Plummeting into Lago de Atitlan

Lago de AtitlanFor the first time in my life I understood where the expression “a white knuckle ride” had come from, as I dismally noted the pallid complexion of my clenched fists at the periphery of my tunnel of vision.  My eyes squinted tight against the fat, pummeling raindrops that burned them as I strained to focus on the tightly wound band of road that clung to the cliffside.  But as I felt the tendons in my wrist throb and my fingers searing from tension, all I heard was a liquid squealing as the rubber of my brake-pads cried out in hopeless desperation.  I was still hurtling at almost full speed towards the low metal guardrails, with just murky gray fog beyond the precipice, and I had almost no control over my rapid descent into the unknown below.  And as I flew forward I wondered just how exactly I had gotten myself into this fiasco in the first place.

That morning when I left Xéla (Quetzaltenango) I must admit that although I was excited to finally be heading towards the fabled Lago de Atitlan, of which I had heard marvelous stories ever since my first weeks in Mexico, but my spirits had also been dampened by the relentless torrents of the Guatemalan monsoon season.  There was no doubt that the mysterious and ethereal air which hung to the fog enshrouded mountains enticed me and led me forward, yet I also felt a dismal sense of uncertainty about what lay beyond each curve in the narrow highland road and, deeper within me, a sense of absolute isolation from the anything that I had ever known before.  For some time I pedaled farther and farther higher, up and above Xéla and into the clouds, but there were too many factors fighting against me.  The path seemed to be plagued by intermittent, and often overlapping, waves of impenetrable fog, completely destroyed roadway under construction, blind hairpin turns, and merciless downpours.  Between these obstacles and my painstakingly slow uphill pace, I realized that there was no chance that I would ever make it to Panajachel that day, as I had told my soon to be host Bob that I would.  This was a good time for a little roadside assistance, so I soon found myself at a strategic point to flag down a chicken bus and was soon loading up and on my way to Panajachel in style.

Well, I suppose style is a subjective term, seeing as how I was now crowded into an old fashioned American school bus packed with indigenous Guatemalan campesinos and their livestock, reggaeton blaring on the bus’ stereo system, with my bicycle and all of my worldly possessions precariously balanced on the roof rack as we wailed around endless loops and valleys.  Nevertheless, based on the relative fact that only moments earlier I had been cold, rain-soaked, fragile, and hopeless, this experience was magically transformed into a luxury limo through the third world.  It wasn’t long before we were arriving at los Encuentros – I had missed my stop five minutes earlier, but this was perfectly satisfactory as well.  I knew that it was only a brief slog from here to the lake and I figured that if it was a lake, hopefully it would be downhill.  So a popped off the bus, reassembled my conestoga wagon, and was soon gracefully sliding down the slick, shiny roads in the light drizzle towards Panajachel.

As I turned off of the main thoroughfare and onto the side road to the lake, green hillocks and tourist signs along the side of the road began to greet me.  Well, in at least one way this was a good sign, I wasn’t far.  The rain picked up slightly and I decided to pull over and don my slicker, but I figured that being this near to my destination, I had may as well keep on and hopefully beat any heavier afternoon downpours before they reached maximum intensity and left me stranded only a few miles away from a warm shower (I hoped) and a dry change of clothes.  So onward it was, and not long thereafter the road began to angle downwards more sharply and I whizzed into a sheet of fog.  From one moment to the next buckets of water were suddenly thrown down from the heavens and I found myself in a rather inconvenient circumstance – hurtingly at breakneck pace into the unknown.  The pale, misty silhouettes of low concrete buildings faded into view and the road channeled in between the foot high curbs, flowing and churning with the inundation of rainfall.  My tires gurgled as they sliced through the deep water, throwing waves out on either side of their path.

As I rounded street-corners and wound through the town, I hoped that this was the town of Panajachel and that I had almost descended as far as I could go, but somehow my intuition told me otherwise.  Passing by what quickly became apparent was the last cluster of edifices in this village, I saw it, just the downward sloping bare metal guardrail skirting a white curtain of fog which no doubt stretched mysteriously towards infinity.  I was still very, very high up, and I had a funny feeling that I was about to make my way to the bottom in a hurry.  The roller-coaster had begun and I was just along for the ride at this point.  My palms ached, my bicycle swayed flimsily as I rounded the cliff-sides, and I feared that at any moment I would either be sent careening over one of the futile guardrails or my tires would slide out from under me, throwing me mercilessly scraping and rolling down the paved chasm before me.  But hey, there wasn’t much that I could do about it at this point, so I just laughed psychotically to myself, tried desperately to dodge the weaving cars the materialized from the mists, and hoped that if I did go over, it would all be over quickly.

Fortunately though, it looked like my charisma and charm had won Lady Luck over after all, because after a breathless, ten-minute sky-diving style plummet I breached the clouds, the rain petered off, and a vast, shimmering blue lake revealed its grandeur near below.  I couldn’t see much else, as beyond the nearby shore all was still bathed in fog, but I saw that I was close, and I saw the little village of Panajachel clustered along the lakes banks, calling me softly towards relief.  Thank God!

