After falling in love with Guatemala & its lovely people on my 2007 visit, I couldn’t wait to go back. I wanted to spend more “quality time” in my two favorite places – Antigua and Lake Atitlan – and experience the country’s rich culture in more depth.
Soon, I was able to return to Guatemala in December 2008, with the first week spent in Antigua and the second week in Lake Atitlan. I attended Spanish language school in the mornings with my afternoons and evenings free to immerse myself in the culture and many local experiences.
In Lake Atitlan, I chose the San Pedro Spanish School in the charming village of San Pedro La Laguna. There, I opted for a “home stay” where I lived with a local family. They housed me, fed me, and graciously included me as part of their family for the week. It was a fabulous experience!
I’ve already written a blog post about my excellent Spanish Language School experience in Antigua and Atitlan. Click here to read. In this post, I want to focus on what it was like living with my wonderful host family, sharing their lives in San Pedro, and enjoying fun local activities. It was a great chance to experience life in another culture so very different than mine.
About Lake Atitlan & San Pedro
Lake (Lago) Atitlan is an incredibly beautiful highland lake, ringed by steep lush mountains and three volcanoes. A dozen quaint indigenous Mayan villages including a couple bustling towns line its shores, each unique. Lake ferries and private boats shuttle people between the villages. Located around 3 hours from Antigua, Panajachel and Santiago Atitlan are the two largest towns on the lake.
Situated on the lake’s southwest shore, San Pedro La Laguna is a popular location for language schools. San Pedro is an authentic Guatemalan village (population ~12,000) with almost all women wearing traditional clothing. The population is over 90 percent indigenous Mayan, speaking their local Tz’utujil dialect, in addition to Spanish.
In San Pedro, you’ll also find a Bohemian (aka hippy, backpacker) vibe from all the international travelers and an expat community comprised of Americans and Europeans. That brings the requisite cool little restaurants and bars, tourist shops, daily movies, and services like massage and a thermal tub. Plus, there are Thai style tuk tuks plying the streets carrying tourists and locals alike.
Meet My San Pedro Host Family
My host family was “mother” Viky, husband Raffa, 14-year-old daughter Jacqueline and 2-year-old daughter Mary. Vicky is a teacher. She also crochets and sews blouses and JanSport backpacks for extra money. Raffa works as a traffic police officer along with some labor in the fields as a second job.
They are devout Baptists and of Mayan descent, as are most of the people from the Lake. They speak both Spanish and Tz’utujil. Viky also speaks English but in their home, we only spoke Spanish. In the past, she had been a teacher at San Pedro Spanish School. Now she teaches local children.
Their nice multi-story home was located on a quiet residential street. The family lived on the first floor. I had a bedroom on the second floor with my own bathroom (yeah!). Another student Joe (aka Jose!) lived in an apartment room on the third-floor roof, which has a nice view of the lake.
This San Pedro Spanish School-arranged “home stay” at Viky & Raffa’s included 7 days of accommodations and 3 meals/day (except Sunday) – all for the whopping price of $60/week (back in 2008)! Today, the school’s website quotes a homestay with a private room & shared bathroom between $114-$149/week. It’s still an incredible deal!
Besides being a wonderful woman & amazing host, Viky was also a great cook! My Spanish classes were Monday through Friday from 8am-12noon. So, each morning I left fortified with a good breakfast, typically pancakes (aka crepes) or an omelette. The big meal of the day is lunch (served at around 1:30pm) and dinner is lighter, eaten around 7:30pm.
Each day, I would return home from school for lunch before heading out for afternoon exploration and volunteering back at the school with local children before the 5:15pm Conversation Cafes. In the evenings, I would often study at the house or accompany the family up to the town center.
Fun Activities with My Family
I quickly became part of the family and really enjoyed my time with them, especially my teenage “sister” Jacqueline. In Guatemala, the school kids were on their 2-month long “summer” vacation (Nov/Dec.). So, since she was on break, 14-year-old Jacqueline was game for anything!
She wants to be a pediatrician and I have no doubt she will – her parents were planning to send her to Guatemala City next year to live with her aunt & uncle so she can continue her education at a good school. On Monday afternoon, Jacqueline took me down to a pretty lake beach to see the views.
That evening, we took a tuk tuk up to the center to enjoy a special celebration for the Virgin Mary. There were a variety of bands on different corners along with fireworks. The highlight was a procession carrying a heavy statue of the Virgin Mary through the streets atop the shoulders of 20 strong volunteers.
Town Center’s Basketball Courts
San Pedro has a delightful and bustling town center, its streets filled with cars, motorcycles and colorful red tuk tuks. In the center next to the open-air market and the Muncipalidad government building were the large basketball courts (cancha). This cancha was the center of all happenings in town! Jacqueline loved playing basketball there with her friends (photo below in her skirt).
