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The hand-lettered sign was poorly copied and pasted to a light post. It read simply “Free Quetzal.” I understood the words but not the message. “Free,” well, that’s an easy one, and a quetzal is a beautiful bird, the national bird of Guatemala. The Guatemalan national currency is also called the quetzal. Was someone offering up a pet quetzal? Was there free money to be had somewhere?

 

Upon further investigation, I learned that “Quetzal” was a young woman from North America who had moved to Guatemala, changed her name to Quetzal and burned her passport, declaring that she was a “citizen of the universe.” Quetzal was busted—for overstaying her visa, for drugs, or just for being weird, I don’t really know. It seems the authorities in the Guatemalan town of Panajachel weren’t taking “Quetzal, citizen of the universe” very seriously, possibly because “the universe” does not issue passports. They locked her up until they could figure out who she was, or at least who she used to be. Her friends, still on the outside, had made the posters and put them up all over town.

 

One would think the Panajachel police would be used to that sort of thing by now. “Pana,” as it’s known to locals, is the biggest hippie town south of California. It is located on the banks of Lake Atitlan in central Guatemala, a postcard-perfect lake surrounded by three majestic volcanoes: Atitlan, San Pedro and Tolimán. It’s not a very large town, and if you were to remove the hotels, restaurants, cafes, bars and curio shops, you’d be left with some churches, a few dusty streets and the municipal building, where for all I know Quetzal is still waiting for someone to let her out.

 

Panajachel is all about de-stressing and chilling out. It’s a tourist town without a lot of the typical problems that tourist towns have: it’s never drunk and rowdy, the crime level is relatively low for Guatemala and even the street kids selling gum, candy and hand-made bracelets are fairly laid back and not as irritating as they are in other places. Many of the full-time residents are Americans and Europeans who moved to Panajachel years or decades ago, seeking a simpler life in a place where it’s always warm and sunny and you’re never more than a few steps from a marvelous view of the lake and mountains.

 

Panajachel is a good home base for exploring the region. Up the hill is the town of Sololá, where the residents still wear traditional, brightly colored clothing. The lake itself is an attraction: there is a small beach, but the water is pretty cold and few people swim in it (locals think visitors who do are crazy). There are several picturesque towns around the lake, and tours will take you there by boat. You can shop in Panajachel or in any of the other lake towns: if you’re an art lover, take a look at some of the paintings. Some tours offer horseback riding or mountain biking. The market town of Chichicastenango is within day-trip range. There are several Spanish schools in the area as well.

 

When the sun sets over Lake Atitlan, the three volcanoes change colors, from a rich forest green to blues and purples, and the tourists and some of the residents in town all go down to the waterfront to watch. Perhaps Quetzal is even there, free at last, enjoying the sunset.



Did you like this article? Then you'll like these: The Western Highlands Overview, Camping, Guatemala Dance, San Lucas Tolimán Overview, Neighborhood summary: Zona 1, Get off the tourist path: visit Yaxhá in Peten, Double Headed Eale , Grow Your Own Cure’ For A 1-day Adventure, Posada de Santiago, Lake Atitlán and Neighborhood summary: Zona 4, Guatemala City.


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