Returning to the lake after 10 years I’m reminded again of how unique an experience Atitlan gives to travellers. It operates like a polarised Thai island. Instead of boats zipping around a central land mass, the lake provides an internal transport hub to the lake’s outer villages. Many of these communities rely entirely on dock-to-dock boat services. This anomaly creates Darwinian micro-cultural pockets of contrasting diversity seen in many aspects of daily life. Food, colours, weavings, handiworks and artisanal crafts. Each village has a slightly different flavour which inspires one to explore the many nooks of jungle clad rifts that climb dramatically out above the lake. Three volcanoes dominate the views to the south and escarpments scoop out of the north and east, in places reaching up over a kilometre. An imposing spectacle which Aldous Huxley called ‘too much of a good thing’, echoing Alexander von Humboldt’s claim that Atitlan is the most beautiful lake in the world.
A three hour ride from Guatemala City’s international airport brings you conveniently into Atitlan’s primary gateway, Panajachel. Today there’s an almost mutual balance between functional village and tourist town, the later predominantly oriented around the lakefront. A short stroll from your hotel you can enjoy a coffee in a modern café and pick up a souvenir or two. Walk a little further and you can be in the heart of the local markets.
A short walk out of town can bring you into the moist undergrowth of rainforest canopy and the peaceful privacy of nature. You’ll see squirrels, possums and some delightful birds among the chorus of insects. There are reported sights here of the national bird, the resplendent Quetzal which features on tour company photos but it’s very unlikely outside of permanent cloud forest.
As the furthest lake destination from Panajachel is a 45 minute boat ride many choose to base themselves in Pana. I would recommend doing so if you have less than a week to explore the lake and if it’s your first time to the area. Each of the dozen or so villages around the lake are quite different and offer their unique experiences so it’s advised to explore and see what vibes you most enjoy. I was asked by a traveller why I was heading to Santiago Atitlán so if you’re not sure, you can always ask someone else who appears to be. Down on the boardwalk you can find the boat heading to your destination and wait peacefully for passengers before launching off. These boats are fibreglass and can become quite bumpy when there is breeze across the lake, the speed is usually around 40 km/h but the rides are usually short enough not to cause sickness.
Mayan fire culture - the light
There are two active cultural efforts that are worthy of comment. One is a cacao farmer’s collective which offers fair-trade awareness and conscientious cacao. Based in San Marcos La Laguna, Lavalove hosts Mayan cosmovision fire ceremonies as a platform to elaborate on local customs and traditions. The ceremony begins with an intention and a ceremonial preparation of cacao, with optional panela for sweetness and local dried spicy chilli. During the fire offering an incantation is made to each of the 20 Mayan nahual energies and a reading is given as to the energy present on your birth date. You’ll understand the characteristics of your spirit animal and soft guidance for your journey ahead. I can’t think of a better setting for beginning an invitation into the rich histories of an indigenous culture than through the thick scented smoke of Palo Santo and heart opening cacao whilst sitting around sacred fire. Gratitude invites a sharing space for ancestral wisdom, some metaphor, an anecdote. A channel opens for the delicate concerns of environmental awareness and the extended invitation from the elders of intention and awareness. I am told by maestro Tata Izaias the energies of the Sacred Valley in Peru are menstrual, soft and healing. Here there is fire, chaos and transmutation.
A second cultural organisation is based around artisan weavers and their traditional interpretation present in their use of natural dyes, weaving styles and symbolic patterns. The four directions and four spiritual elements being fundamental in the oral legends, once more portraying a Mayan metaphysical narrative of creation and destruction. Quetzalcoatl and the ongoing rebirth of the replenished. Sharing the Dream is an NGO who provide a fair-trade commercial network for artisans using traditional Mayan techniques passed down through generations.
The weavers of Santiago Atitlán craft both typical designs and more modern weavings for sale online. You can visit the Cojolya Weaving Centre and Museum for a 2 hour tour where you’ll see the dyeing and the backstrap-loom weaving processes. Through the NGO you can also sponsor an elder.
Evanescent skies and lightning bolts - the dark
The epic dichotomy resting under the caldera of Atitlan is that the peace and beauty of the setting is the result of a super-volcanic and unthinkably violent event. The force that separated this volcano from its roots, exposing the lake bed would be nothing less than apocalyptic if it occurred today. The power of creative fire is at the heart of indigenous tradition and runs through oral parables in tales of the yellow path leading out of the darkness. The ceremonies and the chaotic representation in indigenous tapestries speak of ‘rising from the ruins’. Here we begin to understand Huxley’s apprehension, too much of a good thing.
Nearly all of Latin America suffers from the inevitable dilapidated infrastructure, a result of dramatic climate and weather conditions and there’s an obvious contrast between the sad, well-worn local tourist infrastructure of pleasure boat rides and karaoke bars and the better kept international tourist offerings. What you may not see on a short visit is the telltale signs of something not quite right in the heart of a community. Lock-downs were devastating to small isolated communities and communal activities such as the market restaurants have never been revived. Prices continue to rise and at the time of writing are 35% higher than Mexico across the board.
Fire energy needs to rise like a volcanic eruption, nothing less will allow a new dance to begin. There is sorrow in Guatemala which the locals are managing behind closed doors. If you are lucky you can get a closer glimpse of the Mayan shamanic transmutation, steeped in superstition and hardly accessible for visitors. However, what is at the root of these practices is the feathered serpent, turning in on itself over and over with a message. That regardless of what’s done to us, we ultimately hold the shame of our own demise, we dwell in the underworld until we find the courage to forgive all others and reclaim personal accountability. If we are strong in spirit, we are immortal. If not, we will fall… yet to rise once more from the ruins. This in itself is reason to visit the anomaly that is lake Atitlan and hunt down the wisdom that keeps a small sacred flame glowing.
Favourite place to stay in Panajachel:
Hospedaje El Viajero.
Favourite place to stay in San Marcos:
La Paz ecolodge and yoga.
Guatemalan jade, Mayan weavings, glass beaded souvenirs.