Many evenings after dinner (around 8:30pm), the family would go up to the cancha via tuk tuk – both to socialize and to sell cups of the sweet manzanilla fruit Vicky had cooked. The times I went, it was great fun to observe the “local scene” as everyone knew everyone! In fact, I’d see Francisco – my delightful 22-year-old Spanish teacher – with his wife and 5-month-old baby there until 10 or 11pm (below right)!
On Wednesday, the whole family again headed up to the cancha. That night was the bank’s new grand opening so there was another party going on! There was music and a DJ, a comedian from Guatemala City, and fireworks. Viky & Jacqueline stayed until 11:30pm but I left earlier to go home and study like a good girl!
On Friday evening (sadly, my last night in San Pedro), I went with Viky to the cancha, meeting up with Jacqueline who had first gone to church with Raffa. I loved watching all the action – there were lots of families and young people hanging out. Two different men’s basketball teams were playing, complete with a scoreboard, referees, and a sports announcer. Local kids were playing on the other court. Plus, there was loud, fun music playing to add to the always festive scene.
On Thursday afternoon, Viky helped me arrange a special treat for the girls – a horseback ride. Her friend Oscar brought 3 horses to the house. From there, he rode with Mary in front, and Jacqueline & me on our own horses following close behind. It was 2-year-old Mary’s first ride and she loved it! The ride was short (just a half hour) but the views were pretty.
Special Excursion to Santiago Atitlan
On my last full day in San Pedro, Viky & the girls and I took a trip to the next village – Santiago Atitlan – by boat to visit their bustling Friday market. Little Mary had never been on a boat (she also loved that!). Plus, it had been two years for Viky and Jacqueline, so this really was a treat for all.
We took the hourly public boat over to Santiago (a 40-minute ride), enjoying beautiful lake scenery along the way. Arriving at 9am, we walked from the dock up the hill along the main street seeing locals setting up their tourist stalls. In the town center, we spent almost an hour touring Santiago’s very busy & crowded market filled with EVERYTHING!
Viky also took us inside the town’s beautiful church set on a large square. It was interesting to see all the “dressed up” saints plus a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe (aka Mother Mary) with flowers atop a small float.
On our way back to the market, we saw avocado sellers with lots of future guacamole in bundles. The man in the photo, below left, is wearing the typical dress of Santiago Atitlan.
In the market, Viky bought a basket and a large amount of the jocote fruit to take back home to sell. Apparently, the quality is better here than in San Pedro. Like many local women, Viky skillfully carried the basket on her head. While Jacqueline, Mary & I waited near the restaurant, Viky went back to buy another basket of jocote!
I treated Viky and the girls to an early lunch at a nice restaurant so “Mom” could have a break from cooking that day. We shared a plate of local whole grilled fish from the lake with yellow rice, guacamole and tomato & a plate with eggs, refried beans and fruit. Plus, of course, delicious guacamole and chips.
Getting a tuk tuk back to the Santiago pier, we learned the next public boat to San Pedro was not leaving for 40 minutes. So, we decided to hire one of the many private boats, after Viky negotiated one driver from 100 down to 80 quetzales (around $11). This very fun “high speed” boat ride only took 15 minutes. From the front, Jacqueline did her best “Titanic” impression.
Saying Goodbye to My Family
Our Friday Santiago excursion was, indeed, a very fun outing for all and a great way for me to thank Viky and her family for taking such good care of me this past week!
On Saturday, I spent a little more time with Viky, Jacqueline & Mary (Raffa was working) before catching my 3-hour shuttle back to Antigua. I would spend the night there before flying home to the States.
I was amazed that in just one short week, my San Pedro host family, the Spanish school, and the town itself had truly become like home. I couldn’t have asked for a better immersion experience in a more lovely place!
As I bid a sad farewell to Viky & family, I promised I would return. Little did I know, another opportunity would quickly present itself and I’d be back for a visit in just one and a half short years.
Return Visit to San Pedro
Yes, Guatemala drew me back for my 3rd visit in May 2010. This time, I was traveling with my San Diego church for a “Travel With a Purpose” trip – which combined adventure, culture and sacred service.
We were going to Lake Atitlan to do service projects in both Panajachel and Santiago Atitlan. Super! Since I was going to be so close to San Pedro, I arranged to make a day trip there to visit Viky and family. I picked the day my group was playing tourist & visiting the famed Sunday market in Chichicastenango – a great market but one I’ve already seen.
After finalizing plans with Viky, I arranged for a private boat to shuttle me from Panajachel to San Pedro. I arrived around noon and took a tuk tuk up to town center where I met up with Viky, Raffa and little Mary, now age 3.5 years (still as adorable!). My former playmate, Jacqueline, 16, was off at school in Guatemala City, so sadly I wouldn’t get to see her.
