Sailing Bailando

Lake Atitlan – Panajachel

February 2013

Guatemala is a beautiful countryside, and Lago de Atitlan is one of its most cherished natural gems. Re-known the world over, this picturesque lake, situated in the country’s south-central mountainous region, presided over by three awesome volcanoes, truly has an inspiring, zen-like quality that over the centuries has fomented all sorts of creative endeavors, from Maya mythology to mainstream literature.

There are two predominant Maya descendants on the lake, the Kaqchikel and the Tz’utujil, and as human nature has it, the two have been antagonists, a condition that the Spanish invaders took advantage of and much later spawned a divide-and-conquer policy by the central government in its attempt to subvert the natives’ rights through aggressive intimidation, especially during the late 20th century. Fortunately, reconciliation is well underway now. A healthy maritime culture prevails on the lake by necessity, being that there are few roads that link towns along the lake, and none that circumnavigates the entire lake. Why build a road if the lake can take you there? We find that to be the case with Rio Dulce too, where the river is the main artery for that region.

Panajachel is the second largest town on the lake, but it’s definitely the touristic nerve center. Neo-Maya souvenirs are for sale here in abundance. Even if you don’t want to buy anything at all, you still end up caught in the exchange at some point, even if it’s only to engage a vendor who will not take no for an answer. May as well take the opportunity to connect with the hustlers, usually a woman in full traditional attire named Maria, or a duo or trio of young children adept at formulating compassionate expressions, by talking about other things than price. Then, when we inevitably see one another again, we smile and wave and perhaps even joke a bit more.

All in all, the effect of tourism and transplanted foreigners is abundant everywhere on the lake, but still the native cultures endure more vibrantly than in other parts of Guatemala, and certainly than in most other western nations. We begin to get a glimpse of that here in Panajachel, the eastern and primary gateway into the lake, where we arrive after the six-hour bus ride from the Rio to the capital, followed by an additional three hours through tight mountain roads. But Lago de Atitlan will unfold for us over the next few weeks as we visit a handful of towns, sleep in extreme luxury as well as with bed bugs, and oh, yeah… we’re here to celebrate Linda’s birthday! So here begins our visit to this sublime earthly phenomenon. Once referred to as “the most beautiful lake in the world” – a title that some may question today, yet it’s still quite evident why this place could don it.