There are three main aspects to the personality of Lago de Atitlán, the large volcanic lake that's about three hours' drive west of Antigua. First there's the astounding landscape, which is truly world class; then there's the Mayan culture, which is all around you in the colourful clothes and smiling faces of the locals; and finally there's the tourism, which is relatively unsophisticated but which is growing all the time. These three personalities rub shoulders in what seems to me to be a slightly irritated tolerance of each other, and although I absolutely fell in love with the landscape, I'm not sure I entirely fell for the charms of the other two.
And what a landscape! Lago de Atitlán is essentially a huge flooded volcanic crater, formed by a gargantuan explosion some 85,000 years ago that threw 72 cubic miles of ash out as far as Florida and Ecuador. So much material was expelled that the volcano effectively collapsed on itself, leaving a crater some 18km across at its widest point. This hole is now full of water, forming a 300m-deep lake that's surrounded by the steep, forested slopes of the crater rim, and towering above the lake are three distinct and classically shaped volcanic cones: Volcán Atitlán forms part of the southern crater rim, while Volcán San Pedro and Volcán Tolimán stick out into the lake, on the western and southern shores respectively. San Pedro is dormant and Tolimán hasn't erupted in modern times, but Atitlán last erupted in 1853 and remains active. It all adds to the thrill of being inside a volcano, and every now and then you can hear deep rumbles through the earth from volcanoes further along the chain (notably Volcán Fuego, which is between Antigua and Lago de Atitlán and which spews out smoke and ash relatively often).
The drive from the Antigua road down into the crater is impressive, to say the least. Steep switchback roads plummet down the crater rim, giving you amazing views across the grey-blue waters of the lake and towards the volcanic cones in the distance. To add to the thrill, some of the lonelier roads around the lake have been (and, every now and then, still are) home to bandits who hold up buses and rob walkers, so the advice is to check on the situation before venturing out alone, and to walk with a guide unless you're absolutely certain it's safe. It's all part of the fun, I guess.
San Pedro La Laguna
It's no surprise to find that one of the major appeals of Lago de Atitlán is to sit there gawping at the scenery, so we chose a hotel that let us do exactly that. There are quite a few villages dotted around the lake shore, each of them with a different atmosphere, and we followed the traveller herd and chose to stay in San Pedro La Laguna on the western shore. Peta – who is now in charge of finding our accommodation after I realised it was stressing me out too much – picked the Hotel Mikaso because it sounded like one of the better hotels in town, and she chose well, for the Mikaso has what must be one of the best views of the lake in the whole of San Pedro. Stuck out on a little peninsula at the eastern edge of town, its terrace has a 270-degree view of the lake looking east, with the three volcano cones to the south and the huge expanse of the lake just laid out in front of you. It enjoys a stunning sunset vista, and we spent many a long hour on the terrace, soaking up the views in the rather luxurious hot tub that sits right on the edge of the action.
It also helped that when we arrived, we were practically the only people in the hotel. It's weird, but even though Christmas is only a few days away, Guatamela has been really quiet throughout our visit (if you ignore the constant barrage of thermonuclear firework explosions that have punctuated every single day since we first experienced them in Flores). For the first few days we saw just one other couple in the hotel, and we had the whole place to ourselves (though it did start to fill up towards the end of our stay, so there is life out there somewhere).
This may have been down to the weather, which was pretty ropey when we arrived. Lago de Atitlán is an exposed part of the world, and when the wind blows, it really goes for it; as soon as we arrived at the hotel, we dropped our bags and went up to the top floor for a quick beer in the in the hotel's dimly lit conservatory restaurant, where the very friendly boy behind the counter sprang into life and lit us a log fire, while the winds rattled the window panes like something out of The Shining. That night, and the night after, the noise of the lake waters crashing against the hotel was bordering on the scary, especially as our room had a lake view on two sides, and the waves were crashing straight into our balcony and, at times, splashing the windows with foam. I idly wondered whether everyone else knew something that we didn't, and the view from our balcony really didn't help set my mind at ease.
