Life and Death on Lake Atitlan

Aldous Huxley described Guatemala’s Lake Atitlan as the most beautiful lake in the world. We’re not sure—we’ve seen a lot of beautiful lakes, in Slovenia, Italy, Switzerland, and elsewhere. But this lake is certainly one of the most distinctive. It’s ringed by steep hills and three perfectly cone-shaped volcanoes (now dormant, thankfully). Combine that with shimmering slate-blue water, balmy temperatures, and a string of interesting villages dotting the shoreline, and it’s no wonder that Lake Atitlan is a favorite with both Guatemalan and foreign visitors.

We originally planned to spend a few days each in several towns around the lake. But the first place we landed—the Iguana Perdida lodge in Santa Cruz—was so comfortable and picturesque that we ended up staying there a whole week. We visited other towns by boat during the day, returning in the afternoon (when the lake typically gets choppy) to relax on the lodge’s flower-decked porch overlooking the water.

Visiting a village on Lake Atitlan generally means landing at a dock and then climbing steeply up the main (sometimes only) road you see to the center of the village, 10 or 20 minutes above you. When we first got to the lake, we wondered why all of the villages were perched high on the hillsides rather than down by the shore. I wondered whether it was a legacy of Guatemala’s long civil war: With most villages accessible only by water, did people want time to see attackers coming so they could disappear into the hills?

Maybe so, but Melissa read a more plausible explanation: Mudslides sometimes occur on these steep hillsides, especially the ones that have been cleared to grow corn and beans. (In fact, an entire lakeside settlement was swept away a few years ago.) A village that sits on a rocky outcropping is much safer than one down by the water, where all of the rock and mud end up when they fall.

In recent years, foreigners have built some beautiful homes along the lake, many situated at the bottom of tree-filled ravines at the water´s edge. What must the locals think of those crazy gringos, who don’t have the sense not to build a house right in the path of the mud?

In most of the villages around Lake Atitlan, the population speaks one of several Mayan languages, so their Spanish is generally no better than ours. Women still wear brightly colored traditional dress. This usually consists of a long piece of fabric wrapped around the lower body as a skirt, sometimes held up with a woven or beaded sash, and a short-sleeved huipil (top) tucked into the skirt. The clothes are made of hand-woven striped cotton fabrics, often elaborately embroidered with flowers, birds, volcanoes, or geometric shapes. Each village has its own distinctive style of dress, so after a little time it’s easy to recognize whether a woman is from Santa Cruz, Santiago, San Antonio, Santa Caterina, etc. (Almost all of the towns here are named after saints.)

In some places, women wrap a cloth around their hair turban-style or thread a ribbon through their braids. In Santiago, old women wrap a long red strip of cloth around their heads to form a wide disc, which makes them look like the old Speedy Alka Seltzer man.

During our day trips to different villages, we’ve been buying examples of the various textiles to keep as souvenirs or give as gifts. Collecting them was getting to be a bit of an obsession (though not an expensive one). So it’s a good thing that we’ve filled up all of the spare room in our backpacks and have to stop now.

Two nights ago, tragedy struck this beautiful place. On a dark, windy night, two motorboats (at least one of which had no lights) collided just off the point near our village of Santa Cruz. The driver of one boat, a local man, managed to swim to shore. Another local man was lost, presumably drowned. Anxious crowds have gathered at our dock since then, and boats have been scouring the shoreline, with no success.

The missing man, Pedro, was one of two librarians in Santa Cruz’s library, a 10-year-old institution that has made a vast difference in the education of children here. We met Pedro earlier in the week when we stopped in to look at the library. His loss is a huge blow to this small community.

I’m reminded of the conversation I had earlier with 4-year-old Clarissa, daughter of one of the local women who works at our lodge. Trying out my rudimentary Spanish as we sat on the porch, I remarked “La laguna es bonita” (the lake is beautiful). No, she declared firmly. No? I asked. “Es peligroso” (dangerous).

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