Sunday, May 29, 2005


Lake Atitlán

This majestic mountain lake is one of the most popular vacation spots in Guatemala, and it’s quickly become one of our favorite weekend getaways. Ringed by lush green mountains and 3 towering volcanoes, the setting is relaxed and sublime. Adding to the charm, there are over a dozen villages and small towns along the lakeshore, most of them inhabited by traditional Mayan communities (both Kak’Chiquel and Tzu’Tuhil).

A panorama of Lake Atitlán's three volcanoes: Volcán Tolimán is on the left (peak covered in clouds), Volcán Atitlán is in the center, and Volcán San Pedro to the right. The village of San Pedro La Laguna can be seen at the base of Volcán San Pedro.

The lake is about 15 miles across, so you can easily see the mountains on the opposite shore. A ride across the lake on one of the large speedboats (commonly used for transportation here) takes about 20 to 30 minutes each way.

Volcán San Pedro and the village of San Pedro La Laguna, as seen from a speedboat on Lake Atitlán

A nice swimming hole at Santa Cruz La Laguna.

San Pedro La Laguna – Known for its well-established budget traveler scene, the town of San Pedro is a great place to relax, swim, hike, kayak, meet interesting people and party. It’s easy to find cheap lodging, and our favorite room in town costs the equivalent of US$2/night per person.

San Pedro is certainly a pleasant change from daily life in Xela. The area along the lakeshore where we spend our time is wonderfully verdant and tranquil, and the unpaved roads and paths are almost complete devoid of cars. It's especially nice to escape the contant honking of horns and clouds of black exhaust that characterize life in the city. Despite the relative tranquility, there are a couple dozen cafes, bars and restaurants to enjoy. These are spaced throughout a residential neighborhood and interspersed with small plots of coffee, bananas, mangoes, avocadoes and limes.

Coffee beans spread out to dry at one of the many little coffee fincas spread throughout San Pedro. Lesli observes from the restaurant at the top of Hotel Mikaso.

The restaurants include some excellent vegetarian options, including Thai and Indian dishes that are just not available in Xela. It's also pleasant to hear a variety of enjoyable music (rock, trance, world beat, reggae) in the various cafes and restaurants, instead of the grating sounds of latin Top 40 to which we have to hear endlessly in Xela. There are even a couple of little cinemas next to the docks, usually showing a variety of American films targeted at young travelers. (On one recent trip, they were showing Michael Moore’s Bowling For Columbine and Parker & Stone’s Baseketball.)

Breakfast at Shanti Shanti in San Pedro La Laguna

Our friend Holly (from Oakland, California!) and Carley, at Shanti Shanti in San Pedro La Laguna

The view of Volcán Tolimán (left) and Volcán Atitlán (right), from a restaurant in San Pedro

The view of the lake from one of our favorite hostels, Villa Cuba, just outside of San Pedro. Right next door is a small subsistence farm where the owner is growing onions and corn, among other things.

Carley and Sarah, on the porch at Hostal Villa Cuba

By all accounts, this town is especially popular with travelers of the counter-culture and anti-establishment variety, and the entertainment scene reflects this. The first night we arrived, we kept finding flyers advertising an all-night full-moon rave party on the beach of nearby San Juan La Laguna, about 2 miles away. We’ve avoided any rave parties, but the lakeside bars offer live Latin rock and folk music on weekends, and the scene is generally dominated by travelers.

San Pedro La Laguna caters to a particular type of traveler.

We haven’t had a chance to do any hikes on the volcanoes. However, swimming in the lake is one of our favorite activities here. (and Kina's too!)

A family swim!

Smile everyone!

Kina chases Simon and Ellie off the cliff into the lake!

A great isolated beach that we found, about 45 minutes walking from San Pedro. We were the only ones here on this beautiful, late-November day!

Kina's new favorite game is retrieving sticks from the lake.

Kina and Rob battle for the stick

Carley practicing poi while Lesli watches and Kina entertains herself with a stick.

Panajachel – On the other side of the lake is Panajachel, the most popular tourist town in the area, due to its proximity to the highway leading to the capital and Antigua. The view of the lake is stunning from the shore here. The town is full of shops selling all kinds of distinctly Mayan handicrafts, including clothing, bags, blankets, pillows, rugs, and jewelry, among other things. To add to the mix, there are also a number of ex-pat Americans running a variety of shops. Back in the 60’s and 70’s, Pana was reportedly a mecca for hippie travelers, and to this day a number of them have remained to set up permanent shop here, offering their own styles of jewelry, Chinese herbs, massage, etc. There are also a number of promising restaurants and good coffee shops; however prices are noticeably higher here than in San Pedro.

A beautiful roadside waterfall on the winding mountainous road down to Panajachel. Our friends Ellie, Holly and Simon are at the bottom.

The view of Panajachel and the lake, from a vista next to the waterfall. It is a typical rainy season day. We'll have better photos after rainy season!

Santiago Atitlán – The largest town on the lake and the commercial center of the Tzu’Tuhil Maya, Santiago’s main street runs right down to the dock, lined on both sides by shops selling clothing, arts and crafts. It’s not as commercial as Panajachel, however, and the prices are better.

Simon, Carley and Ellie on top of the boat which took us across the lake to Santiago

Persistent indigenous vendors in Santiago are still trying to sell their crafts to the gringas getting on the boat to head back to Panajachel. The vendors look desparate and unhappy.

The other main attraction in Santiago is the infamous effigy of the traditionalist saint Maximón. Villagers visit him to ask for assistance, offering cigarettes, rum and money, to the disdain of the converted Catholics. Also tourists visit him, to witness this peculiar figure, dressed in a felt hat and western clothes, with a lit cigar hanging from its mouth. (Click here for more info and photos of Maximón) It’s not easy to find on your own, though, because they move him around to different houses every once in a while. However there are lots of young boys who will lead the way for Q5 (about 65 cents).

The setting here is also amazingly beautiful. The town is situated directly between the 2 volcanoes closest to the lakeshore – Volcanes San Pedro and Tolimán. However the 9000+ foot peaks are generally obscured by clouds during the rainy season, so hopefully we can get good photos later this year.

On to our hair-raising climb up one of Central America's most active volcanos, Pacaya