Santa Cruzin the Shores of Lake Atitlan

desenrascanco n. (Portuguese) the ability to improvise a quick solution.

After we finished getting ripped off by the boat taxi man, we walked off the docks and immediately onto the property of La Iguana Perdida, our hostel.  Inside the reception area, we were created by a perky blonde girl who spoke in a very valley girl accent.  We were taken aback by the fact that we could understand her, and as we looked around the hostel, we realized it was filled with more white people that we had seen in total in our time down there.  In a way, it was disappointing.  We had grown strangely fond of being the out of place gringos.  Here, we were just a couple more tourists.

She led us outside and through a wooden gate.  Suddenly, it felt like the jungle, with massive leafed plants rising several feet above our head and obscuring the wooden huts that lay at the end of small side trails.  Our hut, Arriba Payaso, was the very last hut on the property, save for the scuba dive shack and storage right behind.  The hut was two stories; On the bottom were two double bed private rooms, and on top was our room.  We climbed the set of steep metal stairs onto a little porch, complete with padding and chair, and threw aside the curtain over the double french doors.  The room was small,  so small you couldn’t stand up straight on either side of the bed without hitting your head on A-frame rafters holding up the canvas walls which lined the metal roof.  Despite its size, it was extremely cozy, with a large bed covered in brightly colored woven blankets for the chillier nights.

We set down our packs and, as usual, set out minds to the task of food.  Travel days tended to force long periods of time without eating, especially on the chicken buses, where there was little to no time to stop at a food cart and grab some food in between buses.  Food, however, wasn’t exactly an easy task there, either.  The shores of Lake Atitlan are steep, and the rocky cliffs of Santa Cruz are some of its steepest parts.  Aside from a single layer of businesses built directly on the lake, there wasn’t much room for other businesses.  Hotels and resorts mostly commanded that space, so that left the town of Santa Cruz itself.  Easier said than done.

It was probably one of the most miserable hikes uphill I have experienced, Short of Holland Peak, that is.  Later hikes up the hill wouldn’t seem quite so bad, but in that moment, both of us being ill and exhausted form the chicken buses, it was pretty bad.  You see, I was still sick with my head cold that made it difficult to breathe, and Chris had spent most of the chicken bus rides trying not to shit his pants with explosive diarrhea.  To then need haul our tired selves up a giant hill for a little over a kilometer seemed cruel and unusual.

Finally, we drug ourselves into the run-down little town and spotted a bright yellow building just off the side of the main church square that bore the words Centro de Capacitacion.  Contrary to how that looked, it was not in fact a center of decapitation, but rather a very lovely cafe called the Cafe Sabor Cruceno.  We went inside and ordered: a chicken sandwich for Chris and something called pepian con tortillas for me.  The English translated description read as follows: “A flavorful stew of vegetables, ground seeds, cocoa, chiles and spices, served with chicken or tofu.  This is one of four typical dished in Guatemala.  I felt like most of the “traditional dishes” I had been eating were just rice and beans.  I was eager to try something different and it ended up being the best thing I have eaten thus far on the trip.  It was absolutely delicious, and Chris felt the same way about the chicken sandwich.  

And even better: It had free wifi, which was a blessing because our hostel did not have it because, “We value giggle over Google, laughter over laptops, and eye contact to iPads.  Tough hands, not screens.  Pull the plug and give someone a hug.”  The idea was interesting and all, but it was all a little too in-your-face for my liking.  How dare they try to force me to be social?  I will if I want to be but keeping wifi from me sure as hell isn’t going to make me.  Hadn’t they ever heard of books?  Either way, the cafe wifi was a welcome solution to the problem, though it would have been nice to not have to hike that hill to get it.

If you ever find yourself in Santa Cruz, I highly recommend Cafe Sabor Cruceno.  it had stunning balcony views of both the lake and the town of Santa Cruz, a friendly staff, and it’s also an extension of the CECAP cooking school, so all business supports young students pursuing culinary careers.  

