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Lake Atitlan (a lesson in fortune)

Intrigued by the view from Acatenango, we decided we had to visit Lake Atitlan and as it was only a short 2 hour ride from Antigua it was too tempting not to go. The highway runs alongside the lake for some time without offering a view but suddenly, the trees clear and we were met with the most spectacular vista. The volcanoes bound the lake, the waters of which are a most impressive blue and the clouds seep and roll around the volcanoes into the water. We made our way down to Panajachel as we’d heard it was easy enough to hire a boat to take you around the lake to visit the other towns. We’d also heard that the road circumnavigating the lake was dangerous for tourists and bikers in particular are targets as they are easier to rob so it made the decision to visit by boat a lot more logical!


Lake Atitlan

The ferry left from Panajachel and took us on a tour to four of the other towns bordering the lake: San Marcos, San Juan, San Pedro and Santiago. The skipper met us on shore and showed us on board his fibreglass boat housing a few other tourists. We settled in and looked forward to our day trip. He set off, navigating through the other little ships all tied to the dock and we hit the open water. He let her rip and we bounced and leapt our way across the non existent waves. This boat felt every small turbulence, even in flat water! In fact, the fibreglass ribs were starting to rise up from the body of the boat in the hull with every smash down from a jump. We were st in the front and desperately trying to hold the rib down with our feet!! We reached San Marcos and alighted at a tiny dock. The pier lead straight into a cosy, overgrown path through trees and gated properties. Nearly all the properties straddling this alley advertised “Flower therapy”, “Shaman sessions” and the most standard one merely offered different types of massages. We declined the many offers to be cured of our bad luck (down to poor flower choices) or to have an out of body experience with the help of some innocent looking mushrooms and carried on our walk. After only 5 minutes, the alley leads you into the town square, which aside from a well looked after church, looks very tired and nearly everyone had turned out to try to find employment (there was some sort of rally going on). It seems the non-Guatemalan owned alternative businesses were the only ones doing very well in town. We turned back and stopped for an excellent coffee before getting back on the boat.


San Marcos and its alternative therapies

The next town was San Juan where the pier leads straight up a very steep hill bordered either side by coffee shops, souvenir shops and weaving houses. We walked up to the top (tricky for Alex as her legs were still screaming from the volcano hike) and checked out some of the local coffee and the high quality murals painted on the walls. The produce there was all local and it felt a little more authentic than the previous souvenir shops however, the whole place has an eerie, sad quality from the fact that all of these shops were empty of tourists and the boats maybe deliver only about 20 people a day. We walked past the women’s weaving collective and had an interesting 30 minute lesson in how cotton is made, dyed and eventually woven into the colourful textiles so evocative of the country. Eventually it was time to catch the boat to San Pedro and we made our way back to the pier, trying some cocoa fruit on the way.


San Juan : good for coffee


San Juan had many beautiful murals


Traditional cotton spinning in San Juan


Weaving the hand made cotton: Mayan women’s collective


Cocoa fruit : deliciously sweet and juicy- like a mango in flavour


Cocoa fruit: ripe for eating!





San Pedro was known to us only as a place to avoid- the party tourists abound here as bars are plentiful and apparently everything is easy to come by. None of this interested us as all we wanted was a juice (fresh pineapple and orange) and a wander around. This town felt a little more established than the previous two and yet still had the now ubiquitous souvenir stalls lining every street, mostly selling identical goods to their neighbour. It was really becoming hard to imagine how one makes any sort of a living here. People would be hand making these beautiful souvenirs or selling textiles for $1 and with hardly any tourists other than two broke motorbikers walking the streets, it was tough to imagine what sort of a life they were working towards.


A new friend on San Pedro!


San Pedro and its many hills


There’s hope for us all

We moved on to Santiago (the most established town on Lake Atitlan) and being that we had an hour and a half to spend here we indulged in a tuk-tuk complete with mini tour guide. Our driver took us to see the women washing in Atitlan- this is apparently an age old custom which is protected and respected. The women gather at the shore and wash clothes and the woven cotton in the water of lake Atitlan. We then moved on to pay our respects to the Mayan people’s saint: Maximon, a rather more easy going saint (compared to Christianity’s gang) who smokes cigars and drinks rum. In fact, offerings of such are accepted as well as cash. He is guarded at all times by devotees who swap every few hours in whichever house he is inhabiting at the time.


Lake Atitlan towards Santiago


Santiago and the view of Lake Atitlan


Women washing traditionally in the lake


Paid our respects to the Mayan saint : Maximon

We then saw the cathedral in town- a simple design which has embraced Mayan symbols such as the sacred number 20 (the steps leading up to the church). We also bumped into a charismatic lady outside who showed us her Tovocal and how it is constructed. It features on the Quetzal coin and is made up of 20 loops around the head, with a practised few flicks of her hands, she reconstructed her beautiful hat.


This amazing lady showed us a traditional head-dress worn by  some Mayan women. 20 loops around the head as a Tocoyal.


Hilly Santiago


Gorgeous Lake Atitlan


Happy to be by the lake


Lake Atitlan was really stunning and every evening boasted a different sunset thanks to the placement of the volcanoes around the lake and  the movement of the clouds. For all the pushiness of the souvenir vendors, one of the nicest things to do is to simply sit by the lake, share a cigar and some rum and admire the splendor of the view.


Even more beautiful at dusk


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