When we mentioned to people that we were going to Guatemala, anyone who had been here immediately said “You have to go to Lake Atitlán”. They said it enough times that I began to believe they were right. We decided that after a week in Antigua going to Spanish School, it would be nice to chill out at the lake for 5 days. They were right: it’s an amazing place. Here’s a little history and context for you thanks to our amigo, Wiki.
Lake Atitlán is the deepest lake in Central America with a maximum depth of about 1,120 feet. It’s surface area is 50 square miles. Atitlán feeds into two nearby rivers rather than draining directly into the ocean. It is shaped by deep surrounding escarpments and three volcanoes on its southern flank. The lake basin is volcanic in origin, filling an enormous caldera formed by an eruption 84,000 years ago. The lake is about 31 miles west-northwest of Antigua. Lake Atitlán is known as one of the most beautiful lakes in the world and is Guatemala’s most important national and international tourist attraction.
Ok, now that we got that out of the way, let’s clear something up. 31 miles from Antigua is as the crow flies. Not as the shuttle bus flies. It took about 3 hours to get to Panajachel, which is the biggest town on the lake and the most direct one to get to from Antigua. And this was not 3 hours of a relaxing drive where you chat and watch the scenery. There are a few spots of highway but its mostly small town after small town. Which means speed bumps galore, both man-made and natural (potholes). It was so bumpy that my Fitbit was convinced I walked a LOT that day. But I did not. Sadly. Everyone was a little green in the face by the time we arrived. The good news is that coming back we took a more direct route to Antigua and it was not as bad and only took about 2 hours. Still pretty windy, though. Mountains will be mountains.
One of the things that’s so interesting about the lake is all the towns that are perched (and I mean perched) on it. Each town has a different identity dating very far back to their Mayan days and much earlier than when the Spaniards arrived. The women (and a few men but not many) wear the traditional traje, which is a blouse and/or poncho and/or outfit that is specific to that town. Our driver took us first to San Antonio and we could see that the traje there was a pretty blue blouse with lines. The trajes tend to have specific colors with geometric patterns, sometimes in the shape of animals that they feel are representative of their culture.
When we got out of the van in San Antonio we were immediately accosted by a few very pushy vendors. We are at low season for tourists so we were fresh meat. Yikes. It was tough, especially since we wanted to ask all kinds of questions about their work and their blouses but to do so would invite strong suggestions to buy something. But we asked anyway and then I got wrapped up with the ladies who adorned me in a blouse for this humiliating picture. (Daniel strongly suggested I post it. I disagreed but acquiesced here nonetheless. Ugh!)
But we moved along and drove to Panajachel. There we had lunch and drove down the very very long street that was the market. It had everything under the sun, but especially these gorgeous textiles that they make here. We were not staying in the town of Panajachel so we went to the port and caught a water taxi to Santiago, where we had a hotel room booked for the week. Our friends Jay and Aaron were going back to Antigua the same day, but they decided to check out the hotel and came along for the ride.
The hotel (Hotel Bambu) is quite lovely, there’s a dock right on the water so we were taken right to it and settled into our one-room, one-bathroom suite. We don’t love hotels due to their limited space but this one is pretty nice on the surface, but with a few improvements that could be made that you don’t really realize until you’ve settled in. When we need towels or toilet paper, Zoe is our runner. With no phones to call the front desk you do what you have to do. Or Zoe does.
The girls loved the hotel for the lush gardens, 3 dogs who live on the property, the yummy hot chocolate and most of all the free kayaks. In two days they’ve gone out 3 times. I love that they are 1) enjoying something together and 2) outside in the fresh air and 3) doing something active. I love it so much that I agreed to skip homeschool when they asked to have time for kayaking. Sisters kayaking is 1) team building 2) physical education and 3) a lesson in physics (e.g. how not to tip over). That’s how we roll with homeschool, y’all.
Speaking of the weather, can we talk about perfection, please? There is no need for heat nor A/C in our hotel room. The weather is gorgeous… all the time. You (read: us tourists) wear shorts, t-shirts and flip flops all day and other than after the possible rain storm in the afternoon, you are not cold. No sweating! No freezing! It’s absolutely lovely. As I type this Dan is researching real estate on Lake Atitlán. Just “researching”, he says.
There are not a lot of high impact things to do on the lake but we are taking it all in and enjoying the down time too. The town where we are staying is known for it’s artisans so we have enjoyed walking down the street checking out the beautiful textiles and wood working. Supposedly there are 65,000 people who live here, which is almost double the size of Antigua. We honestly have no idea where they are because the town seems relatively small. But it’s sweet.
The women in Santiago go about their day in their traditional traje. They don’t wear them for the tourists, it’s what they wear. I was very taken aback on my way to my morning cappuccino. A group of women were walking together, about 20 of them, and I was struck by how they all looked alike. They were wearing pretty much the same outfit, at least to an untrained eye. They were all the same height, of very similar body shape, same hair color, all worn in the same style and the same skin and eye color. I can see why they might be fascinated with people from other cultures, since we all look so different, both from them and from each other. Zoe gets a lot of stares everywhere she goes. They just move out of the way for Dan. He’s a giant here. More so than usual.
It’s also very interesting that Spanish is the second language for most people here. Many of them speak Spanish well, but slowly and carefully. I hear them speaking to each other in a different language, a Mayan dialect. I’ve never been in a place where so much is unchanged from hundreds of years ago. And yet, the gal behind the counter at the store was wearing a traditional traje while using her iPhone 6, so it’s not like we aren’t living in the present time either. It’s a bit crazy to wrap your head around it.
We’ve enjoyed our week on the lake. It’s been relaxing but also incredibly interesting as well. Here are a few more pictures to help you get a feel for the place.
So here’s the bottom line: if you are ever in Guatemala and someone says “Oh you really should see Lake Atitlan” you can say “Yep, Allison said that too.” And when you go you’ll see I was right.