The colors of Guatemala are stunning. And nowhere we went was more colorful than Lake Atitlan and the volcanoes, mountains, people and villages surrounding it. Over the several days we spent there, we watched the colors change through the course of the day, from misty dawn to bright sunlight to clouds to rain to night. We watched a lightning storm roll in over the volcanoes in the dark, explored villages only accessible by boat, and ziplined through the jungle canopy on the side of a mountain.
As I mentioned in a previous post, Lake Atitlan is remote. Jaibalito, the village that we stayed in, was home to what looked like about 100 indigenous people, 50 dogs, 45 chickens, and 0 roads or cars. Most of the people spoke an indigenous Mayan dialect as their primary language – NOT Spanish. Our hotel, Vulcano Lodge, was a beautifully kept place with fantastic, friendly hosts, great coffee and great food. I can’t recommend it enough.
We found out that the lake is also known to be a new age center respected for healing powers. We met many interesting characters and residents who were there seeking their “vortexes” and various cleansing rituals. Some of the towns where the new agers congregated were peaceful centers of zen-like relaxation, like San Marcos del Lago, and some were a bit more freespirited and rowdy, hippie-style, like San Pedro del Lago. We spent most of our time in San Juan del Lago, an apparently more vortex-free spot.
Our hosts at the hotel had arranged for a local to give us an informal tour of San Juan del Lago. When we arrived at the dock via our water taxi from Jaibalito, he greeted us and introduced himself to us as Francisco – “Freddy” for short. Freddy was an incredible, friendly and funny companion. He took us through fields of maiz where people were working, to the workshop gallery of a local painter, and to a women’s textile cooperative where they made beautiful handmade products with natural dyes. We visited the village medicinal herb garden where we learned about the benefits of different plants from a local indigenous woman, and we hiked up to a coffee plantation cooperative outside the city where we enjoyed a delicious cup of real chocolatey Guatemalan coffee with Freddy.
The indigenous Mayan people who lived around the lake were beautiful and friendly, and dressed in traditional clothing. One of the things that continued to delight and amaze us as we traveled throughout Guatemala was how friendly, helpful and open everyone was. Guatemalans are truly some of the nicest people on the planet.
On our last day at the lake, we acted on a whim and decided to zipline through the jungle canopy at a small wildlife reserve near Panajachel. I had been ziplining before at summer camp, but that was also when I was 15 years younger and 40 pounds lighter. I admit, as the guides fitted me with the essential ropes and harnesses and instructed us to follow them up the side of the mountain, I questioned the legitimacy and safety standards of the course, as it did seem like we were the only people there. But I had already committed – there was no turning back now!
As we hiked what seemed like miles up slippery rocks, muddy trails and scary rope suspension bridges like you’ve seen in Indiana Jones (while I silently hyperventilated), we came across real live monkeys, jungle waterfalls and giant insects. And it hit me – we really were out there! Literally… we were out there… in the middle of a jungle with two guys we didn’t know. They spoke softly to one another in a Mayan language, probably secretly talking about how silly and naive we were to follow them unquestioningly into the jungle. I prayed that I wouldn’t die.
To make a long story short, we did NOT die, and flying through the trees with the spectacular view of the lake and the mountains was incredible. Afterward as we caught our breath at the bottom of the mountain, we saw a monkey suddenly steal several bags of chips out of the snack shop. The surprised shopkeeper ran after him noisily, as the monkey, double-fisting his chips proudly (and dare I say smugly), disappeared expertly into the jungle. The defeated shopkeeper noticed our open-mouthed stares. “He steals from us all the time,” he admitted sheepishly, looking down at his feet. We all looked at one another and asked ourselves, “Really… where ARE we?”
As we walked back toward the village of Panajachel that afternoon to catch our shuttle to Antigua, we all felt reluctant to leave, as if as soon as we left, the place would fade like magic and cease to exist. And maybe deep down it’s because we know it can’t stay like that forever – can a place truly sustain its cultural heritage and natural beauty with such an increasing number of visitors? Who knows. All I know is that at this moment in time, this place exists, and it’s beautiful.