Lake Como, it seems to me, touches the limit of the permissibly picturesque; but Atitlán is Como with the additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It is really too much of a good thing. After a few days of this impossible landscape one finds oneself thinking nostalgically of the English Home Counties. Aldous Huxley, Beyond the Mexique Bay (1934)
Whether or not you share Huxley’s refined sensibilities, there’s no doubt that LAGO DE ATITLÁN is astonishingly beautiful, and most people find themselves captivated by the lake’s scenic excesses. Indeed its appeal is so intoxicating that a handful of gringo devotees have been rooted to its shores since the 1960s, and today Atitlán rates as the country’s number-one tourist attraction.
Hemmed in on all sides by volcanoes and steep hills, the lake is at least 320m deep and measures 18km by 12km at its widest point. Depending on the time of day its waters shift through an astonishing range of blues, steely greys and greens as the sun moves across the sky. Mornings are usually calm, but by early afternoon the xocomil wind makes boat travel quite a rock’n’roll experience.
The strength of Maya culture evident here is profound. Many of the villages remain intensely traditional – San Antonio Palopó, Santiago Atitlán and Sololá are some of the very few places in the entire country where Maya men still wear traje – despite the tourist presence. Around the southwestern shores, from Santiago to San Pablo La Laguna, Tz’utujil is spoken, while from San Marcos La Laguna to Cerro de Oro the Kaqchikel language predominates.
Most travellers base themselves in one lakeside village and visit other pueblos from there. Panajachel is the main resort, an enjoyable if touristy town that has an abundance of hotels and restaurants. San Pedro, with budget digs and a party vibe, is the main backpacker hangout, while those seeking tranquillity head for Santa Cruz, San Marcos or isolated spots on the north side of the lake. Other possibilities include San Juan, Santiago Atitlán and San Antonio Palopó all of which have a hotel or two.
The precise origin of Maximón, the evil saint, is unknown, but he’s also referred to as San Simón, Judas Iscariot and Pedro de Alvarado in Santiago Atitlán, and always seen as an enemy of the Church. Some say that he represents a Franciscan friar who chased after young indigenous girls, and that his legs are removed to prevent any further indulgence. “Max” in the Mam dialect means tobacco, and Maximón is associated with ladino vices such as smoking and drinking; more locally he’s known as Rij Laj or Rilej Mam, the powerful man with a white beard.
Throughout the year he’s looked after by a cofradía. Such is Maximón’s fame these days, and the number of tour groups visiting Santiago, locals actually use one tourist-geared Maximón house (which outsiders are directed to) and a second location where they can pay their respects to the powerful folk sinner-saint in peace. You’ll only likely be invited to the latter – a crepuscular pagan shrine where stuffed animals hang from the ceiling and incense and tobacco fill the air – if you have good local connections. Make a contribution to fiesta funds if you do get an invite.
Gorgeous Santa Cruz La Laguna, stretching for about two kilometres in a verdant ribbon along the lakeshore, is a supremely tranquil and beautiful village. With some terrific accommodation, yoga classes, kayaking and hiking, it’s not surprising its star is on the rise. Above all, it’s the (almost) complete lack of roads that really makes this place – just one little lane snakes up to the Maya village high above the lakeshore, and the only access is by boat. With no traffic to contend with, the lake really comes into its own, and it’s very easy to be seduced by the mellow pace of life, watching hummingbirds buzz between exotic flowers or Maya boatmen fish for crabs. You really can get back to nature here.
Most of the lakeshore has been bought up by foreigners and wealthy Guatemalans, while the Maya village is high above the water. The two communities coexist well, with many villagers employed in foreign businesses. Unfortunately the rise in Atitlán’s lakewater has swamped some shoreline paths, but it’s still possible to explore the Santa Cruz bay using a system of gangplanks and trails.
Cyanobacteria is blue-green algae that occurs in lakes worldwide, feeding on pollution from agricultural run-off and human waste. In September 2009, following a period of warm, settled sunny weather, a smelly gooey green mass of algae began to carpet the surface of Atitlán, at times affecting around thirty percent of the lake, and only fading as the temperature cooled and high winds broke it up. In 2010 and 2011 the climate was far more favourable and there were only tiny patches of algae bloom, but the threat remains for years as phosphorus- and nitrogen-rich nutrients remain in the lake.
Meanwhile, the fishing industry, once thriving on the abundance of small fish and crabs, has
been crippled by the introduction of black bass which eat the smaller fish and water birds.
Atitlán’s beauty remains overwhelming, although recent pressures are decidedly threatening. Sediment analysis has shown that the lakewater has risen and fallen in cycles for hundreds of years, but after the tropical storm Stan in 2010 Atitlán rose 5m in eighteen months, an unprecedented event that caused businesses to flood, beaches to disappear and threatened livelihoods. The once-idyllic lakeside pathway in Santa Cruz (a village particularly badly affected) is no more and docks in San Pedro and San Juan have had to be rebuilt. Theories rage as to why the lake has risen so quickly – some reckon landslides caused by Stan have blocked underwater drainage channels – but for Maya with centuries of local knowledge it was less of a surprise; their villages sit high above the shore, and many sold lakefront land to foreigners. For visitors, the impact so far has been pretty minimal, with only a handful of lakefront hotels losing land and Atitlán looks as beautiful as ever. But of course if the lake continues to rise more businesses will be affected.
It is rare but not unknown for hikers to be robbed in the Atitlán area. Statistically, the chance of you becoming a victim is extremely small, and hundreds of hikers enjoy trouble-free walks around the lakeshore every month. Nevertheless, if you plan to hike any of the volcanoes or the trails between San Pedro and Santa Cruz, check out the security situation first. Guesthouse staff are usually well informed, and some language school teachers in San Pedro can advise you about the situation, as can the tourist office in Panajachel.
Some of Atitlán’s more mystically minded gringos love to talk about Atitlán being one of the world’s few vortex energy fields, along with the Egyptian pyramids and Machu Picchu. Though you are unlikely to see fish swimming backwards or buses rolling uphill to Sololá, the lake does have an undeniable draw and Panajachel attracts a polyglot population of healers, therapists and masseurs. Indeed, back in the 1960s and 1970s, Panajachel was the premier Central American hippie hangout, though it’s now fully integrated into the tourism mainstream and is as popular with Guatemalans (and Mexicans and Salvadoreans) as Westerners. The lotus eaters and crystal gazers have not all deserted the town, though – many have simply reinvented themselves as capitalists, owning restaurants and exporting handicrafts. In many ways it’s this gringo crowd that gives the town its modern character and identity – vortex energy centre or not.