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