Ok, so as the road leveled out near the outskirts of the town, I pulled along the side of the road and whipped out my cell phone to give Bob a quick call and let him know I had arrived.  After a too many rings (just for suspense) he picked up and in his most surprised voice exclaimed that he didn’t realize I was still coming!  Apparently since he had not heard from me that morning (although we’d spoken the night before), he assumed that I’d decided to stop somewhere en route to the lake  and wouldn’t be arriving that day… so he had invited another young lady to take the spare bedroom.  That wench!  How dare she encroach on my space!  There was no way that I would let this atrocity go unpunished.  Yet to my relief, Bob followed my stating that it was no problem, we would figure out some way to fit us all in, and that I should come on over.  So after a quick explanation of the route, I was off again, trundling along up little slopes and past store fronts, making my way to his cliffside cottage.

Another ten minutes later I was pulling up to the turnoff for the house, perched atop a hill and overlooking the serene azure splendor below.  I hopped off the saddle and rolled my bike down the steep, cobblestone (ick) pathway through the trees to the house somewhere underneath.  It was a quaint little cottage, tucked into the verdant growth of the shore, about fifty feet above the waterline.  There was a small gate with a door and after announcing myself, I heard a chipper voice welcoming me and the door opened wide.  And there was Bob.  Quite a character indeed, a long straggly beard, round Harry Potter spectacles, and grinning face awaited me and we shook hands, him ushering me in.  The entire side of the flat was a magnificent covered balcony overlooking Atitlan, and now that the gray mists had begun to dissipate, the grandeur of the volcanoes which flanked the opposite shore rose majestically above the shimmering waters.

I laid my bicycle up against the railing of the balcony and Bob told me that I could bring it into the spare bedroom, and mentioned that if I didn’t mind, Seri and I could share the room.  And as I entered, there she was, the girl that had stolen my four star hotel bedroom.  We were introduced and exchanged pleasantries, she sedately and I haggardly, after the trials of the day.  She was from Switzerland and Bob had met her in town earlier that day, looking for a place to stay.  After dropping my things beside the bed, Bob and I retired back out to the balcony chatting while Seri remained inside searching for something from her pack.  I didn’t last long though, before I broke down and asked Bob if I could hit the showers and put on some fresh underwear, as my bits and pieces were undoubtedly in a very small, cold state of affairs.

Once I emerged from the luxurious, magnificent, marvelous, delicious, hot hot hot, high pressure shower (I hadn’t seen anything like this in MONTHS) on the far end of the balcony, I gushed to Bob about what a great job he’d done with the plumbing and then tactfully led into my subliminal hinting regarding how terribly late it was and that I was so sorry that I was holding everyone up for lunch (although no one else seemed to be very hungry but me).  Well we’d soon settled that issue and I headed into the bedroom to put on my dry algodon clothes.  Funnily enough, it didn’t take Seri and I very long to warm up to one another, as I was still in a state of post near-life-and-death-experience delirium and chatting randomly about anything and everything, while skimming down to my bare backside while I suited up for lunch.  Fortunately, Bob had a little old fashioned ride to get us down into town and I didn’t have to wait long to get down to business and get eatin’.

Over the next two days Seri and I became the best of friends and went everywhere together.  Seri was a surfer from Switzerland (yeah, I didn’t know they existed either) who had started her journey eight months earlier from the bottom of South America – hugging the Pacific coastline in search of buenas ondas (no, but literally, good waves).  She was the perfect complement to me, her lugging around a surfboard and I with my bicycle.  That first day we window shopped (ok, a little more along the lines of getting naked inside of thatched kiosks on the side of the street to try on clothes in front of little old indigenous ladies), wandered the town, and chatted it up into the evening.  And that night, like all the rest of our nights together, Seri and I fell asleep in bed together after joking and laughing for hours.

Yet it was the following day was when Seri and I truly bonded, somewhat of another near-death experience that we shared (wow, two in the space of one day! yeah, welcome to my life).  I’m not sure which one of us had this ridiculous idea (ok, it was me), but somehow it was proposed that we should swim from our end of the lake to the other – hey, it didn’t look that far.  Meanwhile, over an our later as we found ourselves only reaching the very middle of the lake and suffering from early signs of hypothermia and muscular exhaustion, we had the difficult decision to make of whether to keep on going and pray that we could get a water-taxi to take two half-naked gringos back to their side of the lake, or to turn back.  So wouldn’t ya know it, there we were again, doggy paddlin’ it back to Bob’s house.  And the way back was most certainly torture – I was just hoping that Seri had the energy to make it all the way back, because it was questionable as to whether I could have helped her out very much in my condition – thank goodness she’s a surfer.  

