It’s going to be hard leaving the tranquil jungle of La Fortuna, our hotel on Lake Atitlan, behind tomorrow. We really lucked out with Christine finding them on Trip Advisor and them having a few rooms available at low season prices. I’m sitting on the porch of one of their bungalows right now, looking into a small cluster of coffee bushes and beyond that, the under-construction new “Big Bungalow” and then finally, the lapping waters of the lake itself. We’ll be leaving tomorrow morning back south for a night in Antigua, one of the most touristy sections of the country.

To be honest, at first I didn’t think I’d be able to write any more for the duration of this trip – moments after I completed the previous blog entry, my computer went dead and I was unable to power it back on – it merely would throw up an error message that said it couldn’t find any boot devices and then demand to be restarted. I grudgingly admitted defeat that evening, as we left around 10am from our hotel in Guatemala City, Dos Lunas, and I didn’t have time to work on it. We had an entire full-sized van to ourselves – our driver, Reyneido, estimated that it would take us about 3 hours to arrive at Panajachel, the “gateway village” to the rest of the lake. I asked him why it would take so long when Google Maps estimated two hours, and he said something about robberies and rapings and various other bad stuff if you don’t use the most well-travelled, well-guarded routes. Looking out the windows, I saw that every barrio/neighborhood had barbed wire, sometimes electrified around the entrances, and at the outside of every bank stood one or two men with shotguns – gas stations too (at the prices they were charging; $5 a gallon, I’d want to rob one too). Christine reminded me that this wasn’t the safest of countries to be in. Three hours seemed fine to me!

Don't mess with Guatemalan gasoline.

Don’t mess with Guatemalan gasoline.

Around three hours later and a van-transfer later, we were unceremoniously dumped near the dock in Panajachel, where we were immediately swarmed by private boat drivers who quickly told us that there was no public-fare boat to La Fortuna, an eco-lodge that is pretty much completely cut off from the rest of the world by land. Christine, of course, spoke rapid Spanish to the men down on the dock itself, and of course we found a public boat right away, for a tenth of what the drivers up near the drop-off point were shouting at us.

I’ll let the photos I took of the La Fortuna lodges speak for themselves. It’s one of the prettiest places I’ve ever been, and the fact that it’s so quiet, tranquil, and cut off from the world (yet still with wireless internet!) makes it heaven on earth for me. Kat and Steve, the owners, have three dogs and of course Christine was ready to pet and play with them as much as possible. I couldn’t believe that Steve and a few of his Mayan-Guatemalan employees were able to make 2 mile long trail through the jungle behind the bungalows just with machetes, flat rocks, and wooden stakes driven into the dirt. I was told this place used to be an old coffee finca (farm/plantation) and that they still make about a thousand pounds a year of the stuff and serve it to their guests. It’s quite tasty; I’m drinking a cup of it with panela brown sugar right now.

Photos on Google+ (upload speeds from here to my website are pretty weak, so this is easier)

Yesterday, we climbed the trail behind the lodge up the side of the mountain at 5 in the morning to see sunrise on the lake with the volcano, Toliman, looming across the lake from us. Kat and Steve’s employees, cute and shy young Mayan women from the villages around the lake, served us breakfast at the bungalow when we returned – although it’s hard to hear them quietly say “Hola? Hola?” outside the door sometimes! We Americans are more used to the brusque “housekeeping!!” when we travel, I guess – there’s no missing that. No “do not disturb” tags for the doors yet; La Fortuna has only been around for a year and a half so I’m sure they’re still ironing out the last bits, even as they construct a massive bungalow right on the lakefront that will eventually contain a lounge, office, game room, and a communal place to eat that isn’t your bungalow.

We spent the rest of the day visiting a few of the numerous small villages that ring the lake – first back to Panajachel to use their most-numerous ATM’s (thanks, Charles Schwab bank account, for reimbursing me for all international ATM usage fees – otherwise I’d be in the hole an extra $20 due to withdrawal fees by now!) and then to San Pedro, the most touristy village, across the lake, for 25 quetzels (the local currency) per person. We met a couple of Americans on the boat ride over who were trying to learn spanish on the cheap at some of the numerous language schools (usually charging $130-160 per week for lessons) in the village. There was an animal rescue shelter with a friendly Canadian who implored me to send any veterinarians I knew to the area, as she could really use the help (we both gave her money instead), and we ate lunch at a place named “Smokey Joe’s BBQ” that seemed to be filled with nothing but tattooed young Americans and Europeans. Smokey Joe and his wife were a raucous middle aged southern USA couple who hollered out people’s names and slid over plastic trays covered in burgers and the “backpackers special” – a burger filled with three or four kinds of smoked meats.

