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Tuesday 14 Mar 2006
Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala

Guate here ah Come!!

Got up early (again! .. might as well make use of the beneficial jet-lag while I still got it) and took the metro to the airport before boarding my flight to Guatamala City.

I thought the plane would be packed with chicken farmers and backpackers.. but strangely enough every person on the flight bar yours truly was wearing a business suit and playing on laptops!

Very strange, considering when I arrived in Guatemala City, it was every bit as backward as I expected. It's here that I first REALLY found I was lost without spanish (Mex City .. you can barely get by). I went out the arrival section of the airport (the entire airport is just one big room!) and climbed the stairs to the second room (the departures no less). Before entering the departures I took note of the sign above the door 'NO ARMAS' (don't bring in your guns) and then a basket at the entrance full to the brim with semi-automatic pistols...

"yeeeessss... well... I'd best get my money changed and get the hell outa here!" .. thought I

Got the money changed and then, rather than risk getting lost by taking a local bus, I got a taxi and agreed on a hefty fee of 12 dollars to get me to the bus station to head to Lago de Atitlan.

I couldn't really make out what the taxi driver was saying, but I got the gist that something wasn't right with the bus station.. but I trusted that he would sort me out somehow.

Several minutes dragged by as we toured Guatemala City, a rundown sorta place.. very much like something out of Cambodia. Every guard I saw on almost every street corner and outside banks packed the standard issue pump-action shotgun. The guns were almost as big as the short Guatemalan guards themselves.. oh yeah that's something else, almost every Guatemalan is of direct Mayan ancestry.. no mestizos here.. well not many anyway.

Eventually we passed the 'bus station'.. essentially a small warehouse with a big solid (and shut) gate! "Cerrado" says my taxi driver.. "Ah ok... but... esta.. lonely planet says.. Rebuli bus para Lago de Atitlan?? No se??" says I. "No.. regla nueva".. so basically no buses going to Lago de Atitlan.. wtf?!?

OK.. plan B.. get a bus to Antigua and then MAYBE get a connecting bus to Atitlan. "No problemo senor". Sorted.

10 mins later.. we stop beside a load of parked chicken buses (local buses are called Chicken buses).. and the taxi driver pulls in quickly.. gets out... demands 24 dollars (for two trips y'see) and then ushers me onto a MOVING bus packed to the brim with locals... ok this is EXACTLY like Cambodia!

I somehow manage to get through the crowd of 4 foot people with my gigantic backpack and am relieved when I see some other foreigners on the bus, so I sit beside them.

After a brief confirmation that this bus WAS indeed going to Antigua we ventured forth, one leg spread out to take up the whole seat, the other knee touch my chin the whole trip (gives you a sense of the size of the seats)

The whole hour trip to Antigua only cost 6 quetzals (less than a dollar!) Score!

Upon arrival at Antigua, my next plan was to find a bus to Lago de Atitlan. I stood on the corner of a busy street packed with staring locals for about 15 minutes but no buses were heading that way ..groan... thankfully the other foreigners (an american family) were also lost so we grouped together and ventured forth.

Thankfully we soon found the centre of town and lo-and-behold: hundreds of travel agencies and bus tour companies!! Yeah! Laugh

I quickly booked a bus to Lago de Atitlan and since the bus was leaving in about 4 hours I had some time to chill and check out Antigua.

Antigua is stunning!

In the short time I was there I got to appreciate the beautifully carved entrances to the 30 or so churches that fill the 2 km-square town. The town is surrounded by a volcanoe skyline and filled with exotic birds singing away.

It's also a haven for backpackers looking to learn spanish as I passed wave after wave of foreigners. Thankfully though, it's not so saturated for foreigners that you don't get a feeling of being there by yourself. EVERY local I passed said "Hola!" and a big smile... "Where are you from?" would come from the few locals that spoke english. It had a really wonderful laid-back vibe.. I wouldn't think twice about coming back here to learn spanish sometime.

On the recommendation of a local, I went to a restaurant that served some great local Guate food and the refreshing Gallo beer (essentially the only beer brewed in Guatemala.. like Beer Lao in Laos - but damn is it tasty!). The food was served with some freshly baked torillas and picante. The whole meal came (with a smile of course) to about 4 dollars .. cheap! (but as I was soon to learn.. that's expensive by Guate standards)

I'm well impressed that I'm getting so far with only about 10 words of spanish in my entire vocab.. but I DO find I can follow what others are saying even if I don't fully understand every word.. strange how language works in the brain eh? You learn when you GOTTA.

Soon got the bus to Lago de Atitlan and arrived at night. Was fortunate enough to hook up with a couple on the bus who recommended a hotel to stay in here: Marios.

I got a single room in Marios for 50 quetzales per night (about 6 dollars) and it's perfectly comfortable and central in Panajachel (the town I'm stayin in while in Atitlan Lake)

Panajachel initially reminded me of Khao San road in Bangkok. Teeming with foreigners and the main strip is lined with shops staying open till late selling t-shirts and featuring plenty of laid-back bars. It's not bad... but as I was to discover the next day, there are nearby towns that are much nicer.

Before heading to have dinner, I wandered down to the shoreline to have a gander at the lake and see what all the fuss is about.

Despite the darkness, I got a glimpse of what was in store for me: several enourmous volcanos line the calm lake which was a serene sight to behold. The lights from the other towns could be seen in the distance.

Ah bliss..

I slept well that night.

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