Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Lake Atitlan's Largest Town - Panajachel, Guatemala

March 15, 2013

I am over the mountains. Or more precisely, I am tired of driving through the mountains. The ceaseless curves toss my stomach around like a football. Trying to make the best of a situation, I use the shuttle ride from Xela to Panajachel as an ab workout, tightening my abdominal muscles every time we careen around a curve, the shuttle veering heavily left or right. Surely, I must be stronger after three hours of this.

A woman walks with a bag clenched in her hand, a bundle perched on her head, and a baby swaddled on her back. These are some tough women. The bed of a pickup truck is crammed with people; some even ride standing on the bumper while clinging to a metal rail. Political campaign advertisements are spray painted onto rock faces along the road.

It’s a downhill roll on a gently sloping road with hairpin turns to reach Lake Atitlan. The view from above is gorgeous, a vast glistening blue lake surrounded by mountains and volcanoes.

Panajachel, the largest town on the lake, is still only a small town, but it’s bustling with activity, especially on the main street, Calle Santander. I happily haggle for hours and hours in the open market stalls - it’s a game you play with the shopkeeper, each trying to come out on top. I wonder how often we both inadvertently win: me, thinking I got a good deal, and the shopkeeper, knowing the item sold for a good price. Everything is no problem, no problem - Rifling through the bags or scarves, searching for the perfect one? No problem, more colors. Not interested in a book mark? No problem, we have rooster pot holders, too. Don’t like the price? No problem, what you pay? With friendliness and a touch of generosity, the seller will give you a price... special for you.

March 16, 2013
The streets are quieter in the morning, more peaceful, less hustle and bustle. Market stalls are being artfully arranged to attract future customers. A man walks four goats down the street. I buy freshly squeezed orange juice from a women with a table set up on the street, and she serves it in a glass with a straw. It’s sweet and tart at the same time.

Down at the lake shore, the view is hazy, but still magnificent.

At breakfast, Nick’s two amigas from yesterday manage to find us. Already, they have approached Nick three times, nagging and whining for him to buy something. Now, it has become a game to them, and they smile as they approach. It’s become quite amusing to us, and we can’t help but laugh. Their persistence pays off; Nick purchases a bookmark. A vacation phrase spin-off pops into my mind: “I was hustled in Guatemala, and all I got was this bookmark.”

The street hustlers are frequent, and sometimes quite persistent, but I don’t find it bothersome. In a friendly tone I say non gracias, and if they continue talking to me, I discontinue acknowledging their existence. I realize this may sound rude, but for the most part it’s effective. More effective than saying no over and over again, or acting interested but then saying no. Case in point: Nick is the happy owner of a Guatemalan bookmark.

Mario’s Rooms - Our room cost Q225 ($25) for a private room and bath with hot water. The room included two beds, some furniture, a television, and towels. I didn’t ask about Internet. A water cooler is available to refill your water bottles. It’s in a nice location, near the center of the main street, in the midst of all the shops and restaurants. It also has a nice inner courtyard. The staff speaks very limited English. A limited menu complimentary breakfast is also offered in the morning.

Dina’s Chocolates - Calle Santander ends at an intersection where the road splits into a Y. If you turn right, you will see this sweet shop sitting between two streets. We have a chocolate filled with peanut butter (Q20) and one with bits of orange (Q10), and both are delicious, although pricey for a tiny treat. The shopkeeper shares that the treats are made with honey as a sweetener, rather than refined sugar, and I like this very much. Healthy chocolate!

El Patio - This is a hard-to-find cafe on Calle Santander, directly across from Tinamet Maya and next to Chinitos restaurant (the patio is in front, so the rather small sign is set back from the street). We enjoyed lunch here. I had the pepian (Q37), a big chunk of chicken and a hunk of potato served in a tasty broth with a side of rice. The menu advertised it as the national dish, and it was really good. Nick had the cassoulet (Q36), a mixture of white beans, carrots, small bits of an unknown meat, and slices of hot dogs in a tomato broth. This was good, too, but a little bland. (Sorry for the picture quality; the colors are too warm.)

