Despite all the wink-wink-nudge-nudge jokes we made about tacking a fourth week onto our time in San Pedro La Laguna, we finally packed up moved on to Antigua. While we easily could have spent the rest of our
trip lives there, we didn’t want to deny ourselves what lies ahead in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. That said, we are already scheming an early retirement plan that will take us back to Atitlán’s beautiful shores long term.
As mentioned in our previous post, San Pedro generated a lot of negative press from other travelers we met around the lake. Our arrival was certainly loud, chaotic, and touristy, but we quickly discovered there is so much more to San Pedro than its main commercial strip along the dock. In fact, the further we got from the dock, the friendlier and more charming this pueblo seemed to become.
The amount of people who stopped to help us locate our Airbnb was unreal, and moreso on account of everyone’s sincerity. As soon as a woman we asked for directions recognized the picture of our host, she welcomed us into her yard, called him from her phone, and even escorted us to meet him. It didn’t take long for us to realize that this kind and helpful attitude is the norm in San Pedro.
Settling into our Airbnb, we couldn’t help but celebrate the lovely outdoor garden, two sweet kitties to keep us company, and the fact that we had our own private bathroom—a true privilege while traveling long term. The best part was undoubtedly our location, though. In the shadow of lush Volcán San Pedro and near the shore of the lake, we were housed in what would later be described by the owner of our favorite local bar as ‘the adult neighborhood of San Pedro.’
San Pedro is similar to San Marcos in that it’s got a network of footpaths that lead through bars, restaurants, shops, and residences. Unlike San Marcos, however, the walking maze of San Pedro has a much more organic and neighborhood feel to it. Either way, it’s nice to catch a break from all the tuk tuks speeding around with zero regard for pedestrians.
Expats, visitors, and Guatemalans are much more integrated in San Pedro, which gives the pueblo a lively and multicultural feel. We met people from all over the world, several of which said they came to visit San Pedro and never got around to leaving. After spending three weeks there, we can understand how one might come for a week and stay for a decade.
Hiking Volcán San Pedro & Nariz Maya
The main thing that brought us to San Pedro was the opportunity to hike its namesake volcano. Taking advantage of a relatively clear day, we headed out early in search of five miles and 4,000 ft. of elevation gain. That’s to say, this hike was no walk in the park.
We trekked through fields of coffee and rows of maize, along a well-maintained trail shaded by jungle canopy and wild avocado trees. Between glimpses of San Pedro below us, bright tropical flowers and the songs of various birds served as a nice distraction from the burning sensation in our tired legs. And burn they did for the next couple of days.
Aside from the stunning view from the summit, we were also treated to some childish play along the way. At various viewpoints peppering the side of the volcano, there are rope and tire swings that let you take your mind off your aching body while also giving you an adrenaline fix. When in San Pedro, right?
Other than the beast that is Volcán San Pedro, there are a number of stunning hikes in the area. The next most challenging ascent is to a place at the top of the lake basin called Mayan Face. After a full recovery from the volcano, we opted to hike to the nose.
Nariz Maya is not as long of a hike as the volcano, but we would venture to say it was more challenging. Much of the trail doesn’t feel like a trail at all, as you are often using your hands to climb up steep rock steps and boulders.
What’s more is that, once you get near the top, there’s what our guide from Tik’al jokingly referred to as a Mayan elevator. Don’t be fooled by the moniker, though—this elevator is no more an elevator than Whohn Brose are professional travel bloggers. The Mayan elevator is a set of very steep and high wooden stairs, which is just what you want to see after a grueling hour and fifteen minutes of upward walking and climbing.
Mayan Kitchen & Atitlán Women Weavers Co-op
All along Atitlán are various Mayan groups, each with their own distinct language and culture. In addition to being a multicultural haven for expats, San Pedro is home to a primarily Tz’utujil Mayan population. They are incredibly welcoming to outsiders and are happy to share their traditions.
One of our most interesting cultural experiences was with a woman named Anita who runs both the Mayan Kitchen and Atitlán Women Weavers Co-op. The day after we hiked the volcano, we dragged our aching bodies to the dock where we met Anita and five other people before heading to the local market.
