In Guatemala – Part three: Lake Atitlán.

(continued from Part two: The coffee farmer on the volcano.)

A loud thud resonates through my bones as my head slams into the metal ceiling once again as the driver forgets to tap his brakes in lieu of an oncoming speed bump. I can attest to the strength of this inconspicuous van, in that my head hasn’t yet left even a dent in the roof despite repeated attempts. There are speed limit signs here in Guatemala, but in a country where low literacy rates result in buses needing to be colour-coded to indicate their routes rather than with written signs, it means that roughly poured speed bumps laid every few hundred meters are what actually enforce the maximum speed on patchy pavement.

This time, however, the pounding in my head was my own fault. As the van flew over the final crest in the road, the view out the front window opened up and pulled attention away from my defensive seated position. From our perch, I peered down at a wide vista of water framed by nothing but volcanos and sky; upon my first glimpse of this view that had been long anticipated, my headache and discomfort fell into the background. This was the storied Lake Atitlán to which I was aiming.

Ringed by tall and nearly vertical hills, the region is known for its Mayan villages and volcanos with striking pointed cones. The lake itself is an immense collapsed caldera that has filled with rainwater to form the deepest body of water in all of Central America.

A sudden lurch as the vehicle tilts sharply forward rouses me from my thoughts. We have a steep descent ahead of us, but we’re almost there.

There are certain places around the world that serve as hubs; places where the character of the land funnels us all to the same point. Communities establish themselves at the intersection of rivers as a meeting place for trade and socialization. Harbours serve as the transitory point between water and land; the overlap where everything between the two, moves. Discovered access routes through towering mountain ranges draw all who want to pass through their narrow entrance. At all of these important crossroads, a specific place has been converged upon for trade, transport, and any other reason for the gathering of humanity’s diverse cast of characters.

Descending on the only major piece of pavement that accesses the volcanic lake, we have arrived at one of these important hubs in Guatemala: the bustling market community of Panajachel. At the end of the speed bump ridden road, this busy town is a key access point to the other 11 villages on the shores of Lake Atitlán. As such, it is a natural place of gathering; drawing people from across Guatemala’s highlands each and every day, and from even more distant villages on weekly market days. People congregate and pack the streets, vendors sell all sorts of food and goods (both traditional and modern), and its bustling dock serves as a gateway to the greater lake.

Weaving through the crowds, I descend the last stretch of land on foot. Step by step, the narrow streets lined with colourful textiles give way to soft pastels of lake and sky at the dock.

From Panajachel, public boats cruise along the shore, stopping at each town and at any dock that has a raised pair of hands standing at the end of it. To say that the schedule they follow is hand-wavy is, at best, an understatement – but it works.

The weather follows a more regular routine. As the day moves along, a strong wind from the Pacific Ocean arrives and turns the placid lake into an infinite arising of weighty white-capped waves. The midday wind is a regularity here, so much so that it has been given the name Xocomil (pronounced choco-meel) in the Mayan Q’eqchi’ language, and on this afternoon of arrival it is characteristically blowing strong and steady.

As a full boat is about to pull away from the shore, its captain gestures me to come on board. Initially he had insisted that I wait for the next ride, but at the last moment he has seemingly decided that my proportions fit perfectly into the unorganized mass of cargo and people; like the final piece of a puzzle. Wedged in the open bow, a large wave forces itself over the rim of the boat as we move away from the dock, soaking us all. Smiling in a kind but knowing way, a man hands me the edge of a tarp to drape over my knees and in rapid Spanish begins to tell me all about his organic farm on the steep hillside ahead. Under our bright blue protection from the lake’s midday froth, I explain to a captive audience in my best broken Spanish about my wife, my children, my job – the things in life we all have in common and in which we can share interest.

Slowing and pulling into a dock about thirty minutes later, a weathered sign tells me that this is where I am to get off. Climbing out from under the tarp’s shelter, my feet touch down on a rough beach where a weathered pole stands welcomingly. On it, a mess of handmade signs point in every possible direction to footpaths leading to all sorts of destinations. “Almost there,” I think to myself. Now I just need to find the little path leading to my cliffside destination before dark.

It is still early morning. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I sit up in my simple hut to gaze out the window at the calm body of water. The sun, not yet risen itself, has just shown its first faint colour on the eastern horizon, but the black birds are already up and noisily going about their morning routines, and I’m pretty sure a family of them is living in my thatched roof. Otherwise, it is silent. The public motorboats that are the vein of transportation to all have not yet started for the day, and instead there are only a few quiet fisherman in their traditional Cayuco dugout canoes casting small ripples as they move around the bay.

This is the image that the imagination conjures of Lake Atitlán, and it has taken many days for me to actually find it. It is a reality that used to be here, but colonialism (both originally by the Spanish and more recently by the expat movement) has changed this place.

