San Pedro la Laguna – Spanish classes on the side of a volcano (well, almost)

Tuesday, 12th August
We got up and packed up our gear. We have by now become quite used to this although somehow always manage to pack in a different way each time. We have yet to find the optimum packing method, some days are better than others. We then had our free breakfast of cornflakes, banana and coffee (no pancakes today) then bade farewell to those at the hostel who were staying on (people, cats and a giant rabbit); there were quite a few leaving that day for San Pedro. We got our seats in the bus, getting on early to ensure we weren’t in some makeshift seat or at the back of the bus then started the journey towards San Pedro la Laguna. This started with us driving around in circles though for the first hour picking up other travellers. We passed by the same hostels more than once before we made the bumpy ride over the cobblestones out of Antigua. The traffic was bad and we thought this would make us late into San Pedro but as it turns out it cleared up and we made good progress through the hills and volcanos towards Lake Atitlan. The roads here we were told are the worst in Guatemala and they lived up to their reputation. As before with potholes and bumps but more of both. The scenery was nice and going up and down steep hills gave good views over the lake when we got there. Around the lake are a series of small towns and villages and we could see those on the end (west) we were travelling to quite clearly – San Juan, San Marco and San Pedro, our final destination.

After getting off the bus we made for a restaurant to get our bearings and have a drink of locally grown coffee. I looked at a couple of hotels aided by a local man and his nephew who seemingly get a cut of what we pay at wherever we end up staying. We decided on ‘Casa Elena’ for QZ120 a night. For this we got a room on the corner by the waters edge with a view of the lake and a couple of hammocks outside. We then had a walk around San Pedro la Laguna and booked our Spanish course for the week at the ‘La Escuela Cooperativa’, starting tomorrow. A cut of the profits there go to local causes and the teachers are all local so we feel good about this one. We had a recommendation form a guy we met in Semuc Champey. It seems as though there are plenty of Spanish schools here so it was good to get that recommendation otherwise we could’ve walked around for hours. We then went to check out another hotel, ‘Hotel San Francisco’, and found that we could get a room with a view for only QZ40 a night so we decided to check into this one for the next week, starting tomorrow. The whole week for little over USD$30 for both of us – crazy! Hammock time came next followed by tacos and quesadillas with the best cheese yet in Central America. It actually tasted like cheese, a first for us here.

Casa Elena

Our first hotel in San Pedro, nice view

Casa Elena

The view from the rooftop of Casa Elena

Wednesday, 13rd August
We began our second day in San Pedro la Laguna by packing and moving to the ‘Hotel San Francisco’. San Pedro, as it is known, is built up on a series of hills that rise up to the inactive volcano, Volcan San Pedro, and I do not overestimate when I say that some are crazy steep. The walk to the hotel wasn’t too bad but some others you almost have to crawl up. When we arrived we were pleased to find out our room wasn’t up too many steps, many of the buildings here are built high and they are all crammed together on slopes. This does give you good views though. We then set about finding a cafe that would do for a couple of hours until our Spanish school started. We found ‘Cafe de la Castilina’ which served up locally grown coffee from the side of the volcano behind San Pedro and a good lunch, when it came about 45 minutes after ordering.

San Pedro

The main drag of San Pedro, the ‘centro turistico’

San Pedro

Looking down on San Pedro

This place (San Pedro) is so cheap as there are so many villages around the lake vying for travellers attention; we had lunch for around USD$10. Close to 2pm we made the short walk to our school and began our first day with a test to see what we knew. Not much it turned out and gave our teachers something to think about. We have a teacher each here and they do their lessons in the gardens of the school in makeshift small classrooms. We have booked four hours of classes a day and hope that this will give us more to get us around. We find we can do most things, just need more practice with the conversation part so I am confident this will really help us. After class we went back to our hotel for homework and revision making sure to be prepared for tomorrow. Our classes are in the afternoon, 2pm-6pm, which gives us the mornings free and we have a balcony outside our room to sit on, read and check out the view so this should be better than okay. My teacher is called ‘Girelda’ and Kirsty’s ‘Lygia’, both Tzutujil Mayan women.

