There is a common refrain among travellers that goes something like, “it’s not the place, it’s the people”. Which, although only marginally true in most cases, does serve as a tidy little phrase to lead us into a discussion about all the expatriates that live here at the lake. In this entry I won’t get into all the permanent, born-and-raised Guatemalans that also live here and, of course, far outnumber the transplanted foreigners. Because that would be a much longer conversation and, much like at home, their stories tend to be more commonplace and less unusual than those of people who at some point along the way decided to leave everything and everyone they know to start a new life in a place completely foreign to them. In this particular instance, a place where the spiders tend to be the same size as the oranges.
Originally we assumed that hardly any expats chose San Juan as their Atitlán base but I’ve spent much more time there this time around because of soccer and I’ve now realized that there are a lot more transplanted San Juaneritas around than I had ever assumed.
Part of the reason for that is they tend to be more the ‘keep to themselves, immerse themselves in the local community’ types rather than the far more noticeable “I’m here to remain steadily drunk until I die” or “I need to visit the tourist craft shops of Pana daily in order to get as much use as possible out of this giant multi-coloured bag I bought just for that purpose”. Typically they are not interested in the party scene, are often self-employed, family-oriented and mainly intent on procreating as giddily often as the laws of nature will allow.
There are a lot of expats in San Pedro, also known as Atitlán’s backpacker central. So there are a number of exceptions to these generalizations but I think it would be safe to say that a large percentage of permanent foreigners in San Pedro fall into one of the two following categories – Entrepreneur or Alcoholic.
Most of the Entrepreneurs own restaurants and/or hostels, always with some specific theme which makes them unique: waterfront dining, sports and games, vegetarian, filled to the brim with Israelis, wifi central, one-stop travel needs centre, Italian food, decorated as an Irish pub but without the Irish food, room discounts for people with mullets, recreational drug use not just allowed but encouraged with a creepy wink.
Basically every foreign-run business outside of that list is either a street vendor selling home-made bracelets or a mobile drug supply unit (usually consisting of an unpleasant smelling bearded fellow and a tattered knit shoulder-bag sewn with patches showing marijuana leaves, peace symbols or a cartoon that in some way melds police officers and farm animals).
The Drinkers are generally over 50 and retired, having managed to be just productive enough in their previous life to afford to quit their job and move to one of the cheaper countries in the Western Hemisphere. Once here quickly settle into a comfortable routine of drinking and smoking themselves into oblivion on a daily basis, but only in places offering a daily drink special. The long-term plan being to continue on in this vein until a point in time in the relatively near future when their body simply quits on them, most likely either during Monday Night Football or yet another mediocre showing on Pub Quiz night (highly inconveniently for the “Bar Stars”, ecstatically in the lead and simply “killing it” tonight).
As I’ve mentioned before, San Marcos, our closest village, is much renowned as a place for holistic practices, to share and discuss new age philosophy, a meditation mecca, a yoga hotspot, the best place on the lake to get massaged by someone who will moan throughout, and, of course, it is a well-known spiritual “vortex”, which, from what I’ve seen, appears to be a strange phenomenon that results in an almost supernatural loss of desire to wash your clothes or hair. Whether that is technically correct or not, the bottom line is that everyone in San Marcos owns a special mat of some sort.
This is the lakefront area between San Marcos and Tzununá where we stay, populated by a wide variety of long-term expats, a surprising number of whom speak French, are slightly more independent than most townies, and have chosen a more remote location because of their unwavering belief that their life experience is simply not complete without both a terrific view and a vast number of large noisy dogs.
There is basically no commercial foreign presence in Tzununá, a tiny little village tucked into a picturesque bay just down the road from us. Which is partially why the select few expats based there have chosen it, along with one of three more reasons – a genuine desire for solitude, to take advantage of a big-time real estate bargain, or to maintain a low profile while hiding out after a controversial career in the CIA Black Ops. Oh, wait, one more reason – they are both delusional enough to believe they are hiding out after a controversial career in the CIA Black Ops, and to not realize that carrying a 9mm handgun tucked into the back of their jeans while taking the boat to Pana to stock up on Corn Flakes and broccoli might blow their cover. That, and telling everyone.
I don’t really know anything about the people who live in Jaibalito, except that there are at least a few, and one of them makes his own cheese.
Santa Cruz is a pretty little village fronted by a bevy of beautiful lakefront properties which probably looked fairly irresistible at those low, low Guatemalan prices back before the lake’s rising water engulfed their front porch and started threatening their favourite sun lounger. Nevertheless, it is still expat central for elderly retirees whose whose version of paradise includes great views, short boat rides to the city, a small but impressive group of restaurants and just so, so many horny and available older ladies.
Known simply as “Pana”, it is the closest approximation to a city the way a European or North American might define it – by which I mean it actually has its own stripper bar. Those choosing to make a new, exotic life for themselves amidst the exotic culture of the Guatemalan highlands and stunning beauty of Lago de Atitlán and opting to base themselves in Pana clearly value the ability to avoid going anywhere in one of those rickety little boats, desire a large variety of bars and restaurants, as well as the ready availability of Gallo t-shirts in any colour you can imagine, and simply do not feel complete without access to a grocery store big enough to provide push-carts and sell condoms in valu-paks of three.
Well, that about does it for the towns I’m familiar with. There are a few more spots around the lake where expats might pop up here and there but since I don’t actually know any of them it would seem a little bit irresponsible for me to be wildly generalizing and mildly insulting at their expense, in a way that was obviously entirely appropriate when it came to all those other towns. Right?