We all sat and chatted a while to catchup on what’s been happening in our lives since we had last seen each other. We walked down the hill for lunch at one of my favorite lakeside restaurants, Nick’s Place (photo above left). Of course, I ordered the local fish and treated them to lunch. There, with beautiful lake views, we continued catching up – of course, all in Spanish!
Mother’s Day Celebration
Viky then invited me to join her that afternoon at a special event, which turned out to be the town’s annual Mother’s Day celebration. It was being held at Viky’s sister’s big home. Anna Maria is married to the town’s mayor – both delightful people.
And it was quite the celebration! In their large backyard, there was a stage, blaring music from big speakers – both from piped music and a live band from the town of Solola (about an hour away.). Sitting on chairs, there were around 600 women in the audience, ALL wearing their typical beautiful & colorful Mayan clothing.
And then there was me – a blond in a tank top and shorts! Yikes – clearly an easy case of “Pick out the Gringa!’ However, in the typical, lovely, warm Guatemalan style, they all made me feel very welcome.
As for entertainment, there was a very funny male MC and lots of music and dancing. Plus, there were poems and speeches for mothers (given in Spanish and the local Mayan dialect Tz’utuhil) – including from the mayor (alcade), an older woman, and a cute young boy in his finest Santiago style clothing (below).
Three women shyly but enthusiastically danced with the handsome MC and some other young men on stage.
Mid-way through the event, the town’s menfolk were put to work passing out food to the women – a plate of tamales with bread and cup of coffee. I learned that Viky’s mom had made all the tamales, which numbered around a thousand! She owns a shop and restaurant in town.
At Viky’s prodding, I went on stage (after the lunch) to give some remarks. Trying to hide my nervousness, I gave a quick one-minute speech in Spanish. I don’t remember exactly what I said – it was something about my overall appreciation for mothers and my love for the San Pedro community which had become my “second home.”
Another event hit was the raffle ticket drawing with lots of women winning two Tupperware items, including Viky. Some things (like raffles and Tupperware) are universal!
As the celebration was winding down, the MC invited the women to line up to enter the house and its courtyard patio where Anna Maria was handing out a gift to all the women.
So, I too headed inside to check out the action on the inside patio. Some adorable young women were doing the dishes, and some local men who had helped with the event were hanging around.
I got a chance to meet more of the locals and take some more photos, including of Viky with her two sisters (Anna Maria & Rosa) and Rosa’s husband. (photos below). I felt so incredibly blessed to be included, as part of the lovely “San Pedro family.”
It was now after 5pm and I needed to find a boat ride back to Santiago to meet my group (who had switched towns & hotels today). The MC introduced me to Jose who owns a boat and Jose said he’d take me there for 150 quetzales (around $20).
After saying my sad goodbyes once again to Viky and her wonderful extended family, Jose walked me down to the dock. He took me to his larger boat manned with a young driver. Before leaving, they added two more local passengers for the ride to Santiago.
Arriving at the hotel, I couldn’t wait to tell my church friends about the amazing day I just had in San Pedro – truly an experience I’ll always treasure. And, it turns out, one that I’ll write about someday in my Planet Janet Travels blog post… Well, it looks like someday is now. I hope you have enjoyed!
My Fun & Rewarding Spanish Language School Experience in Guatemala
If you’d like to know more, check out my blog post about my 2 excellent weeks of language school in Antigua & San Pedro. There are a few more photos of San Pedro in that post.
Guide to the Towns of Lake Atitlan
This is a good article by young (and very good!) travel blogger “Adventurous Kate.” She tells you about the many interesting towns and villages of the Lake and all their different flavors.
Here’s an interesting article about how in 2018 San Pedro La Laguna quietly became a national leader in Guatemala on the pressing environmental challenge of plastic pollution – and how they rid themselves of single-use plastic! You go San Pedro – I’m proud of you!
What Is a Huipil?
A huipil (pronounced wee-peel) is the embroidered blouse worn by indigenous women in Guatemala. Women in Guatemala pair their Huipil with a traditional long fabric skirt [corte]. This is the beautiful clothing that the women in San Pedro wore. Here’s an article to tell you more about it.
COMMENTS: Have you ever done a home stay in a foreign country? Was it part of a language immersion program or something else? How was your experience? Is this something you might like to do?
Carol Leimbach says
I love this blog. I studied Spanish in Guadalajara after I graduated from college and so enjoyed it. I have always wanted to go to Lake Attitlan and have been to Antigua on a Panama Canal cruise. Your adventure inspired me. I did study in Tulum in 2018,
and have been taking conversational Spanish through Pura Buena Onda.
I hope to get back to Guatemala one day!
Planet Janet says
That’s wonderful, Carol. Yes, you have a wonderful history with studying Spanish and had a good intro to Guatemala with Antigua. Glad you were inspired! And, knowing you, I do think time at Lake Atitlan in language school with a host family would be a great experience. Hopefully, you could even ask for Viky, if she’s still hosting students. Be sure to spend a little more time in Antigua too. All the best!