Escuela Cooperativa

La Escuela Cooperativa, not a bad place to learn Spanish

Escuela Cooperativa

The view from my work-desk at the Escuela Cooperativa – Spanish school

Thursday, 14th August
We woke up at the crack of dawn with the sun shining right through our front door, the green glass panels lighting up like a backlit street-sign. Once up we had some breakfast we set about doing some Spanish revision so as to not disappoint our teachers. We are finding this time harder going than when we learned in Mexico with the classes having less structure and after learning quite quickly at the start, finding ourselves stalling a bit as we try to move on. I spend most of my class talking with Girelda, and doing the odd exercise as she explains a new concept to me or goes over something I have already done but in more detail. It may take us a while yet to get where we want to be with Spanish. We had our lunch in an alleyway at a vegetarian cafe, sharing a plate of stir-fry. This also gave us a chance to do some more revision just before our class. We walked the short distance to the class, everything here in San Pedro is around the corner albeit up or down a steep hill. The class was good although as I said we are stalling a bit I think and need to get over the next ‘hump’ in order to improve. I think I just need to sit down and memorise a whole load of verbs and vocab so I can talk about something new and not always about the movies I watch, books I read, music I listen to etc. After class we went down to the lakefront to a taco place we know to be good and had our dinner there. As we sat there a familiar face from Antigua walked in, Richard. He was staying in the same hostel as us there and we got talking, he was the one that provided some travel tips for our onward joinery. He also had a nifty bag which was a large maize sack with shoulder straps sewn on so as to look like an everyday sack of corn. He had his bag pinched from a bus before you see. Anyway, he proceeded to play some songs and gave us great entertainment for the evening before we walked back to the Hotel San Francisco for some homework and bed. There was an almighty rainstorm in the late evening which drenched the town in much needed water and was quite exciting to be in where we are staying with a view over the lake and hearing the wind howling through all the buildings.

Hotel San Francisco

Our room on the right at Hotel San Francisco

Hotel San Francisco

The view from our second hotel, Hotel San Francisco

Friday, 15th August
Today we woke up early as usual but lay around in bed doing some more Spanish reading until we could be bothered to get up. It is nice not to have any commitments before 2pm, we could get used to this! Before class we went for a walk to get some laundry done and check out some places that do coffee tours. They grow a lot of coffee in this region of Guatemala and you can take tours that walk you from San Pedro up the side of the volcano to see a working coffee farm and the process by which they make the coffee, with tastings of course. We decided on taking a tour tomorrow afternoon which means switching our class to the morning (9am) so no lazy morning but it’s better this way we think. We then went back to the vegetarian cafe in the alleyway for another shared lunch before class. Class was good today, more conversing than usual and I managed to use some more verbs, past tenses and I am starting to remember the words I usually forget, progress is being made I think. After today we have another two days so we shall see where I am after that. We had put our names down for a dinner at the school tonight so after changing into some warmer clothes and picking up our laundry we went back to the school to meet some fellow students and enjoy a meal of chicken stew and rice, with tortillas as well of course and a rum drink as accompaniment. We chatted away until people thinned out and decided to call it a night ourselves with our class starting at 9am tomorrow and the coffee tour in the afternoon. We did our Spanish homework in bed, prepared for the next day.