The walk down the hill, while a little better than going up, was still steep enough to be jarring on the knees.  When we returned to the hostel, we happily collapsed on our bed.  After a few minutes of laying there, soaking in the peace and quiet, we received a visitor to our bungalow.  The hostel cat, Chicago, to whom we had been introduced briefly in passing, had jumped onto our bed as if she owned the joint and quickly made herself at home… right on Chris’ chest.  I could tell Chris had never owned cats when he acted surprised each time her paws contracts and her claws dug into his chest.  

She stayed with us for over an our as we watched some T.V. shows and flipped through the area hiking guide that the hostel had made and provided to each room.  There wasn’t really much else we could do at that point.  It had started to get chilly outside, so swimming was out, and it got dark far too early down here to try any more exploring.  We were stuck inside until dinner, it seemed.  

At 7pm, La Iguana Perdida hosts a nightly dinner prepared by locals for guests who sing up ahead of time.  It costs Q60, for an “eat until the food is gone” meal.  If you’re fast, that means “all you can eat”, but if you’re not, well, too bad.  That was a little more than we liked to spend each on a single meal, but as dinner prospects in Santa Cruz didn’t look all that abundant, we decided to just sign up for the hotel dinner for the first night.  The meal was chili con carne and while it wasn’t bad, we weren’t overly impressed either, given what we had paid for the meal.  Plus, it meant we had to eat family style, at a big long table with all the other loud Americans who could talk about nothing but the impending presidential election.  And here we had been so excited to come down here to get away from all that.  But still, a Donald Trump poster reading, “Donald Trump, eres un pendejo,” stared down at us from the wall.  

Immediately after the meal, an open mic night began, which was less people getting up and showcasing their musical or poetic talent than it was people getting up and telling a single bad joke for the reward of a free tequila shots.  Having an interest in neither drinking nor drunk people, Chris and I retired to our room, where we waged war with a disgusting spider the size of a dollar coin on our door.  After checking the entire rest of the room for any unwanted intruders, we settled down to sleep.

The next morning, we ate breakfast at the hostel, which was a much cheaper and more menu based than dinner had been.  Plus we didn’t feel like walking up the hill first thing in the morning. Sure, it would probably get the blood pumping, but I was more in favor of coffee that could do the same thing.  After breakfast, we got ready and set out on a hike for the day.  We were tired of laying around, which is what we felt like we had done for the last few days since our plans to hike the Antigua volcanos had been foiled.  As we flipped through the activities book in our room, we found there were quite a few different hikes we could take, but eventually settled on the one to Los Dos Miradores, two viewpoints up in the mountains rising sharply behind Santa Cruz.

Not a bad breakfast view.

Here’s the thing: The hiking directions given by the hostel are a lovely gesture, but goddamn are they useless.  While they appear to be a very complete and step by step guide to finding these trails, they’re so downright misleading and altogether wrong that we ended up just getting lost.   It was like Slovakian Paradise all over again.  I’ll break the hike down in terms of the hostel directions:

“Take the 10 minute walk up to Santa Cruz.”

I would already like to point out that the walk from the hostel to Santa Cruz takes closer to twenty minutes.

“…when you get to the main square with the basketball court and church, take the wide paved path uphill on the left-hand side of the square for a further five minutes.”

This one actually makes sense, but lacks detail.  When we came up to the main square, right next to Cafe Sabor Cruceno, we found ourselves wondering which left to take.  The most immediately left or the left directly from the church?  We went for the immediate left of the square which ended up being correct.

“You will pass another church and when the path turns hard left and narrows considerably, keep going straight ahead on a narrow dirt path between two houses, the one on the right is yellow and new.”

