Check out the Part I of my visit to Lake Atitlan here.
To recap, we stayed at Hotel Casa del Mundo the night before and by next morning were ready to do some exploring around Lake Atitlan. Lake Atitlan has many villages, some big, some small, but each has its own vibe and character.
We had decided to travel to Santiago Atitlan, home of Maximon, a strange Mayan/Catholic effigy that is the object of worship. Not to visit Maximon, but to walk around town and take in the sights.
As we were looking for a launch to ride, one of the attendants mentioned that the “patronales“, or patron saint festivities, were underway at San Juan La Laguna. Not wanting to miss a chance to take some great pictures, we headed towards San Juan La Laguna, so named after Saint John the Baptist, not the apostle, as it turned out.
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San Marcos La Laguna, Lake Atitlan
The launch’s first stop was at San Marcos La Laguna, the mecca for all things hippie and New Agey. It is reputed to be the prettiest village on the lake. We’ll make it a point to visit it in-depth at a later date.
San Marcos claims to have the cleanest shore, suitable for swimming. It’s a haven of massage and holistic therapies, yoga, meditation, and other interesting activities for spiritual seekers, who claim this site has a special energy of its own.
Whether this is true or not, I cannot attest, since we didn’t disembark at the village.
The place certainly seemed peaceful.
As we motored past San Marcos, we saw an imposing structure located lakeside. Whether a private or commercial residence, I’ve yet to figure it out. If anybody has any info on this interesting building, I’d be glad to hear about it in the comments.
Tropical Storm Agatha Wreaks Havoc
As we arrived at the dock of San Juan La Laguna, the damage caused by 2010’s Tropical Storm Agatha was evident. The storm brought so much rain that the water level at the lake rose 7 feet in a month. This was aggravated because the storm occurred during summer, smack dab in the middle of the rainy season.
The storm hit the lake area pretty hard, causing mudslides and with them, death and the destruction of many homes.
The level of the lake has reportedly risen 18 feet total since the storm, leaving many structures near the shore underwater, such as the one below.
It is uncertain how much time the long, makeshift boardwalk will remain in place.
San Juan La Laguna, Lake Atitlan
The town of San Juan is pretty pleasant to walk around in. More so than other bigger towns, which can be somewhat crowded and a little chaotic at times.
I’ve heard that if you’re at Lake Atitlan to learn Spanish, you go to San Juan. If you’re there to party, you go to San Pedro, the village next door.
San Juan is known for weaving and painting and that was obvious as soon as one stepped off the launch. Weaving going on to the right, art galleries dotted the entire street leading into town.
Below, a tuk-tuk awaits for passengers looking to catch a fare. Tuk-tuks are a fairly fuel-efficient mode of transportation. At the core, they’re just low-powered motorcycles with a small carriage attached to the backseat.
Many a time I’ve been just about ready to bet that the little engine was about to blow up, exhausted from the weight in the backseat. But somehow those little-engines-that-could pull the load up the hill against all odds.
I was wondering why anybody would need one, given San Juan’s size. My answers would lay just around the corner.
As I made my way from the docks, up the very steep hill, I couldn’t help overhearing a tour guide talking to his group about Lake Atitlan’s former water levels.
According to his account, water levels at the lake have risen and gone down wildly throughout its history. Old time villagers, the guide continued, claimed that water levels had at one time been as high as the point where I stood to take the picture you see below.
At first, I thought this might have been a tall tale to impress tourists. Or maybe the guide was honest and the old timers had amused themselves playing a mean joke on the guide, as one would do when telling a child ghost stories.
However, there seems to be some truth to the cycle of rising/decreasing water levels, just like what the Elder Mayans around the lake talk about.
In 1996, divers discovered an ancient Mayan site, dating back 2,000 years. At the site, there were five stone docks, submerged 115 feet!
While it certainly would’ve seemed impossible to those ancient people to expect levels to one day rise to what they are today… how do we know the current water level couldn’t rise much higher, as the Mayan elders have claimed it has in the past?
For more insight into how the rising water levels have affected expats and locals living around the lake, read this heartbreaking piece by local expat and homeowner Joyce Maynard in the New York Times. Eye opening.
After we got to the top, I stopped for a breather and some pics.
Holy Wars Heat Up
The festivities for the patron saint would officially be held Sunday, but the party was well underway. Music could be heard almost all the way to the dock. There was a reason for this, as you’ll see later.
The population around the lake is split between Catholics and Evangelical Protestants. Lately, the Evangelicals have been winning and have the big churches in town to prove it.
