Guatemala is dangerous. Not in the traditional meaning of ‘danger’, which is the type of danger you get warned of from sheltered people that assume anything 100 miles south of where they’ve lived is a shady place nobody should ever go; no, Guatemala is dangerous because it swallows people whole.
Particularly people like us.
You see, if you’re a traveler, you might come through a country like Guatemala with plans for an epic trip North or South of its borders. But you’ll find the kindest people you’ve ever met, vast jungles and epic volcanoes, dramatic landscapes dotted with ancient temples, fascinating cultures and exotic animals — all accessible at an incredibly low price. Guatemala is beautiful, kind, diverse, and incredibly cheap. Guatemala is dangerous because trips end here. People just forget to leave.
Today we were going to a spot that eats a lot of people whole in Guatemala, Lago Atitlan (English: Lake Atitlan).
First, it was time to wake up Stu:
We had a quick breakfast and went out on the road. Would you look at that, a non-Pemex gas station! Mexico has a nationalized gas company, so you really only see one ‘brand’ of service station. It’d been almost three months since we’d seen a new gas station brand. Ola Puma:
As a bonus, this nondescript gas station overlooks a valley dotted with gorgeous, dramatic volcanoes. They seem to spring forth out of the Earth in Guatemala like mushrooms. Just tons of them around every turn. A fascinating landscape.
Traffic situations, roads and general traffic rules are even more relaxed / nonexistent in Guatemala compared to Mexico.
It was already noticeable riding down further South in Mexico that people started being a bit more ‘loose’ with the rules of the road, maintenance of roads or even paving of roads, and in Guatemala it reaches its logical conclusion:
When they’re not running you off the road or generally driving like a malicious idiot, these ‘chicken buses’ are beautiful to look at:
After the more dodgy intersections and traffic situations of Guatemala, we had a stretch of beautifully paved and fast highway, that led is into some nice high mountains.
That little dot is Stu, cheerfully flying along.
We soon had to turn off to get to the lake, though. Clouds built on the ridges of mountains and volcanoes ahead of us as we dipped off large highways into smaller byways, from larger villages into smaller pueblos…
Seeing more and more people in their native dress, as the villages got sparser and smaller.
Eventually, it was just countryside we were riding through. Our reading of maps wasn’t the most brilliant, so we had a small but fun detour through the scenic countryside of the mountain ridge that surrounds Lago Atitlan.
At times this little dirt road was little more than some two track road, and with the wet fog it all got a bit muddy, too. Pretty fun, but we were getting properly lost and it was time to see if we could find a way out and to the lake we’d been promised.
We ended up getting some help from a fellow who led us the right way. Turns out there was some pavement hiding in these mountains!
We finally found the edge of the clouds…
A few more miles of fun, fun dirt road…
And here it was, in view now, Lago Atitlan.
I didn’t really take photos of the way down as it is basically a fantastic set of hairpin turns on gravel and sand that didn’t really allow for a lot of one-handed shooting, but I really regret that I didn’t pull of somewhere to figure out a way to get a shot. We were already dodging chicken buses and other traffic on the road, so there wasn’t really a good way to snap a photo, but let this map serve as a general indication:
Oodles of noodly fun.
A short road takes you from the bottom of this hairpin salad to San Pablo La Laguna, where you’ll get your first lake-level views of the massive volcanoes that define the perimeter of the lake.
We rode on to San Pedro La Laguna, rather famous for its eccentric hippie inhabitants and wonderful views.
While the entire lake and its surrounding volcanoes (3 in total, one rather big one) were covered in clouds, light filtered through it like a lamp shining through milk. It was spectacular to see.
Lake Atitlan is over 700 feet deep, and the result of a massive eruption some 80,000 years ago. The volcanoes that dot the rim of the caldera, large as they may seem, are an order of magnitude or two smaller than the one that blew up to form this lake. As the years went by, it filed with water, and it now feeds two rivers that flow downstream from the massive reservoir. Precipitation fills it constantly, keeping it full of water.
It’s known as one of the most stunningly beautiful lakes in the world.
I’d agree, even when it’s cloudy out.
The towns on its rim are accessible by road, with some of the smaller ones only accessible by boat. Tons of Mayan culture runs through the towns, in everything from customs to food and architecture. It’s a remarkable place.
For visitors, it’s an easygoing place.
For everyone, life revolves around the lake.
Well, perhaps some more than others.
Strolling the streets you find animals, small backyard farms, coffee being dried…
And, inexplicably, a Dutch evangelical community? I’d recommend against learning Dutch, it’d be more useful to learn English. And that’s coming from a Dutch guy.
Classic shrines are found throughout, and the layout of the city seems organic and spontaneously grown rather than planned. It forms beautiful little parks, spins tiny streets and alleys around trees and geological features, and always dips down into the waters of the lake.
Please keep your giant cock jokes to yourself, folks.
The actual ‘downtown’ area of San Pedro, which you’ll visit if you want to get out some cash or some such, is much more of a typical Guatemalan town, with chicken buses and traffic craziness in spades:
But you won’t spend too much time here. This is where you wander:
And where you find Life, nestled on the slopes of a volcano, seemingly plunging into what is an even bigger volcano crater. A meeting of fire and water with steaming mountains all around.
And as the sun started rolling behind the sharp ridges of the rim the fire lit the steam alight with beautiful fire.
Another victory of the fire over the water.
It’s not hard to see why people get lost here. Or perhaps, why some try to get lost in this particular place only to make attempts at finding themselves.
We, as humans, travel and change our lives to seek that very vague thing. It doesn’t matter if you are home or on the road, or if you feel satisfied or lost in life. The greatest developments in my life I’ve experienced were times when I truly felt lost, alienated from what I knew, and it forced me to grow.
It seems like you seek something in those moments: a sense of balance, perhaps. A grounding influence. Something that makes you feel like yourself again.
I truly felt that way when we rode up to Alaska, in a strange state where my entire life seemed uncertain. The future, entirely vague. My mind muddled and feeling disconnected with everything, including myself. In Atitlan, I noticed it in other travelers, too; some perhaps more lost than others.
We spent the evening meeting with other travelers or locals who’d gotten stuck here a long time ago. Eaten by the giant caldera, willingly trapped on the slopes of a volcano.
It’s a stereotype, but in the end, I related to the lost ones so strongly. And I hope they found themselves — or the thing they were looking for.