Well, when we were finally back on dry land, showered, and thawed out, Seri was on a mission, it was indigenous culture photo-shoot day, and no local was to be left unscathed.  Armed with lollipops and our discreet pocket digitals, we set out to get the perfect shots.  Santa Katarina was our destination, a small, little visited cinder-block village about fifteen minutes down-shore.  As we arrived into town we put on our National Geographic explorer game faces and began strolling around town like we were locals (I’m not sure if we fooled anyone, but hey, what else could we do?).  The theme in this town was blues and purples, and host a host of endless embroidery options beyond.  Although the boys, as with almost all remote civilizations that I’ve encountered, didn’t have as much to offer to our cameras, the women and girls were decked out in all their distinctive glamor, and as we finally made our way out of town, comparing shots, we were thoroughly satisfied with our day’s work.

The following day we had decided to make the lancha (long-boat) trip to San Pedro la Laguna, on the other side of the lake, and we were up early and on our way to the docks.  After a nightmarish experience of trying to purchase, pack, and send (aaaaarrrrggghhh) parcels of gifts to friends back home, we finally reached the other side of town and made the arduous trip down to the jetty (moreso because nothing was built for rolling around bicycle tires on – steps and walls and rutted mud streets).  Yet thankfully, we didn’t have to wait long, and within minutes we were skeeting across the placid waves, the spray splashing across our faces, as we stared into the distance mesmerized at the pristine green tinged silhouettes of the mountain ridges that skirted the shore.  About forty minutes later we were pulling in to harbor.

As we disembarked the lancha and hauled our ungainly equipment up the high stone steps from the docks, seedy looking characters lurked off to our sides murmuring under their breath to us, “weed…. kayaks….”  Hmmm, interesting.  But we were all good – I don’t think it would have been very healthy for Seri and I to have laughed much more than we usually did anyway.  We made our way to the right at the main intersection ahead and made our way towards a cheap hostel that someone who recommended to us.  Did I say cheap?  At about four dollars for our own private room, it was a real bargain.  Ok, so it wasn’t exactly first class, but it did have (somewhat) hot water and a spectacular view.  Then, to pass the time away we set out to explore the the neighborhood and see what this infamous town was all about.

However, a few hours later we had soon discovered that, yes, we were indeed in the off-season.  It was more like a ghost town than the party central which everyone had described to us, but to be quite honest with you that was just fine by us.  We were here in search of rest and relaxation, and quite happy to be in one another’s company.  As such, most of the following two days was devoted to getting up early, heading down to the lake for a chillingly exhilarating swim, bumming around town taking photos, soaking in hot baths, and eating whenever possible.  Unfortunately, the fact that none of the ATMs in town worked for the first twenty-four hours put a little bit of a damper on this, and the first night we found ourselves cooking rice and vegetables with tomato sauce in our room with my camping burner – ok, a little ghetto.

We had only planned to spend two days in San Pedro and then on the third day zip out for a day trip to the town of Santiago Atitlan before returning and heading to San Marcos la Laguna for the night, but it didn’t quite work out that way.  After a boat ride of over an hour, we finally reached the village, and if Seri thought it was good shootin’ in Santa Katarina, she hadn’t seen Santiago Atitlan yet.  The town was literally crawling with bustling indigenous people, coming and going from the market and just going about daily life.  It was more than she could stand and we were soon faux posing for portraits for one another while the other took shots over their shoulder.  However, after several hours of this and of searching for some snazzy embroidered shorts for me (which I ended up leaving in Costa Rica anyway – I mean really, where was I planning on wearing these things?) while haggling endlessly, we made our way back to the docks and the boat to San Pedro.  By the time we finally arrived back in town we both agreed that it had grown far too late to both taking the trip to San Marcos and decided to spend another night where we were, heading to pizza night at a local hippy staple called the Buddha.

The following day it was finally time to head on, and after some cliff diving with the young Guatemalan boys of the town and a fruity breakfast by the docks, we found ourselves sitting in a heap of our bicycle, surfboard, and luggage on the dock, eating vodka-soaked watermelon with my pocket-knife (when we got bored the night before we’d sat for about two hours injecting liquor into it using a syringe, but when we finally finished we were too tired to stay up and wait for it to soak in and eat it).  It was a sad day, as unfortunately the truth was that fate was cruel and as we had it, Seri was to go North and follow her journey, while I was to continue Southwards.  We had had such wonderful times together there at the lake and we decided to savor every moment that we could together, catching the bus up from Panajachel to los Encuentros, where she would indelibly be off to Xéla, and I to Antigua.

We didn’t realize where we were until it was too late, when abruptly the bus slowed almost to a stop and the rear door of the bus was flung open by several small Guatemalan men.  The yelled “Antigua, Antigua!” and before I knew what was happening, I saw my bicycle and bags with great haste heave down from the roof-rack and hustled over to another bus which had its back hatch to us and was already slowly moving away.  Oh hells bells!  I’d better get on that bus!  And so, within the space of thirty seconds I grabbed Seri, hugged her tight in my arms, kissed her cheek one last time and took a running jump out of the back of the bus, sprinting towards the back of the other bus and jumping up into the doorway just as it was picking up speed.  As the hatch began to close behind me I suddenly thought one more time of Seri and spun around to say goodbye, only to see her face pressed close to the glass of the window of the other bus, mouthing the words “hasta luego” and slowly waving goodbye.


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