Since nothing was going on in Xela this weekend (and because we certainly didn’t want to study) Brandon and I took off to spend the weekend at Lake Atitlan. We rode in another dreaded chicken-bus — which, I should clarify, are decked out, old American school buses which only rarely carry chickens but are always stuffed with twice their capacity in passengers and make a rule of traveling at vomit-worthy speeds — which we were promised would take us directly en route to Lake Atitlan’s main city, Panajachel. We changed buses three times — Guatemalan style. Anyway, all forced inconveniences were forgiven as we caught site of the lake on our last descent from the mountainside. Lake Atitlan is indescribably beautiful — it literally took our breath away. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this Gautemalen jewel, it’s a gigantic lake with three towering volcanoes kissing its shores. Encircling the entire lake are mountains covered with dense foliage, spotted with occasional patterns of maize fields. Several small communities are found along the lake, accessible only by boat. It was to one of these little cities that Brandon and I were planning to stay for the short duration of our trip.

So, as soon as we landed in Panajachel early Saturday morning we called to reserve a place to stay. A quaint little hotel with a sauna and private hot tub for 20 bucks, quoted as the best in our trusty guidebook — a real treat after a long week. Ah, too bad. It was full. So was the next place. And the next. After two hours of calls and seven small, fully-booked lake communities later (we guessed it was some sort of hidden high season), we admitted defeat and resorted to finding a place to stay in Panajachel. Panajachel is not that bad, it just reminded me of what I imagine Cancun is like. A million international tourists stomping around, buying crappy trinkets for too much money and taking photos of the locals without asking while at the same time the undignified locals try to cheat the tourists for all they’re worth and there’s not an ounce of the traditional culture to be found — that sort of thing. So we settled for a room in a bright, empty hotel with a rooftop view of the lake. Which was perfect until the 25-strong American high school marching band came to stay there, too. Anyway, we made the best of it and did some of our own shopping, ate a yummy non-Guatemalan meal and drank some wine to the sunset over the lake on our rooftop deck in the evening. We even watched some British TV and then vowed to go in the morning to what was promised to be the most traditional city across the lake — Santiago.

The boat ride was definitely a highlight of the weekend. It took an hour to cross, enough time to enjoy the beauty of the perfectly aquamarine lake water and snap lots of bad photos of the looming volcanoes. Santiago is a benign appearing little village, nestled into the mountainside between three volcanoes. However, when we docked in Santiago, we were immediately accosted by tons of little boys who jumped into the boat and asked if we needed guides … or taxis … or keychains … not even a pen? We squeezed by without buying anything and proceeded up the main thoroughfare into the town. What we found were shops and shops and shops and shops and shops, mirroring those we thought we had left behind in Panahachel, and people yelling at us to buy things and small children who held out there chubby paws, opened their cherub mouths and said “Quetzale” (the Guatemalan currency). When we didn’t give them money, they spanked their butts at us, muttered swear words and ran to find another unsuspecting tourist. Tourism had trashed this town as it had trashed Panajachel — and we felt guilty and disillusioned. We were also feeling hungry so we had a nice cafe lunch of Wonderbread and American processed cheese, with leering children hanging over our plates as we ate. We got on the next boat back to Panajachel and then took the next available bus to Xela.

As we ascended the mountain on our way back, we hardly even glanced at the beautiful mountain lake as we washed our hands of Atitlan and its serene little villages. In any case, it was an experience that we wouldn’t not recommend to someone else.