10 Steps to Renting a House in Panajachel (or How To Inherit a Range Rover)

Over the past seven years, I’ve hunted for and rented three different New York City apartments—two in Brooklyn and one in Manhattan. At this point, I’ve got the renting routine down. I can spot a Craiglist gem as quickly as a scam, juggle brokers with ease, and know myself: I’m fine with a  sixth-floor walk-up, so long as it has crown molding, wood floors, and great light—but don’t even think about tacking on a 20-minute walk to the subway.

Finding a rental house in Panajachel has, for the most part, required a different skill set. There’s no Craigslist, and as far as I can tell, there are only two brokers in town. That said, finding a house like the one above (ours! : ) is possible, if you follow these steps:

1. Stalk strangers. Think the guy in the Michigan tee-shirt and baseball cap might live somewhere nice? Follow him home. Peek through his bamboo fence, or jump up and down to see over his front gate. If there’s a se alquilo (for rent) sign anywhere, jot down the number from it and call (but see #3 first). Find out if he’s moving out soon. If he’s not and you’re evil, offer to pay more rent than he does. You won’t make friends, but that’s not the goal here, is it?

2. Learn to hunt. You brought binoculars to Pana to bird watch and then realize that Pana’s a bustling town of 12,000, not a cloud forest. Replace the hunt for wildlife with the hunt for the elusive se alquilo sign. Learn to spot them through dense foliage and flowers, on coffee shop walls, and grocery store bulletin boards. Hone your skills so that you can interpret sun-, rain-, and time-worn signs. If telephone numbers are impossible to read, make a guess and hope for the best when you call.


3. Make calls—or actually, maybe, don’t. Let’s say—and this is strictly hypothetical—you phone someone to inquire about a used bike, and your end of the conversation in Spanish sounds like this: “Can I watch your bike last Saturday?” If that should happen (again, hypothetically), it may be best to let your significant other make the phone calls.

4. Master segues. Never extract yourself from a conversation without inquiring about a rental. It doesn’t matter what the topic of conversation may be. “Your daughter’s working in the States? Where does she live? Funny, I’m looking for a place to live, too.” Sometimes, a good segue may be hard to come by. “We’d love to volunteer for the upcoming Pana marathon. Oh, and umm…do you know of any houses to rent?” Keep practicing.

5. Bring your dog to scout out new neighborhoods. Realize that new neighborhoods are ruled by gangs. Dog gangs. And your dog’s on their turf. As these gangs approach, barring teeth and snarling, tell your dog, “Good luck with this one,” and try to quietly sneak away until you remember that you’re attached to your dog by a leash. Spend the scariest 20 minutes of both of your lives trying to get home unscathed. Hope your dog doesn’t hold a grudge.

6. Hang out with your broker. Spend three hours looking at three houses that are located just minutes from each other. Actually, spend just 20 minutes looking at the houses, and the rest of your time sitting by the lake with your broker waiting for keys that he didn’t bring. He’ll tell you this is an ideal way to spend an afternoon, as you madly swat at the bugs devouring your ankles and curse the disorienting echo that your dumb, large-brimmed hat makes every time you talk. Learn, among other things, that your broker’s Honduran, prefers to work as part-time as possible, and is a disturbing shade of dark red because he “really loves the sun.” Make peace with your large-brimmed hat.

7. Fall in–and then out–of love with a house. Your broker will show you a house on a cloudy day. You will love its outdoor terraces, large windows, and tiered design, with every room on a different level. Your broker will show you the same house on a sunny day. You will realize that under a blazing mid-afternoon sun, the stone and concrete that surround the house radiate oven-hot heat. Your fantasies of outdoor brunches and Sunday afternoon barbecues will evaporate as you imagine the many, many dollars you’d have to spend on enough sunblock to keep you from looking like your broker. Plus, during introductions, the on-premise guard’s dog will try to eat your dog for lunch.

