón –a cigar puffing god-effigy to whom people come to offer liquor and tobacco in exchange of favors.
On the other side of my base of San Pedro is a small village, San Juan. This town seems to have a very unique character. Almost no hotels, no tourists – and a very enterprising population: apparently an American helped create a women’s cooperative many years ago and from that has spawned many women’s’ cooperatives. So all of the shops sell wonderful, organic, natural dye products and all share the profits with their members. There are many gorgeous murals throughout the village. And some of the services such as school and sports field seem better established and maintained.
Beyond that I visited San Marcos – a haven for New Agers. There are holistic healing centers, yoga retreats, and health food stores. It is on the shady side of the lake and has a more tropical feel. Very quiet, peaceful and lush, with narrow paths from the dock leading up to a sweet shared playground where gringo and native families gather to watch the children play. There is a beautifully maintained little park with paths and vistas and swimming holes – and four ceremonial circles (one for each pillar of the earth – used at different seasons) – where I came upon Tata Pedro and Shuni.
I also visited Santa Cruz, accessible only by boat: there I visited friends’ of friends who founded Amigos de Santa Cruz which has established wonderful programs for the six small communities associated with the town – for vocational training, nutritional education, early childhood education, and scholarship supported advanced education. This small village needed to be traversed by precarious wood planked walk ways at the lake’s edge, as the planned lovely broad pathway was now submerged.
On another day I took a day trip away from the lake to Chichicastenango’s famous market and vibrant K’iche town. The shopping everywhere in Guatemala is insane: there is such richness of beautiful textiles, beads, etc. in wild and vibrant colors with painfully detailed handwork. Needless to say, my suitcase is now emptied of the books and art materials I brought to Taa’Pi’t but is overflowing with handicrafts…. The church at ChiChi is fascinating, with observers conducting a maya-catholic blend of ritual similar to what I once saw in San Cristobal in Mexico. Candles, incense, offerings of corn, flowers, pine boughs, liquor and prayers by shaman while the Catholic saints look on. The church is the site where the one remaining copy of the holy Popul Vuh telling the Maya origin stories was found in the early 18th Century.
…I was sad to leave the gorgeous lake, which really cast a spell upon me… But excited to have more adventures ahead: I’ll soon post the last two blog entries – one from Tecpan and my visit to Project Somos and one from the jungles of Peten where I visited Tikal.