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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