View of the learning stations at San Pedro Cooperativa, Lake Atitlan

Studying Spanish in San Pedro, Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan In The Rain
Lake Atitlan In The Rain

I’d been travelling alone for a just little less than a week. For the past two days I had been stopping in Panajchel, known as Pana locally, where it had rained pretty solidly throughout my stay. I’d come to the conclusion that I’d made a mistake stopping here at all, as I’d found it to be little more than a main street with restaurants, bars and shops that catered to us tourists. I discovered too late that it is very easy to skip past Pana and get a boat across the lake straight away.

So, first thing that morning, I had dragged my suitcase round to the jetty, clattering along the cobbles as I went. At the quayside I pulled my suitcase on to the roof of the boat and squinted at the rain pummelling against it. It looked precarious, and wet already. “Safe?” I asked the captain, “Yes” he agreed. My Spanish perfectly matched my mood, hesitant and a bit miserable.

I clambered on board and sat in the hull of his fibre glass boat. A few young locals sat there, chatting away in a language I didn’t recognise. I thought it could be Spanish with a local accent, although I hoped it was a Mayan language as I couldn’t understand a word. Some of the softer “sh” sounds certainly seemed strange and unfamiliar.

Through the plastic windows it was just about possible to see the drizzle that formed a mist across the lake. We waited for about twenty minutes for more passengers to join us and this was probably the worst time of the trip so far. Cold, wet and miserable and without anyone to share it with. I wasn’t regretting carrying on alone, but I could have done with feeling a bit more cheerful.

Boats on Lake Atitlan in the rain
Boats on Lake Atitlan in the rain

And then the captain slipped the mooring rope free, pushed away from the jetty, and accelerated towards the middle of the lake. The boat shifted back and both rain and spray splattered our faces. There were some laughs amongst us and smiles were exchanged. The guys at the front of the boat pulled the plastic flaps in front of them to protect us all. Finally moving, and with just a hint of communication with those around me, my mood started to lift.

Vicki and I had planned to spend a month on Lake Atitlan studying Spanish. With the change of circumstances and the extra time we had spent in Puebla I ended up studying for just two weeks in San Pedro.

I’d done some research into the options beforehand, including reading this very good summation of the schools on offer by Stefan from a few years back. In the end I decided upon San Pedro Cooperativa, firstly because it is a co-operative and secondly because they run a number of projects with people locally. The school offers one-to-one teaching, as do most of the schools on the lake. I also opted to stop with a local family for the two weeks I studied there.

On that first morning I was introduced to Clarita, my teacher for the next two weeks. Warm, friendly and dressed in traditional Mayan style, she led me to our straw covered hut in the cooperativa’s beautiful garden and promptly gave me a test. We got on immediately.

View of the learning stations at San Pedro Cooperativa, Lake Atitlan
View of the learning stations at San Pedro Cooperativa, Lake Atitlan

When school was over I was met by Jose, the father of my host family. He lead me back down the hill and over to his house, introducing me to his wife Maria and son Felix. Maria was a perfect host. She welcomed me into her home, cooked me three meals a day and helped me practice my Spanish on her. She works six days a week in Nick’s Place, a local restaurant, and Jose is a teacher.

The house was undoubtedly the simplest accommodation I’ve had so far on my travels. But, it was comfortable and clean. In two weeks I learnt just a little bit about the family’s life, as well as having some good conversations (well, as good as my Spanish allows) about Guatemalan politics.

The presidential elections were held the weekend I stopped with them. Jimmy Morales, a TV personality and comic actor, won and was elected president. We were able to joke that at least Guatemala has the honesty to elect an actual comedian to lead them.

By the time I left San Pedro, I was feeling a lot better about myself and about continuing on with my travels. My Spanish had been significantly re-inforced by two weeks in the Cooperativa; I’d spent time getting to know some warm and welcoming local people and I’d been living on Lake Atitlan, which is one of the most stunning places I’ve ever visited.

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