After a few days spent being grossly romantic in Antigua, it was time for Michael and I to start traveling together in earnest. Our next move was to Lake Atitlan (or Lago de Atitlan). Lake Atitlan is a huge crater lake set between volcanoes in the western highlands of Guatemala. The lake is surrounded by dozens of small Mayan villages that are primarily connected by frequent boat shuttles. Lake Atitlan is a highly spiritual place for the Mayans and is widely believed to have a special “energy” about it.
Despite the dozens of overpriced tourist shuttles advertising comfy rides from Antigua to Atitlan, I convinced Michael to take his first Guatemalan chicken bus to get there. The bus would take us to the town of Panajachel (pronounced pan-uh-huh-shell). Panajachel is the Atitlan town that is most accessible by vehicle and therefore the simplest gateway to the other lakeside towns.
This proved to be an exceptionally interesting experience. After almost two months of navigating chicken buses alone, I was shocked to find that this major tourism route in Guatemala proved so difficult to navigate. The first hurdle was finding the bus itself. None of the dozens of tourist agencies in town seemed to know whether there even was a chicken bus from Antigua to Panajachel.
Of course, there was. After extensively consulting travel blogs and backpacker accounts, I determined that one bus left daily for Panajachel at 9:00AM. According to my (questionable) sources, it left from a supermarket on the western edge of town. There was supposedly a small bakery next to the supermarket that doubled as a travel agency where we could get more information.
At 8:30 on the morning we needed to leave, we searched out the bakery. We were dismayed to find that it was just that–a bakery. The owner seemed very surprised that we were asking about the bus and told us we could find it at the bus terminal a few blocks away.
We trudged over to the terminal, sweat beginning to drip down our backs in the Guatemalan heat. I grew anxious as the clock ticked closer to 9. I desperately needed this to work out so Michael would be willing to continue traveling by chicken bus for the remainder of our travels.
We arrived at the terminal and looked around at the dozens of luridly painted schoolbuses around us. Was one of these ours?
I asked a conducter where we could find the bus to Panajachel.
“No hay,” he said. There isn’t one.
My heart sank. The man starting speaking again, explaining that we could take his bus first and transfer. I knew it was possible, but without the direct bus we were looking at a six hour ride with two different transfers before we reached the lake. Not exactly the first chicken bus experience I had in mind when I convinced Michael this was good idea.
I knew there was a chance the man was lying to get us onto his bus, so I ignored his advice and moved on to the next conductor. He looked at me, confused, and then pointed me towards a street a hundred yards away.
“It will pass by there in ten minutes,” he said in Spanish.
“Gracias!” I yelled, dragging my increasingly hesitant (and Spanishless) boyfriend behind me. We jogged to the street he had pointed out.
I had new hope. We were a solid half mile from where the travel blog had directed me, but I had faith in the kindness of Guatemalans and believed the man was pointing me in the right direction. When we arrived at the corner he had indicated we found perhaps a dozen other people waiting for buses.
We dropped our bags and waited. Five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes. As the time ticked by, most of the Guatemalans there got on passing buses and took off. I asked a Mayan woman beside us if the bus to Panajachel passed by here; she looked at me in confusion and replied that she didn’t know.
Michael started to twitch with discomfort. “Maybe we should just go find a shuttle before it’s too late.” he said. I knew he was right but I was stubborn and determined to finish what I had started. I looked around for somebody else to ask.
At that moment a Guatemalan man approached us in reassuringly Western business attire. His neat gray suit stood out like a sore thumb in the crowd of colorfully clad Mayan women heading out to the local villages. I approached him and he smiled. “Yes, there is one. It should be here soon.”
We waited for ten more agonizing minutes. Just as I was beginning to think I had to secede and pay for a tourist shuttle, a bus pulled up next to us. It had “PANA” written in garish font on the front window.
“Yes!” I yelled, and I dragged Michael onto the bus. It was almost an hour after we had expected the bus to arrive, but it was here and we were fine.
At least so I thought.
The bus ride proved to be the most memorably horrifying bus ride of our time in Guatemala. The ride to Lake Atitlan from Antigua scales innumerable hills, valleys, and mountains. Once you leave Antigua, the road becomes a series of violently tight switchbacks that do not let up until you arrive in Panajachel three hours later.
Not that the bus driver seemed to notice. He took the tight turns at blood-curdling speeds, the back end of the bus whipping carelessly in the highland wind. We had made the mistake of sitting near the back and spent most of the ride holding on to the edges of our seat for dear life.
The experience was all the worse because I was sick. During Semana Santa in Antigua I had finally experienced the wrong side of street food. Although I was strong enough to be out and about, I had been unwell for nearly a week. For the past few days I had eaten little more than saltines and soup–all of which was now sloshing around in my stomach at death defying speeds.
We were amazed to watch the locals on the bus, who all seemed to know to sit near the front. There were people packed three to a seat in the first five rows while the back of the bus was nearly empty. The Mayan women and children in their colorful fabrics barely seemed to register the movement of the bus. They were laughing, talking, reading, eating, and generally behaving as if we weren’t about to meet our fiery ends as the rehabbed school bus we were all trapped in careened over the cliffs into the valleys below.
The Arrival (And Some Space Cowboys)
Two and a half hours and several near death experiences later, we arrived in Solola, the last town before Panajachel. I was just beginning to wonder if this was worth all the effort when I got my first enchanting glimpse of the Guatemalan highlands culture. It was market day in Solola and thousands of Mayans from nearby villages were in town to buy and sell goods.
The sight of the crowds was incredible. I imagine that if you were to watch a classic western film while on LSD it might look like this. The men wore leather vests, cowboy hats, and heeled boots. They hauled heavy coils of ropes and bags of onion over their shoulders. But this standard western apparel was paired with shirts and pants that wouldn’t look out of place at Burning Man. Swirling patterns of purple and green and blue, hot pink tassels and braids, shimmering silver strands of thread woven through it all.
It was mesmerizing.
Twenty minutes later we pulled into Panajachel. I jumped off the bus, breathing in the fresh air with a sigh of relief. My stomach felt like it wouldn’t settle for days but we had made it.
Panajachel isn’t much to see, but we weren’t there for long. A few minutes later we had eyes on the lake, misty and mysterious and far larger than I had expected. Two volcanoes seemed to rise dramatically out of the water on the other side. They were dominating figures and seemed to be keeping watch on all the little villages dotting the shores.
We hopped in the ramshackle motor boat that would take us to our first destination: La Iguana Perdida hostel in the steep hillside village of Santa Cruz la Laguna.
That evening we hiked up the hill to the town center and got dinner at the town’s culinary school. I wasn’t well enough to stomach most of the menu but I managed to eat a few incredible tamales while looking out over Lake Atitlan. It may have been a rough start, but I had a good feeling about this place.
Travel Tip: Looking for the chicken bus from Antigua to Panajachel? I promise it exists, though you may have to ask around to find it. We finally caught it as it passed through Calle de Recoletos on the western edge of the main bus terminal. I know there are other spots in town to pick it up as well.
However, if you’re unsure or you have even the slightest tendency towards car sickness, I recommend taking a tourist shuttle. I normally wouldn’t recommend them and I shutter to admit that they are ever better than local transportation. But in this case…they are.