Two people exploring the world, seeking adventure & unique experiences.
The first thing we did in Panajachel was organize Spanish school. We visited the two Spanish school and after meeting the directors of both schools and viewing the schools we decided on Jabel Tinamet. Jabel Tinamet had a beautiful garden, which was where the lessons were based and had an amazing library and study area we could use at any time.
The director Gregory also organized a fully furnished apartment for us near the school in Posada del Bosque (US$225/Q1800 for the whole month for the two of us) – it was basic but cheap so was perfect for us.
Now that we had an apartment, the basic week for us was school in the morning and work/activity in the afternoon. Toby was not working so he could focus on studying while I volunteered at Tradiciones Mayas (which is a non profit organization that exports Mayan textiles and provides work and education to village women in the community). Rodora helped with their book keeping and developed the budget (which is essential for future grants).
We had a private class together which was great because we were at the same level (absolute beginners). Our teacher Jose was absolutely fantastic as he liked joking around with us making learning Spanish more fun. We attended school for 4 hours per day, consisting of a formal grammar lesson than conversational Spanish. This was more than enough as our minds started wandering off after three hours.
Humming bird in school
As we’ve mentioned a few times now; we’re going to Spanish School in Panajachel. I got quite lucky last Friday with a special guest making a short appearance. The main school classroom is on the top floor with a semi enclosed patio area. The special guest was a little humming bird that was trying to find a way out. The glass window it was trying to get through had it deeply confused and it wasn’t sure what it was meant to do get out. As you can see in the photo below; the bird just need to get out of the open louvered window to the left but was trying to go through the pane of glass on the right. Not to forget to mention the other half of the large patio area has no windows at all. Anyway, the bird was happy to sit on top of my fingers for about 30 seconds to pose for a photo before I directed it out of the window to continue its journey.
The school also organized afternoon activities at cost, to ensure you were fully immersed in the language.
Our first excursion was to San Antonio (with the school admin- Astrid). Astrid would only speak Spanish which is great as it forced us to focus on improving our speaking. We visited a textile/weaving place and got to dress like local Mayans. Yes, everyone does really dress like this here – the females (not the males). Every village has its own special design/colour so it sometimes looks like everyone is wearing uniform.
Both of us in traditional clothing of the region
Next, we visited a pottery place. It’s amazing to see that everything was done by hand and how much pride and detail was put into their work. After this we took the local transport home; a pick up truck. Yes we sat in the back of a pickup truck with the locals, lots of fun.
On one of our days off our school organized a boat tour around the lake to familiarize ourselves with the area. We visited San Marcos, San Pedro la Laguna, San Juan la Laguna and Santiago Atitlan with 1 hour per village. These villages are a lot smaller than Panajachel except for Santiago Atitlan which is slightly bigger, but all of them are absolutely beautiful. The views were magnificent along the water and we definitely plan to visit San Pedro to climb the volcanoes. The lake was actually formed by a major volcano erupting and imploding thousands of years ago. In San Juan we also visited a coffee plantation via tuk tuk and it was amazing that we understood a lot of what our driver said in Spanish during the tour. We were also told that water levels of the lake were the highest they had been in 50 years. There was lots of evidence of this as we saw many submerged houses on the lake.
Gondinez to San Antonio
We went on a hike to see some of the smaller surrounding villages Godinez and San Antonio. The markets are never short of surprises; with fresh seafood sitting out in plentiful amounts as seen in the below picture.
The walk started in Godinez and we followed a still regularly used walking path downhill to San Antonio. It is used mostly by inhabitants of San Antonio to take their goods to be sold in Godinez. The walk is about 3.5km and around 1 hour with photo stops and a full mix of flat paved road for cars to extra narrow rock paths and staircases hand built by locals. The road was surrounded mostly by farmland with onion and corn seemingly the most common of crops amongst many avocado trees. One of many interesting points was a very old mud house as seen in the below picture.
