Guatemala: Adventures in Lake Atitlán

Guatemala — By Josh Steinitz on March 3, 2010 at 12:42 pm

Rounding a bend on the steeply declining road, the shimmering blue expanse abruptly came into view. The vista was a unique one, and took a moment to fully process.

Despite reading comparisons of Lake Atitlán to everything from Lake Como to Crater Lake, I found that I was still surprised by the scale and sheer contrast presented by the place, from the cone volcanoes towering in the distance, to the small villages that appeared as white dots around the perimeter, to the sheer cliffs lining much of the shoreline.

sunset over the lake

Sunset over the lake

The lake, reached via a 3 hour journey along the the Pan-American Highway northwest of Guatemala City, is set amidst the cradle of Guatemalan indigenous highland culture, and Mayan traditions still dominate over mass-market Central American culture. Of course, these traditional practices and norms can’t exist in a vacuum, and the influence of tourism, wealth, and economic imperatives are increasingly influential.

The lake itself is the product of series of massive volcanic episodes, and the collapsed caldera ultimately filled with 1,000+ feet of water, which drains away to the sea through some hidden underwater channels in the rock. At an elevation of around 5,000 feet, it enjoys a year-round springtime climate, with warm days and moderate/cool (but not cold) nights.

After a short lancha boat ride from the dock at the main town where our drive ended, Panajachel, we rounded a bend in the shoreline and approached the Laguna Lodge, a new eco-resort built into the side of the steep hills rising straight off the lake. No roads lead to the lodge. The place definitely had curb appeal, and we were eager to explore its charms further.

Laguna Lodge

After a short discussion, it was clear that owners Mayah and Jefro, a Kiwi/Aussie couple, take the “eco” part of ecotourism very seriously. To them, it’s not simply a label used for questionable marketing purposes, but instead is indicative of their worldview that sustainability is the only way. In practice, that means fresh, local, vegetarian meals, it means working virtually exclusively with a staff sourced from the nearby village of Santa Cruz, it means using local building materials and recyclables/reusables, and it means thinking holistically about their business practices.

Luckily for us, that commitment didn’t mean they skimped on the quality of the experience. Our bedroom was spacious with little touches of design flair and came with an incredible view straight across the lake, only feet from our feet (literally). The organic cotton sheets on our king-sized bed were incredibly comfortable, and the shower got plenty hot.

After a late meal, we curled up in bed and awoke early the next morning for a day trip to the famous highland market at Chichicastenango. Logistics were surprisingly straightforward—we hailed a lancha from the lodge’s dock to Panajachel, and then hired a minibus to take us and other travelers up and over the crater rim and on to the town. Once there, we spent hours browsing the many shopping delights, ranging from colorful local textiles to masks to jewelry. Some of it was clearly the product of local craftsmen, while other stuff was clearly part of the standard tourist offering around the country. In any case, we came back fully loaded.

Chichicastenango market

Chichicastenango market

women at the Santiago market

Women at the Santiago market

The following day, I made the short walk over to the local village of Santa Cruz and caught a boat across the lake to the town of San Pedro. San Pedro is a larger town, and after Panajachel is likely the second-largest tourist spot around the lake. From there I was able to hire a local guide to join me on a walk up Volcán San Pedro, the most accessible (and safest) of the 3 volcanoes around the lake. The friendly guy, who spoke no English, led me with his machete up the steep trail, first through avocado groves, coffee and corn fields, and then through the cloud forest as we got higher. Eventually, we reached the crater rim, covered in dense foliage. Luckily, there was a great spot to enjoy the panoramic view from thousands of feet above the water below—it was truly breathtaking. The only fly in the ointment was the obvious view of the brown streaks of algal bloom that had recently infected broad swaths of the lake.

looking over the lake from the summit of Volcan San Pedro

Looking over the lake from the summit of Volcan San Pedro

On other occasions we visited the traditional town of Santiago, set in a narrow bay along the south shore between two volcanoes, and spent some time browsing the streets of Panajachel. Beyond the typical restaurants, shops and travel agencies catering to the worldwide hippie trail experience, we managed to find some great local food and funky knick-knacks.

In between our various explorations, we had plenty of downtime to simply relax and enjoy the stunning surroundings of the lodge. In fact, in collaboration with their local staff, Mayah and Jefro had built a small trail network above the property, leading strenuously up through dry forest to great views of the lake from high on the ridgeline, and ultimately to a private palapa with two hammocks, perched on a rib of rock hundreds of feet above the shoreline. Or, we simply lounged on the deck or in our room and listened to the water lap.

Things That Make You Go Hmm…

Our stay at Laguna Lodge was fantastic, and the property is highly recommended, both for the quality of the experience it offers and the responsibility the owners take for the reducing their impact (and yours). Their sincerity is truly refreshing, and the place is a wonderful spot to decompress. Despite this, and because it’s not a mass-market kind of place, there are a few things to be prepared for in advance. First, after spending very little on food elsewhere in Guatemala, it may come as a shock to see prices for meals that are comparable to upscale American or European restaurants. Granted, the lodge make impressive efforts to grow and source locally (which explains the cost), but it still may be tough to swallow for guests who are effectively a captive audience. Second, even the most innocuous activities are not included in the price of your stay. For example, you’ll pay $40 (!) to take a dip in the jacuzzi (at those prices, why even offer it?), and pay again to take a kayak out for a short paddle around the lake. While the food costs can be justified on some basis, these other expenses have no comparable I’ve seen anywhere. Still, in the broad context of the experience, Laguna Lodge is worth a visit for any adventurous spirit.

Practically Speaking

The Guatemalan Tourism website has some useful information on the basics, while the usual suspects on the guidebook front cover the Atitlán reasonably extensively. Rough Guides appears to have the most up-to-date information at the moment, having published a new edition in the last year.

Laguna Lodge’s website has lots of content both about the property, the lake ecosystem, and what sustainability means in practice. Owners Mayah and Jefro are friendly, easygoing, and helpful, and have built the place from the ground up. It’s an impressive effort for newcomers to the hospitality space.

We enjoyed El Bistro restaurant in Panajachel, with surprisingly good Italian pasta dishes and world-class fruit smoothies. It has a nice garden patio at the end of Calle Santander towards the waterfront.

Tags: Guatemala, Laguna Lodge, Lake Atitlan, San Pedro

    2 Comments

  • Marco says:

    Beautiful blog post. I would be so interested in publishing your Atitlan experiences on my website http://www.atitlancommunity.com.

  • A few corrections and updates from Laguna Lodge:

    – “Our Jacuzzi and Sauna are absolutely included in the price of the room at our standard price of 225 for the deluxe suites and 290 for the luxury suites”. (only discounted stays do not include the jacuzzi and sauna it seems)

    – “We have NEVER charged for kayak or canoe use and dont even have a price for this free included service.” (This was not my experience but perhaps that was an anomaly)

    – clarifying that “Our hammock area on our nature reserve is not private, Our 100 acre nature reserve is private as we privately own it and it is included in all rates for use by anyone staying at laguna lodge at absolutely no charge also. “

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