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After The Eruption


Touring Lake Atitlan

The Guatemalan countryside is muy bonito! That is, at least, what I discovered one summer on a bus ride from Antigua to Lake Atitlan. I had the most amazing time of my life, and the long the drive didn't matter. I was so taken in by the amazing scenery that three hours seemed like only five minutes. It was fascinating to see how the local farmers grew their crops on the steep hillsides directly beside the road, and to drive by all the cemeteries with multi-colored tombs above the ground. When the bus arrived at the hotel in Panahajel, I immediately dumped my luggage and boarded a shuttle bus to the docks where a boat was waiting to give my fellow travelers and me a full-day tour of the lake.

Lake Atitlan is actually the remains of a volcanic eruption that took place roughly 84,000 years ago and is thought to be one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. Guatemala is home to more than 30 volcanoes, four of which are currently active. Lake Atitlan happens to boast three volcanoes along its southern rim, as well as some really quaint Mayan villages on its shores.

After setting sail for the village of San Pedro, everyone was handed a cute little sack lunch in a souvenir tote bag, which no doubt impressed the ladies on board. The boat pulled up to the shore and we followed the guide up a steep road overlooking the lake down below. San Pedro is known for its coffee growing community, and during our guided tour of the village, I was surprised to find coffee plants growing in back yards and even houses built on stilts above monstrous coffee grinders. When we left San Pedro, I began to realize just how big the lake actually is. The ride from one village to another can easily take between 30 and 45 minutes.

The second village we visited was Santiago Atitlan, famous for its paintings of Guatemalan scenery and culture. We exited the boat and were swarmed by mayan women and children selling their wares. The guide said we could take pictures of some of the women who would pose in return for tips. When people started handing out money they fought for it like crazy. They would pull each other’s hair out for coins not even equivalent to US$0.05.

After the initial culture shock had settled in, we walked to their Catholic church and got a brief history on Santiago. There were 18 steps leading up to the church, which were supposed to represent the 18 months of the Mayan calendar. In the church, we were given a history on how Catholicism came to Guatemala, more specifically to the town itself. According to our guide and the local people of the church, there was a priest from the states that arrived in Santiago and began to take a stand for the Mayan people, who at that time were being badly mistreated. According to the church community, he changed their lives and was eventually martyred for attempting to make improvements to their quality of life and to the church. After discovering Catholicism in Santiago, we were introduced to the Mayan god of the village. It was a creepy experience to say the least. His name was Maximo and supposedly the people go to see him when they need his help. According to our guide, the people have to speak to him in Mayan because he doesn’t understand English. After all the stories I was told about him, I actually began to believe he was a real person. We had to pay an entry fee to enter the house where he is kept, just to take a look. Maximo allows photos to be taken for an extra charge. When I entered the room I could barely breathe. It was filled with the overpowering scent of incense. Maximo was sitting between two real life guards that they call the “brotherhood,” cigarette in his mouth, with a plate for money offerings. Santiago left me with a strange taste in my mouth. It was simply the bitter taste of an unexpected experience.

As the village began to fade into the distance, I watched the fishermen in little wooden canoes out in the water. Dark clouds began to tease us with the possibility of rain, which thankfully kept itself at bay. There were also women washing their clothes in the river, and further down the banks there were people swimming in a designated beach area. It was funny to see all the ‘moreno’ skins on the beach, and then somewhere in the middle, a small group of pale gringos. We stopped at the final village called Santa Catalina, where we were bombarded yet again by women and children. These people were particularly aggressive and would memorize your name and chase you down until the boat finally left the shore.

In much the same way that San Pedro is know for its coffee and Santiago for its paintings, Santa Catalina is know for its scarves. We were shown how the weaving takes place and then they even dressed some of the unsuspecting tourists in traditional mayan dress. After being followed around by a sad little girl all afternoon, I finally gave in and purchased some of her colorful bracelets. I gave here more than I thought they were worth because I felt guilty about cheating her out of money that I would probably just use to buy snacks. Our trip around the lake soon came to an end, but the memories have been instilled in my heart and mind for all eternity. I will never forget the places I saw, the people I met and the feelings that completely overwhelmed me.

Further Information

Travel tips: Don't forget your camera and money for the amazing souvenirs you can find.
Must see/do at this place: You should definitely take the boat trip around the lake. There is no better way to discover its hidden treasures.
You should avoid here: If staying overnight in Panahajel, look out for questionable people trying to sell you drugs.

Did you like this article? Then you'll like these: Quiriguå, Around Antigua Guatemala, Lake Atitlan Market Tours, Maya Traditions Hebal Medicine Garden, Climb an active volcano, Traveling With Kids, The Mayan City Of El Mirador, Camping, Murder And Videotape: Rodrigo Rosenberg And Alvaro Colom and Cancuén.

By Chantelle
I am extremely passionate about traveling and experiencing new cultures, particularly those of latin america. I see the world through the eyes of a...
01 Aug 2008

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