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Underwater Lakefront

November 2nd, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Our day of wandering through San Salvador was pleasant but a little tiring.  After a while Central American countries start to blend together, appearing to be as self-similar as, say, adjoining states in the US’s midwest1.  So we sought out the distinguishing traits as much as possible.  We found two.

The first was pupusas, the delightful and ubiquitous street food fare cooked up on hot grills by El Salvadorean ladies all over the place.  Pupusas are like corn tortillas but stuffed with thinks like beans and cheese or pork and potato, made delicious by pork fat and a spicy cabbage/pepper salsa served in a small plastic baggie tied off with an impossible knot.  Three for a buck, take your pick mix-and-match style.  I’ll have dos con puerco for myself and una vegetariano for the lady: a perfect snack for Tracy and I.

The salsa is so good for spicing up the hearty flavors, and it was only on the bus ride out of the country that I worked out that you have to just bite open a tip of the little baggie in which it comes, and suck out a little with each bite of the pupusa.  That might seem a little savage but, yum!  No regrets: my mama dun raised me right with table manners, but this is a matter of street food rules.

The second distinguishing trait we experienced in our brief 24 hours was cab fares.  Against the recent experience of Nicaragua, where 10 Cordobas ($0.40US) would get you anywhere in Granada, we thought for sure we were being taken for a ride when we were told $5 for a two mile ride.  My offer for $2 was met with snickering, and we decided to go without.  Later that night we sought a cab for a ride back from the grocery store, not even a mile up the street.  $4.  “How about $2?”  Turns out I was bargaining in vain with the very same cab driver as before, and he called us out on it.

It was a fun exchange: I felt a little like an ass playing the role of gringo expecting the world for cheap, but in my defense explained how cheap cabs were in Nicaragua, and how often we get told rates that are 2, 3, even 4x what they should be for locals.  He countered to explain that in Nicaragua cab drivers are subsidized (we’d heard as much), and that in El Salvador they weren’t allowed to do collectivo fares (i.e. pick up others as you go and collect multiple fares on the same trip–strictly forbidden here, as it is in the US2).  And THAT was why, yes, fares actually are that high.

Then the woman he was waiting for came out of the grocery store.  The cab driver wished us good luck (in only a slightly sardonic/dickish way) and was off.  The pendulum had swung hard from the opposite end of being a dumb gringo who blindly accepts being ripped off.  As penance we walked home, and were no worse for the walk and having gotten a dose of cab pricing reality.

The next morning we got up early to continue on our bus way to Guatemala.  From the station in Guatemala city we hopped right into a shuttle bound for Antigua, and after chatting with a few fellow travelers including the most angsty Australian I’d ever met3 we were back for the first time this trip to familiar territory.

Ah, Antigua.  This, plus San Marcos on Lake Atitlan (which we were soon bound for), was the site of our first trip together three and a half years earlier, a trip which cemented for both of us a lot of the mutual sentiment that “yep, you’re the one for me”.  So this part of the world holds for us a certain nostalgia, which, for want of not boring the reader, I shall herein thoroughly understate.

Nevertheless the cobblestone streets still hold a certain charm, and after checking into a place for the night and dropping our bags, my first order of business was to get a fully de-husked and ready to drink/eat coconut.  I procured this snack at the very stall in Antigua’s market that originally sparked my deep and quirky love for the hard-to-open fruit back in early ’09.

It was Halloween night that night, and though I would love to tell you we partied like 20-somethings at one of the many venues putting up festive decorations that afternoon, we were too knackered by days of bus travel to even get excited about such a thing.

Oh, that and we’re not 20-somethings4.

One of the restaurants we ducked into for dinner amid the evening drizzle attempted to card us to get in, which told our travel weary selves that this was not the place for us to dine.  We settled on the Casa de Sopa, which offered a much more varied and filling meal than you would expect from a house of soup.

The next day we were off, a two-and-a-half our shuttle would take us to Lake Atitlan, which we’ve been looking forward to returning to for some time.