You see, the problem with Lago de Atitlán is that the lake shore is somewhat fickle, and in recent years the water level has risen considerably, consuming a number of lakeside properties. These lonely buildings still stand just off the side of the lake, with waves crashing through their shattered downstairs windows and black tide marks rising up their whitewashed walls. There is much debate as the exact cause of the lake's changeable nature; some say that soil wash-off from deforestation has clogged up the lake's natural overflow fissures, while others blame a massive bloom of cyanobacteria in 2009 which covered the lake in a nasty brown goo, up to a metre deep in parts.
Whatever the real reason, the Mayans already knew about the lake's temperamental nature, as they chose to build their settlements high up on the lake's shores; with hindsight, the owners of the now submerged properties around the lake shore should probably have taken more notice of the locals when they spoke of the lake levels rising and falling on a 50- or 70-year cycle. But it's not really that surprising that nobody listened, because the scale of the rise is astounding: it's risen some 5m since 2009 and it's still clawing away at the waterfront real estate. A sobering thought is the recent archaeological discovery of a site called Samabaj, a Mayan ceremonial site dating from more than 2000 years ago that contains various stone pots, sculptures, stelae and, tellingly, five stone docks. It's now 35m underwater, which just shows how much the lake level has changed since then.
So as we lay there in bed, with the wind rattling the windows and the waves smashing against our verandah, I tried not to think of the submerged buildings right next door to our hotel. I didn't entirely succeed.
Man and Lake
The landscape is, therefore, one of the biggest draw cards around here, and it's easy to see why. Luckily the winds calmed down after a couple of days and the sky turned a pure blue, and we took this opportunity to rush up to the top of the crater rim for sunrise, a trip that completely blew us away. But another big attraction of the lake is the collection of different towns and villages dotted around the shoreline, all of which are connected by boat, and this is perhaps where I fell out of love with Atitlán a little.
Because of the Mayan's sensible approach to building their settlements, all the villages are bipolar in nature: the Mayans have their part up the hill, and the tourists have their part down on the shoreline. This manages to separate the two cultures pretty effectively, so although you get to see lots of beautifully dressed Mayans wandering around town and on the launches that ply their trade between the settlements, the only ones you tend to meet are those involved in the tourist trade somehow. Those working in the hotels and restaurants are friendly but no longer terribly Mayan, so the only traditional Mayans you meet are those who pop down the hill to tourist-ville to try to sell you something, mostly (it seems) banana bread, which women carry on their heads throughout the day, ready to interrupt you at every opportunity to see if you want to buy any.
The problem is, they don't seem to apply any intelligence to the process, and if you stand somewhere busy, such as the main road leading up from the dock in San Pedro, then within five minutes the same woman will ask you five times whether you want to buy any banana bread. It would help if it was an animated process, but you can hear the defeat in their voices; it's almost deadpan, the way they recite their endless litany of '¿Pan de banano?' while looking up at you with slightly hurt eyes, as you try to remain polite with your worn-out responses of 'No gracias' and 'Mas tarde'. At first it's all a bit cute, smiling at the locals as they understandably try to make a living, but it really starts to wear thin, and you can see some visitors really struggling – and sometimes failing – to keep their cool.
Add in the young boys selling popcorn, the men selling cashew nuts and the inevitable crowds of shoe-shine boys, and it all gets to be a bit of a drag... but when you find out that they let the sellers into the bars and restaurants, so your evening soiree is constantly interrupted by requests to buy banana bread – when I'm eating, for pity's sake! – then the divide between the Mayan communities up the slope and the westerners at the bottom is only made greater.
The problem is only compounded by the annoying nature of the tourists here, at least those in San Pedro and its neighbour across the water, San Marcos La Laguna. The pervading vibe is one of earth-loving, tofu-eating flower children trying to align their chakras and purge their energy centres, but to me it felt ever so slightly self-indulgent, especially as so many of the participants seem to be just out of 'uni' and seem to have magically come across enough money to buy a nice long holiday in a yoga retreat by the shores of the lake, without having had to work for it first. Sure, there's a quite entertaining collection of older hippies who seem more genuine and a bit more frazzled by the darker side of the counterculture, but the talk in the vegetarian-friendly cafés is all about healing crystals and aura enhancement and – I kid you not – how important it is to make sure your pillows are organic, seeing how you spend so much time right next to them.
