Posted by: Sarah | June 22, 2010

La Chica de la Laguna

I headed to Lago Atitlan this weekend, having been told that it is one of the most beautiful places in Guatemala, just a few hours away from Quetzaltenango.

I was more than happy to tag along with the other girl who is staying with the same host family as me and other students from her school, since they have all been in Guatemala for several weeks.  I am quickly learning that traveling here means continually asking people around you how to get to where you are going and they will at least point you in the right direction, even if that next step doesn’t take you completely to your destination. Bus “terminals” are street corners or ends of the market where buses happen to be parked rather than actual terminals. Traveling to San Pedro involved taking a (ridiculously crowded) chicken bus and a motor boat across the lake; the return trip consisted of three buses and walking halfway across town once we got back to Xela.

Lake Atitlan is surrounded by towering volcanos and villages set into the mountainside, 12 of which are named for the 12 Apostles of Jesus, each pueblo maintaining a unique indigenous language, which we seemed to hear more than Spanish.  Upon arriving to San Pedro, we were greeted by a Guatemalan who worked for a local tour company and offered to help us find a hostel.  We figured that he would expect a generous tip in return, but instead he laughed and told us that he just expected to see us out at the bars later that night (we obliged).  We were amused to find that the owner of the restaurant where we stopped for a late lunch was Irish, until we realized that San Pedro was packed with expats who had escaped to this picturesque lakeside town.

I am still so amazed by how cheap everything is in Guatemala compared to Colombia, which I know is much more developed but still serves as my reference point for Latin America.  At lunch, I paid 10 quetzales, about $1.40, for a Cuba Libre.  After chilling in hammocks on the porch of our hostel, which cost each of us 40Q for the night (less than $6), we wandered to the explore more of the town. Down by the docks, some locals asked if we were interested in kayaking.  When they told us that it would be 10Q for an hour, we jumped at the chance.

A young girl, who couldn’t have been more than 12 years old, took charge, collected our money, and directed everyone to the kayaks, telling us that life jackets were mandatory.  I asked her, jokingly, “Tu eres la duena?” Are you the owner? She didn’t hesitate when she replied yes.

Out on the lake, a short while later, she expertly paddled her kayak toward ours, telling us to be careful of other boats.  I was curious to know her story and we started to chat.  I learned that she was 10 years old, but as she insisted, her birthday was at the end of the month, so really, almost 11. I asked if the kayak company was her family’s, and she responded, that her father, was already, well… alluding to the fact that he was dead, and told us her mother worked in the capital city, making bread. Who did she live with here in San Pedro? Her sister, who was studying right now…and is only 15 years old. We ascertained that it was, in fact, just the two of them who lived together and ran the kayak shop.  Our little tour guide went to school in the morning, and her sister in the afternoon.  By this point, she was more comfortable talking with us and told us proudly how she spoke five languages (Spanish, English, and the indigenous languages of San Pedro, San Pablo, and San Marco), that she kayaked so well, since her father had done it since he was seven years old, that she had lots of friends in San Pedro, that she enjoyed art class and she was helping to paint a mural in one of the churches.

Caught between the worlds of childhood and adulthood, she and her sister were running a household and a business, while their mother was away in Guate, working to earn money for their family. I was torn between feeling that this little girl was far too young to be worrying about supporting herself and thinking that maybe she was among the lucky ones, since her family did have this business and she and her sister weren’t out on the streets…



  1. amazing story as always. Love the details of the little girl and the kayak shop 🙂

  2. i am really happy to hear about your updates and travel through you by reading this blog. happy to stay in touch again. im sure you’ll have a blast and i wish you best of luck in your travels…and stay safe. 🙂

    I’ve been lazy in the past months but decide to kick things back up a notch again, so im also back to blogging. Feel free to check mine out. Sending good vibes to you from brazil. Rita

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