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Panajachel is on the edge of Lago Atitlan, a beautiful mountain lake bordered by volcanoes along its shores. Nicknamed Gringotenango because of the presence of so many tourists, travelers, and expats, Pana is filled with young and old hippies, dropouts, and drifters.

The main street is lined with colorful craft stalls, and wandering indigenia vendors who are both streetwise and persistent. There are a lot of vegetarian and open air restaurants, new age shops, and even a DHL overnight express shipping store. Pana is an odd blend of funky counter culture commerce and upscale tourist ambiance.

>>> A volcano, seen from the village of Panajachel, dwarfs local fishing boats on Lago Atitlan in the Solala district of Guatemala. A trio of 3000 meter volcanoes, one of which is still active, rise above the lake that surrounds them.

<<< The ornate fountain in the Parque Central of Antigua, once the grandest colonial city in Central America. Surrounded by three massive volcanoes, the former capital of Guatemala was twice destroyed by earthquakes in the 1700's.

The busy plaza in Antigua is filled with indigenias, local ladinos and tourists from Guatemala City, North America and Europe. Language school students fill the town along with the crush of tourists and travelers.

Looming over the town, Volcan de Agua commands your focus as you turn a street corner and look up. Two more volcanoes, one with a plume of snake-like smoke, rise in the distance towering beyond the market. The impact of the volcanoes and reminders of earthquakes haunt Antigua. Destroyed cathedrals with crumbled walls, vanished rooftops, gutted interiors, and overgrown weeds give the town a ghostly ambiance contrasted against its colorful vibrancy. Haunting and empty, yet filled with shops and visitors. Crumbling and abandoned ruins populated with street vendors and tourists.

Small Mayan women, garbed in multi-colored skirts and blouses, walk with bushel sized baskets balanced on their heads filled to the brim with produce, crafts, or clothing. They carry their infants in sling-styled pouches or suspended from their backs. Dressed in brightly colored clothes and ornately patterned embroidery on their traditional huipiles the indigenias seem unintimidated by the gringos. Their grace and dignity combines with their dark hair and beauty, their easy laughter and coy looks.

>>> These brightly painted former U.S. school buses have been retrofitted and recycled for daily use as public transportation throughout Guatemala.

Next to the crowded public market, which is a labyrinth of shops and vendors, buses come and go in the massive dirt lot that serves as the bus station. The old U.S. school buses, some painted in bright primary colors, others still institutional yellow, are filled with passengers and stacked with luggage and goods on the roof.

The buses are an amazing experience. People crowd the narrow aisles that run between small seats which hold three or more passengers. On many occasions I had difficulty just getting out of my seat, moving past the people in the aisles and making my way to the bus door.

Each bus driver has a helper who collects fares by deftly moving through the mass of humanity. I've observed them crawl out the window in the front of the bus as it races along. They crawl along the side using the roof rack as a handhold and the window frames as footholds, as they make their way to the back door and reenter the bus.

<<< A view of Temple II or Temple of the Masks, in the Great Plaza of Tikal. Located in the dense tropical jungles of the remote Peten region of northern Guatemala, Tikal was once one of the largest Mayan cities in the Americas.

I boarded a small twenty passenger plane at the Guatemala national airport to Santa Elena in the Peten jungle. The one hour flight saved me a 15 hour bus ride over some of the roughest roads in the country.

An airport collectivo, a small passenger van, carried me across the narrow dirt and rock causeway that connected Santa Elena to the nearby island village of Flores. I checked into the Hotel Tucan, a lazy little restaurant and hotel fronting Lake Peten.

I caught another shuttle to the National Park in Tikal. There I spent five hours wandering around the ruins of Tikal, climbing the pyramids and watching the tropical birds and monkeys in the tree canopy.

Crowds of people wandered around the ruins in the blazing tropical sun. I slipped away from the crowds after seeing the major sites and explored the less traveled jungle paths and sites. For a short while I shared a remote set of ruins with a vulture who remained on the top steps until other tourists arrived and it flew off.

More about Mexico:


Lonely Planet Guatemala Travel Guide
Lonely Planet Ruta Maya Guide
Lonely Planet Central America Guide
I, Rigoberta Menchu - Rigoberta Menchu
Time Among The Maya - Ronald Wright


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Photography by Paul Picus. Copy by Paul Picus. Copyright © 1996-2009 Paul Picus

Copyright © 1996-2009 Gar Benedick, All Rights Reserved.