Adventures While House Sitting


Typical home in Antigua.


Eight AM sharp.  A large passenger van parked on the narrow cobble street in front of El Hostel.  The driver, a trim and sprightly dark skinned gentleman of about 65 dressed in fancy western duds knocked on the bolted iron door and hollered into the small security window “Pana”.

We scurried from our 400 year old room, exited through the wrought iron door and tossed our bags into the vans back window. For the next forty five minutes we wound thru the tight congested cobble streets of Antigua and picked up another eight passengers: three excited elderly American women, obviously on an adventure, a chic middle aged Mayan woman, a Spanish speaking woman and some Europeans with backpacks. 

The drive through Antigua provided us the opportunity to see historic sites and elegant hotels surrounded by high adobe walls and beautiful wrought iron gates that hid lavish gardens and red roofed adobe buildings. The driver mastered the tight corners by honking as he narrowly missed pedestrians and vehicles.  Since leaving Guatemala City we’ve not seen a single stop light.

Eventually we left behind the tight, colorful streets of Antiqua.  We rolled past fields of corn, squash and cabbage which were planted right up to the steepest hill sides.  Amongst these fields were many corrugated metal shack ‘homes’ and worn out fences.  An occasional cow or horse was picketed alongside the road.  The rolling countryside was beautiful but the small towns we passed through and the farmer’s homes were squalid.  In fact trash littered the roads and creeks.  It disturbed me to note that most of the trash consisted of plastic pop bottles and snack bags…I thought it is such a shame these foods and the marketing to sell them was ever developed. Not only the land suffers but the Mayans that diverge from their traditional diets suffer as well.

We climbed higher and higher as we wound around steep hillsides and looked down into deep valleys.  We drove through the high country for an hour or more when we began to see native stone and wooden homes, log and board with decorative log verandas and fancy glass windows.  At the top of the mountains we stopped at a restaurant for coffee and noted the morning air was chilly. Bird baths and potted plants added beauty to the outdoors but when you stepped away and looked down into the creek’s ravine, trash lined the banks; the water was slow moving and grungy.  I thanked the Lord that we brought a large portable Katydin water filter system since I figured that this creek, as well as hundreds of similarly polluted waterways, runs into Lake Atitlan where our drinking water would come from.

In the restaurant natural stone fireplaces burned brightly and we sat at large hardwood slab tables thickly coated with resin.  They reminded me of the Redwood tables so popular in California back in the seventies.  The blend of native stone and wood seemed oddly familiar, like something you would find in Big Bear or Mammoth Lakes California but with a tropical twist.  We enjoyed the rich coffee thick with steamed milk.

The driver wasted no time and soon we were back on board.  Three very dirty little Guatemalan children dressed in western clothing stood outside the van and shyly begged for handouts.  They mewed their requests and I felt bad I could not understand them.  These children were suffering, unkempt, underfed.  It is heart breaking and frustrating to think that 40% of Guatemala’s children are said to be malnourished while we think very little of paying $1 for a cup of coffee –more than the equivalent of a Guatemalan man’s hourly wage. We drove away as the children watched despairingly.

Soon we began to descend and caught glimpses of the lake and surrounding volcanoes.  We went down and down passing through towns and markets built on hillsides.  Homes took on a handcrafted adobe and wood charm; we began to see more and more traditionally dressed Guatemalans.  We vied for driving room with the big fast chicken buses, toktoks (little three wheeled open air taxis), pedestrians, motorcycles and stray dogs.

 I noticed as we wound our way down to the lake that in the towns buildings looked incomplete, like the construction stopped many years ago and is not planned  to resume anytime soon, repeatedly I saw rebar sticking out of the flat top roofs, it was strange.  Later we learned that property owners are not taxed if the building is ‘under construction’!

The narrow road continued to wind down hill and we finally entered Panajachel (Pana) our lake side destination.  The driver looked at the passengers in the rearview mirror and began asking (in Spanish) where people needed to be dropped off.  We avoided eye contact because we really could not tell him specifically where we needed to be let off since we assumed the van could not drive to the Santiago dock.  He confirmed where everyone else on the van needed to be dropped off and then started calling out place names we were not familiar with.  We didn’t respond. He looked at us through the rear view mirror.  We didn’t know what to say.

We wound around Pana and dropped all but the three American women off.  At a brief stop a young man jumped on the van and started calling out locations.  Finally we said “Santiago Dock”.  The women and we were let off at a thoroughly modern building.  The young man got off the bus with us and struck up a conversation.  We said “No Espanol”.  Then he offered to find us a ride to Santiago. Since we had no idea how to get to the Santiago dock we took him up on his offer.  He indicated he needed help to a friend waiting nearby. They helped us with our one rolling bag and extra day pack.  The four of us headed for the lake as the rolling bag bumped up and down over the large dome shaped stones that made up the ‘road’.

A block later we were on the lakefront.  A beautiful view of three volcanoes served as a startling backdrop to the placid blue green lake.  Little towns and villages dotted the lake front here and there. Fiberglass hauled boats with outboard motors lined the makeshift docks.  One dock for San Pedro and San Marco and one dock for Santiago.

The three American women, we had ridden in the van with, were already sitting in a gently rocking boat.  The young man that helped us find the docks went to talk with the boat driver.  We felt so ridiculously helpless and completely  dependent on a stranger. He came back and said 200 Consales ($25) for us both and our baggage.  We said no (we knew the price should be 20 Consales  or $2.50 each). We entered into a lengthy discussion whereby the young man tried to convince us that this was a private boat and that the public water taxis charged 50 Consales each, so we were not really paying that much more for a private ride also it could be hours before a public taxi arrived.  Even though he momentarily threw us with the fifty Consales comment for the public boat we said no.  We knew the public boat cost was 20 each.

Repeated discussions between the boat driver and the young man took place and the women patiently waited as the young man ran back and forth between us and the boat driver.  At least a half a dozen times we said we would wait for the public boat.  The young man was relentless trying to convince us.  We sat on the rock wall and prepared to wait. Eventually a final discussion took place and the young man returned. He put his fingers to his lips and said in a low voice; “Special price for you today…100 Consales.”  By then we felt so bad for the waiting women that we agreed to the price. The three women were no spring chickens, yet they were hauling heavy backpacks, dressed for adventure and were keeping a close eye on the proceedings. We didn’t feel right stalling their lakeside vacation experience.      

As we negotiated the haphazard ‘dock’ the young man insisted that we not tell the women the price we paid.  When we boarded the boat, the women wanted to know where we were going and where we were from.  We struck up a brief conversation and I asked them what they paid.  They said a 100 Consales each.  They shrugged as if to say, we know we got ripped but we’re on vacation!  I sensed a tad of longing from the Spanish speaking seemingly more experienced woman when we said we were housesitting on the lake for six months. It wouldn’t be the last time we sensed that from visitors and expats in the area. As we would soon find this housesitting assignment would prove to be a gift.

So we gringos were had and paid more than twice the actual price…we felt violated.  But, we learned a valuable lesson: stand firm, resist and patience will pay off.  You have to be more stubborn then they are!

As I type this up I look at Hunter Travel Guides and in the Panajachel section find a framed paragraph with a big red label…

WARNING: Be wary of the launcheros (boatmen), who will approach you trying to sell rides.  They will outright lie to you and tell you certain ferries are no longer running, running late or leaving at an inconvenient time.  This is just a ploy to sell you a ticket on their boat for 150% more than the public ferry.


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