Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

(October 2008)

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Elaine, Sierra, Cooper and I had fun 9 day excursion to Guatemala.  We arrived in Guatemala City where we meet up with our friends Ken, Haviland and their son Sam.  They have recently moved to Guatemala City to teach (and go to kindergarten in Sam's case), and graciously hosted us, allowing a relaxed "base" in an otherwise chaotic city.

The following morning we were shuttled three and a half hours up to the town of Panajachel which sits along the shores of the stunning volcano rimed caldera of Lake Atitlan.  This was an area I had first visited 16 years earlier (in 1992), and like my trip earlier this year to Flores Guatemala, I was surprised by the prosperity and growth of the town in my absence (more cobblestones and asphalt, less pot holes and dirt roads).  I also had a wonderful sense of satisfaction in taking Sierra and Cooper to a place where I had "cut my travel teeth" (sort of speak), and looked forward to showing them the many cultural and natural sights in the area.  It was a "full circle of life" -  "parental moment" kind of feeling.

Lake Atitlan was formed some 85,000 years ago in a massive volcanic explosion. Its ashes and rocks are said to have been found as far away as Panama to the south, and Florida to the east (kaboom!).  Continued volcanic activity formed the three towering volcanoes - El Toliman (10,361 ft), Atitlan (11,598 ft), and San Pedro (9,908 ft) along the south shore.  These are joined by the Cerro Chicul or Santa Clara peak (7,970 ft).  On the western shore is Cerro San Marcos (9,571 ft) and Cerro Cristalino (7,383 ft), subsidiary cones of the three volcanoes. Adjacent mountains and other nearby Cerros, rising up to a 3000 feet on both sides, along with the lush forests make the lake a natural wonder.  Adding to the natural delight of the area is the local Mayan population, with its "traditional lifestyle", friendly demeanor and colorful dress, making for a "cultural experience".

We settled into the family run hotel Utz-Jay, where their pet German Sheppard's were as big of a hit for Sierra and Cooper as the breakfast crepes were for Elaine and I.  The accommodations were so nice and relaxed that we ended up spending the week there, using it as a base to explore the area.

Our first outing was to San Juan via a 20 minute public "lancha" ride. San Juan is known for its weaving.  The community has made an effort to preserve the traditional Mayan weaving techniques (natural plant dyes, hand looms), and it shows the heritage off at several small shops.  Sierra and Cooper were a bit ambivalent about seeing the labor intensive process, so we continued our journey by making the half hour walk over to another village called San Pedro.  Along the way we meandered through coffee and corn fields, giving the standard "Hola! Buenos dias!" along with the timeless "I'm cool you're cool" head nod greeting to countless locals we ran into.  San Pedro was much more touristy, giving us an opportunity to have a picturesque lunch at one of the many restaurants overlooking the lake.  Also of note was the lancha ride back to Panajachel, where we skiffed though a large area of floating pumice, nosily rattling the hull.

After seeing tuk-tuks on the streets of Panajachel, Sierra and Cooper were desperate to go for a ride, so the following morning we flagged one down and headed out to a nature preserve.  The forest had a suspension bridge-clad trail, giving us a view of the canopy, and was incredibly lush.  There were all sorts of fantastical (to the North American mind) flora and fauna.  Monkeys, strange raccoon like creatures called cotamundis, Tarzan like vines, plants with 20 foot palm leaves and butterflies galore along with countless other plants and insects.  We spent the better part of the morning wandering though the preserve, only drawn back to town by our hunger.

