Monday, 20 March 2017

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala – Days 181 to 187

Sunrise over Lake Atitlan
Lago Atitlán, situated in the western highlands of Guatemala, 50km north-west of Antigua and at an altitude of 1560m is renowned as one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. Aldous Huxley described it in his 1934 travel book as like “Lake Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing”. 

The lake Atitlan caldera with newer volcanos bottom and left. Panajachel is top right, San Pedro is left and Santiago Atitlan is bottom left. Photo taken from the Space Station and published on Wikipedia
Our first view of the lake and volcanoes from Panajachel
Geologists tell us it was formed 85,000 years ago by a huge volcanic eruption. Matt Purvis ( says:the magma chamber under Atitlan was so big that when the lava was ejected, the land above the magma chamber collapsed into the space underground. 
On the water taxi for our lakeside walk
The eruption and subsequent collapse formed the Atitlan caldera.” Evidence of the ash has been found in Florida and as far south as Panama and he estimates up to 270km3 of volcanic debris were ejected, burying Guatemala under ash and rock up to 200m thick in places (by comparison the Mount St Helens eruption in the USA in 1980 ejected 1km3). Since then three smaller volcanoes, two inside the caldera and one outside have built up, Volcán San Pedro stopped erupting 40,000 years ago, Volcán Tolimán started after San Pedro and is still considered active although not in historic times and Volcán Atitlán, sitting on the caldera rim last erupted in 1853.

Arriving at Santa Catarina Palopo dock
The lake is about 20km by 10km with a depth of 340m and is surrounded by high cliffs that mark the edge of the caldera. It is fed by several small rivers, but no surface rivers exit the lake, water draining away through subterranean outlets. The water level varies from time to time, in 1976 following a huge 7.5 magnitude earthquake that hit Guatemala killing more than 26,000 people, the level dropped by 2 meters in a month, presumably from a fracture in the lake bed. 
Semi submerged houses due to rising lake levels
Houses were built at the lake edge and trees grew on the banks, but in 2010 the lake level rose by 3 meters and again by another 2 meters in 2011, leaving a number of houses now partially underwater and rotting the water logged trees so that today they are just dead trunks sticking out of the water. Why did the level rise? Who knows, is it some movement of the magma chamber underneath or just higher levels of rain that the underground drainage can’t cope with? Certainly in October 2005 a hurricane with torrential rain caused massive mud slides around the lake, burying one village and killing 1,400 residents.

Lake views on the walk back to Panajachel
The area is now a National Park and is Guatemala’s most important tourist attraction so they have made every effort to make it as safe as possible, but there are still ‘no-go’ areas and certain paths that are subject to muggings and armed robberies, so we either have to go with a guide or get assurances from locals that a particular path is safe.

Sue helping Jackie with her new dress
We arrived in the eastern lakeside village of Panajachel (known as Pana to almost everyone) on 16th March after taking a shuttle bus from Antigua, that picked us up just outside the gate of the community in which Sue lives.

We were sad to say goodbye to Sue and the pussy cats, even though the cats were a little stand-offish, but Sue did offer to let us stay on if we wanted to for as long as we like, but our schedule presses so we had to leave. 
Waiting on the corner near Sue's for our bus to Panajachel
We had a nice evening with Sue after she arrived back following her three flight, 18 hour trip from Phoenix, Arizona, despite her feeling fairly tired, Jackie cooked a meal, we had nibbles and beer for starters and a nice bottle of red and Jackie availed on Sue’s sewing skills to adjust the straps on a 10Q (£1.00) frock she’d bought from one of the shops in town. It’s the nicest one we’ve seen and the lowest price but it just needed a little bit of adjustment, which Sue did splendidly. She’s now almost fixed up for the cruise, other than another pair of shoes that she will need. Approach shoes or even her Jazz shoes don’t quite do it! Don’t ask what I’m going to wear!

