On the shores of Lake Atitlan

We visited this large lake, the markets of the area and mixed with the locals in their traditional dress

In search of Maximon

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by MichaelJM on March 21, 2013

Leaving the small village of San Juan behind us we head off to Santiago and although we had a smooth crossing earlier on in the day the lake was now much less forgiving. Indeed as the motor launch hit the waves it felt like we were landing on a bed of concrete. Soon I learnt to let my body relax through the bumps and in a perverse kind of way I began to enjoy the journey. Ahead of us we had a fantastic view of the volcanoes Toliman, Atitlan and San Pedro and I could begin to understand their sheer size and how impressive all this could have been to the early Maya People.

At one stage there was a discussion from our guide about whether or not we could complete the journey but she felt, on balance, that the crossing to Santiago would be acceptable and we would hope that the winds did not pick up further throughout the day. Soon our lumpy ride was over and we timidly disembarked from the boat to terra firma.

Immediately Santiago had a different feel to San Juan – this was clearly the tourist trap and the broad dusty main street was littered with craft shops and unfortunately much debris. Still the local women trundled the streets in pack-horse mode often heads piled high with goods which they seem to carry effortlessly. Certainly the shop fronts are aimed at visitors with tee-shirts, sunhats, demonstration fabrics and the like. Occasionally we saw locals selling for locals but in proportional terms there were much fewer vegetable and fruit stalls although we did see a pile of second clothing on the road side. Apparently the latter is brought in from the USA very cheaply and then sold on as individual items of clothing to people in Guatemala..

Next we went up to the local church which has a tragic history. From the outside the Church, founded in 1547 looks fairly uninspiring. There are the usual Mayan steps, signs that the original place of worship was destroyed and then rebuilt on by the Spanish invaders. The church’s violent history if very recent and relates to the 30 year long civil war. On January 6 1980 10 men were massacred by Guatemalan Military Forces and from that time onwards there were many threats, woundings and "disappearances" – Assassinations became common place until Father Stanley Rother, the Catholic Pastor, opened up the church as a place of refuge for threatened families. After a time the military became disenchanted with his intervention and on 28 July 1981 Father Stanley was himself assassinated. In recognition of his act of bravery the people of Santiago asked that his heart and blood remain in the village. They are entombed in a monument in the Church.

Another interesting feature of the Church can be seen on the altar where the wooden carvings show the story of Christ with Mayan people in the scene – a clear statement of the Maya and Catholic religions merging under the one church roof. Statues are dressed in Mayan style cloth. Fascinating.

We then set off to find Maximon, a Mayan God. The concept of Maximon (pronounced Ma-she-mohn) as a saint (Saint Simon) is a difficult one to deal with and as explained to us he was a mixture of sinner and saint. As far as I understood Maximon was a man who liked the high life – he played hard and worked hard. So he drank, smoked and womanized. The latter being his downfall because he "played too close to home" and when his fellow villagers found out about him they chopped off his arms and legs. Quite how he achieved status as a god I’m not sure. Now this armless and legless effigy is revered and each year a member of the Shaman brotherhood is charged with looking after the effigy. It’s located in a brotherhood house and people visit with gifts of alcohol and cigarettes and contribute to his upkeep by asking the Shaman to perform a ritual for them. It’s a strange one but if you want good health, a happy marriage, good crop production you’ll need to keep on good terms with this chap. He sits there with his cowboy hat, shrouded in neck ties with a cigar in his mouth, overlooked by his protectors and for a quetzal you can take a photograph. We had 2 quetzals worth of photos and I have to say Maximon posed beautifully for me.

Having made our last visit on the island our guide got a couple of tuk-tuks and we headed off to the restaurant for lunch. It was an interesting journey – weaving through the narrow streets, taking a steep hill out of town (will the tuk-tuk make the journey I wondered) and overlooked the river where people were washing their clothes in the lake as well as making use of the village laundry facilities. This was a open walled structure with a number of concrete vats in which locals washed their clothes.

Lunch was at the Posada de Santiago which overlooked the lake it was very pleasant surrounding but for some reason they chose to have a really scary mask in the Gents toilet! The food was local and we had a choice of main course and pudding. Just as we were about to complete our coffee we noticed that our guide and the boat driver were in earnest discussion.

Heads were shaking and heads scratched. Our guide came over to us and told us that the wind had got up and the crossing by the lake would be most uncomfortable. The plan therefore was that we would take a road trip to the next village on the other side of Lake Atitlan and our boat would collect us from there as we could then hug the side of the lake and avoid the waves that would make our journey most unpleasant. If you want to check on how that journey went then check out the review in this journal

Not quite a tourist free zone!