There is no hard left turn.  There is no yellow house.  There is literally nothing about this section of directions that even remotely described the reality of the area, save for the dirt path part.  You do need to find a dirt path, but you do so by going straight up the road where you turned at the square and following it straight until it pretty much turns to dirt.  We actually needed to ask a woman in one of the local houses to find this because the directions had us so confused.  Once you get on the dirt path, it immediately doesn’t look like much of a path at all, traversing an eroding ravine so close to a house that you think someone is going to come out screaming at you for trespassing.  Just go with it.

“You will follow the high side of this path along the left hand side of a stream through coffee trees for another five minutes until you see a pipe going across the creekline.  Just after you see this you will drop down to the creek and cross it.  And you cross over you will come to a fork where you turn right, almost back on yourself.  The path hooks back round and starts heading uphill away from the creekline.  DON’T MISS THIS TURN!”

Again, wrong.  Maybe you pass through some coffee trees, but I wouldn’t know.  I don’t know what coffee trees look like, so not the most helpful of landmarks.  The walk from the beginning of dirt path to where the pipe crosses the stream doesn’t take five minutes either.  It takes maybe two.  Because of that, we thought perhaps there was another pipe farther along and got all confused once again.  However, just shortly after we crossed the stream there, we noticed a sharp trail to the right splintering off the main trail and heading up the mountain.  If you’re paying attention, you shouldn’t miss this turn because it’s pretty obvious.

“You will continue to follow this path as it climbs steeply zigzagging up the slope.  You will then come out onto the ridge and continue along this narrow Ridgeline back into the mountains and past some big boulders.  The path then continues up through a gully with some magnificent rainforest trees between the two peaks.”

These directions actually make sense, but unfortunately, they’re for the part of the hike for which you don’t really need directions.  The trail is very obvious as it goes up the mountain and doesn’t split again until you climb out of the gully and onto the upper ridge.  You’ll pass through all manner of terrain in this section.  On the initial ascent up, the hillside we were on faced directly into the sun, making for a hot and buggy hike.  By the end, I was itching my arms like crazy, despite the fact that I had coated them in insect repellant at the beginning of the hike.  Once you pass through a cornfield, perhaps meeting the old toothless farmer who owns it and may tell you to take a picture of him for the low low price of Q1, you’ll hit the ridge.  From that point on, the hike gets cooler as you ascend further up into the rainforest.  The trail is slick here, though, so watch your footing, especially coming down.  Chris fell countless times.

Once you ascend out of this rainforest, you’ll come to a second ridge, where there is a tree and the trail forks.  If you take the trail to the right, you climb through a dense scrub forest up a short hill to the first mirador.

If you go left, you’ll shortly find yourself at another fork.  Continue left to climb up some more hills until you reach the second mirador, or at least what we thought was the second mirador.  It is a little disappointing for the climb involved.  So much so that we continued on along the path hoping it would bring us to a better viewpoint.  When all it brought us to was more fields of corn, we turned back.  By that point, I was exhausted from climbing. Considering I still couldn’t breathe through my nose and stopped pretty much every two minutes to blow it, I was getting less oxygen in a high elevation environment that already had less oxygen to offer.  Normally I can out hike Chris like nothing, but on this hike, I was lagging far behind.  

We returned back to the lat fork in the trail and this time took the straight path.  This would supposedly take us to a waterfall, but since we went at the tail end of the rainy season, the waterfall was pretty much all dried up.  Either way, if you’re looking for a stream to splash the bugs and sweat from your body, this is a good place to do it.  Just make sure the trail goes down.  If you find yourself descending into a valley, that’s the way to the waterfall.  From the fork to the falls, it takes maybe ten minutes.

Feeling as though we had thoroughly explored the area, we returned to Santa Cruz.  Since we were already up the hill, we figured we would stop at our favorite cafe.  As we sat on the balcony, the clouds began rolling in from over the mountains we had just climbed.  The sky darkened and a cold breeze dried the sweat to our skin.  One of the American girls working at the hostel had warned us that the weather lately had been odd: nice in the morning, but cold and rainy in the afternoon.  We ate our lunch quickly and beat feet back to the hostel before the rain could hit.