The Mayans and newcomers live beside each other here, but they don’t seem to live together much. Very few olive branches are extended to the original inhabitants of this special place, forcing the Mayans to be the ones to adapt or be left behind. People at the market are pleasantly surprised when visitors try to speak broken Spanish (which is their second language, after their Mayan mother tongue), because even this nominal effort is rare. Land along the lakefront has been bought up by foreign interests, and walls have been built across traditional walking paths that people require to access both their ritual sites and the markets of town. The lake water itself has become so oxygen deficient from the leaching of fertilizer from coffee plantations on its steep rim that the fish have all but disappeared.

I sit at the end of the dock with my host Luzmi as she tells me all this in a quiet, but fierce, tone. She points at climate change in plain sight with a resigned finger: old wooden pillars deep down in front of us that used to form her dock’s foundation and, to our left, at an unnatural shape just visible in the depths – a traditional Mayan building long since covered by the rising water level. She gestures at palpable damage on trees and buildings alike; scars from powerful hurricanes that now push farther inland than they ever have before. In a quiet whisper she tells of a mass grave on the other side of the lake; a cursed place where a recent mudslide in 2005 buried an entire town and killed 1400 people because the loose soil received heavier rains than it could handle.

“We squabble over ownership along the shore,” Luzmi says quietly, “but what will happen when the water continues to rise and be polluted? We need to take care of the lake and the land, or there will be nothing left to argue over. Time marches on and we learn nothing.”

All along the shoreline, Lake Atitlán draws one’s gaze; from the Mayans who’ve watched the water for generations to the expats who have found a relatively new home here, nature anchors life at the centre. Amidst it all, Luzmi’s question echoes silently: what will happen if nature – the source of everyone’s existence here – is not taken care of?

In the quiet space before the rest of the world wakes up, I too gaze out from my little hut, and I can’t help but wonder about the future of this place.

Public boat taxi on Lake Atitlan (lancha)

A typical public boat – known as a lancha – approaches a dock to shuttle people and cargo along the lakeshore. Its load is unusually light on this particular arrival.

San Marcos arrival footpath

Corners decorated with handmade signage in the labyrinth of footpaths that is the town San Marcos la Laguna.

Thatched hut along shore of Lake Atitlan

This single roomed hut was my humble abode on the lakeside for many nights. It is about as far from any town on the lake as possible, and any lack of amenities was remedied by peaceful quiet and a commanding view of Lake Atitlán.

Cayuco canoe at sunrise on Lake Atitlan

The early morning view right outside my doorstep. Quiet before any sort of motors are woken to stir the waters, Mayan fisherman try their luck at favourite fishing spots.

Clarinero at the end of the dock on Lake Atitlan

An early rising clarinero (great-tailed grackle) stands sentinel at the end of the dock in pre-dawn light.

Grinding coffee with mortar and pestle

Hand grinding coffee with mortar and pestle.

Brewed coffee from De La Gente

Brewed coffee from Mercedes of De La Gente is a cup of sunshine to be enjoyed with the quiet view of the morning.

Two jovial Mayan men commuting in traditional Cayuco canoes

Two jovial Mayan men commuting in traditional Cayucos – a unique form of dugout canoes.

Mayan fishing on Lake Atitlan from a traditional dugout Cayuco canoe

The office.

Couple on dock at Lake Atitlan

A couple of other birds at the end of the dock.

Swimming in Lake Atitlan


Cayuco canoe fishing near the flooded shore of Lake Atitlan

Fisherman stick near the shallows, searching for the last few fish hiding amidst the remnants of a flooded shoreline. The continually rising lake level threatens development and changes ecosystems.

Mayan on the move in a traditional Cayuco canoe

Fishermen spend a lot of time moving on the lake these days in search of fish, which often aren’t found for days in between. Fish stocks have plummeted on Lake Atitlán due to a lack of oxygen in the water from fertilizers used on the surrounding farmed slopes that have leached into the water.

A flock of clarineros on Lake Atitlan

Flocks of clarineros move west at dawn in search of food and east at dusk to return to the shelter of their nests, one of which happened to be in the thatched roof of my simple hut.

A dead stump reaches from the water for the starry sky.

A deteriorating stump reaches for the starry sky, out of the water that overtook it.

Our Lady of Guadalupe candle

A candle bearing Guadalupe – the declared co-patroness of New Spain – lights the dark night.

Rustic living on the shores of Lake Atitlan

Simply living simply.

Volcán de Fuego erupting at sunrise in the distance

Volcán de Fuego erupts in the distance at sunrise.

Picturesque fisherman at sunrise on Lake Atitlan

Light on the lake.

A hummingbird calls in a moment of stillness from its hurried flight

A hummingbird calls in a moment of stillness from its hurried flight.

Sitting at the end of a dock on Lake Atitlan

Sitting at the end of the dock.

Clarinaros fly home on the horizon in the last light on Lake Atitlan

Clarineros fly home on the horizon in the last light on Lake Atitlán.

(continued as Part four: Walking in the clouds.)