After lunch, it started to rain and we caught a cheap tuk-tuk (looking identical to the ones in India) to the next town over, San Juan, with an affable young driver. Christine pointed out to me that all of the Mayan-Guatemalans we’d met so far were rather quiet, subdued people who had a very relaxed air to them – even the children, when playing, just seemed to smile and shout in a quiet way. We bought some textiles in San Juan, but it was much less touristy than San Pedro and perhaps due to that, and the rain, almost everything was closed. Although we’d been told to haggle everything here, the elderly woman in the shop wasn’t willing to budge much, even for a bulk purchase of four or five items – just because they were quiet didn’t mean they weren’t resilient!

Throughout our travels around the lake, we noticed that there were many houses, still with relatively fresh, unfaded paint, and not-yet-dead trees under water, between 5 to 20 meters from the shoreline. Kat told us that the water in the lake had risen 20 meters in the three years she’d been living in the country, and therefore to please, go wild with long showers and baths – we get so much rain here that all the villages are in danger of being flooded out entirely. She said normally the lake has fissures on the bottom of it (being a crater lake) that lets water seep into underground lakes, but a few years ago after a hurricane, some massive mudslides went into the lake off of the cliffs surrounding it, and everyone thinks the mud has blocked those fissures and the water level has been rising rapidly ever since. Everyone is hoping for another earthquake soon (I never thought I’d hear that phrase) in the hopes that it will knock the deposits on the bottom free – one of their employees has lived on the lake for 20 years and confirmed that the last time it happened, the lake level dropped a good 9 meters in a single night.

The following morning, we took a couple of kayaks out around 8am, and had breakfast in yet another village on the lake, Santa Cruz. We were told that the owners of the funky youth hostel on the shore, La Iguana Perdita, were friends of La Fortuna, and wouldn’t mind if we tossed the kayaks up onto their lawn while we ate. Tasty smoothies and sandwiches with, of course, a good view of both Volcan San Pedro and Toliman together (you can’t see San Pedro from La Fortuna; the curve of the cliffs completely block it from view) and we watched a dog eating a massive avocado under Christine’s chair. “Uh, aren’t the pits of those poisonous?” she asked me. I’m the wrong brother to ask that to, but now that I have the internet to check this with – apparently not.

Back at La Fortuna, we switched from our little bungalow to one of the big deluxe ones – they have two of each. This one, instead of being all glass, was all wicker instead (glass still on the second level, a “reading nook” with a couch and endtable) – wicker panels that could be opened up, making the entire house pretty much just a few dozen frames, with wicker panels throughout the rest of it. The open-air bathroom behind the house didn’t have the “bottles in concrete” motif but it was much larger, with a bathtub as well as shower, and his and hers sinks. I wonder if I could hire Steve to design a house for me; the guy is a genius at this environmentalist-minded building thing.

We took one last trip out to Panajachel (we were getting quite used to the process) and from there, caught some kind of pickup-truck called a flete to the town just south of it, San Catalina. Highly unsafe by American standards, these drivers charge 10 quetzels to go between the two villages, just like the boats (the dock in Catalina was private only, no public boats are allowed to dock) and they jam as many people as they can in there without them falling over the sides. On the way back, I chose to stand (so that a bunch of tiny old Mayan ladies could sit) and trust me, going around the winding mountain curves at 50km an hour while holding onto a steel bar is not a pleasant feeling.

In Catalina itself, Christine and I bought a few more textile items and had lunch at a restaurant the textile seller recommended. The food, while filling and tasty, didn’t fill us with confidence when we asked to wash our hands and were led to the restaurant sink which had piles of fish heads surrounding it. However, as usual, the view was unbeatable. We took the leftover extra tortillas from our meal and distributed it to the dogs in the street – one of them, with a collar that had “Love” written on it, followed us through almost the entire town afterward!

Tomorrow we’ll be heading to Antigua, one of the more famous and touristy sites in Guatemala. Supposedly it’s like the entire city is a World Heritage site!