Travel log: Lake Atitlan, Guatemala and it’s Traditions

The first week of March I took Spanish classes in San Pedro at Casa Rosario. I got to know the traditional Guatemala way of life through many conversations with my teacher and doing a homestay with a local family. It was so interesting, this exchange, where I learned about their religion, family, traditions, diet, work, income, common activities in San Pedro, and more. I couldn’t have been more different than them. Like the complete opposite.

Lake Atitlan is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited. I could have easily spent a few months there. San Pedro is the medium size town or pueblo around the lake with tons of vegan options, a natural food store, and friendly people. The air was fresh, there is a good mix of westerners and locals mingling together in harmony, it isn’t a big party town but you can find a few bars and party hostels (which I avoided my entire trip), the weather was absolutely perfect (50F at night, 75F at the hottest part of the day), it’s relatively cheap, and I felt completely safe the entire time.

In this part of Guatemala, it’s mostly Mayan people who speak Mayan languages to each other and Spanish to non-locals. The Mayan traditions and religion are preserved including the traditional dress for women and girls. Through the conversations with my teacher and homestay family here are the many things I noticed about the culture. I’m not trying to pass judgment rather try to explain what I noticed to give you an impression of the town. Of all the places I’ve traveled I’ve never learned so much about the culture then I did during my nine short days in Lake Atitlan.

They are very religious. My teacher talked a lot about her church, that she only listens to religious music and sings in the choir. The father of the family I stayed with helped out and cleaned the church many days each week and helped in the procession around town I got to witness. The women are of course taking care of their homes and family so she did less at the church but went two times a week to service. The religious procession went around the town stopping at various alters set up where everyone would stop and say prayers. I’m not a religious person but it was fascinating to watch.

They are very traditional. Families are large. My teacher’s grandmother had 17 children. Seventeen! Thankfully the child rearing has reduced since then. The family I stayed with had 3 kids and my teacher who is younger than me only had one child. She brought up the fact that kids are expensive and they really can’t afford to have more than one. Hopefully this means they use some sort of contraception now, but of course I didn’t discuss this with my teacher. When I told her I wasn’t married and had no children her eyes widen and the nervous laugh she gave told me some subjects were definitely off limits.

All the women in town wear traditional dress, while the men wear whatever they want. The women also care for the home, doing all the shopping, cleaning, cooking, and childcare. I asked my teacher my first day why women wear these beautiful traditional outfits while men don’t. She explained to me that one outfit for women was inexpensive, while the mens traditional costume would be five times the price. So I guess that made sense. There’s no need to sew sleeves and pant legs when the women’s dress is a baggy top with a sheet of fabric wrapped around to make a skirt. But I still got the feeling it was misogynist, like the women need to be dressed beautiful to be seen. When my family took me to watch the procession the mother and I walked while the dad took a tuk tuk. He was also much heavier than his wife, which leads me to believe he is allowed the extra expense to take the tuk tuk but his wife should be walking. This made me a little uneasy to see the obvious patriarchy in their lifestyle.

They do not need many things and make very little money. My teacher said that most households make 800-1500 quetzals per month. That’s about $100-200 per month. Maybe she meant per person because that is nothing! I don’t see how that would be even possible. I spent more than that per week. When I sat down to eat meals with my family they served me the smallest portions, like the small plate we serve side salads on, and that’s what they ate too. The image above was one of my breakfasts: beans with guacamole and corn tortillas. We ate tortillas with everything. I lost a few pounds that week eating so little but I actually had ton of energy once my body adjusted. I didn’t have the same access to vegan cupcakes and fried chicken and ice cream. We overeat and over-consume in the U.S. So my hope is to be more conscious of my eating habits. It’s no lie that I gain weight more easily now that I’m getting older and I should be making a better effort to cook meals at home and eat healthier. I learned I can do with less, which is an invaluable lesson of solo travel and the digital nomad life.

Everyone has a trade. Well I should say the men seemed to have trades while the women take care of the family. The father and son of my homestay are painters and they are teaching one nephew the art of painting. The son is also a musician and is taking classes at a school outside of town. So my guess is the family I stayed with is more middle class. They are so talented and very humble about it too. I wanted to buy their paintings so bad but there was no way for me to get them home!

Despite all of these differences I fell in love with Lake Atitlan. Their lives couldn’t be more different than my own. Watching it was so peaceful and stress-free. Life in San Pedro was like a well-oiled machine, everything just flowed and did what it should. A part of me wonders if I will ever slow down. I’m still looking for that perfect place to set some roots.

Have you been to Guatemala or country with a similar vibe and traditions? What kind of effect did it have on you?

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