Panajachel & Lake Atitlán

17 de Junio 2017

Bienvenidos amigos,

Guatemala: The “land of eternal spring” and the “land of many trees” as described in the Mayan language.

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Most of the cities in Guatemala are named after Mayan words used to describe places. For example:

Chimaletenango = “place protected by shields”

Quetzaltenango = “place named after the national bird of Guatemala” – The Quetzal also the name for Guatemala’s currency – Quetzales

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We arrived in Guatemala City – the third capital of Guatemala. It’s predecessors being Ciudad Viejo and Antigua, respectively. As I navigate the territory of a new airport and try to scurry to pick up my over-sized luggage, I’m greeted by the yearning eyes of local Guatemalans patiently awaiting their family members behind glass doors. My surroundings are unfamiliar, but there is a sense of ease that comes over me when our entire study abroad group unites and greets one another with beaming smiles.

Guatemala located in Central America is known for its sub-tropical climate. The weather is humid, but scattered rain showers cleanse the air from time to time. The environment is engulfed with a musky combination of diesel smog from small auto vehicles and famous “chicken buses” also known as camionetas. To create an image of a camioneta, think of a normal yellow school bus that’s decked out in lights, numerous colors and packed with a myriad of people. Whoever said that school buses were for children has yet to visit Guatemala. Although I didn’t get a chance to hitch a ride on one, I thought the camionetas were a creative rendition on a mundane transportation method.

Screen Shot 2017-06-26 at 8.46.00 AM After meeting with our guide and local representative we drove a mere 5 minutes to arrive at our hotel – Casa Blanca Inn. We all started joking when we read the name of our accommodation (translated in English, Casa Blanca = White House) and wondered if President Trump was also staying there. We were pleasantly relieved to hear he wasn’t.

Our accommodation was small, cozy and perfect enough for our first night in Guatemala.  Upon exploring our room thoroughly, I came across a sign that listed the price per night and price per guest for a stay at the hotel. Thanks to my handy currency exchange converter app I calculated the total of our stay which came out to be $65.00 a night. A decent price for accommodation within close proximity of the airport. I would definitely recommend checking out Hotel Casa Blanca Inn if you ever pay a visit to Guatemala City.

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Beep…Beep… 4:30 a.m. Rise & Shine. My first morning in Guatemala City is off to a pleasant start. The sun is hiding behind a blanket of clouds and unlikely to bathe us in its warmth today. Thunderstorms and heavy rain are predicted as we leave our first accommodation and head to Lake Atitlán The mornings here are so peaceful and filled with chirping birds and a gentle breeze. My favorite feature in our hotel is that we can open the windows outward and breathe in that Guatemala air.

Our group departs after a traditional Guatemalan breakfast consisting of: eggs, bread, fried plantains, refried beans, quest fresco and fresh fruit. As someone who enjoys learning about sustainable lifestyles, I was happy to know that everything we ate during our trip was locally grown. The fruits taste so different – fresh, a lethal balance of sweetness and highly addictive!

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Once breakfast resumed, we began our departure towards Lake Atitlán located in the town Panajachel. In order to keep us entertained and get us familiarized with the country, our tour guide José shared some quick facts about the city which are listed below.

Quick Facts:

  • Guatemala is divided into 25 zones – whose heart is located in San Juan.
  • Roughly, Guatemala is 108,000 sq. km in size.
  • Guatemala is composed of 4 different cultures: Maya’s (60%), Ladinos (mixed/interracial), Garifunas, Xincas.
  • Approximately 4 million people reside in the capital city. (population is closely approaching 5 million people)
  • Total population of Guatemala = 15 million people, of which 2 million of them are currently residing in the United States (Los Estados Unidos).
  • The last population census was conducted in 2001, since then the population is a rough estimation.
  • Guatemala City was a place where all the presidents of Central American countries congregated to hold discussions and debates on national topics.
  • Archways across the city served as aqueducts that provided fresh water to local homes and businesses.
  • Before it was named as the most recent capital city in 1776 – Guatemala City used to be a tobacco plantation.
  • 20 kilometers from the city center travelers will find the volcanic rock obsidian. This rock was especially used by the Mayan’s to build construction tools.
  • The official language of Guatemala is Spanish, but a little over 36 Mayan languages are still preserved and 22 of them are spoken across the country in rural communities. However, interestingly, Spanish is not formally taught to children in school.
  • Jade is a very sacred rock for the Mayans and that is clearly described in the archeological discovery of an old Mayan king who was buried with 120 lbs of Jade in his tomb.
  • Mantioche (if I’m spelling that correctly) translates to ‘thank you.’ This greeting is used throughout rural communities in Guatemala.
  • Although there is massive amount of political corruption across the country, Guatemala is a democratic country. Citizens of the country elect their president every 4 years.
  • Presidents cannot be re-elected, however senators and mayors can be.
  • Roxana Baldetti was the first female vice president of Guatemala.
  • Sacatepequez is known as the “place for grass and flowers.” Antigua (the colonial capital of Guatemala is located here).
  • Guatemala has a total of 33 volcanoes of which 3 are currently active. (Pacaya, Fuego, and Santiaguito). Guatemala is nestled atop of 3 mobile tectonic plates – one from North America, one from the Pacific and one from the Caribbean.

I truly loved learning about the history and culture of Guatemala as we made way to Panajachel. Our project guide José has been an absolute abundance of knowledge and a true delight to learn from. After a long bus ride through the gorgeous greenery and southwest highlands of Guatemala, we arrived at Lake Atitlán.

The streets are buzzing with motorcycles, rickshaws, eager textile vendors approaching tourists and locals selling delicious  street foods and authentic snacks. My fellow study abroad friends and I shopped around the markets, practicing our spanish and bargaining skills. Barganing is a skill I definitely have to work on though. I’ve learned that you must be stern in the price you want to pay or in lamens terms – “fake it till you make it.” Confidence is key, otherwise you will end up paying a lot more than necessary.

We finished out our trip to Panajachel by going on a spontaneous boat ride across Lake Atitlán. The views were nothing short of spectacular. Greenery galore, the water was warm & salty and the ride was unforgettable.

Below are some photographs I snapped while walking around the city. I hope they do justice to the scenary, people and beauty of Guatemala.

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Pepían – a fusion of Spanish & Mayan cuisine. This is a rich stew made with chicken breasts and spices similar to those in mole. In my case I got a vegan version filled with hearty root vegetables. Regardless to say, it was finger-licking good!!

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A Guatemalan lady preparing elotes (grilled corn) along the path leading up to Lake Atitlán.

Our first day was packed full of culture, history, spontaneity and excitement!! Next up, we travel 1.25 hour to Tecpán a municipality nestled in Chimaltenango. For the next four days we will be working on our solidatiry project with a local elementary school.

I look forward to sharing my thoughts and photos with you all again on the next blog!!

Mucho Amor,

Ashna