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.
Traditions warped in cloth
Lots of different-sized towns and villages surround the lake. Some are dubbed ‘Gringolandia’ because of all their expats; others have no road connections. A handful have kept faith with traditions. Above the settlements are either volcanoes or steep, forested mountains with ridges that suggest anthropomorphic forms – one is called ‘Mayan Face’, another ‘The Elephant’. Where the land allows, the indigenous communities till fields and build terraces, cultivating mainly coffee, as well as onions, frijoles (beans), tomatoes, chickpeas, maize, avocados and tropical fruits.
In Santiago I visited Cameron Krummel, an American raised on the lake who helps run Cojolya, a non-profit company that supports traditional backstrap loom weavers. The organisation was founded by Cameron’s mother Candis in 1983 and now has a smart shop as well as a small museum on the main drag. The latter shows the workings of the looms and weaving pegs that, for the Mayans have profound connotations linked to birth and the female body; it also displays some fine loom-woven clothing. A quote by Nobel Prize-winning Guatemalan poet Miguel Angel Asturias captures the beauty of the intricate brocades: ‘So many symbols, stars and conjunctions are warped in their cloth.’
These days most Guatemalan males prefer T-shirts with
English-language slogans and jeans, but a lot of the young women still wear the corte (wrap-around skirt) and multicoloured woven huipil (top).
In recent years, Cojolya has branched out into a new project: safe, environmentally sound, economically efficient ONIL stoves from the USA. Through micro-loans and NGO grants, the locals are helped to install these basic concrete ovens – developed by American engineer Donald O’Neal in the mid-1980s – which have an air-vent system that ensures that fires burn less wood, saving the families money.
“They only cost around 1,000 quetzales (₤78) to install,” said
Cameron. “Families recover the money in a matter of months. They use perhaps half the amount of wood – which is also positive in combating deforestation. They don’t blow smoke into the kitchens and help avoid children getting burns.”
We visited a few families to see how people were getting along with their stoves. Their homes were made from breeze-block, bamboo and zinc, and bereft of comforts. All the women I chatted to – and only women matter in Guatemalan kitchens – were delighted with their money-saving stoves. In the house of Josefa Sinabestis, there was an ONIL stove as well as a traditional comal – a big flat pan set on stones and burning logs. The room was full of smoke.
“My mum won’t use the new stove,” said Josefa, smiling. “She says it takes too long to heat up the tortillas.” In another house, Juana Cecilia Qehu-Mendoza told me she would make a hundred tortillas that morning. There’s no time for idling while a stove warms up.
At San Juan la Laguna, a choppy 20 minutes away in Juan’s boat, I did a short hike up to a hill called Cerro de la Cruz to take in the view and enjoy the evening breezes. Afterwards I visited the local coffee cooperative. There were freshly washed yellow beans left out to dry on every available level surface. Workers kept arriving with fresh sacks of beans to have them weighed and get paid for the day.
As elsewhere in Central America, this high-grade, organic, soly sombre (sun-and-shade grown) coffee is exported to North America, Europe and Japan where it’s toasted for the fairtrade packagers, retailers and coffee shops. Workers might earn as little as 50 quetzales (₤3.90) for a day’s very hard graft.
I stayed overnight in San Juan, sleeping at the home of Juan Mendoza, Gloria Encarnacion Cholotio Mendoza and their six kids, aged from 20 years to 18 months. We dined on chicken and vegetables and chatted about work, food, gender, traditions and politics. Juan told me the military dictatorship killed lots of indigenous lake-dwellers during the 1980s. He said his parent’s generation were caught between the government and the guerrillas. “They [the guerrillas] came to force us to join them. I had to learn how to shoot a rifle when I was just 15. They used kids as soldiers. During those days, you wouldn’t go out in San Juan after 6pm, after it got dark, because you might just disappear.”
The evening was not sombre though. Juan and his 13-year-old daughter Melissa sang religious songs and a powerful version of Roberto Carlos’s ‘Amigo’: Gloria breastfed the youngest during the impromptu concert and then got out her back-strap loom. Traditional weaving might be dying out elsewhere, but not in this household. I had a strong sense that they were a solid family committed to their culture. Juan said the cofradia (traditional brotherhood of elders) remained strong in San Juan.
But the Mendozas were poor. After we had our cups of Nescafe the next morning, Juan went off to harvest beans for the premium coffee roasters of the rich north.
