Where the rainbow gets its colours

Lake Atitlán: We come across the unexpected beauty of Lago Atitlán – a sapphire jewel set in a crown of majestic volcanoes – after a morning’s drive through into the western highlands. Aldous Huxley pronounced it the most beautiful lake in the world, beating Lake Como by virtue of its volcanoes. “Atitlán really is too much of a good thing,” he wrote – and that was in the 1930s, long before he’d begun experimenting with mind-altering drugs.

Volcano peaks surround Lake Atitlán
Sunset and the lake

Atitlán, from the Mayan, means ‘the place where the rainbow gets its colours’ – something that Aldous may have appreciated post-experimentation, perhaps. Actually, as the sun sets, the lake takes on an ethereal multicoloured sheen worthy of its name, the volcanoes merge into the sky like pencil outlines on a watercolour, and the emergent twinkles from stars, fishing boats and homes far across the lake collude to create a mesmerising confusion of earth, sky and water. It’s beautiful.

The lake has been high for months, flooding the shore

Our bus delivers us to Panajachel, the largest town on this water-filled, ancient caldera. We take a boat across the lake to San Pedro, a Mayan village of Tz’utujil and Kaqchikel people, who speak guttural languages, wear heavily embroidered traditional dress and worship their thinly disguised Mayan gods inside the Catholic church. Luck favours us and we find an affordable room in wonderful hotel overlooking the lake, boasting two jacuzzis. We spend a decadent day lazing in our delightful hotel and admiring our lake from its veranda.

San Pedro local wearing the local dress
Around half of the men (and most of the women) wear traditional dress

The hotel is full of older people on organised tours, who behave identically, wearing almost the same clothes, snapping exactly the same things from exactly the same angles, asking the same questions, buying the same things, and even ordering the same food from the menu like automatons. The tour groups stay one night and move on, booked on exhausting journeys that cram as much as possible into their brief time-slot.

Guatemalan couple on a horse

Eventually, we leave our hotel, heading for the village, where the men wear fancy pants (prettily embroidered, 3/4-length), a patterned woollen skirt, intricately embroidered shirts, a decorated cummerbund, a padded cotton jacket that’s also embroidered with coloured threads, all topped off with a straw cowboy hat. Very spiffy.

Cauliflower and cabbage man
Market-day bustle at Chichi

The women wear wrap-around skirts, blouses, fancy belts and carry-blankets.

At the tomato stall
Man carrying chickens

We take a bus up a series of switchbacks on a narrow, sickeningly precipitous road to the 2,000-metre-high market town of Chichicastenango (thankfully abbreviated to Chichi). We arrive at midday, (after a bus breakdown and a 2-hour wait for a replacement) and the twice weekly market is in full swing. The streets are crowded with bustling diminutive people in local dress – every village has its own distinctive embroidery style – and slow-moving, lofty tourists like us, who generally get in everyone’s way.

Fabric on sale
Candles and incense

The 400-year old Catholic church is built on the ancient Mayan temple platform, and the steps leading up to it are worshipped in the traditional way with the burning of incense, spreading of pine needles and offerings of alcohol and flowers. Inside, it is a strange mixture of Mayan K’iche’ cult worship and Jesus & co. Chicken sacrifices are still carried out here.

Original Mayan steps to the Catholic church
Burning incense outside the church doors

On a hilltop on the outskirts of the town is a beautifully maintained, colourful cemetery, in which the dead look better housed than many of the living – but I suppose they spend eternity in the cemetery and a mere lifetime in their mud and thatch shacks.

Elaborate cemetery at Chichi
The church, like the Mayan temple before it, rises high above the market town

There are other, less grandiose references to the dead. Hundreds of thousands were killed during the 36-year civil war – they are remembered in a series of murals, depicting lynchings and other distressing scenes. More recently, in 2005, Hurricane Stan battered the region, burying an entire village and killing many hundreds of people. The communities around Atitlán are still being rebuilt, with landslides remaining a continual disruption.

Dried fish stall
Kids in the market

Back at the lake, Nick considers diving. Much of the endemic lake life has disappeared due to overfishing, pollution and the introduction – to boost tourist numbers – in the 1970s of black bass, which promptly ate the native fauna.The flooding from last year’s rains has, unusually, not receded and patches of forest, farmland and greenhouses are underwater. We content ourselves with the jacuzzi instead.

Ah, this is the life!

6 thoughts

  1. Thanks Gaia for sharing your journey into this part of the world. I enjoyed seeing the photos or Mexico or is it Guatemala. All the same I’m not sure I would be as brave as these guys with their colorful outfits.

    Seeing them though helps to explain why many central American immigrants make sure that at least their children are all fancy even on what most white folks would consider an ordinary day. I would pesonally love to see my Latino brothers and sisters wear more tradtional outfits here in the US. I see nothing wrong with celebrating the culture of our ancestors. Just as long as they don’t force us to be like them. I think it would be great.

    In places like Santa Cruz California I noticed that the east Indians at least the ladies dressed in beautiful saris. I crazy but that is what hit me among many other things in your travelogue. Because I’m legally blind and stuck on a fixed income I appreciate seeing the world through the eyes of people like yourself. Thanks for Sharing.

    1. Thanks Gary, I’m glad you liked it. Seeing changes in clothes, food and language is one of the great pleasures of travelling.

  2. I spent some time in San Pedro over a few months in 1991. It really was a world away from the noise and dirt of the city. So good to see the people retaining their identity and not all wearing coca cola T-shirts. Back then these people were being persecuted whenever rebels struck at govt infrastructure. One time the military stopped a bus in this area, took all the indigenous men off and shot them . I
    read about it after travelling that same road on motorbike the week after. Panjachel was where I got struck down by Giardia and San Pedro where a lovely old indigenous woman at the market firstintroduced me to herbal medicines. I don’t think there were any big hotels there then. Certainly no jacuzzis. Of the whole Central Am this highland area is the place I’d love to return to.

    1. It is beautiful. Indigenous people are still terribly disadvantaged, although not to the extent you describe. But, I was encouraged to discover that in some areas, around Cobán for example, children for whom Spanish is there first language must learn one of the local Mayan languages in school. Slowly, indigenous culture is gaining respect.

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