Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Independent – Contents Page 

Boat view, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Ben Connor visits Lake Atitlan and finds there is more to lake life than meets the eye.

Legend has it that beneath the deep waters of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala, there exists an army of the un-dead. Every year, prior to colonisation, the local Tzutuhil people would sacrifice one of their own to appease this underwater militia. This practice no longer exists however its absence, it is argued, can be linked to the number of people who drown in the lake each year. Taken, it is said, by the underwater soldiers.

If you pay a lot of attention you will notice the local Tsutuhuil people crossing themselves before entering the speedboats. It gives the place (which was described by Aldous Huxley as the most beautiful place in the world) a special kind of majesty when you consider that in the minds eye of hundreds of indigenous people dwelling on its shores skeletal soldiers, trailing marine plant life, are going about their underwater lives.

Lake Atitlan is a very large water reservoir in an ancient caldera formed 85 thousand years ago when a volcano exploded leaving a deep crater that soon filled with water. Experienced in its totality from a speedboat navigating the Lake, water splashing your face, the place is exhilarating.  Three enormous volcanoes surround its waters; beautiful mansions and traditional homes populate its jagged shoreline; verdant volcanic soils cover its steep escarpments – lush luminescent plant life bursting forth like pure volcanic energy – and when the sunsets you’re dreaming.

Add to this vista the many cute, though at times ramshackle, towns flanking its shores, offering accommodation, bars, cafes and tourist activities and Lake Atitlan is a very attractive place to sit back, relax and… think about underwater soldiers.

View from Casa Cortez, San Pedro, Lake Atitlan

My partner and I took it upon our selves to do just that, soon after our arrival stumbling upon the most beautiful little cement shack called Casa Cortez on the waterside outskirts of the town of San Pedro, where we stayed for two weeks (paying AUS$16.50 a week). With the door open, from our bed, we would look over a cornfield to the Lake, which every morning took on a reflecting, luminescent stillness like a mystic pool. Settling in we spent much of our days reading books and writing. On occasion we would jump on one of the speedboats and visit a neighbouring town for a bit of sight seeing or shopping or hire a canoe and row to nearby swimming spots. At night we would hit any number of funky gringo bars in the area, consume vast amounts of alcohol and speak in volumes about anything and everything our lubricated minds would touch upon.

There are many other towns flanking the shores of Lake Atitlan equally capable of fulfilling this criterion: Panahachel, San Marcos and Santiago Atitlan in particular.

Panahachel, generally the first port of call when arriving at the Lake from the outside world, is a great place to shop with stalls selling locally designed clothes, bags, jewellery and handicrafts. These goodies are all very cheap, and cheaper still if you can haggle. There are plenty of waterfront bars to relax in and should you be seeking cheap accommodation, further back from the water there are more than satisfactory hostels.

San Marcos, which can be reached by boat from Panahachel and San Pedro, provides a resort like escape. The town is subdivided in to the prime waterfront real estate of the tourist town and the local town further up the escarpment. The tourist section is a beautiful, rubbish free, fantasy world catering to wealthy travellers in search of spiritual enlightenment. While its separation from the reality surrounding it does suggest a degree of spiritual denial it is, indeed, a very nice place to relax. A headland provides many secluded places to sunbath and swim, some bars provide live tranquil hippie music and I am not in a position to comment on the authenticity and quality of the community of Guru’s gathered there, but should the experiences they provide allow a respite from the stresses of the world, then who am I to judge.

Santiago Atitlan is known for its worship of Maximon an idol formed by the fusion of traditional Mayan saints, Catholic saints and conquistador legends.

San Marcos, Lake Atitlan

There are also hotels, independent of towns, reached by boat, which provide a slightly more salubrious experience. Casa del Mundo, a case in point, is a luxury hotel built into a headland in between Panahachel and San Marcos. It is a Grecian like structure with multiple sandstone terraces built in to the cliff side at various points and which seen from the water in the context of the hotel as a whole, make up a complex, multi-tiered, very impressive sight indeed. The rooms, while expensive, are very beautiful, with amazing views of the lake and surrounding volcanoes. The food is high class and the common areas, including a spa on one of the terraces, are very comfortable.

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