Back at the hostel, we took a very tepid shower, despite the promise of hot showers at the hostel.  It wasn’t nothing new.  We were finding that hostels always promised hot showers and rarely ever delivered.  This was mostly because most buildings Central America don’t have hot water tanks.  Instead, showers are heated using an electric system attached to the plumbing of the shower head itself.  The lower the pressure, the hotter the water, in theory, but even then they were rarely hot.  We had already grown very accustomed to showering in cold trickles, but this hostel was particularly bad since the showers were outdoor huts made of bamboo walls with an open ceiling.  Any cold wind or rain from the outside inevitably made its way into the shower as well, and when you’re already shivering trying to rinse the shampoo out of your hair in cold water, a cold breeze is the last thing wanted.

That evening, we decided we weren’t going to pay a bunch of money for the hostel dinner, and sainted tried out luck with the local eateries.  There was one place just up the road from the hostel that did. not require us to hike all the way to Santa Cruz.  It was nothing more than a house with two tables on the porch and a sign reading the dinner options of the day.  It was a meal we had come to expect in Central America: chicken, rice, beans, and tortillas.  Very standard, but typically pretty good.  Best of all, it was cheap, costing only Q20 per person.  Both of us could eat dinner that night for less than one of us could have eaten at the hostel.  A tiny, elderly Spanish woman served us our food after cooking it up in her own kitchen, and gave us tea for desert.  It looked like she had very little, and yet she was so willing to give us everything she had.

Something we had noticed time and time again about Central America was the utter kindness of the people.  Sure, we got ripped off from time to time, but I could hardly blame them for trying.  Seeing how little these people live on, it was almost understandable that they should try to earn a little extra off the tourists who had more than they.  But for every person who had tried to take advantage of us, we had met ten nice people who helped us out: people who gave us directions, told us what we needed to know, helped us figure out the confusing mess of chicken buses step by step.  For as violent and dangerous as people perceive Central America to be, the most aggression I had witnessed so far was when a three year old kid had called me “estupida” for not buying any of the candy he was trying to sell.  How incredibly wrong everyone back home had been about this place.

The next morning, we ate breakfast at the hostel once again, and decided to try another hike.  This time, however, we weren’t trusting the printed directions.  We decided to ask one of the hostel workers from New York that Chris had bonded with over climbing gyms.  Our plan for the day was to hike up the Rio Pashputin, a narrow river valley walled by steep cliffs intersecting with the lake perpendicularly.  The guide page described it as “an easy hike to navigate, just head toward the river valley until you hit the river and then follow it up for as long as you want.”  We were suspicious of the “easy” part and asked directions anyway.  The guy told us he had done the hike a few weeks ago and laid out some directions for us, which we were already far more complete than the ones the hotel provided.  Armed with both his directions and the hostel’s, we set out.

“From La Iguana, head west along the lakeshore.”

For the directionally challenged, west is right if you’re standing at the hostel and looking out at the water.

“Follow the path for no more than five minutes and you will meet and concrete and stone path that heads away from the lake at the end of a bamboo fence.”

Woah, woah, woah, talk about skipping pretty much all of the difficult navigation.  This was the part where the guy we had talked to was sort of helpful.  It say “sort of” and you’ll soon see why.  It’s not as simple as walking along the lake shore until you find an intersecting path.  The lake shore is filled with other resort hotels that all have paths and the shore itself is a little difficult to traverse.  After a few minutes of walking, the path cuts from the shore itself onto some rickety docks that looks like they might collapse under the weight of a stray dog.  It doesn’t look correct, but it is.  you’ll keep walking on these scary and swaying docks until you reach a waver breaker, which is really just a block of bricked plastic.  Lake Atitlan was big on recycling by turning plastic waste into bricks, we had noticed, which was refreshing from the complete lack of environmental concern we had seen everywhere else in the country.  The trail looks like it ends at the plastic barricade, but if you head off just to the right, you’ll see where it picks up.  From there, the path crosses a bridge and leads to the Isla Verde Eco Hotel, a large, fancy white building that looked way out of our price range.  The guy at our hostel had told us about this and told us that we needed to go through their property until we reached a double swinging gate.  We saw a path, but asked the guy at the hotel just to be sure.