8. Get into a fight with your broker. Send a short but polite e-mail to your broker telling him that you won’t be renting the oven-hot house. That evening, see your broker on the street. Approach with a smile and an “Hola!” just as he begins to yell at you and say that you made him look bad by not taking the house. Although startled, tell yourself to be tough in front of the increasingly red Honduran. Make a mental note that it’s surprisingly hard to feel tough in a striped French sailor shirt. Hold your ground–you do not need to rent a house you do not want–until he storms off, and then head straight to the bar to meet your significant other. Lament making enemies in your first two weeks in Guatemala. Cry. Scare off the waiter. Apologize to the waiter for crying so he will return and take your order.

9. Fall in love with a new house. Meet Marion, a crimson-haired Canadian who has lived in Guatemala since the seventies and runs a hotel in Pana. She will take you to a house that she owns on the lake. It will have a pretty, manicured yard with palm trees and flowers, phenomenal views of the volcanoes, and steps that lead directly down to the lake’s gently lapping waves. It will also have shade. Inside, it will be the perfect size for two, with one room on the first floor for the kitchen, dining area, and living room, and spiral, wooden steps that lead to a giant bedroom/office area with IMAX views of the lake. There will be a sauna and hot tub, too. You will take it.

10. Sign a lease, inherit a Range Rover, and be wary of Bob. Property found, your final step will be to sign a lease. It will grant you the house and a parking spot for a period of nine months. The parking spot will already be occupied, though, by a dilapidated, old Range Rover that Marion’s spiteful ex-husband, Bob, will have abandoned there in the hope of deterring renters. (Without a car, you won’t be deterred). Marion will tell you that it’s best to avoid Bob and then provide a strategy for keeping him at bay: “My friend owns the Vietnamese restaurant in town, and a street vendor kept setting up right in front of her place. After telling him repeatedly to leave, she filled a pot with cold water, threw it over him, and yelled ‘Next time, it’s hot!’ He never came back.” You will half-laugh as it seems she’s only half-joking. She clearly doesn’t like Bob.

Lease signed, you now have a house. Congratulations!

Here are more photos of ours (indoor pictures to come):

These windows are great for the views and for routinely flashing neighbors, fishermen, people in kayaks, and boats passing by on the lake.


If we disappear, know the foliage has finally taken over.


We have one very, VERY big bathtub.


An early morning view from our window. It’s just like the one we had in NYC.


Neighbors.


Another neighbor.


The house mascot.

8 responses

  1. WOW! What a beautiful home! I love it, and I love your tips on how to find the perfect house. Hilarious! But be careful posting these photos – you might just get a TON of visitors.

  2. Highly enjoyed your take on Panajackel. Moved here a couple weeks ago after driving throughout mexico from Hawaii via Arizona and found this pleasent place to hang on a six month lease. Met some wonderful, helpful locals and assortment of vagabons from all walks of life from around the world. I have a lg 2 bedroom near everything, including your friends Maya/Vietnamese place to share with a women thats gone through mid life changes without to much past trama that speaks both spanish & english, a looker & cooker and a friend I could hang with. johneynon67@gmail
    Or 57762557 Aloha

    • Hi, John! Well, seeing as it’d be me, you, Shon (my fiance), and two dogs, I don’t think that even a large two-bedroom would be large enough…but thanks, anyway! Enjoy Pana. The Vietnamese restaurant is yum.

  3. Hi, Melissa! Thank you so much for the information about looking for a long-term rental in Panajachel. I am in the process of relocating to Guatemala and have found an opportunity for work in Pana. My main concern as I look for an apartment is safety, since I will be living alone.

    Do you feel that Panajachel is a generally safe place to live? Are there areas of the city that I should be cautious about while considering apartments?

    Thanks, Kristen B.

    • Hi, Kristen! Thanks for writing, and congratulations on your new move and job!! That’s very exciting. Pana’s a pretty safe town, in my opinion. We live in a neighborhood now called Jucanya; there are lots of expats around here. The center of town has some hidden spots with nice apartments and houses. I’d be happy to give you some recommendations for where to stay–if even as a temporary solution while you look for something more permanent. Shoot me an email: mdenchak AT gmail DOT com, if you’re interested! And best of luck with your search!

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