Now I'm a bit of a hippy at heart – I often have long hair and I like the idealism of the whole sixties thing – but I'm a modern, post-punk hippy who thinks Never Mind the Bollocks is a masterpiece, and I can't be doing with the rather spoilt side of the younger tune-in, drop-out crowd. Spending time outside of normal society is fine once you've put enough into society to be able to opt out of it in the first place, but opting out before you've even tried to make a contribution because you think you're 'just too creative to do the rat race' is a bit irritating to those of us who've held down a job for longer than a summer holiday. The villages round Lago de Atitlán reek of this slightly indulgent version of the hippy ideal, and I really didn't like it much; when you find yourself wanting to grab most of the other tourists by the shoulders and shake some responsibility into them, it's probably not a good sign.
Around the Lake
Knowing that San Pedro isn't the be all and end all of lake culture, we spent a couple of days exploring the various towns and villages round the lake, and they're an interesting bunch. San Pedro, where we stayed, is apparently the party town around the lake, but all we could find were a couple of small bars where people tended to hang out without a great deal of enthusiasm, and two music venues in the main drag that made us glad we hadn't stayed at that end of town. The eastern end of town is laid out along lots of small, winding pathways that are just wide enough to fit a tuk-tuk down, and off these pathways are some cute restaurants, some with pretty gardens but most with slightly drab and weatherbeaten courtyards with plastic tables and dubious music. It's fun and laid back, but it's easy to wear out the best venues within a couple of days.
Nearby San Marcos is the most extreme hippy hangout, but it keeps most of its treasures behind closed doors; we wandered along the two thin tracks that join the lake to the Mayan village centre, but everything seemed to be shut. This is the home of the quietest retreats, so perhaps the tranquility should have come as no surprise, but while we thought it would make a pleasant day trip, we gave up looking for the pulse after an hour or so of wandering.
Across the lake is the main tourist centre of Panajachel, which I rather liked, perhaps because it's the only settlement that unashamedly makes the most of the shoreline. It's pretty tourist-oriented, with lots of large restaurants overlooking the lake shore, and a whole fleet of tacky party boats pulled up in the harbour, blasting out music at full volume, whether the town wants to hear it or not. You wouldn't necessarily want to stay here, as it's a bit tacky, but at least it's unpretentious and you know where you stand. Walking through the restaurants is an exercise in batting away all the over-keen waiters in their white shirts and black trousers, each of whom seems to have the best restaurant and, despite the evidence, the finest menu, but there are some great little barbecue shacks in the middle of the mayhem selling street food, and they have the same great view over the harbour and towards the volcanoes, and the food is wonderful.
Panajachel might be the most hectic of the lake's towns, but the biggest is Santiago Atitlán. Probably the most Mayan of the towns, the nerve centre is a good walk up the hill, past lots of shops selling tourist trinkets and colourful Mayan textiles, where the main market clogs up the backstreets around the 16th-century church, which dominates the hill. It's a pleasant place for stroll, if you ignore the kids setting off firecrackers in the church square, though compared to the other villages it's a bit of a pig to get to and from, and we had to wait for a fair amount of time for the launch to fill up, both going to and from Santiago.
So that's Lago de Atitlán, the lake that Aldous Huxley wrote is like Lake Como but 'with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing.' Geographically speaking, Huxley was spot on: Atitlán is so beautiful that you can spend days just sitting there, reading a book or poking a laptop, looking up every now and then to drink in the vista. The weather might be a bit ropey at times – we experienced two days of severe winds, two days of perfect blue skies, and two days of fog, which obscured a lot of the beauty of the crater rim – but in all of these climates the lake still shone through as a stunning place to be.
But when it comes to mankind, I feel a little let down. The towns are not beautiful in any sense of the word – the Mayan parts are all breeze block and dust, while the tourist parts are cramped and a bit faded – and astonishingly the settlements seem to ignore the lake itself, choosing instead to wind along thin footpaths between claustrophobic buildings, almost hiding away from the lake shore. It's possible that this is because the lake has consumed all attempts at promenades or lakeside verandahs, but it does mean that the only way to enjoy the star attraction is by picking the right hotel, or by spending your time on the boat taxis.
To be honest, a small and hidden part of me hopes that the water levels will keep rising slowly, quietly washing away the irritating tourist towns while leaving the Mayans to their own devices, so nature can reclaim the slopes and Lake Atitlán can escape its seemingly inevitable future of unsympathetic tourist development. If, in the process, we lose a few crystal healers, I can probably live with that.