This is McDonalds in Antigua. We're not McDonalds fans by any means, we only went in for a caramel iced coffee, but it's the nicest seating area we've seen in one of these, a fountain, gardens and Volcan de Agua in the distance

Kitten moment No. 1
Panajachel is the busiest town on the lake, mainly as all bus connections are to here and, as a result it’s lost a lot of its local charm, the streets filled with local textile and souvenir vendors trying to sell their wares. It’s impossible to walk down main street without being swamped by people offering the best price for something you don’t want. To show the slightest interest is fatal as they just won’t give up, following you down the street, gradually dropping the price. White people, who they think are all rich are their target and they always start with a ridiculous price, but then offer a ‘special discount’, which is still about three times the price they will finally settle at. 

Lake Atitlan from our room in San Pedro
Normally we just say that we are travelling long term so cannot buy anything as we’ll have to carry it for months on end, but just now Jackie is looking for a shawl to go with her dress, so she fatally showed a glimmer of interest, which was all they needed. One young man followed us all the way back to our hotel one evening, dropping his price from 250Q to 70Q and then his last ditch offer of 40Q (£5), which was quite an attractive price. 
Same view at night
However the dress was by now buried deep in her luggage and to get it out to check the colours  was not what we wanted to do at that time of night and after a couple of large beers so we apologised but said ‘no’. He then accused us of being not nice people as he’d spent so much time and got so many things out, but we didn’t ask him to do that, we tried to walk away, but he kept following. In the end he got quite nasty and I could feel my temper rising. Time to go to bed and leave him outside! Thankfully the hotel is secure and he couldn’t get in.

Main Street, San Pedro
Having said that, we quite liked Pana and the Mario’s Rooms hotel we’re staying in. Despite being on the main street right in the middle of things it’s set back through a secure gate and is very nice and quiet with quite a few people staying there a long time, one Canadian women has been there since January. There’s a bit of a roof terrace that we went up to with a couple of beers and nibbles one evening and, from there we could look over the town and see into the local school where they were having their annual presentations and election of the school queen. 
Cat moment No. 2 - very friendly cat
They had someone playing a guitar and singing and then a troop of schoolgirls dancing to Abba music. Standing on the roof watching we decided to join in with their dance moves, making allowance for the slight sound delay of the music due the distance we were away. We wondered if the lady MC standing on the stage could see us on a roof beyond, in her line of sight. Probably not we thought so we danced like no-one was watching, only to turn round and see a few blokes who had come out of a pub with their beers to watch us. We waved, they waved back, oh well, we’ll never see them again. From where they were they couldn’t see what we could see and they may not even have been able to hear the music, so they must have wondered what on earth we were doing!

Heading out to the water taxi to Santiago Atitlan
Semi submerged house with Volcan San Pedro behind
The many restaurants in the town were all very sensibly priced for once and ‘happy hour’ beers were fairly cheap so we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves in the evenings. On the one full day we had we took a water taxi round to the next town on the lake (30Q) and walked back along the quiet, high level road with fabulous views out across the lake to the three volcanoes, after having first made sure that it was safe. It was, and it was also the local schools physical fitness circuit, lots of schoolchildren were running the hilly route, well some were walking or just jogging and most were soaked in sweat and out of breath, we were feeling tired just watching them!

The Iglesia Parroquial Santiago Apostol Fundada in Santiago
After two nights stay there we left, travelling light having left most of our luggage locked away in the hotel and caught a water taxi across the lake to San Pedro la Laguna (25Q) where were are now, for three nights. San Pedro la Laguna sits at the base of the giant Volcan San Pedro and has magnificent views across the lake, the other two volcanoes and the surrounding high cliffs that include the Indian’s Nose mountain, so named as it looks like an Indian lying down with his nose in the air. It’s nice here and our hotel Cristalinas hotel and restaurant is right on the lakeside. They told us they were giving us their best room for three nights stay and we have windows on two sides with magnificent views of the lake. It doesn’t seem quite finished, the floor is just bare concrete and it’s a bit basic, but we’re happy people. An additional benefit is the included breakfast which is magnificent and served from 7:00am to 1:00pm!

Our tuk-tuk ride to the Mirador
We arrived on Saturday night and found that the town is a bit of a party place with music going on until 2:00am, but it didn’t bother us as we were out for the count at 10:00pm, only briefly waking as people came home about 2:30am. It was only Saturday night fortunately as last night (Sunday) was much quieter.

