There’s a phrase in Spanish, caer mal, which essentially is a way of saying you don’t like someone; for example, Me cae mal tu amiga means “I don’t like your friend.” The phrase has a few other uses, typically for describing how food sits with you or impressions of news or announcements. However, I find the literal translation and general disagreeable notion a good one for describing travel experiences: to fall badly.
And that’s how I feel about Lake Atitlan. It was the first place I studied Spanish in Guatemala and a region that came highly recommended by every single person I talked to, but it fell badly on me. I won’t go as far as to add it to the list of places I haven’t liked, because I think it had the potential to be wonderful, but for the time I was there, it fell quite short of my expectations.
No question about it, Lake Atitlan is a natural beauty, a place that ordinarily I’d expect to fall in love with. If I had visited it differently, spending my days hiking and nights camping, I think I may have loved the region. Instead, I spent roughly six hours a day at my Spanish school, leaving little time for enjoying the great outdoors.
My base on the lake was San Pedro La Laguna, a town that’s host to a dozen Spanish schools, party hostels (free tequila with breakfast at one, just to prove my point), and what seemed like more tourists than locals. Up the hill, where I lived with my Mayan host family, was the “real” center of things and unlike other towns in Guatemala, there’s a distinct segregation between Gringo-town and local town, with little intermingling.
Since I didn’t like the tourist side of town because it was inauthentic, you may assume I liked the Mayan side of things. I respect the Mayan culture, even more so after living with an incredibly generous host family. But despite the slow pace of life, it still somehow felt busy. Roosters crow long before daylight, women make fresh tortillas at all hours, and chicken buses and motorbikes hustle down the road. Street dogs are everywhere and it’s easy to understand how they end up starving when even the children of the family are malnourished. The disparity between American and Mayan cultures and mentalities are huge, and unfortunately, many of the locals weren’t interested in a cultural exchange.
Since I didn’t like San Pedro, I left. Every afternoon, for the few free hours of daylight I had between classes and evening activities at the school, I visited some of the other towns on the lake: Panajachel, San Marcos, San Juan, San Jorge, and nearby Solola in the mountains. I never made it to Santiago Atitlan, but based on what I saw at all the other towns, I’m not sure it would have captured my heart either.
Luckily, Guatemala is a varied country and even though Lake Atitlan fell badly on me, there have been a lot of other places that I’ve truly enjoyed. I’ll be transiting through Lake Atitlan again at the end of my stay in Guatemala, and I’ve yet to decide if it’s worth a second (quick) visit. My inclination is to spend the time somewhere I know I love, to end on a high note, but so many people love the lake that it does make me wonder if I missed something wonderful.
Edit: I did in fact return to Lake Atitlan about 7 weeks later, to San Juan. It was a very different village, but still not my style. I’ll probably never return to Lake Atitlan again.
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What places have “fallen badly” on you? Let me know what you think in the comments!
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