Saturday, 16th August
We switched our Spanish classes today from the afternoon to the morning so after being woken again at around 5am due to the sun standing outside our front door (or so it felt like) we had breakfast and sauntered towards La Esceula Cooperativa to start at 9am. I am finding that I am progressing quite well but still find much that I need to improve on. It is to be expected with not even two weeks of formal Spanish classes. However, I can converse with my teacher about subjects beyond the mundane now which is nice. We finished up our Spanish at 1pm and had an hour for lunch before the coffee tour we had booked at 2pm. We had some tacos down by the lake then met ‘Tony’ at his office and he took us on the tour. The tour was great. First off we caught a tuk-tuk up to a path in the hillside where we walked through a coffee plantation towards a viewpoint which when we got there was stunning. We had views down over San Pedro la Laguna and the other villages around Lake Atitlan. We had a look at some coffee plants and there were also large avocado trees everywhere fruiting. It is out of season for coffee at the moment but there rare plenty of green pods on the bushes. They start harvesting in November for the first harvest and the last harvest ends in April. After taking in the vista we walked back down and caught another tuk-tuk to the coffee cooperative plant where we were shown the process of how coffee is harvested, sorted, washed, dried and roasted and ground. The cooperative (FEMEPMA) has around 200 members all of whom are local farmers. At the end of the season they divide up the profits. They also re-use the by-products of the process such as the bean casings to produce compost for the coffee and future beans; a full-cycle process. At the end of the tour we sampled some of the coffee and of course it was good. After the coffee plant tour we caught a 4×4 back to the centre of San Pedro where we said farewell to Tony. At the start we asked that he conduct the tour in Spanish, or at least ‘Spanglish’ so that we could practice and we actually could understand 90% of what was said and could ask questions, make statements etc. in Spanish so that was pleasing.

Coffee Tour

Walking along the hillside on our Coffee Tour, Tony leading the way


Some coffee beans growing on the hillside

With tomorrow not being a school day we again feel like we have a weekend so we went out for dinner and a few drinks. We wandered along the alleyway with no name that connects our side of town with the main strip and found a happy hour at the ‘Buddha Bar’, where we also bumped into a couple of Dutch girls who we met in Antigua. It seems as though you cannot help but run into the same people over and over again as you follow the well-trodden route through Central America. We only stayed for one with food on our minds so after we had finished our Cuba Libres we went towards the main strip which runs alongside the lake to find a suitably priced restaurant that didn’t just serve up burittos and fajitas. We found such a place (’Shanti Shanti’) and had I think a healthy meal although we followed it up with more Cuba Libres in a bar a few doors down. This place was called ‘D’noz’ and we only went here to hear Richard from Antigua play another set but alas he was nowhere to be seen. Half-expected really I guess, knowing his style. Anyway, we also bumped into another couple of girls who we had met before, this time from Belize and the island of Caye Caulker. We called it a night as the bar closed up around us, not exactly late but maybe a quiet night for them. There are lots more people in town this weekend as it’s a public holiday and apparently they get an influx from Guatemala City here when that’s the case.

Sunday, 17th August
Today is our official day off from Spanish lessons. We had a lazy morning, breakfasting on take-away ham and cheese croissants from the alleyway with no name. They were surpsiginly excellent, as good as any croissant I have had before, and yes, that does include France. We did think about checking some of the other towns around the lake today but instead opted to spend the day lazing in and around our hotel. San Pedro la Laguna is a fairly quiet town off the main tourist street and on sunday it becomes even more quiet as people spend the day with their families. Sunday is often the only day off in the week here, if that. I did go out for some provisions though and got caught up in a religious parade through town with children looking glum dressed up as angels and lambs. Religon is very evident here as there are loads of painted signs around town preaching about Jesus and God, i.e. “Only God can change your life” and “The only true friend is Jesus”. Evangelical Christianity is big here, to the extend that there are 12 evangelical churches and only one catholic church. I also had lunch whilst out gathering provisions, a cheap lunch of chorizo tacos, you generally get three tacos for QZ12, about USD$1.50. Back at the hotel we looked into accommodation for Guatemala City opting to book a room in the ‘Quetzalroo’ hostel which is run by a Guatemalan and Australian couple. We could’ve booked a bus ticket all the way to Managua in Nicaragua from San Pedro but feeling nervous about the scale of the jounrey and number of steps instead decided to get ourselves to Guatemala City and book the bus from there ourselves directly, no doubt saving some money in the process. We have to stay in Guatemala City for one night anyhow due to the timetable of the onward buses to Nicaragua. We also made the decision to stay one more night in San Pedro just so we didn’t feel in a rush getting there.

