Have Baby, Will Travel: Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
I have been traveling by myself since I was 4, yes 4! My parents lived a three hour plane ride from each other and since it was the 80s, kids were more independent then, and they just decided to put me on a plane twice a year to fly across the country and see my dad. I practically came of age in an airport.
By the time I was 26, I had moved to New York alone at 18 and then did a year in University in England; traveled around Europe on the old backpacker route (it’s was 1998 – that was the cool thing to do), and I’d been to Japan three times. Needless to say, I didn’t actually feel travelled till I started exploring Asia: getting my yoga certification in India, living and working in Bali, backpacking (again) in Thailand. Inevitably I rejected the backpacker thing and started living in communities: a tantric one in Nicaragua, an organic farm in Jamaica, teaching yoga in El Salvador, and living out of a hammock with my dog.
Naturally, when I got pregnant (read: benched), I was itching to get back on the road. Pregnancy brings out the nester in anyone – when I got pregnant, I had JUST finished finally getting rid of all my possessions. I didn’t even own a fork, so my focus shifted to creating a home, burrowing into a cozy little nest of my own. By the time I was 7 months, I was firmly stationary in San Cristobal de las casas, unable to fly anywhere for months ahead. I was itching to do something.
I promised myself that after my daughter’s birth, we would get on the road. I heard disaster stories about parents who had always been mobile, taking their kids on their first outing at 6 months only to find out they hated the beach, were allergic to something found in tropical parts, just didn’t sleep well, couldn’t adjust to time zone change etc. Other than my life long fear of sharting (let’s be honest, it’s terrifying), a kid who cannot travel is right up there.
Luna (that’s my awesome daughter) was born on November 13th under the Taurus Super Moon and we spent the first 6 weeks mostly strapped to my bed, leaving the house for provisions and to feel human, but scurrying back to the bed as quick a possible most days.
But before she was even 2 months old, I had our first trip planned: Lake Atitlan, the famed crater lake in Guatemala.
My reasons for this trip were numerous: First, I was living in Guatemala before giving birth, so many of my friends were there and I was craving friends, second, it was somewhere I was familiar with and confident I could handle any upset (read: emergency) in this not-so-foreign place, and finally, I wanted to get a giant neck tattoo from an artist who lives there.
I lived out of a 40L bag for 8 months just two years ago, so I feel I am an expert at packing. Even though I can cut the essentials to the bone, I still way over packed for this trip.
In an attempt to force myself to use more reusable diapers I brought 3 with 10 inserts plus 40 biodegradable disposables (way too many diapers for a week)
I packed a lot of all weather clothing for myself and for Luna, and needed about half of it.
In the end I was one small duffle bag, a shoulder bag and the frame of a bouncy chair (I will never travel without it) in. Not that much for the average crazy mom, but a lot for me. On our next trip, we cut it down by 30% less.
Tourist shuttles are hands down, one of the seven rings of hell, right up there with DMV line ups and call in menus for refunds. They are my least preferred mode of travel because tourists are assholes. They are not nice to each other and they take up a lot of room since they generally feel that everyone is going to steal from them. They are usually hung over or still drunk and they spend the whole trip not talking to each other or occasionally asking the one person who has been to the destination “is it safe?” God help you if you end up with a bunch of under 25 Americans who have been nowhere, ever. The easiest way from San Cris to the lake was by shuttle, so we were stuck. If you can take local busses, do that. If you can get a local coach, do that. If you can fly, do that too. Best of all, if you can hitch a ride, do that. These are all options that the internet or a travel agent can help you with – for hitching rides, ask Facebook.
It is only a 10 hour trip to Panahachel, the largest town on Lake Atitlan from san Cristobal Las Casas in Mexico. Any time you are quoted a travel time by a shuttle company, add two hours. It’s 4hours to the Mesilla boarder, then you wait an hour and it’s 8 to Pana. It was only 350 pesos ($16 USD) so Ibought two seats just in case. On the way down, we lucked out and were traveling with this nice German family and had lots of room. On the way back I only booked one seat and it was filled with jerk tourists. Can’t win em all.
Guatemala vs Mexico
As soon as you cross the boarder into Guatemala, things change. Mexico is a lot more industrialized, and therefore less friendly. In Guatemala, it’s much easier to get help with a baby. Example: in Mexico, the shuttle drops you at a central location as a group, in Guatemala, the driver takes a single mom traveling alone to her hotel – cause, common sense and time isn’t money everywhere. Guatemalans are lined up to hold your baby while you fish change out of your bag for an ice cold coca cola in a glass bottle, or look on, unaffected when your kid is screaming in a restaurant, or even offer to…help (yes help) you with a screaming baby. Even children are fawning all over your kid like she’s the Queen of Sheeba. Needless to say, it was a very warm welcome.
