Guatemala’s Lago de Atitlán is so much more than a beautiful body of water — spend at least a week hiking, kayaking and cycling around it for a full immersion in modern Mayan life.
To be completely honest, I didn’t feel like hiking up Volcan San Pedro. While strolling around San Juan la Laguna, the 3,020m cone loomed over me somewhat menacingly. The sky was overcast. It was 7am. I’d spent the night in a homestay and had only slept for about five hours. Breakfast had been a tiny muffin and a cup of instant coffee – hardly preparation for a hard climb.
But then mountain guide Hector Rogelio Puac arrived on a boat. I had to make a decision. He wolfed down breakfast and somehow I found myself following him – he was small, wiry and fast – around San Juan as he bought bread, bananas, drinks and chocolate.
Pride, or some alpha-male thing, got the better of me. Or perhaps it was the power of the place: I was spending a week on Lago de Atitlán, a big, beautiful crater lake surrounded by volcanoes. If I couldn’t conquer at least one of its handsome cones, I didn’t belong here.
Land of fire & fury
Guatemala is all about fire, lava, mountains and magma – which is why I’d decided not to dash around the country but linger in one area, absorbing life around some of the country’s most magnificent volcanoes. I’d arrived by taxi from El Salvador, where volcanoes are numerous but small and the weather had been balmy. As I wound up into the Guatemalan highlands, I’d felt the chill. Along the road, people wore bobble hats and ponchos. I was still in flipflops.
The active Fuego-and-Acatenango massif and Volcan de Agua, near Antigua, looked unnaturally voluminous as I journeyed deeper into the country. I wasn’t sure if my sense of scale was still Salvadorean or if it was a trick of the light. The clouds turned black and apocalyptic shortly after Antigua, where the Panamerican Highway fords a high pass. But, suddenly, they lifted, and there below was the lake, shimmering at one end as the low sun splashed down.
From my hotel in Santa Catarina Palopo, on the eastern edge of the lake, I watched what seemed like a slow sunset, wispy salmon-coloured clouds scattering around the cone of San Pedro.
This is the most perfectly conical of the three big volcanoes on the west bank. To the south I could see Volcan Toliman, flanked by Volcan Atitlán; a few clouds shifted around this less photogenic pair.
Walking around town I asked two men, in Spanish, where was the best place to eat. They responded with a string of words that sounded like smashed glass and pointed to the beach. I later found out the local language is Kaqchikel. I ate some tortillas, drank a beer and slept well thanks to the pleasantly cool climate.
The next day I took a boat, skippered by the amiable Juan Ismael Xingo, from Santa Catarina Palopo to Santiago de Atitlán, the largest of the lakeside settlements. Crossing the lake allows you to see the three volcanoes and the water under a new light and from new angles. En route I talked to Juan about the Mayan language I’d heard, and he explained that we were now crossing to a Tz’utujil-speaking area.
It’s about 14km – 30 minutes by boat – from Santa Catarina to Santiago; it would take a car 2.5 hours to do the trip overland.
As we reached the centre of the lake, a wind was getting up and there were small but choppy waves. Juan shared a Romeo and Juliet-style legend about a more powerful wind. The Xocomil, he explained, is a divinely ordained gust that blows to bring together two lovers from the two language groups, which have long been rivals.