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by MichaelJM on March 20, 2013

I guess we were like many tourists to the area as we set off for our full day lake tour. However, ours would not turn out to be a standard trip and we ended up having a conclusion to our day that will not be experienced by many. But more of that later...

We take the short walk from the hotel lobby to the jetty at the water’s edge and then clamber aboard the small boat that will take us on our adventure across the lake. Our guide for the day is extremely personable and we were all soon engaged in discussion as the boat left the shore of our hotel in the direction of San Juan La Laguna.

The lake was calm and as we got half way across the boat’s engine was turned off and we were able to enjoy the tranquillity of the lake. However, our guide had stopped the boat to explain a little about its hidden treasure. In 2009 scuba divers were exploring the lake and believe that they have found the remains and relics of a sacred island that would have been visited by Mayan pilgrims over 2000 years ago. It is speculated that the raised part of the lake that they’ve found (over 4,000 square feet in area) and currently 500 feet below the surface of the lake, was once an island. They have named it Samabai and on it the archaeologists have found ceremonial monuments, altars and religious relics, and they say that a volcanic eruption in 250 A.D. raised the water levels and covered the island. It is an exciting time for the local Maya community and I look forward to hearing how the research develops over the next few years

Having heard about what was under the surface we set off again and headed to San Juan La Laguna. Once again the rising lake has taken its toll and many of the buildings close to the lake had been submerged by the waters of the lake. It looked quite surreal and as we walked along the wooden pier we entered a covered area – San Juan La Laguna’s reception area. Quite ingeniously they had decided to use the second floor of a submerged building to serve this purpose! As we understood that the indigenous Maya were aware of the rise and fall of the lake’s waters we expressed surprise that they had built so close to the edge of the lake. Our guide had no hesitation in telling us that these properties were not built by and for locals they were houses for "outsiders". I suspect she meant holiday homes for richer Guatemalans.

As we made our way around the village many of the walls were covered in brightly painted murals and the "bird’s eye view paintings have become a trade mark style of this town and a big hit with the tourist trade. We were taken to a couple of artist’s studios and although the stylised art work is bright and eye-catching I’m not sure "how well it would travel". We left without making a purchase although our friends were captivated by the artwork and made a purchase. I look forward to how it looks when hung in their home.

Next we made our way to the main attraction in this town – the Women’s Weaving Co-operative. This was formed in 1998 and has been recognised by the Guatemalan President. The townsfolk grow organic cotton and then spin it into thread. Having spun the thread they then dye it using only natural products before weaving it into textiles. They weave using the ancient Mayan method of back strap and front loom. They only change to the method ids that they use a small stool to sit on rather than kneeling. This break with tradition was introduced because a high percentage of weavers were suffering knee and lower back problems and sitting seems to have significantly reduced their health problems.

We were shown through all the process and I have to say that the dying of the textile is an amazing sight. The various shades are down to the skill of the dyer as she removes the sodden mass of fibre from a bubbling stew of plants.

This village is not over-run by tourism and in our small group of 4 we could almost merge in to the environment. Indeed we didn’t see any other tourists in town – perhaps we were earlier than them!

We took a walk up to the local church which had been virtually destroyed by an earthquake, but the locals have managed to stabilise the front facia of the building and are now undertaking a modern rebuild on the main body of the church. This was interesting to see but not a sunning sight.

We had now concluded our tour of the lake and had just the stunning view of the lake, as we walked back down to the jetty. Stalls were beginning to be set up, by the locals selling their crafts. It now seemed certain that we had beaten the rest of the tourists into San Juan La Laguna. Now the locals were inviting us to buy, not in a pushy way. I think we saw the village at its best just before they set up stalls for visitors. So my tip is to get there early!
San Juan la Laguna

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Shopping with the locals

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by MichaelJM on March 14, 2013

Today we set off for our two night stay at Lake Atitlan. We set off prompt at 9.00 and our driver anticipated that our travel time would be around two to three hours. We hardly seem to notice the "free massage" from the cobble streets of Antigua and soon we are on the smooth roads that will take us to the Lake. We’re pleasantly surprised by the well maintained highways of Guatemala and the driver makes good progress though the unremarkable landscape and unimpressive villages on route.

We are surprised of the speciality of the workshops on route until we find that many are servicing the trade in converted pick-up tracks that have been imported from USA. Apparently clapped out vehicles are brought in to Guatemala and then repaired and refurbished by the garages buying their fenders, shiny exhaust pipes from the specialist workshops previously mentioned.

Leaving these villages behind we’re into the higher lands and now we can appreciate some half decent vistas. Not breath-taking but a welcome change from wood-shops, brick-makers yards, car mechanics and the like.

