6th to 20th December 2021
Located on the fringes of the small town of San Lucas Toliman, the Pink House sits in beautiful grounds, including a coffee and avocado plantation, as well as an area for camping and its own dock on the lake. Being close to one of the smaller towns around Lake Atitlan, we didn’t know exactly what access to groceries would be like, so we headed to the nearest supermarket before arriving at the house. This actually involved going past San Lucas from Camp AKT and making a more than 70km round trip on some pretty ‘interesting’ roads (meaning rough, pot-hole filled and slow) to Panajachel. We were surprised and shocked to see individuals and families, many with young children, running into the road carrying/dragging shovels loaded with dirt- they were using to the dirt to fill the potholes in the hope of a bit of money from appreciative drivers. I can’t imagine the situation you must be in where you need to take your family to an actively used road and fill potholes for money.
We stocked up for two weeks to avoid having to take the trip again unnecessarily, which slightly overburdened the already jam-packed car, and due to this and the potholes, we ended up arriving later than we’d hoped. I think this contributed to my mood when we arrived- the house was perhaps a bit more basic than I expected, the kids were fractious after a long car journey, and we had a bit of a job packing away all the groceries and preparing dinner in an unfamiliar kitchen.
The next morning, we were all well rested and fed, and could appreciate the real beauty of the lake and the situation of the house. Waking up early, we wrapped up warm to admire the magnificent view over the lake, towards the town and mountains beyond, from the dock and took a short walk to explore. The route into town takes you along a dirt track, past a well-used communal washing area and playground, all the time with the beautiful lake in sight.
This lake is also well-used by the local community, not only for fishing, but by people washing and doing laundry in the chilly water. While the boys were playing at the lake side one late afternoon, I started a conversation with a local lady, Carlotta, who was doing the latter, painstakingly washing the family’s linen and clothing by soaking each item in the lake, lathering it with a block of laundry soap, rubbing it against one of the rough stones that were dotted along the lake shore for this purpose, then returning the item to the lake for rinsing. All the time whilst standing knee deep in the water herself. I asked if I could help, and she replied with a mischievous smile, handing me a top that looked far too delicate to be rubbed against a rock- the textiles in Guatemala are beautiful, intricately hand woven in bright colours, the tops worn by women adorned with gems and beads. I quickly learned that the Guatemalan fabrics are more durable than anything I normally buy so cheaply, which certainly wouldn’t have looked good after being scrubbed in this way repeatedly, and that elbow grease rather than the amount of the soap is the way to get things clean! Each time I thought I had finished, Carlotta smiled and shook her head- no, the item needs more rinsing- and sometimes even gave things an extra rinse herself to be sure. It’s easy to romanticise the experience- the easy companionship despite a language barrier and the satisfaction that comes from hard work, with a backdrop of stunning mountains lit by the setting sun- but I do wonder if, with washing machines in homes, we miss out, on the chance to gossip with our neighbours, to share jokes and problems, to discuss child rearing, share recipes and simply have a chat. There’s no community in doing your chores alone, and despite the obvious time and physical effort that goes into lugging your family’s laundry to the communal facilities or lakeside to be washed by hand, the women were smiling and laughing whilst their children played around them.
We walked into the town a few times, to purchase fresh bread, milk and vegetables from the well-stocked tiendas and market stalls, and to visit the main square which was decorated for Christmas with lights and a huge artificial tree. It felt especially Christmassy given that the climate was so much cooler than around the Rio Dulce, and the landscape was less tropical, more deciduous. We bought craft materials, ribbon and other supplies to make some Christmas cards for family back home, something we try to do each year, as well as bunting and a card for Dave’s brother Gordon and his girlfriend Sophie, who got married at New Year (unfortunately due to COVID quarantine rules, we weren’t able to return to the UK for the wedding). As I mentioned previously, the textiles in Guatemala are beautiful, and we bought some fabric for Gordon and Sophie at the weekly market as a gift, to be made into whatever they choose. At the market, we also bought a very interesting homemade firework! Many of the stalls sold cheap sparklers alongside what were obviously homemade fireworks in various sizes, apparently to both adults and children. The boys loved their first try with sparklers, and the firework was great, if a little nerve-wracking- we certainly gave it some distance, but it turned out to be perfectly safe. There is some wonderful local artwork around the town, most with references to the Mayan heritage and culture of the area.
