Lake Atitlan is absolutely beautiful, at an altitude of 4,500ft with uniquely distinct villages and towns scattered around its shores! There are 3 volcanoes that rise up from the edge of the water and tower 6,000ft above the lake, Volcan San Pedro, Toliman and Atitlan. Every evening when the sun drops behind the volcanoes it creates a very colorful sky of orange and red. A few nights the clouds have dropped and you can only see a silhouette of the volcanoes. It’s very impressive.
Unfortunately for the people that own property here, the lake waters have been rising and many beautiful properties, homes and stores are now totally submersed underwater. They have built make-shift docks around the perimeters and built temporary sea walls for protection, but there is nothing to stop the water. In 1996, divers located a Mayan community 115 feet below the surface estimated to be over 2000 years old. The Mayans have all built their communities high above in the mountains. Many believe they knew based on old stories passed down from centuries that the waters would rise and fall. I guess no one told the gringos!
We started the lake tour in Panajachel. It’s one of the bigger towns on the lake and we thought it would be a great place for New Year’s Eve. The town was packed with hippie travelers – dreadlocks galore! I think dreadlocks are a “badge of travel”, the longer and more mangled, the longer the person has traveled. I‘m not a fan so you won’t see me with dreadlocks ever, even if we’re gone for years! On New Year’s Eve, we headed out to the main street expecting to see all the people from the day before. The town was relatively quiet – where did all the hippies go? We walked around town, had a couple of local beers and decided to head back to the hotel around 9. We bailed on the night and went to bed. I’ve never been a big New Year’s person anyway and we were going to climb a volcano on New Year’s Day so it was good. (We later found out there was a music festival just outside of Panajachel and all the hippies were there for the party! The fireworks we heard were amazing.)\
On New Year’s Day we took a boat to San Pedro to hike Volcan San Pedro. A tour operator in Panajachel told us not to pay the $65pp for a guided trip. He said to take the local boat, show up at the park, and pay for a guide there and the price should be half of the Panajachel guided trip. When we arrived on the San Pedro dock, we couldn’t find anything pointing us to the volcano entrance or a tuk-tuk to take us there. A local guide saw us wondering about aimlessly and offered to help. He said he would charge 100q, approximately $13pp for the guided trip with transportation – woohoo! We had to promise not to tell the other couple hiking with us about our discounted rate – they had paid the full fare!
It’s a 3 hour hike (like being on a stair master) with altitude to reach the summit of San Pedro, but it was worth it. We had a pretty clear day and could see the entire lake in all it’s glory! The guide only spoke Spanish, but that gave Wayne plenty of time to test his new skills (we only understood about half of what he said…hehe!).
On Wednesday we headed to Santa Cruz la Laguna, another lake side community. The village is very laid back with only a few hotels and restaurants. In Santa Cruz you can see up close the destruction caused by the rising waters. We stayed in La Casa Rosa right on the lake shore and the entrance to our hotel and a lot of their garden is now completely underwater. I guess it adds a bit of character to the place, but hopefully their beautiful sunset bar will not be covered anytime soon – it’s probably only 2 feet away from being underwater! The hotel next door is the “official” backpacker lodge of Santa Cruz. We wanted to stay there because it was much cheaper and there were many people milling about at all hours. We had most of our meals there. We spent 2 wonderful days walking the trails of Santa Cruz and admiring the view of the lake and volcanoes.
After speaking with other travelers and reading the guide book we had been told of a town on the lake called San Juan la Laguna, a very clean town that others are trying to emulate. It has many co-operatives where the local artists, weavers, medicinal people, and coffee makers get together in small groups and sell their products, as well as giving tours to the many visitors. We arrived at the dock to a throng of guys offering us a tour of the co-operatives and the town. This was a little overwhelming but Wayne made his decision and off we went with one of them on foot, up the hill leading into town. It was a good decision as we spent the next hour and a half discovering places we would never have found on our own!
We were trying to cram one last lakeshore town into today’s itinerary so off we headed to Santiago Atitlan, the largest town on the lake. We knew we didn’t have much time before having to get the last boat back to Panajachel, and eventually Santa Cruz. A tuk-tuk driver offered to take us to see the Maximon, the “evil saint” of San Simon – every May he changes residence and our tuk-tuk driver assured us that this is the original Maximon, and other towns only imitate this one! We walked in the door of the house and both burst out laughing, as there was a shrine for this little four foot dummy dressed with many ties around his neck, a cigarette in his mouth and bottles of liquor at his feet. We paid the 2q each to take a photo and both thought this was a big scam! There is apparently a more legitimate Maximon closer to Antigua but this one does seem to be the real deal in Santiago Atitlan.
Our final night on the lake was spent watching the 50 other hostel guests eating the communal dinner as we had not put in our dinner request due to thinking it was the same food as the night before. I knew we should have asked before leaving for the days travels! It wasn’t so bad as the beer and quiz night were still a blast.
In the morning we’re off to Chichicastenango on the Chicken bus for the renowned Sunday market. Wayne wants to get there a day early so we can hang out in the town and watch them prepare for the market. There is also a very colorful cemetery and Iglesia de Santo Tomas, a religious place for the Mayans.
December 30th 2012 – January 5th 2013