So after my driver picked me up at my hotel, I said my goodbyes to Antigua and left at around 1pm Saturday. We proceeded to spend a good hour in the nightmarish Guatemalan traffic getting out of Antigua and made our way to Lake Atitlan by road. The journey took about 3 hours and I got to see a lot of the heartland of this beautiful country.
My immediate impressions were that it’s a very mountainous and hilly country (we spent a lot of the drive passing through CLOUDS); that it’s a country with very little in the way of actual traffic rules; and that the people are certainly impoverished although they also seem generally upbeat and content. It’s a complicated country (as all are) and it’s not uncommon to see the clash of western luxury against abject poverty. Throw in the mix of indigenous Mayan people and it’s even less clear. As much as I’ve already traveled, you’d think I would learn not to prejudge or simplify/dismiss cultural complexity but I still make that mistake. Case in point: sitting at a bar and reflexively assuming tequila or mezcal would be the drink of the country. It never crossed my mind that Rum would be more prevalent here. I just assumed (not thinking) that Guatemala is like neighboring Mexico. Not so. Not at all.
Anyway, after the long long trip to Lake Atitlan, we reached the village of Panajachel on the lake. It’s a small town of about 14,000 people but there is a lot of tourism there as well so it certainly feels larger than that. From there, I got to the boat dock at Kayucos. I was glad to have pre-arranged transportation with the hotel because there were a lot of vendors trying to sell to me as soon as I got out of the van. Luckily the hotel Laguna Lodge has their own boatman. In this case, it was Francisco. I realized before I boarded that I was out of cash and I was uncomfortable going to a remote area without it so Francisco hailed me a Tuk Tuk (a fast moving small vehicle that can easily navigate small and tight city streets), he paid for my Tuk Tuk with 10 quetzal and held on to my bag. I was a little nervous leaving my bag with someone I just met but my poor planning on the cash front and my instincts that I could trust Francisco prompted me to go on a Tuk Tuk to a local ATM.
After a chaotic and crazy ride to the cash machine, I took out some queztal and got back to the dock to find Francisco waiting for me with my bag intact and safely on the boat.
We then took a harrowing 20 minute boat ride to the Laguna Lodge (which is not accessible by roads according to the hotel). I have to say it was the most chaotic boat ride I’ve ever taken. Constant bouncing and slamming into the water, jolting side to side, up and down. The force of the waves were so powerful that I truly think someone with a poor constitution or a bad back would be in a world of literal hurt. That’s how choppy the water is on Lake Atitlan. I also didn’t see a life preserver on board and considering how that boat slanted, that was a bit nerve-wracking. But alas, I made it safely to the other side (as you can probably tell by the fact you’re reading this!).
Anyway, after getting to the Lodge, I was presented with a drink of some kind. I would guess some kind of watermelon or other fruit but Francisco says it was a “fruita mixta” which I would assume means many different fruits. Whatever it was, it was incredibly refreshing.
The hotel check-in process was simple and decidedly low tech. It’s something like being in a medieval castle if you could reimagine it Mayan/Guatemalan style. It’s low tech for sure (no TVs, although I don’t mind that at all). Also, it’s a very eco-friendly hotel. They conserve power and water and use solar energy, locally grown organic products and are generally environmentally conscious in everything down to how the bed linens and window curtains are made.
When I got to the hotel, I found it to be pretty deserted. The first night I didn’t see more than 1 other guest the entire time. It honestly felt like something out of the start of a murder mystery in a far off distant estate, hidden by the night!
I have to admit that at first I was alarmed. I’m a “city boy”. My fondest memories are getting crazy in the megacities of the world. I’ve never been comfortable in the quiet. This hotel is isolated (literally). So it feels like being stranded on an island in some ways, which didn’t sit well with me. I like to get out and go and walk and observe urban-ness. This is NOT that.
So after a couple hours of fretting, it then occurred to me that this is EXACTLY the kind of experience I crave. It’s not filled with tourists, or on the “well worn” path. It felt totally different from any place I’ve ever stayed. Really not even close. Isn’t the exploration of the previously unknown a law of travel? I think yes.
So I decided to use the quiet time to reflect, and go inward, and of courses continue to “sample” the deliciously addictive local rum Zacapa rum. It’s pricey (by Guatemala standards) at around 80 queztal a glass. But you only live once! Yolo.
I indulged in the hotel restaurant’s 4-course meal and drink and dreamed and imagined to my heart’s content. With the world hidden away in a shroud of clouded darkness and monsoon-like rain, I found myself on a hidden island. No better time to enjoy the amazing music in the restaurant (Nessum dorma anyone? What about Dust in the wind?) … and sit alone in a castle on the lake and wonder and hope and just be.
The moment is what we make of it. It can’t be anything else.
Sitting in that dark, lonely restaurant in a dark lonely hotel on a dark, lonely lake, despair could’ve taken over. Instead, I noticed my new favorite rum at the bar and enjoyed a glass. Then I heard one of my favorite songs (Dust in the Wind), a cover of the original. Then several other 80s songs that I just love. Then the exact song I belted out walking down the streets of Kyoto, Japan not two weeks before (Nessun Dorma). It was like the universe was wrapping its arms around me and saying “you’re fine, this is what you wanted.” Then I realized that being in this crazy place in a part of the world that’s totally foreign to me is EXACTLy where I’m supposed to be. This is what I do. If I want to experience the world in all its glory, I sometimes have to get away from the markets and the street vendors and the tours and see it in its unspoiled glory. This was exactly that. This wasn’t the Marriot and it damn sure wasn’t Puerto Vallarta and that $800/night villa. This was Lake Atitlan, Guatemala; in all its splendor and all its power. All those who venture upon it better man up.