I am now more than half way through my month in San Pedro on Lake Atitlan.
San Pedro is a typical backpacker destination. Every other building is a hotel, a restaurant, a laundry, a tour desk or a Spanish school. Sometimes, all five combined.
Before I started ‘planning’ this trip (‘planning’ in inverted commas, since I don’t really plan anything too much) I thought of Lake Atitlan as one single destination, since that is how it is often portrayed in guides. Actually San Pedro is just one of many towns situated on the banks of the lake, with all the towns offering a slightly different experience of the area.
Things to do in San Pedro: Learning Spanish
I picked San Pedro specifically because I wanted to study at the Spanish school (it was recommended to me by someone I met in Ireland). There are, it turns out, a lot of Spanish schools in San Pedro, although many of them are nothing more than someone who’s put a hand-written sign outside their door (not that I’m saying this necessarily means they are no good).
I also chose to stay in San Pedro because I was afraid some of the other towns would be a little too isolated for me on my own (I like peace and tranquility but I wanted to feel safe in my ‘home’ and have some basic amenities nearby).
Anyway, I signed up for a month of Spanish classes in San Pedro, along with a homestay, staying with a local family. The homestay includes all meals (except for Sundays) and I have a small room with a bathroom (I pay an extra £15 a week for the bathroom; I am such a princess these days).
So far it has all been working out pretty well.
In the morning I have three hours of Spanish class (I have the attention span of a blowfly, so three hours a day is enough for me), then I go home for lunch and then I spend the afternoon either exploring more of the local area or locked away working on whichever project I have on my mind at that particular moment.
Learning Spanish in Guatemala is good value. In some ways it seems an odd choice, since many of the locals are speaking Spanish as a second language themselves, however often this means they speak a little slower and it makes the language more assessable. A false sense of security maybe, who knows? We’ll see next time I am back in Spain trying to communicate with the locals in Andalusia.
Other stuff to do in San Pedro
San Pedro itself is, like I said, a backpacker destination full of the usual tourist infrastructure. It is slightly hippie, but not too much. This means it has a few alternative types selling jewellery, a health food store, some vegan/vegetarian restaurants and some places to buy your cosmic convergence tickets. It is probably about the right level of hippie for me, however nearby San Marcos is the place to go if you want the complete hippie immersion experience (more of that in next post).
San Pedro is a town of two parts; it appears to be just a small collection of shops and restaurants grouped around the lake, but then if you climb the steep hill for around ten minutes you get to a separate part of the town, which is the local part of San Pedro. Here you will find the busy municipal market and some local shops.
Eating in San Pedro
There are enough restaurants, cafes and coffee houses to satisfy most tastes and budgets. Since I get most of my meals provided I haven’t got any particular recommendations for where to eat. Guatemalan food is not too different from Mexican (but don’t say that out loud in front of a Guatemalan). Corn tortillas are everywhere (you can’t go into a market without hearing the clap/slap/clap of tortilla-making), along with chilli and beans. However in San Pedro pizza and other ‘American-style’ food is in abundance too, for those days when you just need something comforting and familiar. A lot of the restaurants in the touristy part of town are owned by non-Guatemalans.
Swimming in San Pedro
The lake is warm enough to swim in. Even though it is classed as an Alpine Lake the surrounding volcanoes keep it warm. The main problem with swimming is finding somewhere clean enough; it helps if you are not too fussy. I have seen people swimming around San Pedro but there are other locations around the lake that are more suitable for swimming, such as San Marcos.
Shopping in San Pedro
There are enough shops to cover basic necessities only; there are ‘supermarkets’ (aka corner shops) and pharmacies. For souvenirs there are shops selling art work, textiles and several street-side vendors with an assortment of jewellery and such. You can get yourself tattooed, get your hair braided, get massaged or watch the sun rise from a hot tub overlooking the lake. There are a couple of ATMs.
Learning to weave at a weaving co-op
As well as learning Spanish you can also take classes in cooking or in weaving, if either of those interest you. I have taken a weaving course with one of the local women’s co-ops. They show you how to operate a backstrap loom, then you pick your colours and make yourself a scarf. It is harder than it looks and requires a lot of left-arm strength. It took me around seven hours to complete my scarf, and a chunk was done by the woman when I wasn’t there. I suspect she was afraid I might never get it finished otherwise.
The main thing I have been doing is catching the boat around the lake to other lakeside towns, trying to find if there is somewhere else I would prefer to stay (more of that in a later post).
Safety around San Pedro
It is often not safe to walk between the towns because of the thieves and bandits who hang out on the lonely roads; certainly it is not a good idea to hike on your own. Some of the roads are safe, but many not so much, and the information changes frequently. Any road where you don’t see other people around should make you think twice about using it.
Guatemala is probably not as dangerous as its reputation, as long as you take the usual precautions. However it is worth remembering that it didn’t get to number 5 in the ‘world’s highest murder rate’ chart without a few people getting murdered. Robberies are often at gunpoint and violence is sometimes used for no real reason. Best to avoid any likely confrontation in the first place.