Guatemala – Tourism in Lake Atitlán – by Ada Luz Moreno Gomez. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports
Over the summer I had the opportunity to visit the deepest lake in Central America: Lake Atitlán, located in the department of Sololá, Guatemala. Not only is the view of lake and its three surrounding volcanos worth the trip, but the remnants of Mayan culture I was able to witness made my short stay there unforgettable. There are 12 main villages surrounding the lake, and although most of them are approximately half an hour away by boat or car, they have each managed to establish their own unique niches, being mostly inhabited by Maya Kaqchikel and Maya Tz’utujil communities.
Making my way to Lake Atitlán from Guatemala City was an enjoyable experience by itself, and as a passerby I was able to get a glimpse into life in the Guatemalan highlands. On either side of the road I was greeted with either panoramic views of mountains and pines or vast plantations of cabbage and maize. The locals in the area are mainly indigenous, and what from afar can be seen as an explosion of colors and textiles is usually a small group of people selling their crafts and freshly picked strawberries.
More than 60% of the population in Guatemala is of Maya descent, and the rural department of Sololá has one of the largest populations of indigenous people. However, it is not uncommon to see indigenous people with their traditional attires speaking in their native tongues in more urban settings like the capital.
One of the main points of access to the lake is through the town of Panajachel. Panajachel, or ‘Pana’ as the locals call it, is one of the most commercial towns around the lake and it’s famous for its street markets, restaurants and tourist friendly activities. Although Panajachel is fairly small, it is booming with activity and people from all over the world. You can see anything from traditional indigenous markets to luxury resorts all in the same street.
With this is mind, tourism and the towns surrounding Lake Atitlan are full of complexities and contradictions. While dining at one of the restaurants in Panajachel, it became surprisingly easy to forget we were deep in the highlands of Guatemala. Everything from the decorations, to the music and the people made me feel as if I was back in any main city of Latin America. However, in the back of the restaurant where the kitchen was, dressed in their traditional attire, and baking pizzas in large stone ovens were two very old indigenous women, continuously kneading the pizza dough even though it was almost midnight.
From Panajachel visitors and residents take small boats to the adjacent lakeside towns. Even though from afar many of these towns appear to be fairly similar, they all have very distinctive characteristics and personalities. Some, like the town of San Pedro are preferred by back papers for its relaxed atmosphere, and others like San Antonio or Santa Catarina Palopo offer the opportunity of deeper cultural immersions as they are isolated and small. The town of San Marcos for example is known for its peacefulness and beautiful hiking trails. San Marcos’ streets are too narrow for cars and because it’s surrounded by dense vegetation while walking you only hear birds chirping, making my stay there incredibly enjoyable.
Many European and American tourists have fallen in love with San Marcos, and some have chosen to stay and open yoga and holistic centers, hiring the locals as employees. In its tiny roads you can see indigenous people selling crystals and natural remedies, making even the locals and commerce adapt to the ‘spiritual experience’ going to San Marcos has become. But past the ecofriendly hostels and meditation centers, up and away from the village center, you can see the local Maya community of San Marcos, where life seems a lot different than what San Marcos comes across as in tour guides and brochures. Like many of the Maya villages around lake Atitlán, despite the commerce and technology tourism has brought for some, many of the locals remain impoverished and with less land to cultivate.
Above all, my trip to Lake Atitlán was filled with memories of beautiful places, admirable hardworking individuals, and unforgettable sceneries, many of them exposing both the beauty and burdens many regions throughout Latin America experience. It was remarkable to see that among many of the lake side resorts and vacation homes, next to many of the tourists in kayaks and boats like me, there were still locals who fished for a living in their canoes and spoke Spanish only as a second or third language.
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23 responses to “Guatemala – Tourism in Lake Atitlán – by Ada Luz Moreno Gomez. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports”
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I enjoyed reading your post on Lake Atilan. It sounds like a remarkable experience to be able to enjoy the scenery and explore the different settings/villages around it. You mentioned about some of the Maya villages who remain impoverished with little land. One thing I like is how the cultural traditions are still seen and practiced even though it may be a tourist destination. What is your opinion on transforming such cultural imprints into a tourist place?