On Golden Hill
It was after my homestay that I went off to climb Volcan San Pedro. Hector was the best kind of guide: he let me hike at my own pace – somewhere between sloth and tortoise – for the three-hour ascent. We rested regularly, took in the views, spotted birds and squirrels. I slugged plenty of water.
The walk took us through coffee plantations; shade was provided by avocado trees, which were generous with free fruit. Then we entered a wilder, transitional forest. We met some young, fit-looking people coming the other way who had given up and turned around. Their guide said it was too steep and the altitude was getting to one of the group.
Towards the top, we were in cloud forest. The trees had broader bottle-green leaves, lianas snaked around mossy trunks, hummingbirds squeaked in the lower trees – and the cloud came in. In fact, from the summit I saw nothing at all.
The descent was a classic knee-jolter, but we took it slowly. I had a rudimentary walking pole to take some pressure off at least one knee at a time. When we came back into the sun and saw San Pedro la Laguna down on the lakeside, I was glad l’d made the effort.
The next day I climbed a smaller hill – the Cerro de Oro, a lava dome at the foot of Volcan Toliman.
This time Hector led the way, up a steep path used by workers. We passed a 7m-high stone used by shamans and near the top he showed me a pothole thought to be the dwelling place of a Mayan god.
“Kukumatz is the feathered serpent, our equivalent of the Aztec’s Quetzalcoatl,” Hector said. “Local people believe Kukumatz lives in this cave, which connects to a tunnel under the lake that runs to Quetzaltenango [Guatemala’s second-largest city, 84km to the north-west]. When the serpent moves, there are waves on the lake.”
The Cerro de Oro – Golden Hill – may get its name from a Spanish attempt to mine the volcano, which, Hector told me, resulted in a disaster that killed many miners. No doubt this was the serpent showing his wrath. But Hector was a rationalist and said the name may also allude to the way the hill glows in the dry season, when the sun rises on its yellowing foliage.
Pedal & paddle
Later, on a cycling trip, I found myself back in San Juan with Juan Carlos, one of Hector’s trainees. We set off from tiny Tzununa and followed an up-down road via the hamlets of San Marcos and San Pablo – saints seem to own most of the laketowns. Long climbs and a hot sun made it a workout, but the views were glorious.
At a beach called La Cristalina – so named due to the volcanic dust in its water, which glows like gold crystals – we hired a double kayak and paddled out to where fishermen were bringing in black bass and tilapia. Juan Carlos told me a story about a lost city in the lake that was the final home of anyone who disappeared: they didn’t drown, they just went to a better place.
After dropping off the kayak, I had my first swim in the lake – it was cool, calm and refreshing after the exercise. But by the afternoon the powerful sunlight had heated the water and filled the air above the crater with turbulent low cloud, which later flashed with silent lightning.
Lovely to linger
Towards the end of my week on the lake I went for a stroll around Santa Catarina on a sultry evening. Locals were getting used to me: we swapped “Buenos tardes“; the vendors ignored me. The sunset was even lovelier than on the first evening. The best travel is transformative. I was getting used to the lakeside and the volcanoes; they were still awesome but also strangely benign, especially under a pink sky. I was beginning to feel at home, because I’d lingered awhile in one place Guatemala has become something of a gringo gauntlet.
Travellers hurtle from the highlands to Antigua to Tikal, ticking off stops. But most of them are missing depth. A slow trip to Atitlán lets you get stuck into a relatively small but topographically and sociologically complex area, using boats to travel rather than buses.
So consider spending a week or more on the lake. You can do all the things I did; you can also water-ski, paraglide, sail, dive, horseride, run a marathon or circumnavigate the crater on foot, bike or pogo stick. But take time out to sit still and gaze at the lake and its guardian volcanoes, and daydream about plumed serpents, wind-tossed lovers and cities of undrowned souls.
Population: 14.3 million
Languages: Spanish; Maya dialects Time: GMT-6
International dialling code: +502
Visas: UK nationals are granted a visa on arrival, valid for 90 days.
Money: Quetzal (GTQ), currently around GTQ12.5 to the UK£. US dollars are widely accepted, though you’ll need local currency too.
When to go:
January, February, Mars, April, November, December: Dry season — hot in the jungle but comfortably warm in the Highlands. Many local fiestas held November-December, which can be noisy.
May, June, July, August, September, October: Rainy season — though doesn’t rain all day. Humidity highest July-September;
Health & safety: No special vaccinations are required. Drink purified water. Be aware of the symptoms of altitude sickness.
