Often times you will hear a quote from dystopian author Aldous Huxley, stating that Lake Atitlan as “too much of a good thing”, comparing it to Italy’s Lake Como. While Guatemalans have taken great pride in this body of water surrounded by cloudy, Fuji-like volcanoes, the Lake’s condition could not be anything but dystopian: high levels of water pollution, sad concrete structures partly flooded in the lake’s rising waters, the ever-growing troop of indigenous people selling themselves to the tourism machine, and the complete state of abandonment of the surrounding roads. Lake Atitlan is indeed one of the most beautiful settings one could set eyes on, but in my heart it will live as a gift from God that has fallen into greedy hands –national and foreign. However, it just takes a walk to the shore to forget humanity’s opportunism and be humbled by the quiet volcanic outlines that circle the lake like a saw.
My friend Blanca and I decided to celebrate Christmas by Lake Atitlan, so we set on a route that would take us out of the PanAmerican Highway on to peaceful villages full of curious faces, dirt paths in the middle of the forest, and steep, winding service roads designed to murder your brakes on the way down, and overheat your engine on the way up. Still, by sunset, we made it to San Marcos in the company of a friendly group of policemen that happened to be heading the same way.
We arrived to our accommodations to find an interesting wooden hut on the top of a pickup truck, and an ancient Ford van with California plates. I instantly knew the hut belonged to my friend Tim Dennis, the legendary “Rambling Rat”, the man who had traveled around the world by himself in a Toyota Land Cruiser. We found him having some pizza in a local restaurant, in the company of good friends from the most diverse nationalities; and soon we got talking about our respective adventures. His face was shaggy with a dense black beard, and his eyes glittered under the brim of a Panama hat. “This is the place, right here”, he said, as he lifted his beer in the air with a smile.
The following morning I found a derelict Jeep Cherokee in our backyard. It had been there for months, presumably abandoned by a New Zealander who had left it for the owner to sell. That woke up my curiosity and, after a closer inspection, got me dreaming about restoring it to running condition for the remained of the week. That day we set on exploring San Marcos and planning our stay at the lake. Two days before Christmas, we moved on to a more luxurious hotel to welcome the 25th of December with freshly picked papayas and homemade chocolate sticks from San Pedro.
Bit by bit I learned the stereotypical role of each of the little towns around the lake. While San Marcos seems to be more focused on the yoga crowd, San Pedro –still keeping its hippie roots– boasts its reputation as the “party town” in the lake. Panajachel –dubbed Gringotenango, city of Gringos–, to the East of San Pedro, remains the most touristic spot in the area by default, sporting some hideous high-rise buildings and a highly developed infrastructure to sustain the constant flow of visitors.
Santiago Atitlán is a whole different story. As you approach it in one of the fiberglass water taxis, something in the depths of your intuition will tell you something is not quite right with that place. A veil of darkness seems to surround this thriving town: the atmosphere is thick, loaded with an eerie energy. Sure enough, Santiago has been the ground for numerous genocides in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and is home to an evil deity called Maximon, worshipped in a small, cluttered chapel reeking of alcohol, incense and cigarettes. Santiago used to be the local Mayan capital before the arrival of the Spanish, and still remains one of the most commercially active centers in the region –judging by the sheer amount of Toyota pickups loaded with merchandise and/or people, that is!
Lake Atitlán is, along Monument Valley in Utah, one of the most impacting landscapes I have ever had the pleasure to visit –with the very special merit of driving there myself and not getting killed in the process. It is the solemn volcanoes, reflected on the calm water and my rearview mirror, which I will remember most fondly. The rest of what lies there, most of what is made by Man –the half-hearted constructions, the many walls, the million-dollar Gringo fortresses, the black magic and the blood in the cobblestone pavement– will slowly vanish in the backwaters of my mind and the rising tides of the lake to allow for a new –hopefully better– beginning.