Where to Stay
I booked a hotel on Booking.com for the first night in Pana since we arrived just after the last boat (5Pm) took off for the other side of the lake. I got a last minute deal of $25 USD for a place with a hot shower for the night. I hit up my favourite Malaysian- fusion restaurant, Chinitas (Asian food is hard to find in Latin America, especially anything I would call edible) for some Nasi Goreng and a properly brewed green tea. In the morning we had one of the best coffees on the lake at Cafe Loco, grabbed a tipico breakfast and headed to San Pedro.
The boat ride was serene – the lake was calm and the boat was only half full. We sat at the back to avoid the bumps and spray and our driver, a die hard Bryan Adams fan, belted out every single word to his greatest hits album as it blared in the background.
In San Pedro, we booked a locally run Airbnb. Luna was only two months old at the time, and my experience dictated that we would still be spending a lot of time in the house, so it was worth it to get something with all the amenities of home. The couple who ran it met me at the dock and took me by tuk tuk to their house. A super hot tip about traveling with a kid: stay with a local family cause then you have built in child care and you know they can help in an emergency. The top floor of Mynor and Josefa’s house was converted into a lovely one bedroom apartment with beautiful views of the lake’s majesty and a clean, open concept feel. It was $25 USD a night and even though I never cooked one meal, my peace of mind was well worth it.
As a single mom, my kid is on me all the time, and walking in the best way to put her down for a nap, plus it’s pretty much my only exercise – I strap her into a carrier and go. We walk like that for 30-60 minutes and more every day. otherwise a tuk tuk is 5Q anywhere in town (not even $1USD) and kids actually like them even if they feel a bit like sitting in a blender. You can also hitch rides on scooters from locals – this is something I do all over the world and feel comfortable, but I realize it’s not for everyone. If you want to see other towns, you take a boat.
Next to San Pedro is a town called San Juan – it’s a sleepy little village run by women (so it’s hella clean on the streets and there is fair pay and the safest drinking water on the lake). You can get there by tuk tuk or walk it in 20 minutes (although there are a lot of robberies on the roads between towns) or you can ask the boat to drop you for 5Q in under 10 minutes. They are known for their weaving and regularly hold workshops on weaving and natural dying – plus there are a LOT of female run co operatives. Hot tip: you wanna buy presents? Buy them here, they’re the best quality and the majority of the money you spend goes right back to the woman who made it.
San Marcos is the next town over – filled to the brim with neo hippies. I chose not to stay in San Marcos cause they do not have a market and the water is awful (I lived there before). But it’s only 10Q to take a 15 minute boat ride over and spend the day lounging at one of the amazing cafes (Shambhala is my fav) having existential conversations with dreaded festival hippies.
There are other small sleepy towns like Tzununa (great ashram there, Mahadevi) and Santa Clara (known for hostels loved by couples) and of course Santiago – Mystical Yoga Farm is near there and the famed new years festival, Cosmic Convergence. And of course Panajachel, loved by Guatemalans from the city, hated by white American tourists.
The longer you stay, the more there is to see.
Where to eat
I already mentioned Chinitas and Cafe Loco in Pana (also has a great little cocktail bar called San Simon). In San Pedro there are a couple Japanese places that are decent, for the best internet and a good sloppy breakfast, Clover was my go to – they were also unfazed by a screaming baby.
For the best breakfast, homemade bread and decent coffee, then Idea Connection is the spot – don’t be fooled by the name, it’s an authentic Italian owned bakery and restaurant.
If you like Israeli food, then San Pedro has that in spades. Zoola, the hostel with a pool on the lake is probably the most famous. It’s got a sultan’s den vibe and everything comes with pita. There is also a nice division between the dinning lounge area and the bar/pool area so that you don’t have to suffer through drunkards while you breast feed and eat shukshuka.
San Marcos has the dessert market cornered. Every cafe as vegan, hand made deserts that will bring you to your knees. They also have a lovely asian restaurant called Allala (see a theme here yet) that does a lovely veggie noodle bowl and has killer ambiance.
For The Kids
There is a shit ton of things for kids in San Pedro. First off, the expats who have kids will openly invite you to all the kids events just running into you on the street. There are pools at the edge of town and one is only a few inches deep so even wee ones can hang. There is a park that most kids and parents can be found at in the day. And there’s a weekly BBQ on Saturdays that is very kid friendly. I have some Canadian friends living in San Pedro who invited me to their Saturday ritual where they split on a sitter for all their kids, and head to Mikaso for brunch and a few rounds of Cards Against Humanity. Probably the most fun I’ve had in months. There is a very relaxed parenting vibe at the lake that I really liked. As my friend Karl says, “we’re just trying to get everyone to the end of the day happy and comfortable.” I could definitely get down with that.