On route to Lake Atitlan we are scheduled to stop at Solola market. This twice weekly market (Tuesday and Friday) opens at 6.30 a.m and closes anytime after 7.30 pm. and after a chaotic try at parking in a makeshift car-park on a slope we finally got out the people carrier and headed off for the market. It felt bustling even before we entered the main section of the market and we meandered past the hoards of women carrying market goods in baskets on their heads whilst trying to keep our guide in sight. We were pleased that he’d offered to take us around the market because it soon became clear that it was a bit of a labyrinth. He knew the route and we didn’t so we followed, but he seemed to have developed a sixth sense and knew when to stop and give us some explanation as to what was happening.

We saw vegetables and fruit that we didn’t recognise and we dutifully asked what it was. Sometimes it was a variant of a vegetable that we knew but there were some unknown ones and despite repeating the name at the time we still can’t recall what it was we were looking at. What became clear was that the Guatemalans are much more careful to make full use of their plants and parts that we would often discard were used by them somewhere in the cooking process. They waste very little and I guess that we could learn much from that.

Solola Market was a real colorful affair and almost all the people there (men and women) were sporting their culture’s traditional clothing. Men were dressed in their colorful tapestry trousers and women in the skirts and blouses that link them into their culture, their locality and indeed their precise village. Our guide explained that each design would be specific to a village and the "dress code" certainly meant that designer labels have limited appeal in this part of the country.

We’d been advised to only take limited money with us on this trip as although this is not a tourist haven and there are very few reports of thefts from tourists, our guide felt we’d be safer leaving those items of value in our cases in the mini-bus. I guess it was a sensible precaution, but we did not feel threatened whilst walking through the crowded aisles of this busy market. We were not harassed at all, but there would be little of interest to attract a purchase from the tourist. It is after all a trading market for the local population. It’s here that small "farmers" can trade their produce and buy food or merchandise that they are unable to produce.

We really felt that we were experiencing local life as we walked around the market, taking in the smells and sounds of local people as they went about their daily business. What a treat to be ignored and just blend into the general melee.
Solola Market
Town Centre, Solola
Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

The shores of Lake Atitlan

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by MichaelJM on March 1, 2013

The Hotel Lake Atitlan was our residence for the next two nights and it, as its name suggests has a prime site at the side of the lake. We’d arrived at lunchtime (or that’s what my digestive system was suggesting) and were too early to check in. However, a rather off-handed receptionist allowed us to sign in and said he’d ensure our room was ready around two. We were not worried as we were planning to eat and having entrusted our luggage to the hotel porter we meandered through the hotel to the side of the swimming pool with a great view of the lake.
Beers ordered we perused the menu and after discussion and several changes of mind we made our luncheon choices. The beer slipped down a treat and soon we were looking towards our second bottle of Moza, a local dark beer. When the meals were brought to the table we were stunned by the quantity – all portions could have been split between two of us and certainly if I lunched here again I’d take an option "to share". Despite the large portions we all polished them off, but it wasn’t too surprising that we only had the one course for our evening meal.
But I race on in my review....

Our rooms were adjacent and on the top floor (although it’s a low rise building) having a superb view from the room and the balcony of the gardens and Lake Atitlan. Two comfortable queen sized beds were sure to give us a good night’s sleep. Indeed after our visit to the nature reserve we managed a pre-dinner nap! The spacious room was light and airy but there wasn’t a safe in the room. We decided to just lock valuables in our cases as we felt the place was real secure.

The bathroom was well set up with soaps, shower gel and shampoo but we were surprised that there was no complimentary bottled water. We later read that the water was safe to drink as the hotel pumped water from its own Artesian Well. Although initially unsure I decided to give it a whirl and I have to say I didn’t suffer as a result.
In the guide books the hotel was highly recommended for its evening meal, which we enjoyed on our first night, but I have enjoyed better steaks elsewhere. It wasn’t overpriced and it was of reasonable quality, but the service was less than average.

After a good night’s sleep and waking to the sun reflecting on the lake and the proud form of one of the four volcanoes surrounding caldera that is Lake Atitlan, we were ready for a good breakfast. We weren’t about to be disappointed.

Breakfast was a running buffet and the choice was huge. You could start off with a range of cereals, although I opted to go straight for the cooked breakfast. I had fried eggs which were cooked to order, diced fried potatoes, cold ham, cheese and a cheesy topped bubble and squeak. All very tasty and well prepared. The fruit juice was fresh and nicely chilled and coffee was readily available. After my main cooked breakfast I enjoyed a freshly prepared pancake with maple syrup. There were so many options that on the second day I was able to experience a totally different breakfast experience.

