When we docked in Panajachel, the main town in Lake Atitlan, early on a Saturday morning, our first impressions were that actually it wasn’t as crowded as we’d expected. We hadn’t planned on staying in the town but after a night on Jaibalito, which was lovely but rural, we decided we’d be better off staying in Pana so that we could take the bus directly from there back to Antigua the following morning.
We were wrong.
I’d been told everywhere was booked out in Pana when I’d enquired online, but we’d decided to risk it anyway. The streets were pleasant and other than a line of vendors grilling meat on the lakeside, there wasn’t much going on. Yet everywhere we asked was booked up. We eventually found a nice room in a small garden hotel that was set back from the main market street. We immediately handed over our quetzales and set about enjoying the rest of our day in Pana.
We ambled along towards the market, stopped at the beautiful Deli Jasmin for smoothies in the garden, browsed over market stalls filled with vibrant fabrics and politely haggled for some Guatemalan style water bottle holders. We related on how fortunate we were to have found a last minute room in Pana.
By 2pm, the streets were packed. There were families of Guatemalans, some in their indigenous clothing, everywhere, others from Guatemala City were lining up in the cafés, and a few (surprisingly few actually) Westerners were glugging jugs of beer under the hot sun. Music started pumping. The more people that flooded into the town, the louder the thumping music – which mostly came from corner shops selling water and crisps – became. We were starting to have serious doubts about staying in Pana for the night.
In a bid to escape the crowds, we walked away from centre of town to find a place to sit and stare out at the lake. In one direction there were dingy wooden buildings selling bad smelling food and once we’d passed those we hit a car park filled with travelling Guatemalans camping out at the mouth of the river. In the other direction, we ended up back at the dock. The land after that was fenced off and occupied by swanky, private hotels. We couldn’t see the lake for the crowds.
By nightfall, the noise on the main market street was unbearably loud. We quickly ate dinner and headed back to our hotel, which was temporarily less noisy, until 8pm when the music was cranked up so loud that the whole town seemed to be vibrating. Perhaps all the worse for being Semama Santa (Easter Week). Never in my life have I stayed in such a crazy loud party town – not even on an accidental clubbing holiday in Kavos when I was 18! I apologised to my mum, who managed to sleep thanks to one nearly deaf ear, while I huffed away in my single bed.
I don’t mean to smash on everyone’s fun, but more so than being annoyed by ridiculously loud club music when trying to sleep, I can’t help but think about how such an overwhelming party scene is affecting the locals and the environment there. One of the local women working in the organic restaurant on the main strip, who looked completely tired out, gestured at what a nightmare the noise was. In the morning, the locals were out litter picking, clearing rubbish from the streets and the lake.
Going out to have a good time doesn’t have to be some crazy affair that turns towns into party places that mean the local people suffer and that the infrastructure can’t support. Heading to clubbing destinations has become a popular holiday choice for 20-something Brits and it’s often us and the Americans who are blamed for participating in this culture, but actually in Panajachel’s case nearly everyone there was Guatemalan. Irrespective, it’s important to think about how our actions are affecting people and the environment and make responsible choices.
The following morning, albeit a bit dirty, Panajachel was back to being calm, quiet and pleasant. We rolled out at 7am while everyone else was still sleeping and found a wall overlooking the lake to sit on. We strolled over the the garden café for breakfast and assumed it was closed because no one was there, but one of the cooks ushered us in assuring us they were open. We had the whole garden to ourselves to eat fresh fruit and scrambled eggs in peace.
Panajachel by day and Panajachel by night was like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The chaotic night time barely resembled the pleasant market town of the morning. If you are going to visit Panajachel, unless you love to party hard, rather than staying overnight take a boat over in the early morning instead and enjoy the beautiful side of Pana.