Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala
Part 1. Lago de Atitlán – learning Spanish and doing activities amongst active volcanos.
We have been privileged to visit almost all places of interest in beautiful Central America, but not many are equally worth a visit as Lago de Atitlán.
Lago de Atitlán (ENG: Atitlán lake) is a volcanic lake situated in the south western part of Guatemala at about 1560 meters above sea level. Guatemala is, besides full of indigenous culture, full of seismic activity as well. This also goes for the Lago de Atitlán area. The lake is surrounded by three active volcanoes: Atitlán (3535m.a.s.l.), San Pedro (3020m.a.s.l.) and Toliman (3158m.a.s.l.). These impressive volcanoes dominate the skyline of the lake. From all lake sides these magma filled beauties demand the respect of its spectators.
Where to stay
The lake side is hilly, even mountainy, and many (indigenous) Guatemalans call it their home. The biggest settlement is Panajachel (appr. 20,000 inhabitants), which also attracts most foreign visitors. We preferred staying in San Pedro La Laguna however. This small village, beautifully situated right on the foot of volcano San Pedro, houses an important part of the backpackers scene. Hence, enough budget accommodation, lake view restaurants and loads of (dance) parties to attend.
An important reason for paying a visit to San Pedro La Laguna is to learn Spanish. San Pedro La Laguna is namely one of the most affordable places in the world to do so. One-to-one classes already come as cheap as about 2.5usd per hour. Obviously quality of the teachers differs from school to school, so we recommend doing some basic research before committing. As Guatemala for us was the second country of a long-lasting voyage through both central and south America, we have taken Spanish classes for two weeks. After some asking around and negotiating we chose Mayab School, it turned out to be a excellent good choice. It was highly educational, with pleasant and capable teachers that, thank god, possessed adequate patience. Not that we were that slow in picking up Spanish of course, but as most people we also fell victim to the many distractions in and around San Pedro La Laguna. Doing your homework therefore was tough and frequently too low of a priority.
Atitláns highlights come in various forms and intensities. On a lazy afternoon one could rent a small boat or pedalo, buy some beverages and float around the lake a bit. Or, just visit one of the other (often hippyish) lakeside villages. Examples are San Marcos or Jaibalito. These villages generally offer more local culture than San Pedro La Laguna or Panajachel and therefore cannot miss on your itinerary. For the more adventurous and active people amongst us: climbing San Pedro volcano could be a good option. Needless to say, the hike could be considered rather tough but the view from the top rewarding. Comparable views can however also be obtained during our favorite Atitlán distraction: sunrise at Indian Nose Mountain. Please see part 2 of this blog for a small taste of this experience.
Last but not least: an important Atitlán distraction can be found in the daily (dance) parties organized by the various bars or hostels in San Pedro La Laguna. The (literally) dark side of this lovely town can be rather addictive though. The beauty and peacefulness of life at the lake, the low cost of it and the availability of work/business opportunities in the booming backpackers scene are of course reasons to stick around. An important and notorious reason however can also be found in the nightlife and the consumption of various very affordable narcotics. This scene has an attraction on a lot of people, and unfortunately some people do end up having significant problems saying farewell to it. Therefore, do enjoy San Pedro’s parties to the fullest but try not to lose yourself in them.
For us Lago de Atitlán has been one of the highlights of Central America. With such a grand diversity of natural beauty, activities and affordability it is hard not to adore spending time at this beautiful lake.
Part 2. Lago de Atitlán – A sunrise that echoes in eternity
4am, the alarm starts ringing annoyingly. Getting ready to see an AMAZING sunrise. While the town of San Pedro La Laguna is still boosting with nightlife, we were already picked up at our favorite San Pedro accommodation: Dutch owned hostel ‘Mr. Mullet’s’. The travel agency driver took us to the opposite side of the lake. Zigzagging uphill on tiny roads, our surroundings still covered in darkness. Our midnight destination was a 2863 meters high mountain, generally known as La Nariz del Indio (or Indian Nose Mountain). You do not need too much of creativity to see the shape of a Maya face and nose in the profile of this mountain, explaining its nick name. The driver dropped us and about 15 other people off at a small village called Santa Clara.
From here we still had a 45 minute and rather steep hike ahead of us to the viewpoint on top of the mountain. 6am. It is still dark, also when we arrive at the viewpoint on top. And cold, sunrise is the coldest time of the day and even in Guatemala that means that it can be chilly. Luckily our guide starts a fire and prepares hot coffee for his guests to enjoy in preparation of the upcoming event: a first class ticket to the rising of the sun over stunning Lago de Atitlán, its volcanoes, mountains and picturesque villages. Slowly the first light appears and our heavenly view over the truly mind-blowing landscape starts taking shape.
Over the course of the next hour or so, we are spectators to one of the most spectacular sunrises that we have had the pleasure of enjoying in our lives. A richness of red, orange and yellow colors strong enough to make most people rethink their priorities in life. Marvelous detail was the smoke rising up from a volcano crater, which was situated on the horizon close to the rising sun. Because also the smoke turned red due to the sunrise, it felt like the volcano was spitting out fire. We were quiet, enjoying the unraveling spectacle in front of us to the fullest with yet another cup of (tasteless) coffee in our hands. An immense beauty, way too much to catch on photo.
A truly unforgettable experience. A sunrise that echoes in eternity.
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