Not to be outdone, Catholics in San Juan are rallying and making their presence known by doubling the size of their church.
Below, you can see the outline of the old church to the left, and the much bigger addition being erected to the right, which effectively doubles the church in size.
Below is the Evangelical church, currently the tallest building in town.
Carnival rides on this side of town were not yet set-up. Even though it would’ve been tempting to see the lake from atop the Ferris wheel, there was no way I’d be getting up on one of those.
Let’s just say upon close inspection, they weren’t in the best mechanical shape.
The ride below caught my attention, as it displayed the characters of El Chavo, a beloved Mexican TV series that generations of Latin American children grew up with. All the show’s running gags are well known and catchphrases can be readily identified by nearly anyone that grew up in Latin America during the last 30 years.
A curious note is that the show has been transmitted in all Spanish-speaking countries, except Cuba.
It is easily the most-translated Spanish show in history. It’s still being shown here in Guatemala and I can tune in to get my fix three times a day: at midday, at 1 pm, and at 6 pm.
From right to left on the merry-go-round, the characters are El Chapulin Colorado (superhero parody character – missing its antennas, Chapulin is the basis for Bumblebee Man in The Simpsons), El Chavo, La Chilindrina, and Quico.
The World’s Largest Bazooka Speaker
After some more walking around, we finally found the source of the loud music.
A lonely band, playing what sounded like Tex-Mex music, was on stage performing for virtually no one. And no surprise, since there were at least 25 SPEAKERS BLASTING MUSIC AT EAR-SPLITTING LEVELS. Speakers that were conveniently turned away from the band, who seemed oblivious to the loudness.
How those poor souls inside managed to sit through it for more than 10 seconds, I’ll never know. I guarantee you someone came out of there with a permanent hearing loss.
After being unable to take in more than the 15 seconds necessary to snap a couple of pics, we moved on to walk the streets and see what else was going on.
Something I’ve had trouble with here in Guatemala is finding shoes, of any type, in my size (12.5US). Manufacturers here don’t have a need to produce them since it’s a rare size.
So imagine my excitement when I came across a store advertising American shoes.
The joy quickly disappeared, as I noticed that the merchandise was just haphazardly spread around the floor in a big pile. I did not feel like digging through a pile of used shoes to see if I got lucky finding a pair, so I moved on, disappointed. Didn’t even set foot in the store.
San Juan’s central plaza is not laid out in the typical fashion of Spanish towns. This is after all a semi-remote Mayan village. While the plaza was small and not in an apparently central location, the walls were at least freshly painted and the grounds very clean.
Located between the huge auditorium and facing away from the direction of the speakers, the plaza was as good as any place to enjoy the music.
San Juan and San Pedro have the advantage of being connected to the Panamerican Highway (CA-1). Unfortunately, the shuttles that travel that road are few and far between, since safety seems to be mixed heading out to CA-1 from here.
The recommended option is to arrive at the lake via the well-traveled road to Panajachel and take a public launch to any of the villages around the lake.
A Brush With Danger?
Once we had our fill of San Juan, it was time to visit San Pedro La Laguna, the much more lively neighboring village.
There are two ways to travel between the two villages: by launch or by tuk-tuk.
Since we had already done the launch, we decided to go via tuk-tuk this time. We hired a nice, young man, who for 15Q drove us to San Pedro and pointed sights along the way.
One such place was Indian Head mountain, below. Popular with locals, they offer guided hikes for tourists as well.
Indian Head mountain is named so for its shape, though the politically correct name is “Mayan Face” – “Indian” is a slur, as the locals preferred to be referred to as “indigenous”. If you need a hint, the highest peak is the nose, eyes are to the left, mouth to the right. San Juan’s docks are at the left-center of the photo.
We caught a glimpse of San Pedro, which definitely seemed much bigger than San Juan. The big building towering above all? San Pedro’s Evangelical church.
The driver mentioned a lookout point, just past the entrance to San Pedro, on the road to Santiago Atitlan. This road is well known as holdup central, and it’s been said that anyone who travels it runs a 99% chance of being robbed.
If you look at it on Google Maps, it is a lonely, long stretch of road, meandering behind San Pedro Volcano. Which is why it’s recommended that anyone wishing to go to Santiago Atitlan from San Pedro, do so via launch.
The driver assured us the lookout point wasn’t very far in, and that we’d be ok to visit, take a few pictures, and return to San Pedro.