The real gem of our stay was the property itself. We hired the kayak most days, with one or more of the boys exploring the nearby shore or weaving through the reeds looking for the gear left by local fishermen or bird life. Arthur took the kayak out to the lake’s fish farm for a good hour, first circling it, then getting out to chat, using stilted Spanish and empathic hand gestures, with the man working there, who later let him feed the fish.
Other times, we walked the property’s plantation, set on the terraced slopes behind the house. The area was beautifully wild rather than over manicured, and as we walked higher, the views over the lake and town became more spectacular. At the top, we found a small barbeque area, with a roughly made table and chairs, where we ate a couple of times, alongside a good fire- the owner organized for us to have firewood ready, taken from the plantation itself.
You can travel between the towns and villages on the lake shore more easily by water taxi than by road. The dock in San Lucas is situated in the main town, with regular trips between there and Panajachel (Pana), stopping at two places en route. From Pana, you can get water taxis to other places on the lake from one of two docks. We first took a trip to Pana, a bustling town with a far more touristy feel to it than San Lucas. The large supermarket we visited by car is a short walk from the water taxi dock, and tuk tuks are easy to find. We took one to the Reserva Natural de Atitlan, where we spent a busy day exploring the butterfly house and walking trails, which ascended through beautiful temperate forests- the boys were excited to find acorns and were able to kick through autumnal leaf fall- over suspension bridges and past a waterfall. At lunch in the restaurant, we saw a troop of Pisote, clambering down from the trees to get the food put out for them by staff- they were also keen on leftover guacamole and pretty brave, leaping onto the table as soon as we stood up to leave!
The park offers ziplining, which looked great, with platforms at various intervals along the walking trails- it was bit pricey and had to be paid for on entrance with no refunds, so we opted not to try it in case the boys changed their minds, but on seeing people in action they were really keen. Luckily, there is a place in Guatemala that offers ziplining which we can try. There was also a great playground, with a mini-zipline for kids (and adults!), lots of green space, and a large chicken coop- the chickens fascinated the kids as much as anything else.
Another time, we took the water taxi to Pana, and then a second to visit San Marcos. In Pana, we posted our parcel of Christmas and wedding things to England, expensive as there is no international postal service in Guatemala apart from by courier. The journey to San Marcos was rather wet, wake from the speeding taxi’s leaking through the roll-down windows and soaking anyone sat in the open front area- worth knowing if you’re carrying any decent photographic equipment or important documents. Known as a spot for hippies, San Marcos had a very different feel to San Lucas. The bustling, narrow streets seemed to be aimed at tourists rather than a local community, and it was the first place in Guatemala we had seen many restaurants and cafes serving vegan food, alongside a number of health food shops, yoga retreats and trendy gift shops. Despite the chilled, laidback vibe, there was something ‘busy’ and transient feeling about San Marcos- we’d read it was one of the best places to stay around the lake, but I’m glad that we opted for the cheaper San Lucas.
In San Marcos, we walked to the Mirador de San Marcos park. The trails take you through the beautiful forests, again with an autumnal feel, and often with glimpses of the lake. There is an area by the shore where people go to swim and dive in the sparkling, clear water of the lake. Arthur, Theo and I were soon jumping off of some of the higher areas of rock, but the real challenge is the 20 metre-high platform. It took a lot of courage for me to take a leap, and the sensation is hard to describe, just free falling for what seemed like an eternity, but in reality was only seconds. At one point, I must have expected to be hitting the water so shifted position, because when I did hit it was awkwardly and not especially pleasant! Arthur was tempted, but in the end, it proved just a little high for him, and I’m glad he listened to himself. Great fun to watch tourist from all the world doing trick jumps and dives though.
We were disappointed that we’d booked to spend Christmas in Antigua. The Pink House would have been a beautiful location; we all felt relaxed there with lots of freedom outdoors, and it felt more Christmassy than anywhere we had been since Europe. But we were looking forward to seeing Antigua as so many cruising friends had recommended it, and it turns out it had plenty offer.