Aldous Huxley described Lake Atitlan as "too much of a good thing," comparing it to Lake Como, in Italy, "with the additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes." I’ve never been to Lake Como, but Atitlan is definitely a lot of a good thing.
I first picked up Huxley's 1934 travelogue Beyond the Mexique Bay in a Buenos Aires book exchange, and read it on a long bus journey down to Patagonia. I was appalled by the casual racism inherent in the colonial era traveller, but found myself mesmerized by the descriptions of the Latin American countries he visited.
Eleven years later, I’m making my own pilgrimage to the fabled lake, which is believed to be a conduit of cosmic energy and a highly spiritual place.
Arriving at Lake Atitlan
The sun has already set when I first catch a glimpse of the lake, and a silky twilight is spread across its expanse. Even the 20-something-year-old Australian backpackers, who spend most of the four-hour journey from Antigua talking about getting wasted and nailing chicks are impressed by the sight that's gradually revealed as we descend to the lake via endless switchbacks on a narrow, rocky road.
By the time I arrive at my hotel, Mikaso, which is perched on the edge of the lake in the town of San Pedro de la Laguna, it’s already dark. I can just about make out some of the other villages across the bay, their lights twinkling in the blue-black.
It’s too late to do much exploring, but the Señorita and I stumble upon a small bar nearby, run by some jolly American folks and patronised on this occasion by some equally gregarious Irish folk. We stumble out again several hours later.
In the morning, the lake is spread out wide below the hotel’s rooftop terrace, stretching for miles in each direction, with the imposing volume of Atitlan Volcano towering off to the right, and the silhouette of a rock formation known as Indian’s Nose away to the left.
A light mist at the edge of the lake curls among the reeds near the shore and up the waterlogged banks. The effect is made all the more creepy by several abandoned houses, semi-submerged in the water in the shallows.
According to locals – mostly indigenous Mayans with a love/hate relationship with the mostly-foreign hoteliers and restaurateurs who have colonised the lake shore – the waters of Atitlan have been know to rise and fall by around 10 metres every decade or so since time immemorial.
No one knows why, but it has always been that way, which is perhaps why the savvy local population live some distance up the slopes of the caldera in which the lake sits. Most of them are farmers who work the mineral rich soil to grow crops, or land owners who make a living by letting out or selling their land to would-be business owners from Guatemala City or foreign lands.
San Pedro is a fairly laid-back place, with a string of hostels, restaurants cafes, tour operators, yoga studios, natural spas and shops selling artisanal goods running between the two piers that connect the town with the seven others that ring the lake.
We hire a local guide to accompany us on a hike from the town of Santa Cruz, an hour away by boat, to San Marcos, which is known as a spiritual centre and a source of much of the lake’s holistic energy. It's a lovely hike, with spectacular views down the length of Lake Atitlan, but the only odd vibes I get in San Marcos are from the (obviously foreign) people who wander the village’s narrow alleyways. The raised eyebrows and mostly disapproving looks suggest I'm not wearing nearly enough tie-dye to fit in.
Off the beaten track
The next day we visit the traditional and less touristy town of Santiago, which is also an hour from San Pedro by boat. Santiago was the scene of a civilian massacre during the civil war, when government soldiers gunned down 14 people in 1990. I’m usually reluctant to hire ad hoc, independent guides in unknown places, but I'm impressed by the gait (and the hat) of a chap in a red shirt who says his name is Miguel.
Miguel takes us to the shrine of Maximón, a rogue saint/devil much revered in the local Mayan communities around the lake, whose effigy is moved from house to house every year. According to legend Maximón slept with all the women of the town during the course of one particularly amorous afternoon while the men were working in the fields. When they returned and discovered his crimes, they cut off his arms and legs.
I’m not quite sure how this led to him becoming a highly-respected folk hero, but replicas of his effigy are sold on every tourist souvenir shop around the lake – a squat, seated man dressed in black, invariably wearing a large hat and puffing on a cigar.
The shrine is a 10-minute drive out of town, past the small plaza where the massacre took place, in a dirt-floor outhouse behind a local home. The effigy is covered with neon and flashing Christmas lights, and flanked by various other saints and effigies, as well as a local shaman who is amiably receiving visitors and accepting offerings on behalf of Maximón.
After, Miguel takes us to the cathedral, where a massing crowd seems to be waiting for something. Three figures in masks are dancing in the wide square outside the cathedral, in what looks a bit like a Candomblé ceremony from Brazil.
I move in to take photos but am shooed off by an extremely inebriated man who burbles something about guns and white devils. Like everyone else, he's armed with a machete, so I resign myself to snap off a few photos from afar before beating a hasty retreat.
Miguel, dressed in a marvellous red shirt, short traditional trousers and a wide-brimmed hat, obliges me with a photo and we return to San Pedro, just in time to watch the daily storm roll in across the lake and drench the village in a hundred years' worth of rain in a few hours.
I'm not sure that you can ever have too much of a good thing, and I could certainly spend a few more days exploring the villages that surround Lake Atitlan. There's no time to climb the volcanoes that surround lake (although I climbed the mighty Volcan Acatenango in Antigua a few days before, so I'll be fine); my aura remains uncleansed; and the Indian's Nose is yet to be summited, but we must be on our way. Travel is like that sometimes.
Energy vortex or not, I have a strong feeling I will be back to Lake Atitlan one day.