I enjoyed reading your article Ada. It made me want to take a trip to Guatemala. I find it interesting how different locations will modify their cities partially for tourism. Most people when they travel only see the tourism side, such as the resorts and the main streets lined with shops and restaurants. There is so much more beauty that these places can offer. I like hearing how there are still places that keep their culture alive and practice their native traditions, more and more we see these aspects being lost. From what I read these cities sound beautiful, peaceful, and serene and I hope to leave my little Minnesotan bubble and travel to these places one day, thanks Ada!
I’m sure your pictures don’t even do it justice, but nonetheless, your trip to Lake Atitlan sounds unforgetable! I have never been to Guatamala, but I did embark on an adventure to Costa Rica for a service medical trip a year ago. Like you, it wasn’t the tourism or souvenirs that captured my heart, but the indigenous people, beautiful views, and local towns and people. And that is what we will remember forever. I think it’s safe to say that Guatamala is on my list for a new adventure, when the time comes. Thanks for the great pictures and article!
I think that in many countries around the globe, especially in Latin America, indigenous people struggle between keeping their culture alive and being able to survive on a daily basis. They have to adopt to societal pressures if they wish to see a reasonable income that will allow them to sustain their families. I think that people should learn more about the indigenous cultures and celebrate it rather than try to change it. Lets not forget that it is because of the mentality of “civilizing” other cultures that many countries suffered colonization and the eradication of their natives.
Your article shows the reality that for so many places they serve as not only a tourist attraction but as a way for locals to make a livelihood. I think that sometimes tourism and draw our attention away from what things like this lake have meant to surrounding communities for so long and people see it today only as a modernized tourist stop. To me, the history of places is what can make it so much more important to stop and it seems as though this area is still rich in history and serves some of the same purposes it did years ago.
This article was is very well done for not only is it entertaining to read about this tourist destination it is also informative on the area’s traditions and struggles. Most interesting to me is how even though the communities are close, each village around the lake has a specialized niche. It reminds me how when civilization was developing it often did so in little communities like the ones around Lake Atitlán differentiating greatly even with close proximity. It makes me wonder if the language used differs or is accented from town to town.
All of your photos are beautiful! This past winter break, my family and I travelled to Costa Rica. We had a tour guide there who was from rural Costa Rica, and he told us that the majority of Costa Ricans are of Mayan descent just as you found in Guatemala. The guide told us that most Costa Ricans are proud of their Mayan heritage but yet there are only 2 tribes on the east coast of the country that follow traditional ways and still speak the traditional language. He told us that the rest of the people who are of Mayan descent “use iPhones and wear Nikes”. I found it interesting that you said many people you encountered still spoke native dialect and their traditions were very much kept alive, while in Costa Rica people moved on from their traditional ways. Thanks for the insight!
I sometimes wonder what it would be like to live in a touristy place. We hear about New Yorkers and Londoners being annoyed by tourists, but of course we don’t hear these stories from less urban areas. Many places depend solely on tourism for their industry, and when that doesn’t provide enough, you see all these people rich enough to travel hundreds of miles from their homeland to yours, taking in the local sights, taking pictures, taking home souvenirs. Cool article.
I find it interesting that these small towns each have their own unique qualities that set them apart from one another even though they are so closely linked geographically and all surround the lake. I would’ve assumed the tourism of foreigners would’ve conceded the area into a uniform experience. With transportation technologies the world has become so small, it amazes me that people move to these places regularly and contribute to the local economy. I am in no way against the action, but it is a luxury that displays the wealth of a society that its members can leave and humbly live on a different continent teaching yoga or holistic centers. Great article!
Thank you Ada for sharing your experience, especially the photos! It sounds like you had an absolutely wonderful time there. It definitely made me want to visit there some day. I liked that you got to experience and see how local people live in Guatemala. I recently traveled to the Philippines, and we tried to be travelers rather then tourists. It can be a completely different experience, but it is a rewarding experience to be submerged in a whole new culture. Thank you again!
It can be so easy to stay within a certain mindset when visiting somewhere as a tourist. If you don’t look past the joyous happenings, food, and fast facts that the guides give you, you seem to only get what is attractive or good about the region. It seems very common that tourists not see, either through it not being obvious or them not looking for it, that many regions have their own struggles and issues outside of what the tourism industry. Poverty seems to be easily covered up. I think it’s important to look past what is in the brochure. Thank you for your piece and your thoughts about your experience in the area surrounding Lake Atitlán.
I really enjoyed you article! The pictures were wonderful and made me want to buy a plane ticket just to go see them in person. I find it really interesting that even though all of these towns have a common connection through the lake they all base their cities/towns in a unique way. When reading about San Marcos i found it fascinating how there were practically no cars and all you could hear were the animals. Really interesting article!
