Originally published at Jacada Travel.
Much of Lake Atitlan and the surrounding area is a study in stark contrasts. This beautiful body of water is surrounded by equally arresting rolling hills and three volcanoes, but vistas are only achieved after weaving between the buses, shuttles, cars, motorcycles, and the army of tuk tuks that run across the town of Panajachel. Meanwhile, the bright Mayan colours of blue, red, purple and yellow give the region a vibrancy, set against the backdrop of Guatemala’s history.
I arrived in Panajachel with my wife Melanie after a two-hour shuttle ride from Antigua. The ride was nauseating thanks to an unfortunate cocktail of winding roads and exhaust fumes; the rising clouds conjuring images of a religiously-tinged apocalyptic scene. My euphoric attitude after three wonderful days in Antigua had pulled a 180, but things vastly improved once we pulled into the Panajachel exit off the highway, where the road immediately descends steeply to the lakeside town. Finally, we could see clear skies, the sparkling lake and those precious volcanoes that we hoped would make the journey worthwhile.
The town itself first reminded me of my summer in Dharamsala, India, as a similar size town with narrow streets that are mainly populated by tuk tuks and motorcycles, with pedestrians weaving their way through. Shops, run mostly by Mayan women, line the main street with their offerings in plain sight for passers-by, with a number of restaurants and guesthouses, too. We were advised to take a tuk tuk over to our hotel, though the ride showed us that it was a perfectly manageable distance by foot, then after dropping our bags off, we walked back into town with the hope of a better impression.
At that moment, we were imagining that this area, which 18th Century German explorer Alexander von Humboldt described as “the most beautiful lake in the world”, probably fared better before industrial man showed up, because as history has shown us, we humans are pretty good at kicking nature in its metaphorical stones, but luckily the beauty of the lake itself and its surrounding natural charms remains to this day.
Once we worked our way through Panajachel and onto the lakeside paths, our experience improved immeasurably. Without any vehicles, the air was finally fresh, and a mixture of tourists and locals seemed to be enjoying the setting sun. This was the magical Lake Atitlán we had heard about and were glad to finally be experiencing.
Once the sun had set, we went through town again looking for something to eat and opted for an eatery with live xylophone music. By talking with the owner, we learned that this was a family establishment with his wife in the kitchen and his daughters and nieces entertaining with traditional Mayan music. The owner, who had walked from table to table to introduce himself, grabbed the microphone in between performances to personally welcome everyone by announcing what country all of his guests had come from.
Panajachel has never been used as the selling point for Lake Atitlán, but it is a place to experience Mayan culture, as well as the adventure the surrounding landscape provides. Plus, it’s a good base to take a day trip up to the famous market at Chichicastenango. This meant no late nights, as while we were here, we would be rising early every morning.
We awoke early for a quick breakfast and were lucky to catch a Mayan ceremony that the hotel owner had scheduled for some of the guests. Sometimes I’m sceptical of tourists having indigenous people perform for them, but on this occasion the old Mayan woman seemed happy to share her culture with us. Unfortunately we had to leave before her performance ended, in order to meet our guide for the hike up Volcán San Pedro.
Arriving at the docks by 7am, we met with our guide, Antonio. First we took a speedboat holding about 20 or so other hikers for a 30-minute ride across Lake Atitlán to the town of San Pedro, which had a similar layout to Panajachel without the cacophony of tuk tuks due to the early hour. It was actually quite lovely, and after picking up some fruit, we hailed a ride up to the Volcán San Pedro entrance. I’m still amazed how our little tuk tuk was able to climb the steep roads with the weight of four people inside, but this was, after all, a day for overcoming what you thought was initially impossible, as one of my most challenging hikes to date.
We headed straight up the volcano’s beaten switchback path for three to four hours, although we did pass a Guatemalan family who had started at 6:30am, planning for a six-hour ascent. This climb is one of those athletic feats that very few people can do with complete ease; of course, our guide Antonio seemingly had little problem with it, having done the climb many times before. I like to think we were hiking at equal pace, but in reality he very well could have been allowing us to set the pace.
As we neared the summit, the terrain turned rocky and required some light climbing. Then, once the view of the lake, some 5,125 feet below us, came into view, it was without question worth the effort. This was admittedly difficult to convey to the passers-by on the trek back down, but luckily for us, the rest of our day would consist of nothing more than a relaxing jaunt around the surrounding Mayan villages and town.
Sunday was yet another early morning with a 90-minute shuttle ride out to Chichicastenango – an indigenous town that’s home to Central America’s largest public market each Thursday and Sunday. The scene starts relatively calmly, but blink and you find yourself enveloped in a delightful display of colourful chaos.
Tourists come to click their cameras; others for crafts, flowers, pottery, candles and a plethora of impressive textiles that the Mayan people are known for. The streets and alleyways lined with shops and makeshift stands had become as crowded as an American Black Friday, albeit without the mayhem.
Most impressive was the Church of Santo Tomás – a Roman Catholic church that was built atop a Pre-Columbian temple platform in around 1545. Its 18 steps, representing the Mayan calendar, originally led to a temple of the pre-Hispanic Maya civilization and they remain venerated to this day in their Mayan-tinged take on Catholicism.
The steps were covered in an assortment of colourful bouquets, leading to worshippers reciting prayers in front of the main doors. Inside, we sat quietly in the empty pews as Mayan men and women crawled on their knees towards candle displays, and sweet incense from blessings both outside and within, filled our senses. This alone was worth the trip to Chichi.
On our return to Panajachel we were in a more remote corner on the Atitlán shore, which meant we could go kayaking and that we had relaxing views of the lake. On our last day, we decided to give Panajachel another chance. While it still may not be our favourite city in Guatemala, we were able to find its charm by exploring on a quiet weekday evening, having a cup of coffee at a local café, talking with the shop owners, and discovering a different area along the Atitlán coast that’s lined with restaurants, both large and modest. We took in one last sunset before hailing a brightly coloured tuk tuk back to the hotel.