“Lake Como, it seems to me, touches on the limit of the permissibly picturesque, but Atitlan is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes, it really is too much of a good thing.” (Beyond the Mexique Bay, Aldous Huxley)
Of course, when Huxley wrote his travel book in 1934, Lake Como’s most famous and sexiest habitue, George Clooney, had not yet been born (Julie speaking here). But if you exclude the chance of running into George as a criterion, Lake Atitlan would be a strong contender in any ‘lake you really should visit’ competition.
German explorer, Alexander von Humboldt described it as “the most beautiful lake in the world”.
Lake Atitlan fills the enormous caldera of an extinct volcano which exploded 84,000 years ago. The eruption ejected 300 cubic kilometres of material and dispersed ash over 6 million square kilometres, after which the caldera collapsed in on itself.
The lake is roughly oval in shape, measuring 18km x 8km, with an average depth of 220 metres. It is ringed by three presently inactive volcanoes on its southern side and otherwise by steep escarpments all round.
Santa Cruz La Laguna
There are many villages and a couple of towns around the lake and Mayan culture remains the norm in most. We stayed in Santa Cruz La Laguna. It’s a traditional town perched about 600 metres up a steep hill from the shore. The view from up in the village was pretty good.
It also has a couple of accomodation options down on the water. We had a little bungalow on the lakefront with a perfect view across the lake to twin volcanoes.
It was ideally situated to watch the sun go down between the volcanoes.
And at night, we had a fire pit to enjoy.
The town is quiet and the lake view compelling. We had intended to stay for three nights but ended up staying five.
Public ferry boats shuttle between the towns on the lake and we used them to see some of the others.
Santiago Atitlan is the largest of the lake front communities, with a population of around 53,000. It’s a working town and almost all it’s residents are indigenous Mayan. It doesn’t have an expat community and very few foreigners stay here, but people staying at the more touristic towns around the lake will come by ferry for a look around.
Friday and Sunday are market days, and temporary stalls fill the streets.
The town is a centre for blackstrap-loom weaving. There’s market stalls selling brightly coloured cottons used by the weavers as well as the finished products.
During the brutal civil war that devastated Guatemala from 1960 to 1996, Santiago Atitlan was a particular target of Stare-sponsored violence as it was seen as supporting the leftist rebels. Many families would sleep in the local church because death threats, physical attacks and ‘disappearances’ were commonplace. In 1981, Oklahoma-born Stanley Rother, who had been the parish priest for 13 years, was murdered, likely by paramilitary supporters of the government. In 2017, he became the first US-born priest and martyr to be beatified by the Catholic Church. The local church is petitioning for him to be canonised, and a plaque in the church recalls not only his death but the murder of many locals over the course of the war.
The church is typical of the Catholic churches of its era, but inside was something we’ve not encountered before – clothing the statues in oversized modern clothing.
San Marco La Laguna
This small town on the lake has become a destination for ‘seekers’ who believe there is some special spiritual energy to the place. Disembarking from the ferry, it is very pretty. Shaded, pedestrian only lanes snake back for a few hundred metres, leading to foodie and craft shops.
And there’s some colourful murals.
Physically, it’s very attractive. But to be honest, after about half an hour here, this place felt like it was just a place for privileged foreigners to engage in self-indulgent naval gazing. There are few local people here. They live in their own community further up the hill. In the section along the lake front, just about every shop, cafe and accommodation place is run by foreigners for foreigners.
It’s full of dreadlocked gringos, mostly North Americans, in ridiculous looking baggy canvas pants, and earnest-looking young things with piercings in places they really ought not to be. Footwear and bras appear to be optional but it’s mandatory to have a tote bag made of something organic. Actually, it felt a lot like Nimbin in northern New South Wales twenty years ago, without the cannabis or the scruffy kids.
There’s a large range of enlightenment activities on offer, none of which seem to have anything to do with Guatemala or it’s culture. We saw posters for instruction in psychic gardening (just thinking about it?), conscious gardening (as opposed to gardening whilst in a coma, perhaps?), yogic salt water cleansing (exactly where is that water going?), sound massage and singing bowl sessions. Like the shops, the courses are all run by foreigners for foreigners.
In a country in which so many are still living in poverty, including in the communities around the lake, it’s hard to see locals dropping in for vegan chocolate chip cookies or tofu scramble. Or signing up for a “sound healing retreat designed to empower you to live a heart-driven life”. No, we did not make that up.
Ok, maybe we are being too cynical. Plenty of travellers love San Marco and embrace the alternative options it offers. The vegan chocolate chip cookies were actually pretty good. But we found it difficult to take all this earnestness seriously, and certainly couldn’t see anything Guatemalan about any of it.
The town of Chichicastenango (Chichi) is not on the a lake. It sits in a valley surrounded by mountains about two hours away by bus. It is famous for its market which sets up every Thursday and Sunday, filling the plaza outside the central plaza and the surrounding streets for many blocks. It’s an important market for people from the surrounding villages, some of whom still walk for hours carrying their products to sell, and to buy necessities for themselves. In addition to selling everyday goods, it has become one of the largest markets in Guatemala as more and more stands selling artisan goods for tourists have sprung up.
A fruit and vegetable market sets up in what looks to be an indoor basketball court the rest of the week.
There is an unending grid of stalls selling (allegedly) handmade local textiles, traditionally styled masks, pottery, leather goods, arts and crafts. Many locals still wear traditional clothing and use the traditionally made blankets etc, but there’s also a lot for tourists.
Scattered through the market and around the perimeter outside, are food stalls dishing up fried chicken, tamales, Guatemalan specialties like pepian chicken (a rich, red chicken stew), and pork in every form from every part of the beast.
The food is great. We tried some things we’ve not come across before, including battered pig’s tongue and a whole battered pig’s trotter. We also tried a Guatemalan specialty, chocobanana – a whole banana on a stick, dipped in liquid chocolate, rolled in nuts and deep frozen. At the price of one quetzal ($US0.13) you wonder how they can possibly make any money.
Like in markets and on street corners everywhere in Guatemala, there are ladies effortlessly pumping out perfect tortillas (see our previous post on Antigua for a description of our abysmal cooking school attempts at tortilla making).
The Church of Saint Tomas on the plaza’s eastern side was built in 1540 on top of a pre-Hispanic temple platform. At the front are steps that previously led to the platform, one for each of the months of the Mayan calendar. The steps are still considered sacred and a traditional form of incense is burned there while elders chant traditional magic words invoking the ancestors.
And in a fusion of Catholic and Mayan practices, inside the church offerings of corn and flowers are often left, and candles are arranged on low stone platforms in the central aisle in configurations relevant to Mayan mythology.
Less famous than the market but definitely worth a look is Chichicastenango Cemetery, described by Atlas Obscura as one of the most colourful cemeteries in the world. The cemetery sprawls over a hillside about half a kilometre from the market.
In Catholic tradition, all of the tombs would be painted white, but here a variety of colours are used to reflect something about the deceased. Yellow tombs signify the deceased was a grandfather. Turquoise indicates a mother. White graves represent purity, and then there’s many that are painted the deceased’s favourite colour.
Here, too, there’s a fusion of Catholic and Mayan beliefs. Year-round, relatives bring offerings of candles, incense, flowers and sometimes chickens, and many families clean their loved ones’ graves on the Day of the Dead.