A Ten Day Trip on Lake Atitlan During the Feria de San Pedro
The soft slapping sound starts at about 5am every morning. I could hear it coming from the houses surrounding my friend Steve’s house, where I was staying for the first half of my trip. No presses here – real women in San Pedro make tortillas by hand – and the sound can be heard all over town as I pass homes and places where tortillas are sold 3x per day (as the signs always say). When Steve’s housekeeper Anna arrives, she attempts to teach me how to make them, but I couldn’t see how she was positioning her hands because she was so quick. I will stick with my Mexican tortilla press.
On a normal trip, I probably wouldn’t even be up to hear the faint pat of the tortillas being made, but because I chose the week of the Feria Patronal de San Pedro to study Spanish on Lake Atitlan, I was still up from the 4:30am round of firecrackers, or bombas as the local people call them. These are not hoodlums blowing off contraband firecrackers – these are government or church approved/provided fireworks. One expat I met suggested the belief was that the louder the noise, the higher it reached the heavens – but I never asked an official source for the reason for the bombas. Most of the time these are firecrackers, but one night there is a beautiful fireworks display, seemingly hovering right in front of my window.
When the smoke clears from the firecrackers, I can pinpoint smoke coming out of chimneys from the roofs heading down toward the lake. The wood smoke smell is wonderful. When I ask Rosario, my Spanish teacher, if this wood is being burned for warmth or food – she makes the patting sign with her hands that tells me it’s for tortillas. Homemakers make tortillas 3 times a day; working women like my teacher and her mother make them at night for the following day.
The smoke smell combines with the smell of roasting coffee and permeates the whole town. Many people in San Pedro have lush gardens, or at least a few coffee bushes growing on their property. All of the coffee I have while in town is excellent; at Cafe Atitlan, Cafe Cristalinas, and Idea Connection – the Italian bakery with excellent croissants next to San Pedro Spanish School. Banana trees are everywhere, as are the ladies selling banana bread. I can still hear the voice of the one woman who waits by the spot where one well-touristed path intersects another, saying “pan de banane” every time I pass.
Throughout the week, we can hear a variety of music from the Feria without leaving the house. Jazz, orchestras, big bands, rock and more. My favorite are the masked men who nonchalantly dance and talk to each other in the street while very cool music I can’t describe repeats over and over again. Every time I hear this music, I walk to find the dancers. Although I’m tempted to video them just to capture the sound, the moment is never appropriate, so I take a few quick shots.
Midway through the week, my friend goes to Quiche to visit his girlfriend, and I move to a hotel on the lake to get a different experience – and to be closer to school. The music changes from singing from surrounding evangelical churches to the reactions of the crowd from neighboring bars watching the World Cup. From my hammock at Hotel San Antonio I can tell every time a goal is scored without having to watch.
Lake Atitlan has risen substantially since my last trip 6 years ago, and many homes and businesses have been lost to the rising waters. From San Pedro Spanish School, where I am studying, it is apparent how much land has been lost by the submerged trees offshore that used to be on land. Much has changed in the 6 years since my last trip to the area, and the partially submerged buildings are an eerie sight. There is no outlet for the water, and no solution.
Immersing in Guatemalan culture by staying in a local neighborhood, while studying intensive Spanish, during the Feria is a trip I will long remember. The wood smoke and roasted coffee smells may have finally washed out of my clothes, but those aromas and the noise of the fireworks will be staying with me for a long time.
Yet, next time I see a Guatemalan Feria on the calendar – I will pick other travel dates!
Researching and planning Guatemala:
San Pedro de Laguna hotels.