Guajimbo’s - We ate dinner here because we heard they serve really good steak. It is conveniently located very near Mario’s Rooms on Calle Santander. Garlic bread is served as a starter. The dinner plate portions are huge. I ordered the pinchos noplatenses (Q92) and was served two gigantic shish kabobs comprised of chunks of beef, tomatoes, onions, and red peppers served with boiled potatoes, beets, carrots, and an unidentified green vegetable that looked like honeydew but definitely isn’t. Nick had the churrasco uruguayo (Q72), two large pieces of beef tenderloin served with the same sides. Two sauces are also given: a spicy picante and a chimichurri that we enjoyed so much we had to order another bowl. Our filling and delicious dinner, including beer and wine, cost us Q237 including tip, which is about $30 - pretty good deal.

Street Venders - In the evening, women bring homemade food to sell - snacks, dinner, and dessert. On the way back to our hotel from dinner, I noticed some women selling pie on the street. Who can say no to homemade pie? I got a piece of pineapple, and Nick had strawberry, for Q10 each. Different than the pie in America, but good. There are also food vendors during the day: I saw roast corn and fried chicken for sale. In the morning, women sell freshly squeezed orange juice for Q7 - it’s good.

Mario’s Rooms - The hotel serves a limited breakfast menu complimentary with the room. I had eggs, which came with beans, cheese, homemade bread, and a strong cup of coffee. It was a good, simple meal.

Shop the market stalls on Calle Santander. Nick and I spent hours perusing the Guatemalan goods. We bought many things, practicing our haggling skills. A good rule of thumb is to offer half of what they ask. They will bring their price down, and you will maybe bring yours up, or stay firm, and eventually you’ll either reach a negotiation or walk away. Sometimes walking away will get you best price. I checked out a couple other streets, but it seems that the market is essentially on Calle Santander; a tourist really has no reason to leave this street - even the water taxi dock is at the end. Here is a list of my purchases (what I paid, as well as the asking price in parentheses):

  • Small purse - Q40 (Q60)
  • Headband - Q15 (Q20)
  • Embroidered headband - Q20 (Q40)
  • Bracelet - Q2 (This was from a woman that approached our table during lunch and wouldn’t leave. I’m glad she came because I ended up paying less for all future bracelet purchases - sellers were asking Q5 each.)
  • Large purse - Q80 (Q110) - I should have paid closer to Q50 for this. I really liked it and didn’t bargain low enough - she accepted my first counter offer. Other shopkeepers offered me comparable purses for Q50. Live and learn.
  • Ten bracelets and a bundle of small worry dolls (Q40) - The kid at the shop would not budge on the price, not even by Q2. She drove a hard bargain, and she got what she wanted. I couldn’t bear to walk away after spending so much time carefully choosing each bracelet from among hundreds. Not that is was an unreasonable price - I just didn’t like losing the haggling game.
  • Small purse - Q20 (Q45) - I wonder if I paid too much for my first small purse...
  • Long wrap skirt - Q150 (Q250) - It is made of very nice, soft material, which drove the seller’s reasoning for being a hard bargainer. (I wanted to pay Q100.)
  • Capri pants - Q50 (Q100)
  • Two headbands - Q20 (Q30)
  • Chocolate covered coffee beans (Q35) and chocolate (Q10) - These were tagged with a price in a store - can you haggle marked prices?

I didn’t think it was possible, but I bought more the next morning:

  • Pants Q150 (200)
  • Mayan coin necklace Q50 (Q150)

My grand shopping total in Panajachel was Q682. If I had paid asking price for everything, it would have cost Q1,092, so I saved Q410. Score! Oh, and if you ever have buyer’s remorse - maybe discovering that you paid too much or getting talked into a purchase you don’t really want - just remember that your money is a family’s livelihood. It goes toward food, not a company’s profit margin. (Not all of the items shown in the pictures were bought in Panajachel, but you get a good idea of what you can find at the market.)

Traveling to Panajachel from Quetzaltenango
Casa Renaissance, the hotel where we stayed, is affiliated with a shuttle company, but the best they could offer was a shuttle to San Pedro at 10:00 am for Q200. Not the place, time, or price I was looking for. Our host suggested Adrenalina Tours, located near the Central Park. They were able to offer us a shuttle to Panajachel at 8:00 am for Q150 each. Much better! If your hotel doesn’t offer what you’re looking for, it might be worth shopping around - there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of shuttle operators. The shuttle driver dropped us off on Calle Santander, so we just had to walk until we found a room for the night (Calle Santander is not a very long street, so no big deal).

Servicios Turisticos Centro America S.A.
Andrelina Tours
13 Av. 4-25 zona 1
Interior Pasaje Enriquez (it’s located inside a large building with an open corridor)
Telephone: 502-7761-4509

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