Saturday, January 1, 2011

Lake Atitlan and the Highland Villages of Guatemala

On New Year's day, we set off on the last leg of this trip to explore Lake Atitlan and its surrounding highland villages. Perfect day to head out given that everything in Antigua was shut after the night-long partying.Our wonderful driver made a quick pit stop half way through our meandering climb into the mountains. We stopped at a local dhaba-like restaurant where some women were making fresh green-colored tortillas. We ordered a pile to go with tons of butter and enjoyed our delicious snack with the last jar of pickle that chinna atta was still carrying. One of the last remnants from our precious food bag. In the backyard of the restaurant, the kids found a see-saw and swings. It was hard to get them back in the car.Little kids line the highway to Lake Atitlan waving at every car that passes by. They don't really expect you to wave back and it's really funny to see them compelled to drop whatever they're doing and stand up to wave. It's almost like a habit automatically programmed in them as soon as they spot a car. We found it so cute that we started waving back to all the kids.And then it came into view - the dreamy Lake Atitlan that appears to float in the sky, a mile above sea level, relying on three surreal volcanoes to hold gravity at bay. The lake is volcanic in origin filling what is really a ginormous caldera. Atitlan is a Mayan word that means the place where the rainbow gets its colors. It really belongs to a different world. And they say what you do on the first day of the year sets the tone for the rest of the year. A New Year's eve erupting with firecrackers, floating on a volcanic lake on New Year's day was followed in February by a visit to the Volcanic National park in Hawaii. This is a volcanic year indeed :-)Panajachel is a Mayan village located on the shores of the lake. Nestled beside the lake, it is a bustling center of Mayan culture, markets, and tourism. Indigenous folks mill about in traditional costumes selling everything from peanuts to vegetables to souvenirs to textiles. It's a profusion of color and activity. As we stood debating about whether to cruise the lake, our driver sealed the deal by promising that the shopping in one of the smaller villages across the lake was the real deal and to top it all Nathan anna was really keen on the ride. So off we went cruising the ethereal waters that were not at all as calm as they appear. The markets of the village across the lake - San Antonio Polopo - stretched on endlessly on an uphill street. But the goods were overpriced and the shop owners did not seem too friendly. So we just enjoyed our street side snacks and made our way back to Panajachel where we stopped for coffee and refreshments. At sundown, we drove onward to Chichicastenango, our overnight village stop. Hotel San Tomas in Chichi exceeded all expectations. Housed in the annexe of an ancient church, this boutique hotel has been painstakingly restored, preserved and decorated by its octogenarian owner who is still takes pride and active interest in her establishment. It took us a long time to soak in all the antiques, decorations, and details of this museum-like hotel. Even the costumes of the hotel staff threw me off for a few seconds. The rooms were cozy and made warmer by the personalized firewood service.

Chichi is a devout little village where the church is a central attraction. Our hotel having once been part of a church was filled with religious artifacts at every nook - nativity scenes, crucifixes, statues of saints, and other little tokens. On a side table in our room was a mini nativity scene. Talinn figured it was a religious statue of some sort and spontaneously said a Hindu prayer to it. I hope Lord Jesus was pleased to hear this Ganesha stuti as much as we were.

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