San Lucas Tolimán
Our visit to all twelve towns and villages around Lake Atitlán is now complete. And we think that with the last on the list we have found our Shangri-la! After Panajachel, San Pedro la Laguna, San Juan la Laguna, San Marcos la Laguna, Santa Cruz la Laguna, Jaibalito, Tzununá, San Pablo la Laguna, Santiago Atitlán, Santa Catarina Palopó, San Antonio Palopó, we finally disembarked the lancha at the tranquil backwater of San Lucas Tolimán. What a magical day we spent there!
It was like a dream - Sunday in the Country meets Picnic at Hanging Rock. We took advantage of a new 3-times daily public boat service, departing Panajachel at 8.30am, returning from San Lucas Tolimán at 4pm. The cost of the half-hour trip (for, sadly, just three passengers each way), was 20 quetzals, or $3, each.
As our boat rounded a headland, we left the open waters of Lake Atitlán behind and entered a bay with clear blue water, flooded tree trunks and weedy rim. The park that takes up the waterfront is shaded by big trees and lined with thatched bars serving simple fare and beer. Tuk-tuks were conspicuously few and the locals, while exceptionally friendly, are not perturbed by stray visitors. The whole town is paved with broad streets. A walk up the hill takes us to the vibrant central square. Off to our side are several streets taken up by the twice-weekly market. The vendors are mostly women dressed in an bright array of traditional weavings and offering their family's fruit, vegetables, flowers, meats, fish, dried goods, eggs, cheese, weavings, carvings, and household utensils. The scene is lively and convivial and, even as rare tourists, we cause no undue attention beyond welcoming banter. We asked a couple of locals for a place for a good coffee and they directed us to the sweet little Cafe Jade, which served the best lattes, 'fuerte' as requested.
After sidestreet meanderings taking in several species of tropical trees in extravagant bloom, we strolled down the hill to the tiled-roofed communal outdoor lavanderia, where many women were doing their laundry, using water channeled from the mountains, in ancient large concrete basins. The grey water is filtered through sand catchments before draining into the bay. A crew of men was hauling out thick weed mass from the bay, piling it up for removal and making into compost. With wet, cold hand outstretched, Marlon introduced himself. Out around the bay, the pavement finally gave way to dirt. Here a quiet, mixed community of homes from the grandiose to the humble sits quietly looking out over the water. Small coffee plantations grow shaded by banana trees, single farmers prepare and plant fields of corn, beans, peppers, tomatoes, celery. We decided we could quite happily live here, cultivating our own little backwater just outside this pueblo, with a small self-sufficient garden beside our simple home, making our way into market to purchase fresh local organic goods, with a boat ride to Pana once week to top up on supplies. On our way back into town Marlon and a mate awkwardly asked for 10 quetzals (75 cents) to buy tortillas as they were hungry.
Having worked up a hearty appetite, it was time to visit the elegant Hotel Tolimán (www.hoteltoliman.com). Set in beautiful landscaped gardens, the hotel offers luxuriant accommodation with local character. The kitchen makes full use of the most complete and impressive organic market garden that takes up half an acre adjacent to the hotel. The views over the bay and lake beyond from the covered terrace dining room are jaw-dropping. Our prix fixe three-course lunch, which included a day pass for swimming in the pool and a tour of the market garden, was very reasonable at 150 quetzals ($20) per person. The food and drinks were fresh, delicious, tastefully presented, and service from our server Lionel came with a smile and affable chat. This was a fine dining experience.
Back to the waterfront to await our return boat, we passed a beach designated for boats, another for baptisms, and another for bathing. Bathed in afternoon sun, teenagers, girls and boys, stripped down to shorts and swimsuits and joyfully, loudly dived in. A young couple doffed tops to splash around playfully and wash hair and body, innocently oblivious to the world around.
And then our boat launched us three passengers back onto the open waters, across the volcano-rimmed lake, out of daydream, back to Panajachel, thence onward home on a second boat, this one crammed full and heavy with well over twenty tourists, luggage, and locals, sprayed liberally with water on a choppy ride. We feel blessed to have enjoyed this memorable travel day soaking up such a rare traditional, vibrant, happy culture set in harmonious surroundings.