Having rented a car in Chile, Brazil, Ecuador, Costa Rica and Nicaragua with some success, we felt relatively certain we’d seen everything Latin American transportation had to throw at us. From the bus, Guatemala’s roads had seemed decent enough. So after staying a few days in Antigua we decided to rent a car and head for the reported paradise of Lake Atitlan.
Naturally something immediately went wrong with our reservation and the only car available was not the relatively sturdy Nissan Sentra we’d ordered, but a Kia Picanto, a tiny cousin of the Chevy Spark we’d rented in Ecuador. We complained to the beleaguered rental agent, but in the end accepted our fate. Not only was the car tiny but we were horrified to see it was brand new and in absolutely mint condition. Plastic covers still protected mirrors and door handles from shipping mishaps. Any minor ding or scrape would be immediately obvious and probably costly. A new car also telegraphed wealth, an unwise idea traveling on the back roads of a developing country like Guatemala. We stuck to the plan, hoping we were being paranoid, and set off for Lake Atitlan.
For many hours we were extremely pleased with our decision. On the way we stopped by the Mayan ruins of Iximché, hired an excellent guide who spoke passable English and who’s first language was Kaqchiquel, the language of the Mayans who’d built the now ruined city. Our tour was interrupted at one point by the throb of drums coming from the jungle so we followed the sound into a clearing between the smallest temples in the area. A small group of Mayans were sitting in plastic chairs, some beating drums of hide or tortoise shell, some braiding each other’s hair. Children scooted around on plastic toys. A man and a boy, both wearing monkey masks, leapt deftly around the outside of the circle dancing a fun monkey dance to the beat of the music. We asked our guide if we could take pictures and he said yes. After a few minutes a woman walked over with a smile and very politely asked us to put the camera away. Our guide responded apologetically by telling us we could not, in fact, take pictures.
Having seen a Mayan ritual put on for the sake of ritual, not for tourists, amidst the ruins of a once sprawling Mayan city felt like an honor. We walked smiling back to our car where schoolchildren in uniforms ran in circles laughing and yelling in Kaqchiquel.
By the afternoon it had started to rain. We’d negotiated fog filled mountain roads and muddy streets to make it to the center of Panajachel, the largest town on Lake Atitlan. It was a big drop from the plateau to the lake, and my ears became stuffed and painfully blocked. The pressure was affecting my hearing along with my mood. This together with the constant downpour, it was all chipping away at what had at one point been a great day.
Back at Finca El Cisna, Carlos told us to try and find a man named Mike Roberts at the Crossroads Cafe in Panajachel. He said he was a great character and an interesting person to talk to. We’d thought about finding the cafe but gave up as we entered into a devilish maze of closed and one way streets forcing us into the narrow alleyways of the town. We had a vague idea about where we wanted to stay, but were being funneled against our will into the center of a very grey, confusing village. Then there ahead of us, under a dripping metal eve, in a grey building as non-descript as the rest of the town, we saw the Crossroads Cafe. I pulled over into what looked like a free place to park, and we walked in and asked for Mike.
He was the kind of guy who, when you ask for him by name, says, “why, does he owe you money?” With a sidelong glance.
We told him yes but that we’d forgive his debts if he gave us coffee.
He was a wiry gringo who by default wore a giant smile that was so toothy and engaging that we quickly found ourselves grinning past our grumpiness and laughing along with this American ex-pat. He launched into simultaneously told stories of his daughter getting engaged, the tale of how he’d met his wife, which toilet to buy in Guatemala and where to put a group of South African boys when they came to crash at your house.
This latter story he explained was the reason he couldn’t put us up himself, though he’d like to. It hadn’t occurred to me that he might offer such a kindness, but the near miss of being hosted by Mike’s family suddenly seemed very much a shame. As we warmed up we chatted with Mike and an endless line of customers stopping by to drink coffee and chat with the proprietor. Finally when we paid and told him we needed to leave and find a place to stay, he insisted on walking us out, excitedly cutting another conversation he was having in half. Before we could leave the shop he gestured to follow him and the three of us walked up to a thinly stocked bookshelf. We were just wondering what we were doing when Mike slapped the shelf and it spun around, revealing a big bright room full of bags of coffee. With his big smile illuminating his secret chamber, he pulled us in and stuffed something into my hand. It was half of the money we’d paid him for coffee and two pieces of his wife’s delicious cake. We tried to refuse but he was insistent. He told us we had a great story and this was he and his wife’s contribution to our journey.
Warmed by Mike’s coffee and kindness we sloshed back out to the car where the rain was falling even more insistently, beginning to pool in prodigious puddles. The little car splashed around town, stopping at several hotels that were various levels of terrible. Our last hope was a clean green cement block called Hotel Sol. Despite echoing halls and exactly zero character, we felt comfortable and dry while the sky continued to fall outside.
The next morning the clouds were temporarily gone. Taking advantage, we visited some little villages in the area. The architecture of Lake Atitlan continued to be uninspiring, but the village of Santa Catarina Palopó had a certain charm, thanks entirely to the indigenous residents who wore beautifully patterned shirts, belts and skirts, and cheerfully greeted us as we walked around the otherwise drab town.
As we drove around the lake we’d occasionally see a jewel set amidst the monotonous grey, like a vividly painted multi-hued cemetery, or colonial church festooned with Mayan icons.
