A Weeklong Introduction to Lake Atitlan

With a week to spend at an Airbnb in Santa Cruz la Laguna on Guatemala’s Lake Atitlan, we had a chance to absorb the local color, which is a vibrant blend of trendy establishments catering to tourists and ex-pats, as well as a traditional native lifestyle, with a strong Mayan presence. And of course incredible scenic beauty.

The Airbnb itself was quite interesting, a rustic and basic one-room accommodation that included a kitchenette, but the bathroom and shower were outside. The latter was solar heated, so often the water was just plain cold; but if you timed it just right, it could be warm or sometimes actually piping hot. There was no refrigerator as such, but there was a cool storage box for food in the ground, surrounded by charcoal. And when the handyman watered the charcoal every day, it released cool air, which helped keep the food reasonably chilled. The handyman, whose name was Pedro, also picked and dried the coffee beans that grew abundantly on the property. (There were also plenty of banana and avocado trees nearby.)

The village of Santa Cruz has no garbage collection service. Most food waste is used for compost, while packaging is either reused or burned. Trash fires are quite common, all over the area. Among the items burned is toilet paper, which is not flushed down the temperamental plumbing system. Unfortunately, it’s also very common for people to simply dump trash in the woods or bushes.

Electricity was supplied by a solar panel, which was enough to provide for basic needs. The only problem was that computers draw a great deal of power, and there were three laptops to share the honors: ours, our host’s, and those of another guest next door, a young woman from Lithuania. So we had to alternate battery charging times. But the quarters, though a bit spartan, were quite comfortable and adequate, and came with a stunning view of the lake and the surrounding hills and volcanos. All for the princely sum of about eleven dollars per night.

The one drawback of this place was… well, the scorpions. Those creepy arachnids can be found in many climates all over the world, but they especially seem to favor rocky terrain, and the hills overlooking Lake Atitlan certainly qualify as prime scorpion real estate on that count. They also seem to have a fondness for bamboo, which is heavily used in the construction of our little cottage. So every night they would come out like clockwork at around 9:00, in quest of a six-legged repast. Dennis, who has a history of arachnophobia, killed a couple of them, but others got away. Learning online that they are repelled by strong scents including cedar and cinnamon, he bought a packet of cinnamon and sprinkled it in strategic areas (including around the bed). Not sure how well it worked, but we never had one of the disgusting critters come close to us.

While staying here, we had to purchase drinking water in 5-gallon jugs and tote it up the hill. Up and up and up the hill. The household purpose water is sourced from the lake itself; and nobody drinks it because it is, alas, too polluted. We had to take a couple of rest breaks while fetching the water uphill (well, okay, 3 or 4 rest breaks), but you see the locals doing it with ease, and going even much farther uphill than we were. They also carry other things, especially firewood, which they tend to haul either on their backs or balanced on their heads. One day we saw a mother carrying a baby and a bundle of firewood, and her two small children on foot also each carrying a bundle — kids are put to work very young around here, and grow up with a phenomenal work ethic.

In Santa Cruz la Laguna, the area down along the waterfront is where the tourists accumulate, and features hostels, restaurants, bars, cafes, and shops. The higher you ascend the hill, the more you get into the “real” Guatemala, with its spartan, and impoverished living conditions.

On Saturday morning, we headed up the hill to the weekly village market, which is held on the basketball court, the only suitable gathering place in town. Communicating as best we could in our skeletal Spanish, we managed to buy enough produce to feed ourselves for a few days. Shopping for food in these parts generally entails buying just what is grown locally and in season; supermarkets are few and far between though you might pick up a few staples at one of the many tiny mom-and-pop stores (often no more than a stall in which the vendor stands, and the customer buys things from outside). Although about half of the merchandise in these stores is American junk food — kids here often have metal in their mouths, possibly because their teeth have been rotted by Pepsi and lollipops.

Coming back from the market we encountered an ice cream vendor, a jolly older gentleman, who was truly a living bit of local flavor. Attracting the kids by squeezing a bicycle horn (he was on foot, however), he dished out ice cream, 3 or 4 flavors of it, from a cardboard container into diminutive cones. All with his bare hands, in a manner that would cause the health department to howl in the U.S.

Santa Cruz is one of about a dozen villages that line the shore around this enormous lake. Each village has its own unique character, but they all tend to have certain features in common. There’s usually (especially in the smaller villages) one central street leading from the dock up the hill; and then branching off from this is a network of smaller streets. And we do mean smaller — as in slightly wider than a sidewalk. And these streets, which take a series of mazelike turns, accommodate not only pedestrians, but bicycles, tuk-tuks and/ or motorcycles. Oh, and dogs that hang out all over the place — docile, non-territorial canines that leave a mess nobody ever bothers to clean up.

During our stay in Santa Cruz, we went back to Panajachel a couple of times for shopping — there’s a wonderful produce marketplace there, as well as a well-stocked supermarket (which, we found out to our chagrin, is affiliated with Wal-Mart). Dennis found and purchased a genuine Guatemalan sweatshirt (a hoodie) that he’s been needing, as the temperatures have been lower here than we’d planned on. Meanwhile, Kimberly, who likes to sew, was drooling over the clothing and colorful fabrics at another clothing store where a woman with two old sewing machines made the garments on the premises and did much of the fine work by hand. While in town, we finally managed to track down some ink pens, which are something of a rarity in these parts. The only ones we were able to find were souvenir pens in a gift shop.

We also took a day, or part of it, to explore another village: San Marcos. The excuse for hopping on a boat to go there was so Kimberly could attend a yoga class at a place called Yoga Forest. The class began at 8:00 a.m., so we weren’t even sure that we could get there on time, because the boat schedule was a little unclear. So we got up at 6:00 and headed down to the dock. Where we learned that the first boat would be leaving at 7:00. So we arrived in town at about 7:20, and then we had the colossal challenge of finding the yoga forest, following some rather vague directions online. We walked through town, and after asking a couple of people for directions, followed a path way out into the woods and high up into the hills.

And there it was, a getaway that looked like something out of Lord Of The Rings, featuring spacious yoga studios with windows for walls, looking out over the scenery. There’s also a restaurant with an outdoor stone-and-wood dining area. There are lodges for people staying there on retreat. And there are some rather fascinating compost toilets. And many other features. Kimberly had a great class, and Dennis had a good time sitting there and enjoying the atmosphere while getting some writing done.

Then it was back down the hill. past some goats munching away on weeds, and into town. We found San Marcos to be… well, hippie-ish, for want a of a better term. The town is filled with Americans (or at least people who used to be Americans) and dotted with health food stores, vegetarian restaurants, cafes, massage emporiums and other health and wellness establishments. There’s even a place where you can go to get a “sound cleanse”, which is basically lying on a floor while music washes over you and massages your being.

Okay, it’s nice to be able to find such things in a faraway corner of the world like Lake Atitlan. And so far, this kind of imported counterculture seems to be blending in fairly well with local culture — or rather existing harmoniously alongside it. But from what we’ve seen, the U.S. is not exactly putting its best foot forward in these parts. Some of the Americans we have encountered have been delusional survivalists and conspiracy theorists. One fellow even has a huge red banner on the front of his shanty falsely proclaiming that “Trump Won”. It’s quite embarrassing to think that the locals might assume that people like this represent America in general.

And in any case we have to wonder, just how much is enough? Will there come a tipping point when there are so many outsiders moving here that the local culture is totally assimilated? That would be a shame.

Dec. 10-16, 2021

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