“Oh yeah, up the path and just follow the river valley.  You can’t miss it.”  Famous last words.  

We followed the path up through the hotel grounds, to the double gate, only to find the path split three ways, and we had no idea which one to take.  The straight path looked private, so we opted for left.  After ten minutes of walking high above the lake shore, we decided that this didn’t look right and turned back.  This time, we went left, frustrated that none of these turns and splits had been mentioned by any of the three things we had consulted for directions.  I mean, how hard could it be to give at least adequate directions?  The right path at the gate led us to another split shortly ahead, where we opted to continue straight up what looked like a dry river wash.  That seemed promising, so we kept heading up the wash.

“You take this path up to the football field and take the well-trodden path west under the goalpost across the field,  You then follow this path through the trees and coffee plants for about another five minutes until you get to a T-intersection, here you turn right and then left straightaway at the fork.”

Aside from the run-on sentences, this passage demonstrates how truly terrible these directions are.  The last sentence is completely useless and I only include it to show the contradictory nature of them.  Otherwise, it’s a useless line.  Why?  Because we never even found the damn football field.  Even the guy at the hostel had mentioned a football field and we couldn’t for the life of us figure out where it might have been.  We had made it to the river valley still, but we had somehow managed to bypass this route, and couldn’t figure out where we had gone wrong. 

“You will then walk under some really cool trees…”

Oh boy, really cool trees?! I know exactly what those look like!  Thanks for the exact description.

“…and keep left on the path.  From there you keep taking the left path until you reach the river and from there, the river is your guide.”

The river was pretty much our only guide from the beginning.  The moral of the story is, ignore the directions.  Walk along the lake short until you reach the fancy hotel, turn left and the gate, and follow the river.  Forget the football field, and forget asking anybody for proper directions because they seemed incapable of giving them.

Once we had finally made it to the river valley, the hike became slightly enjoyable, albeit hot.  I had sunburnt the back of my neck and shoulders the day before and it felt like I was going to do it again.  We were disappointed that the river bed was dry, having hoped to find the waterfalls that were supposedly famous on this hike.  The “rockhopping" was less hopping and more scrambling up large loose boulders.  As we made our way farther up the valley, however, the bottom of the bed slowly became more and more wet, until a small stream was actually running through it.  The deeper we got, the more water there was, and we finally found ourselves in the midst of some minor waterfalls.  

The problem with “hike until you decide to turn back” hikes for us, is that we rarely ever want to turn back.  Everything becomes a matter of, “Well let’s just see what’s around that next bend.”  Finally, we reached a fairly tall waterfall running down a rippled rock and decided to make that our stopping point.  We climbed to the top of the falls, messed around a little in the water pool below it, then turned around to head home.

I call this my "Now how do I get down?" face.

We balked at the idea of having to pack up our stuff and move on the next day, not so much because we liked our hostel, but because we liked the location and we simply didn’t want to move again.  Back at the hostel, we inquired about the possibility of staying another night or two, but someone had booked our room for the next night only, ruining our plans.  Oh well, c’est la vie. We weren’t a huge fan of the hostel anyway, being as touristy as it was.  Not to demean the kindness of everyone who worked there, but it felt like a place more focused on partying and relaxing than anything else, neither of which are really things in which Chris and I have any interest.

We would, however, miss Chicago, who had really grown attached to us over the last couple days.  The previous night, she slept in our room with us and had now brought us two murderous gifts.  The first was a rat that was at least half the size of the cat itself that we brought to the hostel reception, unsure what to do.  The second was a smaller mouse that Chicago decapitated, left on our doorstep, then ate when we showed no interest in it.  At least someone would miss us when we were gone.