Thursday, April 25, 2013

A Day Away in Santiago

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San Pedro

Traveling in a straight line, Santiago Atítlan is about four miles from San Pedro. By boat, the trip takes about 30-40 minutes. It’s the largest of the lakeside communities, with a population of anywhere from 33,000 to over 60,000, the later if you chose to believe our tuk tuk driver, who also claimed to speak four languages. His English was certainly better than my Spanish, but I’m skeptical of his population figures. However, Santiago is indisputably the capital of the Tz’utujil Maya nation.
Lunch at the Posada

Yesterday, Solina, Gary and I went to Santiago to have lunch at the Posada de Santiago.

The Posada is probably one of the lake’s most beautiful hotel properties with excellently manicured grounds and gardens. It has six stone cottages, a variety of other sleeping accommodations, and a restaurant. The stone work carries over to the restaurant, which has a uniquely styled bar. Across the main road fronting the hotel, the property runs down to the lake and it’s where the swimming pool is located. Because the level of the lake has risen so much, it’s literally possible to dock a boat poolside. Both Solina and Gary know the owner, an ex-pat, who told us he was afraid that he was going to have to build another swimming pool if the water got any higher. He also told us that the property is for sale, so anyone who’s ever dreamed of operating a hotel in
Guatemala, here’s an opportunity for you.

Arriving in Santiago is not without its challenges, the biggest of which is trying to avoid the “shills” hanging around the dock who begin accosting you the very second you set foot on dry land. They become very aggressive as they offer to take you to hotels, restaurants and shops, which, of course, drives up your cost at any of these establishments because the shill collects a commission from the owner of the establishment. Naturally, it’s you who ultimately pays the commission.

Solina and I were amused that one of the shills was on Gary like “white on rice,” even though Gary gave the shill no encouragement. As we made our way through the mini-mercado of souvenir stands fronting the dock to the main road, the shill persisted in his pursuit of Gary. Solina and I were hard-pressed to understand way because Gary said nothing to the shill. He didn’t even make eye contact with him.

Negotiating a Tuk Tuk Ride

The shill was still with us when we got to the top of the main road, which is under construction, and at the point we needed a tuk tuk to get to the Posada. Here’s where I’m a little unclear because I was bringing up the rear and had to stand aside to let people pass on the sidewalk, which was part of the road construction project. The shill appeared to know the tuk tuk driver, and as our “spokesperson,” Solina was doing the negotiations with the driver. I couldn’t hear what price the driver was asking, but I knew it was high from watching Solina’s expressions and her gestures. Tuk tuk rides are very negotiable. The drivers routinely ask for inflated fares from gringos who, if they’re recent arrivals, don’t know any better and will pay them without question; they still seem cheaper than a cab ride in the States. In reality, they are, but expensive for here. Negotiation and a threat to walk away will usually bring down the price. But keep in mind that no matter how well you think you negotiated, these drivers are sharp and a native is always going to pay less than you for the same ride.

Makes Sardines Look Like Hermits

The three of us piled into the back of the tuk tuk, which was no easy matter. As former Boynton Beach City Manager Kurt Bressner used to say about the overcrowded conditions in the city’s police station: they made sardines look like hermits. The same could be said of three people traveling in the back of a tuk tuk. There’s not a lot of legroom either. My knees were literally tucked up under my chin and I was holding on for dear life so as to not get thrown out of the tuk tuk as the driver barreled over the cobblestone streets. During the trip out to the Posada, the driver kept up a running commentary about the history of Santiago. Unfortunately, I could hear only about every third word he was saying, but the figure he gave us of the population made me wonder about the veracity and accuracy of the other things he said.

When we finally arrived at the Posada, I had to untangle my feet to get out of the tuk tuk. Solina had volunteered to pay the fare and this is where it got sketchy again. Gary and I are positive we heard Q25 ($3.21) for the three of us, and even that was more than it should have been. But for some reason, Solina gave the driver Q100 ($13.00) and took back only Q25. That had to be one of the most expensive tuk tuk rides in the history of tuk tuk rides in Guatemala. Of course, the driver didn’t argue with her, and even offered to come back in an hour to pick us up. I’m sure that it didn’t take long for word to spread all over town about the gringos who paid Q75 for a tuk tuk ride. Gary and I made some jokes at Solina’s expense, but she took them all in good stride.

Fajitas and Prawns (or Giant Shrimp)

The lunch was excellent. Solina and I shared beef fajitas for two while Gary had giant prawns. I guess when shrimp get to be a certain size, they cross over and become prawns. Solina’s and my entrée came on a sizzling platter with grilled peppers, onions and a hot pepper. There were also sour cream, guacamole, a variety of other condiments and salsas, and, of course, tortillas. Gary’s prawns came with head and tail intact. Now I’ve peeled my fair share of shrimp over the years, but I don’t recall ever having them stare back at me while I was doing it. Keeping in mind that the Posada is possibly the finest (and most expensive) restaurant in Santiago, our fajitas for two came in at $12.86 while Gary’s prawns, which I think is one of the most expensive items on the menu, was just a few pennies over $11.50. Because Gary and Solina know the owner, and we had a conversation with him, our drinks were comp'd. Not a big deal really, Gary had a beer and Solina and I had agua mineral.

After lunch, we opted to walk back into town and were in time for the boat back to San Pedro. At lunch, we had talked about cocktails and upon docking in San Pedro, we decided to indulge ourselves. After all, it was already 4 o’clock, close enough to Happy Hour, and taking into consideration the time in Florida, I was already an hour overdue.

Drinks at The Deep End

After much discussion, we settled on The Deep End (f/k/a La Piscina) because it’s close to the dock and because when we left the bar, Gary would be going home in a different direction than Solina and I. The bar was empty except for Chelsea, the bartender, and one other customer Chris. Chris turned out to be a colorful character and his response to most every thing we talked about was “I don’t remember much.” It was one of those times you had to be there to fully appreciate the significance of the expression. When Chris said he had only 20 minutes to catch the last boat to Tzununa, I asked him if her knew our friends Marianne and Judy. Of course he did. After all, the town isn’t that big. The Bloody Caesar’s we had made a perfect end to a nice day. This evening, I’m meeting Gary for dinner at The Clover. It’s “Steak Night.”

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