Days of peace in a quiet volcano

Spectacular Lake Atitlan in Guatemala is luring tourists after long years of war, writes Sasha Abramsky

FROM THE rocks perched on the 10,000ft San Pedro Volcano, the clear blue waters of Lake Atitlan look an awfully long way down. The verdant lumps and volcanic shards of land surrounding Guatemala's most spectacular lake seem like broken glass.

We had set off from the village of San Pedro at six in the morning. For four hours we had been climbing the steep and muddy side of the volcano. The path began along fields of maize and coffee, then through steep woods, from which emerged peasants with bundles of wood on their backs would emerge, scurrying down the slopes barefoot.

As we huffed up, our machete-carrying guide, Nicholas, goaded us on by telling us how slow we were, and assuring us (erroneously) that it would take us at least five hours to reach the peak.

The final half-hour was the hardest. But it was worth it: the shores of Lake Atitlan, home to 13 villages, were jagged edges crashing into calm blue. Three volcanoes rose out of them on one side, the other two higher than San Pedro.

In the heart of Guatemala's Western Highlands, this is some of the most awe-inspiring scenery in Central America. It was also the war zone rife with military atrocities during four decades of civil war that racked Guatemala until a few years ago. These days the violence has largely died and villages once torn by repeated violence are peaceful host to hundreds of tourists.

In this country one comes closer to seeing the true pre-Columbian world than anywhere else in the modern Americas. In the waters of Atitlan, men and boys paddle their canoes, casting their nets for fish. Women in the traditional woven turquoise skirts and blouses worn by villagers here for hundreds of years work the fields, weave their huipiles (shawls), and mix tradition with a canny sense of what tourists want, by peddling clothing and tapestries.

We scrambled down the volcano in three hours we were back to the Hotel Ti-Kaaj in San Pedro, This is a place of basic but exceedingly satisfying pleasures. After showering, we lay in the hammocks strung beneath the large trees in the lush garden. After several hours of stupor, we got up enough energy to hobble to a restaurant on the lake for a banquet of fried chicken and vegetables at $2 a plate. By 8.30pm, I was fast asleep.

We stayed around Lake Atitlan for a week. Half the time we were in San Pedro, communing with the beautiful people, a crowd of affluent western hippies eternally sitting in the western-run cafes sprinkled around the lake, listening to rock music, drinking coffee and playing board games. The remainder of our days was spent in the regional centre, Panajachel.

Across the lake from San Pedro, Panajachel is a hybrid: part-sophisticated traveller resort; part-small town; part-ethnic shopping heaven. The two main streets - Calle Principal and Calle Santander - are lined with stalls selling every conceivable colour of woven fabrics, shirts, bags and belts, and with excellent, and highly affordable, restaurants and cafes.

We splurged at the Circus Bar, whose walls are lined with posters, circus posters, naturally. Run by a French couple besotted with the sawdust ring, this was a dimly lit but elegant slice of old bourgeois Europe, serving a vast selection of cocktails to live flamenco music. It is renowned as Panajachel's best restaurant. The chefs cooked huge pizzas, pasta dishes of every description, top-notch onion soup and garlic bread. We gorged, eating three large courses, and drinking several pina coladas, cuba libres and white russians.

Good tourists that we were, we also shopped. Prices start relatively high here but, if you are not afraid to bargain, they fall quickly. A beautiful leather belt, lined with embroidery, that started at 75 quetzales (pounds 8), was eventually mine for 22 (pounds 2).

Tearing ourselves from the temptations on the stalls of Panajachel, on a Sunday, we took a minibus over the mountains to Chichicastanango to see the country's largest market. The market, dominating the cobbled town square and surrounding streets, was an overpowering experience.

Packed solid with camera-toting tourists and locals doing their weekly shop, it represented sensory overload at its finest. The women, in embroidered skirts and blouses, carried woven bags full of produce on their heads, and carried children in slings on their backs. Many men wore the traditional clothing of their villages: pink, embroidered bell-bottoms, brown wool blankets wrapped around their waists, woven shirts, and cowboy hats.

Rows of painted wooden masks took up entire walls of the tarpaulin-covered stalls, and purple, blue, green, black, red, yellow, turquoise and violet clothing, bags and tapestries jostled for space.

The smell of overripe bananas pervaded everything, and stray dogs wandered between our legs. A soundtrack of captive chickens squawking and vendors haggling, combined with fume-spewing painted schoolbuses blaring mariachi music, added to the chaos.

It was late afternoon when we returned to the peace of Panajachel.

The sunlight shimmered between the clouds, landing on the lake, and across the water, our volcano soared upwards. Despite being gringos, it felt like coming home.

FACT FILE

Guatemala

Getting there

There are no direct flights from London to Guatemala; you generally have to change planes in the US. JLA (tel: 0181-747 3108) offers flights for pounds 484 plus pounds 28 tax until 12 December.

Getting around

Guatemala city is the hub for bus routes throughout the country, which is barely larger than Wales. Luxury coaches run between Guatemala city and Quetzaltenango. Minibuses run to tourist sites such as Antigua and Panajachel. Guatemala city to Panajachel costs pounds 10.

Where to stay

Panajachel is teeming with hotels, from flophouse to luxury resort. Hotel prices start from pounds 4 for a double room. Mario's Rooms is a pleasant budget hotel.

Further information

Tourist Board of Guatemala, 13 Fawcett St, London SW10 9HN (tel: 0171 349 0346). EU citizens do not need visas to enter Guatemala.

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