Always interesting to see into the lives of other cultures. It seems like this particular area you visited had quite a nice blend of people who still held to their traditional ways, as well as a fair number of people who were very modern. Having visited a rural area in Mexico a few years back, I understand how refreshing stepping away from modern technology can be. Taking a step back from what we’re used to and getting in touch with natural environments I have found to be a very refreshing experience.
Ada, after hearing about your trip to Guatemala and seeing your pictures, I wish I could have gone myself! I find it inspiring that although Lake Atitlán has become a spot for tourism, that there are still people that hold on to their own important traditions – such as speaking spanish. I think traditions are an awesome thing that keep us together and that more people should hold on to them. Thanks for sharing!
I appreciate your insight into the struggles of the people in the face of the natural beauty around you. I think it would be easy to ignore the struggles and the poverty of the locals in order to simply enjoy the sights without feeling some kind of guilt, pity, etc. In addition, it would be easy, as a tourist, to completely detach the human element from the places one is visiting. It’s important to remember the other side of the coin.
The description of your trip almost made me feel like I was there myself. What an amazing way to explore and learn about a culture. It is astonishing that these towns are so small and are all so uniquely different. Your pictures are beautiful and it is interesting to see the way these people carry their culture with them. I thought it was interesting about the ‘no modern technology’ what a nice break that would be. Great article!
I loved this so much! I have a deep (kind of strange) love for lake superior, so I can’t imagine the love that the people living in the villages surrounding this lake think of the gem that they have so near by! I also love the way that the culture reflects off of the lake into the peoples lives. Thank you so much for sharing!
I loved reading this article because you were able to take me back to my trip that I took to Guatemala in 2015. I was lucky enough to take that trip but unfortunately, not lucky enough to see Lake Atitlán. The way you talked about seeing Mayan culture there reminded me of the trip I took to Tikal to see the Mayan ruins there. The family that I was staying with actually was able to show me and my group an authentic Mayan ceremony by the ruins. After hearing your story about the lake, it has fueled my motivation to go back. I can’t wait to see more of beautiful Guatemala.
This article provides an incredibly deep and profound description of beauty and culture – a trait that most tourists often fail to have. Your descriptions of the Mayan cultures presence in Guatemala along with all of its obvious beauty surely have convinced me to visit the country myself. One particular point you made about “beauty and burdens” of the country really struck me and allowed me to think more deeply about the hard work many small communities living within such glorious landscapes must undergo to sustain their lives. The recognition of indigenous people is a topic I am currently studying, and I think that understanding some of the true roots of any country that you visit is important because it allows you to see a more unique and authentic side of that culture. The language, tradition, and heritage of indigenous groups are aspects that we should all try and recognize and appreciate more than we currently do.
This article was very interesting to read! I love how you included pictures as well. I like how you mentioned that San Marcos became a huge stop for tourists to stay and open yoga centers. In the cities I do yoga at Core Power and the studio advertises yoga retreats in different countries. One of the places they advertised was San Marcos! I wonder how the natives of San Marcos feel having tourists going to San Marcos to do yoga. Thank you for sharing!
I recently just got back from a 10 day long Service Learning Trip in San Lucas Toliman, Guatemala on Lake Atitlan and I found your article interesting to read! Guatemala is so alive and booming with color and it is so different from anywhere in the United States. One of my absolute favorite things about Guatemala was learning about the culture, and the stories of the people. I also was able to travel to San Antonio for a day where an indigenous Mayan woman gave us a tour of her pottery shop, and talked us through her entire process of making the pottery by hand. I also traveled to Santiago where the streets were filled with booming markets, some areas people were selling fresh fruits and vegetables while in other areas people were selling their textile traditional goods. The culture in Guatemala is so immersive and there is so much to learn and see within the country. When thinking about Guatemala in relation to the textbook, “Worlds Together, Worlds Apart” written by Robert Tignor, and the history of evolution and how that is perceived throughout different cultures, I cannot help but to wonder how the Mayan people perceive evolution? Do they accept the scientific theory and evidence of the evolution of humans or do they rely on creation narratives to explain their history and transcendence? I find the study of indigenous populations such as the study of the Mayan people in Guatemala to be very interesting and also a way to open our minds to what the rest of the world has to offer.