San Cristóbal » Panajachel, Guatemala

Latitude 16.7371°N Longitude 92.63719°W

Monday, October 7, 2002

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Diary:

¡Adios Mexico!

After almost a full month in Mexico the time has come for us to move on into Central America. Next destination: Guatemala and the magical Lago de Atitlán, a spectacular caldera lake ringed by ancient volcanoes and Mayan villages.

After heeding advice from other travellers, we decided at the last minute to cancel our public bus tickets and instead take a private shuttle across the border into Guatemala. A decision we later had no cause to regret, as we passed into the total chaos of the border crossing and the Guatemalan border town of La Mesilla, a place where the worst road vehicles we had seen in Mexico would have passed as luxury cars.

It was a long drive to Panajachel, our destination at Lago de Atitlán, and Carlos, our friendly driver, while extremely competant, was not wasting a minute of time on the journey. When you combined his aggressive driving technique with the winding, sometimes-not-even-there Guatemalan mountain roads and the constant stench of gasoline and black carbon monoxide exhaust fumes belched out by all the other vehicles, it was not too long before all the passengers in the minivan (including ourselves) got very carsick.

As our van threaded its way through the narrow maze-like main highway road heading out of La Mesilla, we encountered a funeral procession on its way to a local church. A few miles further up the road we came across a site where a large chunk of road had been washed away into a steep gorge runnning alongside the road, a turbulent river visible hundreds of meters below. By the side of the road stood many people, some peering down, some mourning, and there were flowers and candles lit here and there. Our driver learned that eight days ago, a Guatemalan bus full of people had gone over the edge and plunged into the gorge, killing nearly all of the 80 or so passengers. Because of a lack of any kind of emergency rescue infrastructure in the area, the bus was still lying at its final resting place in the river with most of the passengers' remains still unrecovered. Some bodies had even been found miles downstream in Mexico. The funeral procession we had just passed had been for a passenger whose body had been recovered by his family and relatives only the day before. As we slowly inched past the scene I looked out my window straight down into the gorge and crossed my fingers. Later on the driver told us terrible road accidents like these happen frequently in Guatemala. As Carlos picked up speed again to make up for the lost time, everyone's reaction to his driving style underwent a distinct change from good natured tolerance to mounting anxiety.

Luckily, before we were all killed in a road accident of our very own, we arrived at the mountainous rim of the huge Atitlán caldera almost 3000m above sea level, the lake's shimmering blue water far below us, and started the descent to Panajachel on a steep and winding road.

We all arrived safely in Pana and staggered out of the van when it had come to rest, our heads spinning with nausea from all the swerving around the hairpin curves, glad to finally be on solid ground again.

We found a hotel, dumped our gear and walked down to the edge of the lake. It was quite a sight. Crystal clear water, ringed by the three huge volcanoes Volcán Tolimán (3158m), Volcán Atitlán (3537m) and Volcán San Pedro (3020m). The town of Panajachel had a very 70's hippy feel to it and has even been nicknamed Gringotenango (Place of the Gringos) by the locals! The main street is dotted with cool restaurants, travel agencies and locals selling handicrafts. We immediately felt comfortable and at home here and decided to stay for a few days to relax and explore.


Photos: (click on images to see full size)

Border crossing


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