As we went past the entrance to San Pedro, towards the lookout point, I began to feel uneasy, since the road quickly became very desolate. It didn’t help matters when halfway up, we encountered a Police checkpoint.
The Police officer questioned the young man about where he was taking us. The young man stammered a bit and seemed at a loss for words. I had to step in and tell the Officer where we were going. Since the lookout point was supposedly only half a mile up the road, the officer reluctantly allowed us to continue.
At this point, the driver got eerily quiet. I was close to asking him to turn around when we reached the lookout point.
Just as the driver had said, the views above San Pedro were stunning.
By now I was on edge. I took a few pics while keeping one eye on the view, another on the tuk-tuk. I was there for less than a minute when we hurriedly came back down to San Pedro.
I didn’t relax until we hit town a few minutes later. Not totally sure how close, if ever, I was being the victim of a planned hold-up. The young man seemed nice, so I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt.
San Pedro La Laguna, Lake Atitlan
The driver dropped us off in front of San Pedro’s main plaza.
The town was in full-swing, preparing for their own Patron Saint celebrations (Saint Peter), which were to occur right after San Juan’s celebrations ended.
The main plaza and church were definitely more picturesque than San Juan’s as well as more crowded.
The huge Evangelical church also towered over everything else in town. Even over Saint Peter’s giant, colorful statue.
San Pedro has a deserved reputation as a backpacker’s paradise due to its abundance of cheap lodging, flowing alcohol, and easy-to-acquire drugs. It seems the party never stops here.
Although to be fair, most of the action is concentrated at the establishments near the docks (San Pedro has two of them). The upper part of town is more family-oriented and quieter. It is also home to a large influx of expats and long-term vacationers.
Since we didn’t want to get caught by evil winds on the wrong side of the lake in the afternoon (read the first part to know what I’m referring to), we headed out to Panajachel in order to make it back to Antigua before nightfall.
San Pedro’s dock, below, showed signs of rising water levels. A platform had to be constructed to allow the public to pass on through to the shore.
As we were waiting for the launch to depart, a roving “band” of street musicians played rollicking Spanish-rock songs for the crew and passengers. Great entertainment.
On the return trip, we saw more signs of rising water levels.
While I initially lusted after the lake’s houses, with their own docks near the lake, I gained a new appreciation for the houses higher up on the hills.
A hotel that rivals Casa del Mundo in the views department is Lomas de Tzununa. While lacking in the charm department compared to Casa del Mundo, Lomas de Tzununa more than makes up for it in expansive lake views.
More beautiful houses… oh so close to the lake’s shore…
A hotel/restaurant well-worth checking out is Club Ven Aca, an oasis inside an oasis if you can imagine such a thing.
Club Ven Aca is right next to Casa del Mundo and it’s an excellent option for lunch or dinner (call ahead for the latter) no matter where you’re staying at on the lake.
Excellent food, reasonably-priced cocktails, and an infinity pool overlooking the lake, I’d be willing to drive from Antigua just to spend the day there.
And so ends a virtual tour of the lake and a small sample of what it has to offer.
Knowing what I know now about the water-level situation around the lake, it really makes me appreciate more the beauty of the surrounding areas. I can only hope that the situation is resolved without further loss of life or property.
It would really be a shame to lose such a pretty place, but as it’s been said, nature always goes to bat last.
Have you been to Lake Atitlan?
10 thoughts on “Lake Atitlan: Heartbreak at The Most Beautiful Lake in The World”
Very nice post. I’ll be in Guatemala next month and your stories have definitely left me even more stoked to go.
Thanks for the comment! Guatemala really is a wonderful place. You’ll have a good time.
Very interesting article to read!
Thanks for the feedback!
Beautiful photos. Makes me want to visit ;) (We’re already here, really I just need to explore more.)
Yes! Each village has it’s own story and customs. Have stayed at the lake on three different occasions and have yet to explore a quarter of it.
I’ll give you guys a heads up when we’re there :)
Crazy, my buddy just sent me this post via email.
And I just happened to visit with the Dennings (above) yesterday!
I think we’re gonna stick on the lake for one more day and go check out San Marcos for the day.
I spent 3 weeks taking Spanish Lessons in San Pedro and loved it!
Planing my third trip to the lake this Feb. Learning more Spanish and investigating coffee. Thanks for sharing your blog,
Thanks for the feedback! The lake is one of the most magical places on earth. I was thisclose to choosing it over Antigua, but my need for a more practical life pushed me here. I still love to visit whenever I get the chance.
Good idea about learning Spanish. You’ll get so much more out of Guatemala that way.
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