We’d intended not to eat at the hotel on our second night, but after a busy of sight-seeing around the lake we decided that we would not trek out in search of another restaurant, but have a snack evening meal. Once again the food was good but the surely attitude of the waitress really knocks down the rating of the hotel’s restaurant. She got the tip she deserved....

I think that some of the staff could have much improved their "person skills" and realize that the customer they were with was the one that mattered. We did have the experience of the receptionist walking off mid-sentence to answer the phone and the waitress who could hardly manage a smile or eye contact. Still the grounds of the hotel were superb with a wide range of different plant and bright flowers. We did spot some real brightly coloured birds but they were a little too speedy to catch on camera. The grounds had tranquility about them and we enjoyed a restful experience at this hotel in its beautiful setting at the side of the lake.

Hotel Atitlan
6 Calle 6 - 38 Zona 9 Local 6, Buenaventura
Panajachel, Western Highlands

Monkeying around

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by MichaelJM on March 12, 2013

Close by the hotel was a nature reserve and we all thought it would be an interesting diversion for the afternoon. It was only a few minutes away from the hotel and the admission charge was 55 questas each (£4.50 in English money) and soon we were clamouring up the uneven track following the signs to the monkeys.

It was a bit of a haul but just when we thought we might have taken the wrong turning we heard the sound of rustling in the trees above us. We paused and looked up expectantly, and for several seconds none of us could see anything other than trees. Then suddenly, as one, we exclaimed and pointed towards a black silhouette – it was a spider monkey. And then not only one but 4 or five and soon we were all in paparazzi mode trying to get a focus, against the light, of the spider monkey. It would be tough to get a decent shot and then we heard more human voices a few yards up the track. They clearly had a better view so we headed up the track to gain a different vantage point.

After only a few seconds we saw why the others were getting such a great view because ahead was a wooden viewing platform. In a way it was a bit of a disappointment to have this man-made structure in the middle of what had seemed to be a natural environment, but any reservation was quickly dispelled as we watched the antics of the spider monkey.

The spider monkey lives in the tropical rain forests of Central and South America and this skinny looking creature was soon demonstrating its acrobatic skills. In addition to its slender limbs it has a prehensile tails that enables it to wander through the trees with apparent ease. Occasionally we thought the branches were too thin to support the monkey but effortlessly this nimble creature would drop from one branch to another hurling itself from one tree to the next. Initially our hearts were in our mouths as it seemed that they would surely lose their grip and tumble to the ground, but an outstretched arm would grab a branch or the tail twist around a branch to enable an almost seamless transfer from one tree to another.

It soon became clear that these primates are real social animals as not only was there a group of them (they often congregate in groups of up to three-dozen) setting off in sub-groups of half a dozen or so for sleeping or foraging. In front of us were 7 or 8 monkeys all wanting to impress each other. It seemed as if the maxim "anything you can do, I can do better" ruled in this group of primates and soon we were believing that they were playing to the crowd. Yes, I’m convinced some of their behaviour was being played out to impress us, their human spectators. Indeed if we took our eyes off them it wasn’t unusual for them to start screeching and creating a cacophony to attract our attention.

Watching their antics was highly amusing and totally distracting. We were transfixed with these primate thespians and had to drag ourselves away to explore the rest of the reserve. Ahead of us we had to cross several rope bridges. These was great fun because 50% of our foursome weren’t great with heights and were less happy with swaying bridges. Still they persevered and overcame their fears. I can’t pretend that my wife was over the moon with the bridge crossing experience but she knuckled down and managed the challenge. Above us several adventurous slid down the criss-cross of zip wires that circled the reserve. It created an almost surreal skyline as we looked up through the canopy of trees to see crash helmeted youngsters sliding across the sky.

At the bottom of the reserve was a butterfly enclosure and it was here that we headed off to next. On route we passed a small enclosure housing four racoons. At first sight this seemed to be against the ethos of a nature reserve but I then read that they were only cared for in this way because they had been injured and were incapable of living on their own in the wild. They looked mean beasts as they prowled around the enclosure. This omnivorous creature is normally nocturnal so I guess this was a good opportunity to get "up close" to the creature in daylight hours.

The butterfly enclosure cannot be described as full of activity, but we waited patiently to catch a glimpse of some butterflies. I guess in total we saw 6 or 7 different types and so it was not a wasted trip. However, it was a little disappointing.

Overall the reserve was not showing an abundance of wild life but the spider monkeys were a real treat to watch and the variety of vegetation and the small waterfalls made it an interesting trip. I wouldn’t travel miles to see it but as it had been on our doorstep it had been worth the visit. After all £4.50 is a small amount to pay for monkey antics!
Atitlan Nature Reserve

Panajachel, Western Highlands


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