There were many beautiful photo opportunities along the way including a wide variety of wild flowers and scenic overlooks. The lake area has a reputation for being unsafe to walk around in without a guide. Personally, this is one you can do by yourself without any fear or danger.
Every week we were offered a cooking class in Spanish, and of course since we both love food and needed to practise Spanish so we attended every week.
How to make Chuchitos and Dobladas.
I’m not a cooking expert by any stretch. I can give you photos along with some online research and my opinion. However, I think Rodora might give more in-depth actual cooking knowledge here. The concept of these classes is to sample the local food and understand what it is and how it is prepared. In each case of the classes we have been to, we have need a blender to prepare a homemade salsa. This is something we don’t have in our apartment here, so it makes it pretty tough to try and re-create this ourselves.
This week’s class was Chuchitos (“small dogs”) and are a very typical kind of Guatemalan tamale made using the same corn as a regular tamale but they are smaller, have a much firmer consistency and are wrapped in a ‘tuzas’ (dried corn husks) instead of plantain leaves. Chuchitos are often accompanied by a simple tomato salsa. Chuchitos are a very common and are commonly served at luncheons, dinners and celebrations. We had seen them at the market on the Godinez hike and tried them the day before class from the local market before we knew we had the class. Personally I think we both preferred the texture and taste of the prior week’s Tomale. Very similar though. Local cost seems to be around Q3-Q5 depending on exactly what meat is put into it along with the overall size.
Dobladas means folded and that’s just what you do with the tortillas. You create a simple corn tortilla and in our case filled it with as simple mashed potato mix. You fold it over onto itself and seal the edges before shallow frying for a few minutes in a frying pan. Quite tasty and simple to do.
Other items we learnt how to make during our weekly cooking classes include tortillas, Pepian and tamales. It was allot of fun making tortillas from scratch, althoughToby’s were more rectangular then circle. Pepian is like a non spicy chicken curry. Tamales is rice (special porridge like) with chicken and salsa sauce wrapped up in a large leaf (like a banana leaf) like a present. Everything is made from scratch including the sauce. With the sauce we browned pumpkin seeds, and some other seeds with tomatoes and put this in a blender to create an orange sauce – it was absolutely delicious (Toby couldn’t stop eating them; he had three)
Tamales being steamed/cooked
Natural Reserve – Ziplining
This was another afternoon trip organised by the school. The place itself is called the “Natural Reserve” and is along the main entry/exit road to Panajachel. We walked from school and it took about 15 minutes mostly uphill. A tuc-tuc or similar wouldn’t be a cheap alternative if desired. Check the links for up to date pricing.
If you just do the reserve, I think it was around Q45 (US$5); you can see the butterfly observatory (currently under renovation), the monkeys, some of the small trails etc. If you do the ziptrek you get all of that plus you do your zipline. Allow a good 1.5hrs for the reserve alone as there are suspension bridges, stone steps and plenty of things to see. Then allow another maybe 2 hours for the ziplining. Current cost is Q220 (US$27) for the simple and Q350 (US$43) for the extreme zipline trip. The website has most of the details you need. You want a little bit of fitness for the initial climb up. It states it is a 900m walk with a vertical ascent of 136m. This took around 20 minutes with a couple of short rest breaks. Not too bad as it was shady, but still you got a decent sweat happening.
The ziplining itself was quite a lot of fun. It was a small group of 4 people plus 2 guides who alternated going first and last. Personally if you’re thinking about which trip would be better or if you should save some money, stop it right now. Go and do the extreme version. The longest of the cheaper one is only 310 metres. The extreme has two runs of 850m and 860m each taking just over a minute. The view is fantastic from the top back across the lake and into Panajachel. I even managed a short video here [http://youtu.be/OMkb80raM3A]. Sadly I was having to hold my camera by hand and I was spinning around the wrong way. You are meant to have both your hands hanging onto the cable connector to help keep you aiming straight. Anyway, really great fun and well worth doing.