San Pedro

One of the plentiful religous statements

San Pedro

Another of the plentiful religous statements

Monday, 18th August
Today was our last day of Spanish classes and officially our tenth day, or fortieth hour of tutelage. I think we have both come out with a greater understanding of the language and feel more confident in giving it a go in front of strangers now but still have a long way to go. Maybe another course in South America may be in order. Before class we lazed around the hotel. When you are in a place for quite a few days, more than three seems like forever and when you are moving on every one of two days in general you easily slip back into a lazy sunday kind of routine when you in the same place for week. After class we watched some movies and tv shows on the laptop then I went out to get some takeaway for dinner from our favourite taco joint down by the lake. At this place they do amazing sandwiches that I have been enjoying, simple but delicious. A hot sandwich of shredded chicken or beef with tomato, lettuce, onion and mayonnaise in a fresh roll – a ‘torta’. We ate these whilst watching more tv then read ourselves to sleep. Tomorrow is our last full day in San Pedro la Laguna.

San Pedro

Catching a tuk-tuk through the bumpy cobbled streets of San Pedro

San Pedro

Walking down a dirt path in San Pedro, there’s more than one of these

Tuesday. 19th August
We began the day by going out for a breakfast of toast, coffee, juice, eggs and tortillas. The breakfast options here seem very Mexican as does a lot of the food. We have been enjoying the drink of ‘Rosa Jamaica’ or as we would say iced hibiscus tea. They seem to have it everywhere here and it’s a popular drink. With breakfast out the way came the time for chores – laundry and a vist to the travel agency. I picked up our laundry and visited a travel agency to buy our bus tickets to Guatemala City. We have tickets for a ‘collectivo’ type bus, the same as we have been catching around Guatemaa. They do have the ‘chicken buses’ here, the highly decorated local converted school buses that are much cheaper but they take longer, are hotter and more crammed. We caught these buses throughout Belize but figure that the other buses are more reliable and when we have to get somewhere for a booked night of accommodation then the ‘collective’ is the better option. Following this we did some planning for our time in Nicaragua, hostels mainly. It seems as though the tourist trail is well-trodden through this country as well as it terms of the places to visit they kind of choose themselves. We have opted to catch a bus rights through Honduras and El Salvador to get to Nicaragua.

In the afternoon I left Kirsty behind and caught a boat over to San Marcos, another town by the lake but much smaller than San Pedro. It was mainly curiosity that took me there to see how different it was to a town on the other side of the lake, the answer is not much. The main difference is the development and size of the population. San Pedro is larger and has more commercial activity than San Marcos and has the feel of a working town whilst San Marcos feels quite rural, being under-developed compared to San Pedro. San Marcos also has a reputation amongst travellers as being something of a hippie hang-out with yoga and moon classes being offered. It was nice to wander around somewhere different though and It was a pleasant 10 minute journey over the lake on a small boat at a cost of QZ20 return. These boats connect all the towns around the lake and are far quicker than taking the hillside roads which are strewn with pot-holes and debris.

San Marcos

View from Lake Atitlan approaching San Marcos

San Marcos

The streets of San Marcos

Leaving the next day, we had some packing and organising to do. When you are in a room for more than a few days you tend to explode stuff everywhere so we spent some time sorting our inventory out then headed out for a final dinner in San Pedro. Our bus is booked for 9:30am tomorrow which should get us into Guatemala City around 2:30pm. From there we will sort out our onward travel to Nicaragua as we say goodbye to another country and good times in Guatemala.



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