Further reading & information: Moon Handbook Guatemala (Avalon, 2010) provides lots of local insights; Focus Guatemala (Footprint, 2011); Guatemala (Lonely Planet, 2013); Beyond the Mexique Way (first published 1934) by Aldous Huxley; Time Among the Maya (Abacus, 1997) by Ronald Wright
Planning guides: Guatemala guide
Journey Latin America offers an active six-day trip based around Lake Atitlán. It includes artisan fishing, hiking Cerro de la Cruz and Cerro de Oro, kayaking, mountain biking, ziplining and a local homestay. If you are on a tight budget, there are lots of backpacker hostels and B&Bs in Panajachel, San Pedro and San Juan.
Getting there: Iberia flies London Heathrow-Guatemala City via Madrid. Returns start at £514; journey time is around 16-17 hours, including a short stop in Spain.
Getting around: Around the lakeside each town or village has a playa publica (public jetty or pier) from which motorboats known as tiburoneros depart.
The skipper leaves when he has 12 passengers, to make the journey worth his while. A typical crossing from Panajachel — a major hub for lake traffic — to San Juan La Laguna costs GTQ35 (£2.80).
To get between villages using overland transport, choose between pickups (which carry as many people as they can squeeze on), tuk-tuks (which carry three passengers) and local buses — known as chicken buses. All these are very economical. Chicken buses compete with smarter, air-conditioned buses for the longer routes to Antigua and other major cities.
Cost of travel: Guatemala is a cheap country for travellers. Food and drink prices are low — generally, expect to pay £3-5 for lunch, a little more for dinner, less than 70p for a bottle of beer. Even a fancy meal in a hotel such as Casa Palopa will rarely cost more than £15. Wages are low, so a small tip (10% is typical) is appreciated.
Travelling by public transport is very cheap; ultra-budget travellers can use pickups and chicken buses to get around the whole country. Budget hostels and dormitories can cost as little as £4 a night. For £15 and upwards you can expect some comfort.
Villa Santa Catarina, part of a small Guatemalan-owned chain, is a lakeside resort five minutes from Panajachel. It has a big pool, a small whirlpool and carefully tended gardens. Its 38 rooms are simply decorated, with a few crafty touches. Service is patchy, but staff are generally friendly. Doubles from US$90 (£50) including breakfast and taxes.
Casa Palopó is one of the swankiest properties on Lake Atitlán. A nine-room luxury boutique hotel, it is set above the lake, which means it has great views. Rooms are lavishly decorated with colourful indigenous and contemporary art, and feature Italian luxury bed linens and L’Occitane bathroom goodies. No under-12s are allowed. Doubles from US$185 (£113), including taxes and tip.
Rupalaj K’istalin is a community organisation that has 20 homestays in the area; it can also help with wider plans for lakeside wanderers.
Food & drink: Guatemala’s cuisine has not been fully bulldozed by US-style fast food. In areas where Maya culture dominates, such as Lake Atitlán, the diet is based around maize tortillas (savoury pancakes), frijoles (beans), rice, plantain, yuca, chicken, avocado pears and mild-ish chilli sauces.
Tortillas come with just about everything. Often the fare is basic, but do look for traditional dishes such as adobo (aromatic chilli-based sauce) and hearty meat and bean stews. Fresh fruit is widely available, so you can stock up on bananas, pineapples and more exotic items for hikes.
In the touristy centres of Panajachel and San Pedro, you can feast on steaks, good pizzas and pastas. Good organic coffee is available in cafés in most towns and cities.
Lake Atitlán highlights
Cycle round the lake:
A gentle pedal is just the right pace to take in Lake Atitlán’s landscapes, street life, agricultural rhythms and the roads —plus, a bike ride is actually less bumpy than a tuk-tuk or minibus.
Climb Volcan San Pedro:
You’ll feel you’ve arrived when you reach the summit of this beautiful volcano.
Stay at Casa Palopó:
A night in a luxury hotel like this allows time to reflect and indulge in the amazing views from high up. Great value for this level of style, too.
Visit a coffee finca or cooperative:
You’ll see just how hard Guatemalans work to make the beautiful brew. Also, the shade-grown coffee trees look very beautiful.
Bed down at a homestay: Spend a night at in a local’s house — it’s eye-opening to see inside one of those many shacks you’ve been passing. The Maya are warm, welcoming people and more than happy to show off their families and homes.