Mayan Cave Onto some more interesting things, one of the school excursions we did last week was visiting “La Cueva Maya”, or “The Mayan Cave”. The cave serves as a ceremonial site for those who still practice indigenous religions in the Mayan villages uphill from Panajachel towards Solola. We arrived in the mid afternoon to an empty cave filled with a smoky fragrance. The site itself can be reached by “chicken bus” at the first stop out of town. From there it was a short hike downhill to the entrance. The history seems to read that it has been in continual use for at least the past 1,000 years. The cave is still a place of ritual and is often adorned with flowers and candles. When we arrived there were still a couple of small groups of candles burning. Animal sacrifices are also made on special religious occasions but we saw no evidence of it when we were there. The added benefit of this excursion was a very scenic view out over the lake and back over Panajachel. We were also lucky enough to detour slightly and walk out to the end of the ridge and get an even better view of the lake and surrounding area.
On our last day at the school we went on a tree planting expedition. The idea behind this was to donate some fruit trees to a local indigenous family. This way the fruit trees help provide fruit to the family for many years into the future, or they can even sell the fruit at local markets for extra money. There were 4 students from the school on this trip and we each had 2 to 3 plants each to give. Rodora and I gave 2 avocado and 2 mandarin trees based on the recommendations from the school. We took a private pick up along with the school gardener who helped us in our efforts. The initial trek from the road to the house took around 10 minutes through a narrow dirt path that ran between corn and onion fields of other local farmers. When we arrived at our selected house it was adventure alone to climb through their corn field and digging our holes for the trees. I assume that when the trees had matured in coming years that they would be transplanted to other areas of the property. For me I think it was interesting just to see how some people live in this environment. The house they lived in appeared so small for such a large number of people. The kids were young ranging somewhere between 3 and 7 years old at a guess. They seemed so happy just in their own world and were very friendly to all of us. I think Rodora even tried to adopt one of the young puppies that was sitting with its mum.
Hike to waterfall
This was our final excursion with the school on our last Saturday in Pana. From our regular studying area in the school it was possible to see this waterfall on the eastern hillside of Pana. My sense of adventure always rises when something of such simple beauty appears within such easy reach. On several occasions we’d spoken to people at the school of how we could possibly get there. Maybe they took pity on us finally to run this excursion. There really wasn’t a well defined path to arrive at the location. Even finding the initial entrance departing from the streets I think is impossible unless you had been given exact directions. We began the climb just after 8am and the sun was out getting us all a bit hot and sweaty. We made our way up through the regular crops of the area with many corn fields, onions and coffee. I think the track was only in existence for the local farmers to get to their fields and carry their goods to market. Ultimately we reached the end of the available track and in hindsight we must have been incredibly close to our desired destination. Sadly, we didn’t find a way through to the upper falls. On our descent, we spoke to a farmer in his field who showed us a tiny overgrown track that ended up at a lower set of falls connected to the upper falls. It was a great little rest stop in the sun and we even got lucky enough to find this frog in the photo. He sat still for long enough to pose for this amazing photo.
We both really enjoyed our time in Pana for a variety of reasons. Personally I think it was the nice place we moved into, the lack of tourists we saw on a day to day basis and the variety of excursions run by the school. Rodora’s favourite I’m sure was the weekly cooking classes, where my favourite was the ziplining at the natural reserve. We were also very appreciative of the general high quality and variety of fruits and vegetables available at the market.
At the end of a month of school I think I’d like to know more, but with this being the first true second language learning I’ve ever done (I’m ignoring 3 years of German I did in High School), I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. For now I’ve got strong expertise on restaurant menus, food in general, cost of things and how to ask/bargain and directions. For now, we have got some resources to keep learning more on our own, so it’s a matter of continuing to practice and expanding the knowledge.
General information about Panajachel can be found on a separate blog here
That’s all for now. Next update will talk about the Day of the Dead and the Kite flying in Sumpango found here
Plenty more to explore. Keep following the blog and our Flickr account for updates.