San Antonio Palopó is one of the smaller villages on Lake Atitlàn and a visit here will only occupy a couple of hours but it’s well worth doing. The people here are Cakchiquel Maya, and if you visit Tz'utujil villages such as Santiago Atitlàn you’ll soon spot the differences in their traditional costumes. Whereas in the latter bright reds and embroidered flowers are the norm for huipiles, here, without exception as far as I could see, every woman and girl wears the same lovely shades of blue in narrow vertical stripes.
There are two ways to get here from Panajachel, pick-up truck (these leave from near the supermarket in the non-touristy area of town, and are cheap but bumpy) or boat (dearer, because you will have to hire a private one as the ferries don’t call here, but more scenic). Actually there is a third way – some of the tours of the lake call here too. But on the whole it is much less visited than Santiago and feels much more genuine. Locals definitely outnumber tourists on its streets and if you stray any distance from the dock and church, as we did, you will find yourself the object of curious (but not unfriendly) looks.
There two main reasons to come here. One is to see the pretty church of St. Anthony of Padua, perched high above the village. The trucks will bring you to its door, but if you arrive by boat it’s a steep but rewarding climb up from the dock. The views from here are great, but don’t be so distracted by the view that you fail to pop inside. When we were there the church was being decorated for a festival – we think it must have been to mark the end of term as paper mortar boards hung from the rafters.
The other reason to come here is to shop. The distinctive blue huipiles are on offer everywhere and are probably a more wearable design when you get back home than the more ornate ones elsewhere. Other handicrafts are generally of a good quality and prices seem a little lower than in other villages – I paid just 50 Q for a large colourful shawl / scarf that has already become a real favourite. The only downside is that we found the women here far more insistent on showing you their goods and if you’re not interested it can be hard to convince them of that fact.
Apart from those two activities we spent a little time wandering the streets and exercising the zoom on our cameras to capture some of these candid shots. There’s a small local market next to the church, and a few shops on the path between dock and church. Down by the water a small shack sells snacks and cold drinks (the latter was very welcome after our climb), but there’s little else to detain you. If you’ve come by boat you’ll need to agree a return pick-up time with your driver. I would suggest 90 minutes is fine if you just want to see the village itself, although if you want to linger longer there are paths following the lakeshore which afford lovely views.
Please see my separate page for a little more information about this traditional village.
If you only have time to visit one of the towns and villages on the shores of Lake Atitlàn, it should really be Santiago Atitlàn. Add to its beautiful setting nestled between two of the lake’s volcanoes, Toliman and Atitlàn; its selection of some of the best and most varied handicrafts in Guatemala; its fascinating history (both ancient and more recent); its lively market and its pretty church ... add to these the unique experience of a visit to the shrine of the Mayan idol (part saint, part devil) Maximón, and you have all the ingredients for a fascinating day trip.
There are three ways to get to Santiago Atitlàn: private boat hire, public ferry, or a tour. We chose the public ferry which is the cheapest option and takes about 30 minutes from Panajachel. As soon as you dock you’ll be met by local children offering to take you to see Maximón. It’s a good idea to accept their offer as he doesn’t have a permanent home but is hosted by a local family, moving house every few years. Of course they will expect a tip, but if you negotiate it won’t cost you too much and will mean a lot to them.
After you have spent some time with Maximón, made the expected offering of a cigarette or some money (you’ll be asked to pay extra if you want to take photos – which of course you will), you can head for the main street to explore the craft shops. As you climb up its gentle slope you’ll come to a turning which leads through the market area to the Parque Central and church. All of these deserve something of your time – the market for its local colour, the Parque Central for its memorial to the 1990 uprising / massacre (see http://www.santiagoatitlan.com/History/Uprising/uprisinge.html for an account of this), and the church for its fascinating blend of Mayan tradition with Catholicism.
