Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn had it easy compared to our day yesterday as we tried to journey from Antigua to Lake Atitlan. If you’ve ever seen “The African Queen”, you’ll remember their treacherous boat ride in African rivers, trudging through knee-deep water and brush while pulling their boat.
Well, we didn’t quite have to pull a boat, but what we went through today to get to our current destination would have challenged even Humphrey and Katherine.
We woke to a bright and sunny day at our lovely little Antigua retreat. Breakfast on the courtyard patio, a leisurely walk through town, stopping in at the cathedral for Mass. I’d reserved—and had confirmed by email—our minivan ride to Lake Atitlan, the ultimate goal of the trip, home to the Mayan women who make some of the jewelry and scarves I sell at FairTradeDesigns.com. We were to be picked up at 2, for the 2 ½ hour ride to the lake.
There we sat on the hotel patio, time ticking away past 2 pm. When 2:30 arrived with no minivan in site, I called Alejandro of the shuttle service. “I have no ticket for you,” he explained, and the bus had already left Antigua for Atitlan. “But you sent me 2 emails confirming the pickup”. “I’ll call you back”. I thought it best to also call our hotel on the lake, through which I’d arranged the ride.
Ivan the owner was most distraught, promising to call Alejandro and chew him out Guatemalan style. He called back to say we’d be picked up at 4 and his secretary would call at 4:15 to be sure we were on our way.
So a glass of wine and a soccer game later on the hotel TV, the minivan arrived. Off my husband, David, and I went, bumping along Antigua’s cobblestoned streets. Hit the highway 20 minutes later, when the van suddenly stopped and we were told to get out and get in another van. So we did, and hit the highway again, 2 hours of twists and turns up and down the mountains. Thankfully, neither of us gets car sick.
We landed in the dark lake town of Panajachel about 6:20, from which we were to take a shuttle boat to our hotel. The minivan driver dropped us at a very dismal-looking dock. As we started dragging our bags down to the pier, we saw our boat leaving. Waving frantically in hopes of getting it to turn around, we attracted the attention of two locals who shouted at us, “Too late, boat is full. You want private boat?” Not wanting to wait in the dark another hour, we agreed to their price.
They threw our bags on what looked like a glorified row boat, told us to sit down, and moved the boat out onto the very large and rough Lake Atitlan. It was pitch black, the boat slamming down hard on the water. As my husband, David, put it, I was roller-coaster scared. (I HATE roller coasters.)
My thoughts were veering towards headlines like “California couple drowns in Guatemalan lake.” David’s were, “California couple hijacked by pirate Guatemalan boat skipper, whereabouts unknown.” David has permanent fingernail marks in his thigh.
I kept looking back to see if I could convince the skipper to slow down. But I couldn’t see him. Were we on a ghost boat to nowhere?
After 20 minutes of this spine-jarring ride, the skipper materialized and helped us off at the dock in the town where the hotel is located. “Where is Hotel Casa del Mundo?” we asked him. “Walk up the sidewalk to the main road,” he told us and roared away.
So up the sidewalk we started, dragging our bags. No lights. Luckily David had brought a flash light. Up and up we went . We heard music and voices. We must be getting close. We walked through a phalanx of Guatemalans, waiting at a small tent for a band to start playing. Pitch black, lots of dogs wandering around.
We kept walking, eventually reaching the end of the sidewalk. We were not alone. At least a dozen Guatemalan children and young men were following us. Pitch black. Were we going to be mugged and robbed of all our belongings?
I thought it best finally to stop and call the hotel. (Thank goodness I’d bought a cheap cell phone when we first arrived in Antigua.) After much confusion, they realized where we were. God was watching over us because we’d stopped quite by chance in front of a very small Catholic church on the sidewalk to nowhere. “We’ll be there in 5 minutes,” said the hotel.
So there we stood with our suitcases, surrounded by our fans, who were saying in sing-song fashion, “Casa del Mundo, es muy abajo.” “Hotel is way below here.”
Thankfully, David’s Spanish was good enough to engage them in conversation about where they went to school and what time they started in the morning. “Good,” I thought, “distract them till help arrives.”
Finally, two young men from the hotel arrived, quite out of breath. Must be from the climb up the steep sidewalk, I thought. They insisted on helping us with our luggage. Back down the sidewalk the four of us went. Turned off the sidewalk near the dock onto a rough path.
Deeper and deeper we went into the jungle, the path narrowing so much our helpers had to heft our suitcases on their heads. Pitch black. So thankful for the flashlights and the “assistive light” on my cell phone.
Down and down we went, through mud and thicket. David is mumbling behind me, something about where the hell did you book us? We hear water and think, “Ok, we must be getting near the hotel.” No, we were just getting inches away from the very deep lake, along the path to nowhere.
We spy another dock. This must be it. Not quite. We trudge up at least 40 stairs and finally arrive at Casa del Mundo. Out of breath, sticky and hot, wanting to kiss the floor of the hotel.
One full bottle of wine later, we’re sitting in our very large room which, we’re told, has a beautiful view of the lake and volcanoes surrounding it. We’ll have to take their word for it until dawn breaks.
Oh—the reason for the pitch black is because the fantastically huge thunder and lightning storm this afternoon knocked out all the electricity on our side of the lake. I’m typing this by candlelight. Luckily, the laptop has a full charge.
And the hotel has its own private dock, something they didn’t tell us. So the jungle trek was because we’d been left at a dock about a mile from the hotel’s dock.
The bottle of wine we’ve just downed is starting to take over. So lights out for now. Tomorrow, we hope, will be another, very different, day.