There was a festival going on in nearby Santiago de Atitlan on Sunday so we took a water taxi round there (50Q return) to have a look. The boat goes from the other dock in San Pedro next to several partially submerged trees and houses and the ride took about 20 minutes. Santiago has an entirely different feel about it and, on some of the back streets we felt a little uncomfortable, as though we shouldn’t be there, something we hadn’t felt anywhere else; there was nothing definite to put our finger on, just a feeling. 
No comment required
The main church, the Iglesia Parroquial Santiago Apostol Fundada was built in 1547 and is the oldest church in Central America. Although it is primarily a catholic church, there is local Mayan influence in it due to the still very strong Mayan culture. It has a nave, bell tower, Convent and parish house, but the church is accessed by a stairway composed of twenty steps, which equate to the number of months in the Mayan calendar.

At the viewpoint
We wanted to go inside the church but a service was in progress as we arrived so we opted for a walk round town instead, walking through the market. We’d heard about a Mirador (viewpoint) but couldn’t find it so we asked a tuk-tuk driver to take us there and back for 10Q getting him to take a photo of us there. Down below on the edge of the lake we could see women from the local women’s textile co-operative washing their products in the lake, scrubbing them on the stones. 
The ladies washing textiles in the lake
It’s a local business designed to help them earn a living, but the water on that part of the lake was white with soap and we wonder what that likely to do to the lake over the long term. However, our tuk-tuk driver asked where we wanted to go next and Jackie said to the Maximón. The Maximón is an idol formed by the fusion of traditional Mayan deities, Catholic saints, and conquistador legends. The institutionalized effigy of Maximón is under the control of a local religious brotherhood and resides in various houses of its membership during the course of a year, being most ceremonially moved in a grand procession during Semana Santa.

This is where we had to abandon our tuk-tuk
He drove us back into town, round some narrow streets and had to stop when the road was blocked by a car being unloaded. He pointed forwards and to the right telling us where to go, but we were a bit lost in the translation, so we wandered off, found an old house that we thought may be the place, but was locked up, so took a photo and wandered back to the church.

By now the service had finished and a procession and a brass band were gathering to carry effigies of Christ and the Virgin Mary through the streets so we stood to watch.
Was the the building containing Maximon? No it wasn't
A local guide, who had tried to sell his services to us when we first arrived came over to tell us about it and to ask if we wanted to see the effigy of Maximón, which we really did. He’d take us there for 250Q – no he won’t! Negotiation and negotiation and we got the price down to 30Q, which we still think was too much, but we watched the procession go off, we had a look inside the church and then he led us back to where the tuk-tuk driver had dropped us off. Just past there we had to go right up a very narrow passage and into a room where he was. It was 2Q each to enter and another 10Q to take a photo. We didn’t take a photo! It was a small dark room with just the bust of a smiling light brown man, smoking a huge cigar, dressed in bright clothes with men sitting round it. We’re glad we saw it, it wasn’t anything special, but we’d never have found it on our own.

This is where we should have gone - we would never have found it alone
We learnt from the guide that the different Mayan tribes round the lake evolved their own languages and the one spoken in Santiago is entirely different from the one spoken in Panajachel (for example). I think he may have said there are more than 200 different Mayan languages, entirely different from each other and they only speak Spanish as a second language (and English as a third). We were told by an American we met that their Spanish is very simple, mainly using the present tense with simple future and basic past tenses only. That’s probably why we can understand them much better in Guatemala! They speak Spanish slowly and in simple forms, much easier for us.

Nearly forgot to say, we stopped for a fruit juice at a little cafe near the dock in Santiago. Looking for a table mum got her daughters in action who erected a table and chairs at the bottom of her garden by the lake and brought us drinks. On the way back out to pay we saw a cat and 'mum' showed us into a shed where another cat had given birth to little tiny kittens only 2 days ago...
Here they are in a box with mum. Youngest kittens I've ever seen
So after visiting the same rooftop bar to get the cheapest ‘happy hour’ beer we have found along with excellent views, we stayed for a great dinner of huge beefburger and chips, washed down with a second large beer while watching the sunset (but moving inside after dark when it went cold). This morning we were up early for our walk up the Indian’s Nose to watch sunrise.

