Author Justin Goldman Photography Alexis Lambrou
DAY THREE | As i step out onto the courtyard balcony at Mansión de la Luz, the only clouds I see are a few white wisps skirting the peaks of Fuego and Acatenango. I feel a volcanic rumbling and look for more smoke from Fuego, but it’s only my stomach, so I cross the courtyard to the hotel restaurant, where I eagerly order another desayuno típico, topping it off with a cup of strong Guatemalan coffee.
After breakfast, I meet Norman in the lobby. He’s agreed to drive me the hour and a half to Lago de Atitlán, one of Central America’s greatest natural wonders. “The lake is my favorite place in Guatemala,” he tells me as we drive through a rocky mountain pass. Soon, a switchbacking road drops us into the lakeside town of Panajachel. Past the shops, restaurants and food carts of Calle Santander, we reach the Porta Hotel Del Lago. I drop my bags in my room and step out onto the balcony. Three huge volcanoes—Atitlán, Tolimán and San Pedro—rise from the flat blue surface of the lake, itself nearly a mile above sea level. I’ve got to get out on that water.
I walk down to the docks, where Norman has hired a motorboat to ferry us around the lake. We skip across the surface, curve around a fisherman, who waves at us from his small cayuco—the simple wooden canoe used by locals—and traverse a patch of improvised crab traps before pulling up to the docks of the village of San Juan la Laguna.
Up a steep incline from the docks, we find Galería de Arte Chiya y Creación Maya, run by local husband-and-wife artists Antonio Coché Mendoza and Angelina Quic. We step inside the gallery, its walls filled with vivid depictions of marketplaces painted from a bird’s-eye perspective. Quic and Coché have taught the technique to many students over the years.
“I got the idea 24 years ago, at Cerro de la Cruz, while looking down from above the town,” Quic says. “Then we took photos from a rooftop of children with baskets at a market, and started to make these paintings.”
Coché, a self-taught artist who has been painting since age 10, leads me into a back room, where he hangs his own works, canvases bursting with fruit, Rivera-esque calla lilies and Mayan villagers. “I paint the life of the peasants that you see in the coffee plantations here,” he tells me. “The streets, the lake. A little of everything.”
After buying a couple of paintings, Norman and I continue up the street. At the top of the hill, we reach Asociación Ixoq Ajkeem Mujer Tejedora, a cooperative of local women who hand-weave textiles in traditional Mayan fashion.
Co-op member Catarina Méndez demonstrates how the cloth is spun, dyed and woven. It’s about to get chilly again back in the States, so I pick up a marvelous new scarf.
We head back to the boat and zip over to another lakeside town, Santiago Atitlán. We slog up another hill to Restaurante el Pescador, where we sit on a second-floor deck and watch the locals below: women in Mayan garb leading children by the hand, young men standing in the beds of moving pickup trucks. I order a fried whole mojarra fish, accompanied by rice, vegetables and a mountain of chips and guacamole.
After lunch, we walk through the plaza, stopping at the Iglesia Parroquial Santiago Apóstol. The plaques here offer a sobering reminder of Guatemala’s turbulent past. The civil war was particularly brutal in this region, and the pastor, Father Stanley Rother, allowed many families to sleep in the church for safety. A death squad killed him for his kindness, but the grateful townspeople buried his heart in the church.
The late-afternoon wind is picking up and the lake is getting choppy, so we head for the boat and back to Panajachel. After docking, we follow a row of lakeside eateries and settle on the deck at Restaurante Los Cayucos, hanging out over the water, where we enjoy a couple of large Gallos and a platter of boquitas, tasty bites of tortilla, guacamole, steak and salsa. The waves are really rocking now, and Norman recalls a Mayan legend that explains why.
“A princess and a Tz’utujil man from the other side of the lake fell in love, but the Spaniards wanted the girl,” he tells me. “So they tied a stone around the man’s neck and threw him in the water. And then the princess took a cayuco, and she jumped in the water. And so every day, between 4 and 5 o’clock in the afternoon, people believe that the princess and the man dance together.”
We knock back a few more Gallos, watching the waves dance, and then take a walk up Santander, where the taco carts are still doing a brisk trade. We cut left onto Calle Principal and up to Bar Circus, where we find a small dog sitting on the sidewalk out front. “We call that a cadejo,” Norman says. “He’s good luck. If you see a cadejo in front of a bar, he’ll help you get home when you’re drunk.”
Our canine guardian follows us inside and sets up camp under our table, waiting for handouts. When a couple of guitar players take the stage, he jumps up and lies at their feet. The musicians take Latin rock requests from the crowd, and we split a pizza topped with salami, mushrooms and olives, with more than enough margaritas. As I drain the last of the tequila from my glass, the dog wanders back over, and I scratch his ear. “What do you think, cadejo? Time to go home?”
As if in answer, he springs up and dashes for the door. On to the next adventure.
Hemispheres managing editor Justin Goldman needs a full-time cadejo for all of his travels.