In the town of Chichicastenango we stepped out of the car and almost immediately got into an argument with “official” guides/parking attendants about the etiquette of selling car watching services. They’d at first wanted to give us a tour, but when we declined they insisted we pay them to watch the car. We finally settled in a price and took in the fantastic market, filled with rows of vividly colored stalls selling masks and blankets, chickens and shoes. When we returned to the car there was no one watching it, the parking attendants and the tip we’d been harassed into giving them before we left (instead of upon return) were gone. But the car was fine.
Late in the afternoon while the sky clogged up again with dripping grey clouds we eased over brutally tall speed-bumps and slalomed around the corpses of dogs towards San Pedro de Atitlan. In one painful vignette, a skinny beast appeared to be chewing on its dead friend. As we passed we looked on in horror: the dog was actually trying to pull the body of the other dog out of the road to safety.
It was raining hard as we headed back down to the lake. The road went from very good to absolutely awful in the span of half an hour. I eased the little Picanto down into potholes a deep as kettles, trying to choose the option least damaging. The steep hill aided us in our descent but it began to dawn on me that climbing back out would be a nightmare. Sure enough we passed a gringa coming back up the other way, her terrified face filling the windshield.
When we reached the bottom another, nastier stretch of road greeted us: a strip of clay the color of almond shells dotted by small ponds of milky water – so opaque that it was hard to tell how deep they were unless forced to drive through one.
After another twenty minutes of spine punishing jolts and nearly missed boulders, Magda claimed she couldn’t take it anymore. I told her we were almost there, which technically was true, but if I thought that reaching San Pedro would lessen our pain, I was wrong. More street construction closed vital arteries, forcing us up and down impossibly narrow alleys while tuk-tuks putted towards us from the other direction. Then, as if sensing our misery it finally began to rain on a level I considered actually unsafe, the roads looked as if somewhere uphill a tanker truck of chocolate milk had tipped over.
The map showed us we were almost to the hotel we hoped to stay at. Between us and the hotel though were steep streets becoming increasingly flooded by muddy torrents. Ahead of us was another road leading up the hill and away from the lakeshore and our hotel. An eddy had formed at its base, creating a frothy overflow in the gutter. For some reason I felt that if we just made it past this street and up to higher ground we’d be fine, so I took a right and we started to climb. Three inches of water rushed towards us down the hill. The tires splashed and slipped, sending rooster tails past our windows. The wipers on high, I could see every time they clomped past that the water level was still rising. Ahead was a slightly raised bit of asphalt that had created an island in the current. I pulled over and just managed to park all four tires on the slightly higher ground, waiting for the rain to stop and for the river to subside.
Eventually we made it to the hotel. When the torrent became a trickle and I turned my wipers down to low, we drove up the rest of the street and then back down to the lakeshore. Exhausted and rattled, we found that the road to the hotel slimmed down to a narrow passage with a no entry sign posted in front of it. Nerves frayed, patience depleted, we cursed Lake Atitlan and the supposedly lovely hotel we were looking for. I backed the car up as a tuk tuk tutted around the corner towards us and immediately heard a deep grinding sound growling from underneath the Picanto. I jumped out and found that somehow a piece of cinder block had gotten behind us and was stuck beneath the muffler. Somehow I threw it into the bushes instead of beating my own skull in.
Some relief came in the form of a big grass covered field with a little coffee shop next to it. One of the employees told us we could park there and walk to our hotel which was right around the corner. A minute later, with the Picanto sheltered in a shed, we were sitting on the coffee shop’s deck, sipping hot, restorative cappuccinos, and discussing the nightmarish drive in with the cafe’s owner, Bilson.
Bilson looked at the ongoing rain and agreed the road was bad, but according to him it was the best road to take. There was another way, which we told him we were planning on leaving on, but there was a problem with that one too: Banditos.
According to the cheerful coffee shop proprietor, the road to Santiago was better, except for a bad two kilometer stretch where banditos took advantage of the ruined section and the ponderous speed it necessitated, to attack. Later we asked a cross section of San Pedro’s population and they all told the same story. Even though no one had ever been attacked themselves, everyone had heard about them and agreed it was a problem worth avoiding.
Bilson and the rest suggested a helpful solution if we were set on avoiding the road we drove in on. We could ask the police to accompany us, although it might be necessary to pay a small fee. I started to guess the likely source of the ambush rumors and I didn’t want any part of robberies either by the banditos or la policia. Magda thought it would make a fun story and no doubt it would have.
The rest of our three day stay on Lake Atitlan was marked by more torrential rain, a magnitude 6.5 earthquake (nothing damaged), a peculiar plague of toads and one glorious day of sun which made us finally appreciate some of Atitlan’s allure. We remained underwhelmed by the severely unattractive townships that dotted the lake, but agreed with our friends Matt and Zena that the Mikaso Hotel was a lovely place to stay. We woke up early to blazing sunrises and local people washing clothes by the edge of the still water.
The drive back out, on the road we came in on, was as awful as we’d feared. I stalled the car repeatedly trying to climb up out of asphalt craters and avoid the road edge that crumbled over the precipice. Giant buses blowing their horns barreled downwards towards the lake, forcing us to take refuge at the perilous edge. Eventually we reached the main highway and breathed a sigh of relief. Our trip back to Antigua was a nervous ride past landslides, more dogs and an occasional cloudburst that pounded the earth with a biblical fury.
In order to return the Picanto in Antigua I needed to drive through a narrow doorway that I felt positive would shear off a mirror. Having survive the road to Atitlan and back I had no intention of scraping the side of the new car for the first time while trying to return it. We abandoned the car, insisting the attendants park it themselves.