Lake Atitlan, Guatemala, a four-hour drive from the international airport in Guatemala City, is beguiling in its beauty. Ringed by mountains, volcanoes, and twelve towns and villages, Lake Atitlan is best discovered by small boat. From artisan weavers, to legends of The Little Prince (the author spent time here recovering from injuries sustained in a plane crash) to a Mayan god who drinks and smokes – this Getaway Mavens “Greater Getaway” to Guatemala’s most famous Lake is not only resplendent, it is the source of both mythical and ridiculous folklore as well.
- Climb a volcano. ViaVenture guide, Domingo Solis, insists, “I don’t carry my clients,” which is another way of saying that you better be in tiptop shape to scale the hills of Lake Atitlan. The dormant volcano, San Pedro, is the most challenging here – a five mile hike, with a climb of 4,000 ft. to a nearly 10,000 ft. elevation. It is straight up and straight down and takes a better part of seven hours to do the whole thing. Alternately, you can choose to climb the “steep but short” Cerro de Oro – “Hill of Gold” – or the “Sleeping Elephant,” that legend dictates was the model for the boa constrictor eating elephant illustration in The Little Prince. Author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry stayed in Guatemala after a plane crash here, so that theory is plausible.
- Hire a boat to take you to various villages around Lake Atitlan – like the newly favored artisan community, San Juan La Laguna, the tiny but colorful Santa Catarina Palopo, and the larger Santiago.
- Wander the hilly streets of San Juan La Laguna, and stop into art galleries and textile shops. San Juan is known for its embroidered birds and flowers on woven fabrics.
- Learn about medicinal plants and herbs at Q’omaneel Collective, San Juan, then purchase natural bug repellant and wrinkle erasers.
- Look for the “Midwife” mural in San Juan. It’s not hard to find.
- Help make tortillas the way it’s always been done – with dried corn kernels soaked in limestone, ground to paste, patted flat, and roasted.
- Visit a weaving collective – Casa Flor Ixcaco – in San Juan La Laguna – to witness all the handiwork that goes into spinning and dying organic cotton (with natural dyes), and then creating works of wearable art on back-strap looms. Most amazing – scarves and throws in a rainbow of colors, some which take weeks to make, start at only $40 each.
- In Santiago, ask a Tuk-Tuk driver (or your guide) to find the Mayan god, Maximon (pronounced “mo-she-mon”), who is moved each May 1st to a different private residence. Concealed from the Catholic Church in apartments accessed by back alleys, Maximon drinks and smokes thanks to his Shaman handlers, who keep this irreverent legless wooden deity, cloaked in men’s ties, pretty plastered. Want a picture? It will cost you ten Q’s (about $1.30).
- Tuk-tuks are fine, but for a real thrill take a “Guatemalan taxi.” It’s basically an open flatbed truck. Though some have benches, most people stand up.
- Visit a Catholic Church in Santiago, where you’ll see the co-mingling of Mayan and Catholic iconography. Find saints and Jesus dressed in scarves and ties –the attire of Mayan god, Maximon. Locals state that when the Spanish came to Guatemala in the 1500’s and attempted to convert the indigenous population to Catholicism, they failed miserably. Instead, this – and Mayan alters in other churches – represent the compromise between the two cultures and religions.
- Meander in the tiny, colorfully painted town of Santa Catarina Palopo, where women on front porches hand weave intricate cloth in vivid colors.
- Stop into small family-run shops in Santa Catarina Palopo to discover inexpensive one of a kind table runners, placemats, and embroidered local blouses.
- On your way to the dock in Santa Catarina Palopo, stock up on gifts at the High School Craft Collective, which helps fund the local schools.
- Drive an hour (hire a driver) to the market town of Chichicastenango. Locals buy produce and ritual objects for church visits (candles, incense, rum), while tourists are over stimulated with shop after shop of crafts in kaleidoscopic colors. You might discover sophisticated gems among the schlocky establishments, but it requires patience and a keen eye.
- Visit the church in the center of the Chichi market for the best example of the co-mingling of Mayan-Catholic cultures. All that is left of the Mayan Temple, destroyed by Spaniards in order to build the church in the 1500’s, are the 18 steps leading up to the front door. Inside, slightly raised stone Mayan altars line the center aisle of the church, leading up to the gilded Catholic alter at the front. Stay long enough and you’ll witness locals lighting candles and pouring rum on flower petals on each square altar – quite the departure from our own rituals. It is not uncommon to see devout worshippers on their knees moving from the back of the church to the front, praying and sobbing.
- Stay posh at what is arguably the best hotel in all of Guatemala: Casa Palopo (a Relais and Chateaux hotel). And for the best of the best, ask for one of three rooms in the Villa, which has its own kitchen, living room and infinity pool and hot tub. There is nothing more transcendent than watching the sun set over Lake Atitlan and its volcanoes from your private outdoor pool.