When the world isn’t being ravaged by a pandemic, my husband, who goes by the name Marco Solo, and I play music in Panajachel. At least once a week, someone from the audience says: “So tell us your story. How did you end up in Guatemala?”
Marco’s story of coming to Guatemala begins in 1978 with a musical quest.
I had musician friends who came to the restaurant where I was playing in Portland, Oregon, and they told me about Lake Atitlan. I had already thought that I might travel south to learn about pan pipes.
I’d heard pan pipes in the soundtrack for the movie The Tall Blonde Man With One Black Shoe, which piqued my interest. I had ordered some from a music store, but they were terrible and I sent them back. I decided that if I really wanted to learn about pan pipes, I needed to go to Peru.
I figured I’d come to Lake Atitlan and see how things went: maybe I’d travel on to Peru. I wasn’t too hopeful, though, because I was broke hippy musician and I didn’t really have the money to travel that long.
My girlfriend, Marisa, and I made our way down the West Coast of the US and flew from Tijuana to Mexico City. We traveled by bus to Antigua, Guatemala, picking up a little Spanish along the way. We’d planned to go directly to the lake, but as we got close it was nearing nightfall and the idea of getting off the bus in Los Encuentros (at that time the middle of nowhere) was too overwhelming. We went on by, but saw the lake and volcanoes out the bus window and knew we needed to return.
After a short stay in Antigua we decided to return to the lake. We had to take four buses—an arduous journey. The first bus change was in Chimaltengango, which had been nearly destroyed in the earthquake two years earlier. I didn’t get a seat on that bus and had to stand all the way to Los Encuentros (about two hours).
In Los Encuentros, we got into a ramshackle van. Even then, every bus and van had a helper (ayudante in Spanish). With this van, the ayudante’s other duty was to be third gear: the shift lever wouldn’t stay in third gear unless he held it there. We changed to another ramshackle van in Sololá: not a journey for the faint of heart.
Arriving in Panajachel
The bus let us off right in front of the church. It was a Saturday: at that time there was a gringo market there on Saturdays. It was a place where gringos would sell the stuff they didn’t need before heading back home. The first people we met were Jim and Marta. I’m still in touch with Marta more than 40 years later.
Marisa and I were hired to play at The Last Resort (the only bar in town) almost immediately. The Last Resort was run by Oaxaca Bob… a shady character if there ever was one. He was a fixture in Panajachel and the Rio Dulce until his death a few years ago.
Oaxaca Bob invited the manager of the Hotel Del Lago to come hear us. We were hired immediately for the Christmas season. We worked through New Years, and I made enough money to take the next month off and go trekking around Guatemala. It took three weeks to get from Panajachel to Tikal, including a boat trip on the Rio de la Pasión. I’ll share my adventures from that trip at another time.
I got back to Pana in time to be hired for Easter, again with Marisa though we were no longer a couple.
After Easter I had significantly more money than I’d started with and realized I could continue my travels. I bumped into a girlfriend from Portland (yes, in Pana–it’s a small world) and we decided to travel to South America together. The stories from South America are also for another time.
I spent about a year in South America: mostly in Ecuador, but also in Peru and Columbia. I learned about pan pipes and brought a couple back. I also learned about South American folk music and met some amazing musicians. However, a nasty bout of hepatitis convinced me that it was time to head home, with a stop in Panajachel along the way.
Return to Panajachel
I figured I would work for a while in Panajachel, earn some money for the rest of the trip home, and go back to Portland.
I started playing at the Hotel Del Lago, the Hotel Atitlan, and other places around town. It was 1980, and the political situation in Guatemala was degenerating. Then I met Elena, who had a house in Pana. The army was in town, but I could still go to the lake every day to swim. I learned to spearfish. The lake was spectacular and clear (no power boats or pollution).
I had a comfortable home, and I had gigs in Pana, Guatemala City, and Antigua. The Circus Bar opened and I played there a lot. I started making pan flutes from the caña on the property.
The weeks turned into months and then into years. There was less and less to go back to in Portland—my roots there were not deep. Elena and I married in 1981. Apparently, I was home.
Share this post!