Once we arrived to San Pedro’s colorful and bustling market, we fought upstream through crowds of people to meet local producers and purchase ingredients for a traditional Mayan meal. We even got to try our hand at Guatemala’s signature hand-pressed tortilla technique! John dropped his dough partway through and had to get another, though.
With a full bag of produce and new information about some vegetables we had previously been unable to identify, we headed back to Anita’s house to get started on our mid-day feast. We knew it wouldn’t be as simple as whipping up some rice and vegetables, but we had no idea just how involved it would be.
The meal we made—which Whohn Brose actually got to choose because of our place in line for cooking class signups—was vegetarian tamales, egg-battered güisquil squash, fried potato cakes, radish salad, and guacamole. We washed it down with homemade hibiscus tea and followed it up with cocoa-stuffed fried banana dumplings. The long and involved preparation process was well worth it, and we picked up some cool ideas along the way.
After lunch with our bellies stuffed, we waddled downstairs to the Atitlán Women Weavers Co-op. What initially began as five women making textile goods with the distinct styles found around the lake is now 25 women strong. Everything is made by hand and each woman is compensated fairly, thereby empowering them economically in ways otherwise not available to them. The majority of the women who work for the co-op are single mothers, which makes visitor contributions all the more impactful.
Whohn Brose didn’t come to Central America to party, but one of the most memorable highlights of our time in San Pedro was undoubtedly a neighborhood bar called El Barrio. Maybe it’s the tinge of familiarity that a neighborhood bar community can bring (shoutout to The Standard!), or perhaps it was our settling into a routine. Whatever it was, we were both ready to quit our futures in the U.S. in favor of the bartender’s life in San Pedro.
El Barrio was the bar we came to on our very first night in San Pedro, and it was also the bar we were at when we made the decision—on two separate occasions—to extend our trip for another week at a time. Of course, it would have felt wrong to spend our last night in San Pedro anywhere else.
We weren’t the only ones to see something special in El Barrio. On any given day, the pub was peppered with regulars we came to know over the course of our three weeks. Expats and locals alike had found something to appreciate, and it was nice to see friendly faces whenever we popped in for a couple of Gallos to accompany the delicious tuna melts they serve.
Aside from the community feel, El Barrio has plenty of things to keep you interested. With multiple TVs showing sports, we watched almost all of the NHL and NBA playoff games there. And when we weren’t watching sports, we were improving upon our darts game. There’s also a four-course brunch for 40Q every Sunday, which will leave you uncomfortably full for roughly $5.50 USD.
Additionally, El Barrio hosts casual poker games at 2 p.m. for a 20Q buy-in (less than $3 USD) three days per week. This is where Whit learned the game of poker and subsequently became a card shark, and also where John cleaned house and paid for the majority of our bar tabs. The best part was sharing a table with a diverse group of people ranging in age, nationality, and interests for upwards of three hours every few days. By the end of our three weeks in San Pedro, we felt like honorary El Barrio regulars.
Looking back, it almost feels like it’s hard to explain in a way that does it justice, just what exactly made San Pedro La Laguna feel like a place we could call home. Maybe it was the sheer beauty of seeing the volcano brushing against the tranquil lakeshore every day, or the warm smiles and friendly greetings of “buenos dias” you’d encounter from nearly every person you passed in the street.
Perhaps it was the chaos of the market and the abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables for purchase. Or the cheerful woman at the lavanderia we frequented who called us her amigos and remembered our names. Maybe it was running into Esmerelda, the teacher-in-training who observed and helped with each of our Spanish lessons in San Marcos, and meeting her adorable mother and practicing our Spanish with them.
It might have been the running trail that offered stunning views of the glassy lake and green landscape, or reading in the hammocks that hung in our apartment’s garden courtyard. The sweet pregnant cat we got to spoil definitely deserves some credit, as does the laidback tienda employee who would occasionally give us a discount on Chicky cookies on our way home from El Barrio.
Truthfully, it was all of the above and then some. Whatever kool-aid San Pedro La Laguna is slinging, we are 100 percent sold. Everything we love about this magical lake town made it hard to leave, but we found comfort in knowing that it won’t be goodbye forever. For now, however, it’s off to our last stop in this amazing country we’ve grown to adore: Antigua, Guatemala!