The next morning we headed to the market town of Chichicastenango via shuttle.  The hills enveloped in clouds along the way made for sublime scenery.  The market itself was colorful and full of standard tourista fare.  Sierra and Cooper delighted in choosing a few trinkets, although were frustrated by the bargaining process.  We were also able to see some classic Latin American sights as we perused the town.  A group of men watching a soccer match in front of a store (as they were avid fans but didn't own their own t.v.s), small "collectivo" pickup trucks with their beds full of people (inexpensive communal taxi) and people selling traditional medicinal plants (we were told that 90% of the population used "traditional medicines" as opposed to "western medicines").  I found the town church interesting (dating from 1540), where local Mayan deities sat alongside Catholic ones with no apparent conflict of interest.  They say that the church was built on the site that was originally a Mayan temple (a standard Spanish Catholic practice).  Mayan shamans still use the church for their rituals, burning incense and candles (which we saw). I was told that in special cases, they burn a chicken for the gods (sacrifice).  The stairway leading up to the church is also significant for the Mayans, with each of the 18 stairs standing for one month of the Maya calendar year (like many of the Mayan pyramids in other parts of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras).  The church was sort of a fusion of religions, with both Catholics and Mayans being able to claim it as their own, and both tolerating each other.

Our outing the following day was by "chicken bus" to the much more "local" Solola market.  Here the "standard tourista fare" lost out to more domestic concerns like produce, and daily necessities.  The narrow market alleys were so choked full of people that it was almost overwhelming.  Everything under the sun was available for ridiculously low prices.  After about a half hour we decided to avoid the chaos, buy a "refresco", set up camp in the central plaza and people watch.  Our fellow "chaos avoiders" were locals who were as interested in watching us as we were of them, making for funny communication barrier moments.  Like everyday we were in Panajachel, the afternoon was spent letting Sierra and Cooper play, read and generally "unwind" from the mornings activities.  By the end of the week we had fallen into a happy routine, hopefully boding well for longer future journeys.

The next morning we said goodbye to hotel Utz-Jay and Panajachel, then headed across the lake via lancha to Santiago.  As Ken, Haviland and Sam had the weekend off from school, we had prearranged to meet at the lakeside resort of Posada de Santiago.  The hotel had all of the comforts of home, canoes to explore the lake (the hotel faced a protected inlet), a coveted pool/hot tub (in Sierra and Cooper's minds), and a fantastic restaurant.  Sam and Cooper had a much anticipated reunion where they were able to expel their pent up "boy energy" much to the consternation of the other hotel guests.

Ken arranged for a guided trip to the Mayan ruins of Chuitinamit the following morning.  After boarding a lancha for the five minute ride to the other side of the inlet, we hiked up a small hill on the shoulder of Volcan San Pedro through small farming plots (corn/coffee fields, and avocado orchards) affording beautiful views of the lake, the town of Santiago and Volcans Toliman/Atitlan.  Our excellent guide, Lonny, gave us many insights we would have otherwise been oblivious to.  A 30 year old American, Lonny had grown up in Santiago, moving there with his parents when he was five years old.  Along with an almost encyclopedic knowledge of all things pre-Columbian, he also told of his experiences and observations during the civil war (frightening).

After a great B.L.T.A. sandwich (bacon, lettuce, tomato and the much overlooked essential ingredient - avocado) back at Posada de Santiago, we headed to Guatemala City via shuttle (Ken's car only seats 5, and we were a group of 7).  The drive back had stunning views of forested ridges enveloped in mist as we descended onto the plains, and great unobstructed views of the erupting Volcan Fuego as we got closer to Guatemala City.  After meeting back up at the Grob's house, Sierra, Cooper and Sam had a fun evening enjoying the simple pleasures of Sam's toys giving Ken, Haviland, Elaine and I an opportunity of uninterrupted conversation - which was nice.

All an all it was a successful trip to Guatemala!  Thanks again to Ken, Haviland and Sam for letting us invade their space.  It was really nice to catch up with old friends, and show Elaine, Sierra and Cooper a new place.  With any luck we'll be back for another visit in the near future!

Photos from the trip:  Click here for the gallery view, or here for a slideshow view.


Map of the Lake Atitlan area

View my travel map at Google Maps


Travel links

Trips from the last two years    Interactive travel map


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