Now then, let it be stated again for the record that expectations are indeed a curious and precarious thing.  Maintaining expectations (especially high ones) of anything which you can’t yourself control is an all-too-effective recipe for upset and disappointment.  And even if something/someone should live up to those expectations, well, you expected as much–which of course leaves precious little room for surprise and delight over the favorable outcome.

That all said, Tracy and I could scarcely help expecting that Lake Atitlan would be awesome.  With its temperate weather, cheap and delicious produce, views dotted by 3 volcanoes, fun little villages and much more we had ample reasons to expect a delightful return.

The result of our tempting expectation fate?  I’m happy to report that our presence on Lake Atitlan delivered and delighted once again, and was different enough for us to appreciate it every bit as much this time around.

So we overall got lucky, in the expectations department.

We began with a typical Guatemalan breakfast in Panajachel, featuring eggs, toast, sweet fried plantains, fresh farmer’s cheese, local coffee, and a sort of re-fried black beans infused with garlic and cilantro that is so very tasty.  From there we made our way to the dock to catch a boat to our place on the lake.

Dockside, our quoted rate of 25Q per person for the ride quickly dropped to the proper 20Q as we began to walk away, us knowing full well that 20Q (just under $3US) is the already-inflated price for outsiders.  I’ve no complaints about the inflated price, it’s just good to take a stand against even further distorted pricing.

Our 40-minute ride in the motorboat was a scenic purview of the lake and its many coastal villages, and before we knew it the driver announced “Pasaj Cap!” and it was our cue to gather up our heavy bags and step up on out onto the private dock.  From there we walked up the equivalent of some 6 flights of outdoor stone stairs, and were led by 3 rather large German shepherds to our host, Pierre.

Pierre is the owner and builder of the Pasajcap, a property of about 7 apartments just outside of San Marcos, and Tracy and I first made his acquaintance when we first researched Guatemala back in ’09.  We were gun shy back then about paying a $500 deposit to rent an apartment we’d found online in a country we’d never been to, but experience (past and now present!) revealed that the paradise property was in fact real.

We were quickly shown to our place, complete with a frontage of sliding windows measuring about 6 feet tall by 20 feet wide and with spectacular views just as advertised (here’s the shot Tracy took of it).  As much as we would have loved to savor the space, our first order of business was to walk into town and pick up some produce and other foodstuffs for our pantry and fridge.

San Marcos had changed only in a few ways, mostly trivial save one: the lakefront areas that we remembered from 3 years prior, down at the main dock and other places, were now quite thoroughly underwater.  It turns out that the water level has risen some 12 feet since our last visit.  The connecting lakefront path, where I several mornings did rounds of ninja training (my own label for a jog with intermittent breaks to do situps on reasonably flat patches of dirt), no longer exists.

Theories vary, but the general consensus seems to be that an earthquake a few years ago closed up a ravine at the bottom of the lake that had been serving as drainage to keep the level as it was.  Once closed, the equilibrium of rainfall and evaporation has been working to push it back towards the level it was at back in the 70’s.  Back then, it turns out, the lake was much higher BUT an earthquake then opened the ravine up in the first place, causing the level to drop as low as Tracy and I were used to.

The natives all know this history, which is why, it is suggested, their houses are nowhere near the lakefront–only the gringos are so enamored of lakefront/unaware of its precarious situation.

Our then and now familiarity with the lakefront essentially makes us privy to snapshots of geological history in the making.  Though the change breaks my heart a bit, how nice it is to be back!


  1. To illustrate: if I showed you 100 photographs, 50 from Illinois, 50 from Indiana, do you think you could correctly label which was which better than 50/50 odds?
  2. Now that I’ve experienced the lively fun and fare-efficient joy that is collectivo-style cab driving, I wish it weren’t forbidden here or in the states.  Makes me wonder why someone saw it fit to actually pass a law forbidding it, rather than let cabs and/or the people that hire them dictate which style a given cab ride would be.
  3. In my total experience of world travel thus far Aussies have been remarkably consistent in their chill and above-average agreeable demeanor, so as a compliment to the whole of Australia let me just say that this fellow, well, rather stood out.
  4. I mean technically Tracy is for another 7 months, but mentally sometimes I think we rate and register around mid 40’s.  This means we suck at partying, but we do generally make good company for dinner parties.
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