Indians Nose from the boat as we came back to San Pedro. 'Can you see it yet?' Face lying down, forehead to the left, nose sticking up, mouth to the right. We made it to just below the nose
Monday morning on Indian Head. Volcan Fuego is erupting in the centre
We had two choices for a walk today, one was the Indian’s Nose which involves a shuttle ride starting at 4:00am, to a high village and a half hour walk up in the dark to watch the sunrise, returning to San Pedro by 08:00am. The alternative was a walk up the extinct Volcan San Pedro which started at 06:00am or 07:00am, takes 3 to 4 hours up and 2 hours down. It’s higher than the Indian’s Nose and apparently gives very good views. I was in favour of the volcano, as I thought if we’re going for a walk we may as well do a decent one, but Jackie wanted to do the Indian’s Nose, guess who won?

Here's a zoomed in view. Even with my crap camera I think you can see lava being ejected from the cone
Morning progresses and here the clouds have a red and yellow tinge
Actually we’d heard how good the sunrise is from the Indian’s Nose and most agents said they preferred that one (and it was cheaper at 100Q each – we negotiated 90Q!). Jackie quite fancied getting back for breakfast having already done our exercise for the day, so that was it. At least she couldn’t complain at having to get up at 03:30am!

Here's a closeup. Right is Volcan Fuego, left is Volcan Acatenango and left again is Volcan de Agua, all around Antigua
Panorama of Lake Atitlan with all the volcanoes and San Pedro below
The road up in the shuttle was desperate to say the least, potholes galore, so we were swerving all over the road to avoid them but, to be fair to the driver, he drove with care and we weren’t rattled to bits. There were seven of us with almost nothing said on the way up as we were all dozing, the van stopped, we got out in the dark under a starry sky with half-moon lighting our way and off we went behind our cheerful guide along a narrow track, up dusty steps, along wooden ladders, car tyres for steps and even a rope to help us up difficult bits. Eventually we reached a top, not THE top, that was a bit further up, but really there was no point, the view would have been no better. On the downside our seven were not the only ones there, there were some 20 others before us, who had grabbed the best benches in front, but there was room for all and really good views, which were amazing! Not to mention that someone had got the kettle on, so a small strong cup of Guatemalan coffee and a bit of cake, fab.

Last photo before going down at about 07:00am. At last the suns rays are beginning to warm us!
On our way down
We could see virtually all of the lake, most of the little villages identified by their little street lights, the three huge volcanoes around the lake and, in the distance the three volcanoes around Antigua, one of which was erupting with a cloud of smoke above it and, occasionally a burst of lava being ejected, we could even see some lava rolling down the side. Our guide identified it as Volcan Fuego, but someone else in town today thought it may have been another one. Whichever it was it gave a fabulous vista, six volcanos in view, one of them erupting and all under a sky with a little cloud that got redder as sunrise approached.

Brief stop on the way down with our guide. He was just too happy at 04:00am!
It was quite a magical experience and I’m glad we did that walk, as the streetlights went out as dawn approached the scene looked almost primeval (except for the 25 odd people also trying to take photos!). I took loads of photos, brutally deleted many after we returned and got left with some pretty good shots for an amateur with a point and shoot camera, but as usual, they never really convey what was seen for real. You’ll just have to come to this magical place yourself, you won’t be disappointed!

The final walk out
One more evening here, tomorrow morning we get the water taxi back to Panajachel for one more night there to collect our luggage and repack. On Wednesday 22nd we take a shuttle bus to Guatemala City where we’ve booked into a hostel on a secure area near the airport ready for our flight to Costa Rica on Thursday morning. Guatemala City has a severe crime reputation and, talking to people it is not just talk, it is a place not really recommended, so we only wanted to spend the minimum time there in order to get out!

Jackie in front of the three Lake Atitlan volcanoes
The countries to the south of us are Honduras and El Salvador, both of which rank number 1 and 2 for the most crime and murders outside of a war zone and, although we have spoken to people who say they are not as bad as people make out, we decided they are not for us, hence the reason we are flying over them. Nicaragua is below Honduras and we will be visiting there, although the capital, Managua has a fearsome reputation, so we’ll only fly in and bus straight out to nice areas. It’s all about being a bit careful!

1 comment:

  1. So glad you are being sensible with your forward planning. Loved all the pics of the volcanoes by the lakes. Xxx