There have been moments in the past twenty-four hours where I thought, “Is this too much?” It has been a long and arduous trip to get to San Juan La Laguna, a village on Lake Atitlán in Guatemala. I had moments of worry that the intensity of this journey might be too much for Vicky Ann, who I was traveling with for the first time since our amazing adventures in Vietnam and Cambodia. To be honest, I wondered if the challenges of getting to our destination was too much for me as well.
We left Connecticut at 9:00 pm and felt that the drive to New York would be the most dangerous part of our trip. Despite the late hour, it seemed as everyone was getting an early start to the Easter holiday and some were in a big hurry, oblivious to the vehicles around them.
We flew from New York at 4:00 am to El Salvador, getting a glimpse of beautiful beaches and tropical landscapes from the air. Despite being up all night, I didn’t even have a chance to grab a coffee before catching our next flight, a 30-minute shot to Guatemala City. Before 9:00 am local time we were out of the airport looking for transportation to the lake.
Our van was arranged for 11:00 and would take passengers to Antigua, about 45 minutes from the capital, and then on to Panajachel, the main city on the shores of Lake Atitlán. Our van included young backpackers from Israel, London, and the US and we enjoyed sharing stories and tips from our travels. Vicky Ann was grateful to be in such a nice van with a friendly and responsible driver as we reminisced about some more harrowing experiences in Cambodia.
Since it was Holy Thursday, it seemed the entire country was traveling to Antigua. We were in bumper to bumper traffic with a new set of vendors on every stretch of the highway. First, fried plantains, then potato chips, later ice cream. The vendors, of all ages, walked between the highway lanes without any concern, it seemed, for their own safety. The driver said the trip would take 3 hours unless we took a different route.
Roller coaster ride
We finally made it to Antigua and transferred to another van and driver. The Israeli backpacker (who had just arrived from Mexico without any luggage thanks to his airline but still had an infectiously positive attitude) continued with us and another group of young travelers who were leaving from Antigua to the lake. Everyone was chatting and very friendly – it felt so good to be traveling again and surrounded by fellow adventurers.
As the hours-long trip traversed thousands of switchbacks through the mountains, and millions of speed bumps in the hundreds of villages we passed through (I may be exaggerating just a little) the van grew more and more silent. We were all quietly dealing with the dizzying switchbacks and the driver who wanted to pass every other vehicle we encountered. He drove with quick, sharp jerks and blasted a soccer match on the radio. None of us could talk any more and soon the twists and turns induced vomit from at least one of the passengers who shall not be named. Ever the resourceful one, she had an empty pretzel bag to catch what came up (our only food since a stale croissant at the airport).
Fresh air and warm welcomes
After finally arriving in Panajachel, a busy lakeside town packed with tourists, we refreshed ourselves with a quick snack and headed toward the lake. There are no direct boats to San Juan La Laguna, but we were offered a private boat for a price. We were so exhausted that it didn’t matter how much our captain wanted, but it turned out to be the best investment of our trip.
The fresh air and beautiful views from the lake did wonders to evaporate all of our worries and soon we were laughing about all of the troubles it had taken to get here. I’ll let the pictures tell the rest of the story of our first day in Guatemala, which was definitely worth it!
After arriving at the same AirBnB I stayed at in 2016, a Mayan family with three children, we could not resist taking a walk around the village. When you hear rhythmic clapping, you know you’re near a tortilleria. We paid a few quetzales for three hot and delicious ones to savor as we soaked up the village scenes.
The village was preparing for the Good Friday processions the following day. We had no idea of the moving and colorful scenes we would see the next day.