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Just before dawn, dozens of angular wooden skiffs embark from the southwestern shoreline at the edge of a village called Santiago de Atitlán. The diminutive armada of boats skillfully manned zutujil Mayans, who have plied the clear waters of this beautiful Guatemalan lake for centuries, now disperse to capture their share of mojarra, or lake perch.

 

Gradually, sun rays illuminate the clouds parting at the peak of Volcán San Pedro, one of three towering volcanoes that form a majestic backdrop for the beginning of another day - part of an endless cycle of life here in the Guatemalan highlands, about 150 kilometers (93 miles) west of the capital city. As their men work the bountiful waters, Mayan women wash clothes along the shore, their colorful huipils—beautiful hand-woven skirts—rolled up just above their knees safely away from the lake’s surface. Soon, daylight allows a glimpse of the lake’s expanse, its white-capped water stretching roughly 11 kilometers (seven miles) wide and six kilometers or four miles long.

 

The perfect vantage point to witness this timeless scene unfold is from the wood-fired hot tub at the Posada de Santiago. This one-of-a-kind hotel occupying a couple hillside acres at the lake offers guests spectacular accommodations in private cottages or suites, and exquisite dining inside the spacious restaurant and bar. The food is legendary; every morsel is made from scratch. Coffee is locally grown and wood-roasted daily. The bar is amply stocked for every taste. There also is a lakeside pool adjacent to the hot tub, thatch-roofed “casitas” popping up along the property with hammocks, benches and chairs for the ultimate relaxation. There is even a small library with an eclectic collection of regional interest that merits browsing. And of course, there is the view: the lake, the volcano, the birds, and the indigenous population who move about their lives as though the Spanish conquest of a half-millennium before never arrived.

 

Proprietors, David and Suzie Glanville, California transplants who have lived and worked here for the better part of the past two decades, are commensurate hosts, offering vast knowledge about the lake and its surroundings, the history of the local people and their many villages that dot the hillsides around the volcanic caldera that created Lake Atitlán millions of years ago. They know every possible pursuit available for visitors—whether it is taking an escorted hike up San Pedro, waterskiing, horseback riding or participating in a walking tour around the village of Santiago de Atitlán, a 10-minute stroll away. David’s sage advice to all is “get a drink from the bar and find a hammock.”

 

Located across the lake from the tourist bustle of the village of Panajachel—Atitlán’s largest community—Santiago de Atitlán is the epicenter of a way of life found nowhere else, where villagers practice a blend of their ancient religion and Catholicism, grow maize on their hillside milpas and sell crafts and goods to the small crowd of tourists who arrive by boat from Panajachel each day for visits. Guests can get a flavor of Tzutujil spirituality by visiting the 400-year-old Catholic church at the center of the village, then stopping in at a local home where the Mayans worship Maximón—a smoking, drinking effigy who holds court flanked by village elders, moved periodically from house to house so no one family is allowed to accumulate too much juice from the local deity. One can take a photo or two of Maximón for about 10 Quetzales, a bit more than a dollar.

 

Unlike the day visitors, long after the tourist boats have gone, guests at the Posada de Santiago can witness the ending of the daily cycle: The sun sets and the villagers trek home from their labors. Now the sounds and sights of the night envelope the landscape and over the lake, a soft warm breeze gently carries with it Atitlán’s ancient scents.



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