Like the islands of southern Thailand or the beaches of Goa. Certain places have a vibe, a feeling unexplainable to those who’ve never been, but one that’s fluent to those who have spent even the briefest moment in such places. San Pedro la Laguna is definitely one of these spots.
Up early after one of the best sleeps of the trip, we set out to explore our new surroundings. Just up the street from our place was a small Italian-owned bakery that splurged a little over-budget for our first morning in the new country. Freshly baked focaccia with tomatoes and sweet onions, and a couple of proper coffees; a perfect way to get things going.
It’s easy to get turned around in San Pedro as most of the ‘streets’ in town are no more than small alleyways, barely wide enough for a tuk-tuk to pass a stray dog, and they wind in a relatively disorderly fashion. There were several instances where Kylee and I found ourselves walking upon small footpaths that wind through small farms and gardens – inevitably ending up at the backdoor to some hostel. The staff would simply smile and wave without question as we made our way back to the front street.
If you are a fan of food, one thing that cannot be missed while visiting San Pedro is the Sunday BBQ at Smokin’ Joes. Now this might be much more of a treat for long-term travellers and expats – simply because it isn’t something we encounter often on the road – but it’s fabulous regardless. A couple friends of ours we met at our hostel who run Luck Favors had spent the previous few weeks in San Pedro and introduced us to this incredible feast. An American expat that set up a butcher shop, throws a weekly Southern BBQ with steak, ribs, chicken, brisket, fish and a buffet of all-you-can-eat side dishes, pickles and sauces. Kylee chose the brisket platter while I had a small mountain ribs; we shared a litre of beer and had more food than we could eat. We ended up eating leftovers for the next two days; and the total cost was less then $30! Without question, worth every penny.
One of the greatest parts about Lake Atitlan, is that there are several different towns lining the shore, each with it’s own vibe and style. San Pedro, widely known as the very inexpensive backpacker town was our home base; San Marcos, directly across the lake from us being the meditation/yoga town; and Panajachel is the tourist hub. Those are just a small sampling of the many villages surrounding the lake. Early one morning we hopped a tuk-tuk to the neighbouring town of San Juan la Laguna a few short kilometres away. It would be an easy walk, but I was carting around my camera gear, and some friends warned that although not entirely likely, attacks and muggings even during the day aren’t uncommon on the roads between villages.
Though only a short distance from our town San Juan already has a different air to it: less gringo restaurants, more traditional Mayan influence and weaving shops everywhere. While our trip to San Juan was specifically for a visit to the local coffee plantation – which you can read about here – we definitely took advantage of our time here to see what else it had to offer. We shared the ride over with Ger of Luck Favors, who brought us to Licor Marron, a local chocolate shop that offered a free demonstration of the traditional production method. Although it was roughly only fifteen minutes, the lesson was quite thorough and showed the entire process from cocoa pod to edible chocolate! Prior to leaving, we bought a few pieces of their work and a bag of cocoa husk tea, I highly recommended a visit if you find yourself in the area!
After the chocolate overload we walked the streets and popped into a few of the local fabric shops – it’s what San Juan is truly famous for. Woven with traditional equipment and natural dies – including ground minerals and flowers – the shops sell everything from blankets and ponchos, to purses and hackey-sacks. The best part of all, is that these shops are artisan spots shared by the community. Every item is tagged with the name of the weaver and all profits from the sale go directly to her. If you’re looking to purchase these types of goods while in Guatemala, buy quite literally from the source, making sure the money goes where it should.
Back in San Pedro, we had one more matter of importance we’d been looking forward to for several weeks. Back while we were still in Oaxaca, our old friend Will whom we’d met and travelled with for a period in India many years prior, posted on Facebook that he was staying at the Lake for a few months helping out at a retreat. The world being as small as it is at times, our visits just happened to coincide. Will and his lovely girlfriend Rosanna had been volunteering at the Hermitage, a retreat centre in the small village of San Pablo, a short distance from San Marcos. They were kind enough to make the short trip one afternoon to meet up at the Fifth Element, a fantastic vegetarian restaurant in San Pedro. We spent several hours catching up, reminiscing about India, talks of future plans, and dreams – literally, we talked about lucid dreaming for over an hour. It was an amazing moment of coincidence and a fabulous afternoon, and while we all had hopes of getting together again while we were still at the lake, timelines were unfortunately conflicting. Thankfully, these types of encounters seem to happen while on the road, so I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of each other sooner than we expect.
Laying in the hammock for one more evening I’m reflecting on the short week we’ve spent here. Basking in the clear early morning skies and the cool breeze off the water in the evening, this place has definitely touched our souls, and I’m confident that we’ll return. It’s one of those comfortable towns with the perfect balance, where everything one might want is available yet nothing is overbearing; amidst the subtle smell of weed and charcoal smoke in the air, the dreadlocked hippies passing by for a story, and the ones who never left.