After two days in Antigua, we decided it was time to move on to Lago Atitlán where the Spanish classes are cheaper. Kim is anxious to get started with classes but her confidence and speaking skills have grown quite a bit already just talking to people in town. To get to Lake Atitlán, we took a shuttle from Antigua to Panajachel, which is on the northern shore of the lake. As soon as we got out of the shuttle, we were bombarded by locals trying to get us to take their boat to San Pedro. One even tried to tell us it cost $25 instead of Q25 (quetzales) or about $3. After getting all of that sorted out, the boat left and we were on our way to San Pedro.
Lake Atitlán is incredibly beautiful. Imagine Crater Lake but with three 10,000ft volcanoes overlooking it, all covered by tropical forests. Pictures don´t do it justice. At some point we are planning on either climbing one of the volcanoes or another peak called Indian Nose where, according to the locals, we can get an even better view of the lake with the three volcanoes in the background. Taking a boat was definitely worth doing because you can see almost the entire expanse of the lake, which is completely surrounded by mountains.
Upon arriving in San Pedro, we realized quickly that what we had read about the gringo culture was true. The entire lower section of town caters to non-Guatemalans (extranjeros), many of whom have just come here to do drugs, listen to Bob Marley and take advantage of the inexpensive accomodations. (I´m glad I cut my hair before coming. It surely helped to minimize the number of times I was offered drugs. Otherwise it would have made for a much more stressful stay, constantly telling the venders that I was not interested). Many people also come for the cheap Spanish schools, but their presence is overshadowed by the hippie culture that dominates in what the locals refer to as Nuevogringotenango. As most of you would guess, that´s not exactly the atmosphere we were looking for during our immersion experience.
In spite of our initial reaction to San Pedro, on our first day, we checked out all of the schools and although they all seemed good, we decided to look at the schools in the other towns on the north shore of the lake. So, we spent all day yesterday travelling around on foot, in tuk tuk (motorized rickshaw-like vehicles that you also see in Asia), and in boat. After visiting San Juan, San Marcos, and Santa Cruz, we settled on San Juan because of its relaxed atmosphere. Both San Marcos and Santa Cruz provided spectacular views of the lake, but we both felt more comfortable in San Juan.
We took the tuk tuk from San Juan to San Marcos and our driver, Juan, was very nice, stopping at good viewpoints and explaining to us how the gringo culture was influencing the local way of life. According to Juan, the gringos had brought drugs, really starting about 20 years ago, although some have been here longer. The gringos started to recruit local kids to not only use the drugs but also to sell them, having a hugely negative impact on San Pedro in particular. (It made both Kim and I very angry to hear that the gringos had so actively tried to involve the children in the community). Juan said the town of San Juan was making a huge effort to keep that influence out of their community and that they have been relatively successful so far. This has seemingly created a much more laid back atmosphere for the gringos here, like us, who are not interested in participating in that culture that has taken hold in San Pedro, even though San Juan is only a 10-15 minute walk from San Pedro. Although we had planned to do homestays, the established homestays are in San Pedro, so we´re not going to be able to do one in San Juan. However, the smaller size of the town and the friendliness of the people (and lack of gringos) will likely make it easier to meet people during the day. We are also going to do some volunteer work, which will also give us a chance to practice our Spanish and make connections in the community.
So, now we are relaxing for a day in San Juan, making the final arrangements to start Spanish classes tomorrow. Already we are both more at ease. We´ll probably be here for a week or two, maybe more, then we´ll decide where to go next.