Please see my separate page for more about our day out in Santiago Atitlàn
It's interesting to see that each of the villages around the lake seems to be inhabited by a different groups of people. San Antonio Palopo is home to the Kaqchikel, who until 1980 when a road was built, remained relatively isolated. As a result, many of their traditions still survive and you'll notice that the women wear these red striped huipiles, red headribbons, and blue skirts and the men dress in similar striped shirts and pants with a small woolen blanket called a rodillera around the hips.
There isn't much to do here. We just walked up to the main church, which is an all-white simple building with an amazing view high on a hill overlooking the lake. In front of the church, you'll find local women selling the traditional huipiles. While you can negotiate a little, I wouldn't recommending too hard of a bargain. This is a poorer village that doesn't see as many visitors as some of the others around the lake and it's nice to be able to contribute a little to the local economy.
At its end furthest from the lake, Calle Santander meets Calle Principal, and there’s an invisible but noticeable divide here between “gringo Pana” and “local Pana”. Although you’ll probably spend most of your time in the tourist areas, especially on or around the lake, it’s well worth taking a stroll into this other side of town, especially if you like to capture local life with your lens.
The square in front of the church is a good place in which to linger for a while. Take a seat on the low stone wall that surrounds it and watch the comings and goings. The church itself retains its original facade from the early years of the Spanish conquest, and is considered one of the gems of the colonial style in Guatemala. Unfortunately we only saw it when in shadow so I don’t have any good photos, though photo 5 will give you a glimpse.
The streets nearby have some colourful buildings and signs, and not far away is the local market, with more photo opportunities. So pick up your camera and go for a walk ...
Just up the hill from Panajachel is the town of Solola. If you don't have time to visit the famous market in Chichicastanengo, be sure to hop on the bus and go to Solola. You'll come through the town on the way down the mountain to Panajachel. At the main intersection in 'Pana' (at the far end of Calle Santander), you can get on the bus for Solola. The luggage attendant will get out and start shouting, "Sola, Sola!" and that's your cue to hop on. The market in Solola looked extremely vibrant and probably a tad less touristy than the one in Chichicastenango.
After getting off the boat in Santiago Atitlán, we were immediately approached by some young kids offering to take us to see Maximón (aka, San Simón), a saint or in some peoples' minds, a demon. I'm not 100% sure of his origins. Some say he was an ancient Mayan deity and some say he is the indigenous people's answer to the Catholic Saint Simon. Anyway, we decided to find him ourselves. We walked up the main street, lined with stalls selling local craft items and found ourselves in the main square. The town is the largest settlement of the Tz'utujil people who originally migrated from Mexico around 3000 years ago and it was cool to see the locals selling their wares. Eventually, we made our way through the dusty streets to a small little house and entered a tiny, dark room to visit Maximón. He's a wooden deity that is believed by locals to grant wishes. It's tradition to give him an offering of liquor, beer or cigars, but all we could muster was one of Ryan's cigarettes and for that, we were granted this photo.
When we first arrived in Panajachel, it felt a bit more Third World than Antigua. However, it's amazing how quickly you can become accustomed to a place. Upon arrival in San Pedro, Panajachel seemed pretty modern. San Pedro is a popular place for backpackers and hippies and, for that matter, backpacking hippies. We weren't there for more than five minutes before we met a guy from South Africa named Indie who we met along an off-the-beaten path little trail. He immediately offered me a smoke of hash, but that's not my thing so I declined. Indie was a cool guy who gave us the scoop about the atmosphere in San Pedro. He said that it's a great place to meet laid back travelers who are just looking to chill out and have a good time. He also told us that there are no cops in San Pedro which is the reason it's such a popular place for recreational drug use.
If you walk straight up the hill from the main dock, you'll be heading away from the bars and accommodations where most of the travelers congregate. The town itself has a few Spanish schools, a main church and is a great base for hiking and climbing the adjacent and eponymous volcano.
At the foot of Panajachel's streets leading to the lake are numerous small docks for tour boats taking people to the surrounding indigeous villages of Santiago Atitlan, San Pedro, and San Antonio Palopo. These lakeside villages have many textiles and other crafts available for sale. My traveling companions pose before the still water waiting for the "Xocomil" wind out of the south east to sweep them away!