“This Is Paradise—Why Travel Farther?”
“My eyes are feasting on the most beautiful lake in the world,” writes Latin America Correspondent Mary Bartnikowski.
“That’s what Aldous Huxley called Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. The volcanoes rimming the lake rise into the horizon, and every sunset is drop-dead gorgeous, with birds flying across the fuchsia sky.
“The lake is right outside my door, just beyond my front lawn, and I can hear it lapping the lakeshore right now. In the morning, birds wake me with their singing. I live in a bird sanctuary filled with birds I’ve never seen elsewhere. Then, each morning when I open my eyes, the first thing I see is the volcano with the lake beneath it. The deep blue of the lake melts your heart. It is just that astoundingly vibrant.
“There is a lively and friendly expat population here. Many of my friends have lived all over the world, but, as my 85-year-old friend Sarito, who was one of the first gringos to establish residency in Santa Cruz, said, ‘Why would I want to go anywhere else now? I live in paradise.’
“Sarito looks 20 years younger than 85, maybe because he has lived here for over 40 years. He’s a painter and sells his enchanting landscapes to locals and tourists.
“Most people have the same story about how they discovered Lake Atitlan:
“‘I was going to travel farther, but it was so lovely here I just stopped…’
“Same with me. I was going to travel on to Nicaragua, Honduras, and Costa Rica, but, as my friend said, ‘This is paradise. Why leave?’
“The weather here in the mountains is spring-like, cool at night but warm enough in the day to swim in the lake. The dry season is November to April; the rainy season starts in May or June and goes to November. The rainy season isn’t so bad; the mornings are sunny, then it rains in the late afternoon.
“Every day I meet another person I like. There are only 2,000 people living here, including the indigenous folk farther up the mountain on the pueblo. The lake rose 12 feet this rainy season, so I think they are on to something living higher up than we gringos, who like the lakeshore.
“There are no roads here. You have to take a boat to get to my house. And there are no addresses, as we have no streets. When I was ordering my new credit card from my bank in the United States, they said, ‘How can there not be a zip code?’ (You can get a P.O. Box in the bigger town 15 minutes away by taxi-boat.)
“We don’t have a grocery store, gas station, pharmacy, or hospital. No nightclubs or noise either. For all that you take the boat taxi to Panajachel or San Pedro. Right now all I hear are the cicadas.
“Medical care is basic but good. There is a clinic in Panajachel; I was the sole gringo in the waiting room for treatment when I visited, and they spoke only Spanish, but it was free and the care, again, was good. A female doctor who understood my hobbling Spanish said I needed antibiotics, but they didn’t have penicillin. So I walked next-door to the pharmacy and bought some for US$3 and then brought it back to the clinic for them to inject into me. All went well.
“My gynecologist here is from Argentina and practices both natural healing and traditional medicine. So I have a choice, and we make the decision together. The fee for my visit was about US$30, and she spent an hour with me talking about my health. This is luxury.
“What do I do here, besides reveling in the beauty and the serenity of this place? I make a good living.
“I’m a professional photographer (have been for 25 years) with my own business, which I have taken on the road internationally. I teach my three-hour crash course on how to ‘Capture Stunning Portraits and Travel Photographs’ to tourists and expats. I’m an author and have just finished my third book in this very house from where I am writing to you now. The book is Kitten Heels in Kathmandu, Adventures of a Female Vagabond (for sale on Amazon and my Facebook site). I teach kundalina yoga and meditation, too.
“Out here in this remote location, in this small community, I know almost everyone. We don’t get daily mail service, but we are hooked up to a satellite and all my communication is online.
“It is probably important to speak Spanish here, but I spend most of my time with gringos and, in truth, speak just enough Spanish to get by. Yesterday I helped out at a kitchen the owner of a local restaurant started, to feed a free meal to the elderly poor here. It would have been great to have been able to have a real conversation with the Guatemalans there, so I’m trying to learn more vocabulary.
“I rent a sweet, solid, small house for US$300 a month, including gas and electricity. It has a divine view of the lake and is set in a flower-filled garden. The owner is a young woman from Germany who keeps up the house and grounds beautifully. I don’t have a car or need one. I walk the lakeside paths or take the boat taxi into town to buy my groceries.
“You can find a good one- or two-bedroom house to rent for US$300 to US$500 a month. Figure US$30 a week for food, more if you buy particular foods imported from the United States. Fruit and vegetables from the market are juicy and fresh. Three mangos for US$1…
“Not having a grocery store isn’t great. The nearest place to shop for groceries is a 15-minute boat ride then a 25-minute walk or 5-minute tuk-tuk ride to the large open market.
“Sometimes it feels very small here, but then I visit another village on the lake. When I return, I appreciate the simplicity and silence of Santa Cruz even more.
“Yes the government has been called unstable, but, with a new president, hope and positive feelings are prevailing. I stay out of Guatemala City, as I don’t feel safe there walking around alone. But I wouldn’t feel safe walking around in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles either.
“I’ve been all over Guatemala, traveling solo. Never had anything bad happen. This is a place of enchanting natural beauty and an extremely low cost of living. Plus a good Internet connection. That’s important.
“Again, why travel farther?”