Guatemala: As seen from a treehouse, pickup and boat

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 11, 2014 - 4:16 PM

Memories of a recent trip to Guatemala linger from three distinct vantage points: a treehouse, a pickup truck and a boat.

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I’m waking up in a $39-a-night treehouse to the chitter of birdsong and the chatter of roosters.

The jagged peak of a cloud-collared volcano juts out my window in the pale predawn light. A Guatemalan avocado farm sprawls below hillsides connecting this tiny village of Aldea El Hato to Antigua, a colonial city of cobblestone streets and ancient churches dating back to 16th-century Spanish conquistadors.

For its price and breath-snatching view, this is the most spectacular lodging of my modest globe-trotting career. A step up from a hostel, the place is called Earth Lodge, and its international drifter clientele shares communal dinners of beans and veggie stew after sipping cocktails in Adirondack chairs. The conversation ranges from upcoming jaunts to Antarctic research stations to documentary projects on vanishing jaguars.

The cabdriver not only had to ask a local woman for directions on how to get here, but asked her to hop in with her kids and show us where to go: a forested cliff along which we walked about 20 minutes before we arrived at the lodge’s reservation desk, bar and tree-shaded patio.

From there, it was another hike across a field, past some $15-per-person “canopy cabins” and the $7-a-night “budget-conscious” dorm until we found the treehouse. A private bathroom with a hot shower sits beside a steep staircase that climbs into the treehouse, which is precisely the size of its queen-sized bed. A color-splashed patchwork quilt is tucked in tight. There are a few built-in shelves and, of course, the aforementioned picture window offering its volcanic view.

The most amazing thing about waking up in a treehouse high on a mountain is that it was merely one of three amazing vantage points that pierce my memory like a trident when I reflect on my recent journey to Guatemala.

Besides that staggering from-a-tree perspective, there was the view from the back of a pickup truck bouncing out of a cliffhanging village and the full-moon-at-midnight moment as our water taxi slapped across Lake Atitlan.

During our weeklong Guatemalan stay, we spent most of our time visiting villages that ring Lake Atitlan, Central America’s deepest lake at more than 1,000 feet in spots. It glitters some 50 miles west of Antigua and 65 miles west of the airport in Guatemala City, the country’s capital.

My wife and I went to visit our daughter and son-in-law in Panajachel — with 15,000 residents, the main city along the caldera-filled lake. Off on a two-year honeymoon adventure, Alison is working for a cooperative women’s weaving venture called Maya Traditions. John is teaching English to preteens at a school in Panajachel.

They neither have nor need a car. All the villages skirting Lake Atitlan are accessible by cheap water taxis, costing roughly $2 a ride or 15 quetzal — a word for both Guatemala’s money and one of its countless, colorful species of birds.

After figuring out “quetzal” means money, we learned the word “Pana” is what everyone calls the vibrant lake-coast town of Panajachel, including the singsong water-taxi drivers whose incessant “Pana, Pana” calls echo across the lake.

Pickup truck with a view

When we first arrived in Pana after a three-hour flight from Miami and a couple of hours on the highway, we decided to walk about six miles south along the lake to San Antonio. The village is famous for its handpainted porcelain pottery. The views were lovely and we felt safe, although we had been warned to watch out for pickpockets.

Our daughter urged us to opt for the popular pickup ride back to Panajachel.

For 60 quetzal, or just more than $8 for the four of us, we climbed into the back of a pickup with local moms, their smiling kids and young men hanging off the back — all decked out in the vibrant blues and reds that indicate which village they call home. It was local immersion, with a sprinkling of dust.

We left Pana — via water taxi, a boat with benches holding up to roughly a dozen passengers — for the quaint and steep hillside village of Santa Cruz. For three nights there, we called La Iguana Perdida — the Lost Iguana — our home. (The place actually inspired the Earth Lodge owners to open their inn with the treehouse, where we would end our week.)

Right off the taxi dock, we found the eccentric and warm inn. It’s run by a couple named Dave and Deedle. She’s a British scuba instructor who opened the inn to divers and backpackers. He emceed the open-mic night of jokes and songs, which were rewarded with free shots of whiskey or rum.

Dinner was served family-style, a meld of bean stew and chorizo one night; potato-leek soup and eggplant parmesan the next. Our dining neighbors included a former flight attendant from North Carolina and a high school science teacher on break from Washington, D.C. The rooms ranged from hostel dorms to cozy large suites with hammocks on the balcony overlooking the volcano-circled lake.

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