Friday, May 21, 2010

"The Lake"


MAY 1, 2010


The Lake” – yes, that is how they refer to it here… just “The Lake” and everybody knows that they are talking about Lago de Atitlan (Lake Atitlan). A must see for all visiting Guatemala, it is one of the most attractive lakes in the world (so said Aldous Huxley in 1934) - exceptionally majestic, surrounded by 3 volcanoes, lush hills and culturally diversity with its 13 traditional Mayan villages which ring the Lake. Here is one of them:


The Lake offers endless activities; of course there are the obvious water options like swimming, kayaking and diving.


Regarding the diving, not only is it a fresh water volcanic crater lake, but, with such a high altitude (5118 feet), you can imagine how it provides a unique environment for divers. For example, on dive trips you can see things like massive volcanic rock formations, a fault line where you can plunge your hands into hot volcanic mud, a vertical swim-thru, sunken trees, and an abundance of fish, crabs and plant life. Landwise, you can partake in plenty of possibilities including walking between the villages or hiking up the steep hills to waterfalls and other delights. The adventurous can mountain bike too. Oh, and also, you can just kick back, take in the stunning scenery, relax in hammock, in a sauna or via a massage. In fact, one village, San Marcos la Laguna, is the ‘spiritual center’ of the Lake. There, besides massage, there are holistic centers offering courses in meditation, healing arts, yoga, etc. And they have great vegetarian food, too.


If you want to immerse yourself in the culture of Guatemala, besides plenty of Spanish schools to choose from, the many indigenous people who live at the Lake offer an exceptional experience for witnessing their way of life. A lot of them still wear traditional dress, speak in Mayan languages and practice age-old customs of producing things by hand like weavings, crafts or farming techniques. The villages have outstanding and very colorful markets and interesting religious and governing practices as well.



No wonder many come for a short visit and stay indefinitely! I have been to the Lake before, but since my last time was in 1997, I was due for a visit!


SAN MARCOS

In the first village where I stayed, San Marcos, I was lucky enough to get a room at this enchanting boutique hotel, Aaculaax, http://www.aaculaax.com/, designed and built by a German. Most of it is hand-crafted using recycled materials including thousands of glass bottles which he integrates into the design and uses to make it kind of like a gallery along with stained glass and even rocks – here you can see how a few were part of my shower:


Here are some of the details around the hotel grounds:




Here are a few videos of the hotel and my room:

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From my room, which, like the rest of the hotel, is built into a hillside, I had remarkable views of the Lake:







With the exception of one ‘proper’ road which leads you into the town, tranquil San Marcos is unique in that it doesn’t have any streets. Instead, little footpaths are spread around in the lush, quasi jungle-like setting. It is, in my opinion, quite charming and adorable.




However, it can be a bit of a mini-treasure hunt to find anything - like, any of its approximately 15 hotels or 20 restaurants. Hmmmm, a bit different than Antigua (3 hours away) which has 200 eateries and 100 lodgings!


SAN PEDRO

In contrast, across the Lake from San Marcos, the community of San Pedro, which is much bigger and more of a city, wears the title “Party Capital of the Lake.” However, conversely it has many ‘chillout’ kind of places, including this one where I had lunch, “Zoola”:


And to visit “La Puerta,” a little coffee/cafĂ© place, nicely located on the marshy edge of the Lake (with a Spanish school neighbor), one has to walk through a horse corral and on a horse trail to reach it. Sipping a coffee there affords one this view:


Along the way you can stop in one of San Pedro’s hot tub places where you can soak al fresco in soothing volcano-fed thermal pools while you view the Lake.


SANTA CRUZ

In another section of the Lake, I stayed for a few days at an “Eco Chic” lodge. A 10-15 minute walk from the lodge via a lazy walking path which skirts the lake, brought me to the tiny town of Santa Cruz la Laguna. This village is even tinier than San Marcos with just 3 hotels (in addition to mine). All have beautiful gardens and gourmet restaurants with set meals. One of the nights I ‘splurged’ and went to one of these restaurants, Arca de Noe, owned by a European couple. There they serve nightly candle-lit 7-course (!) yummy family-style dinners for about $13 including tip! They use fresh ingredients bought at the local market and everything is homemade including their breads & pastries, jams and sauces. She also prides herself on using recipes from all parts of the world which she has collected from years of travel; all are used in an innovative way. Judge for yourself, here is the menu from the dinner I had:


My eco-hotel, Isla Verde, http://islaverdeatitlan.com/ also has a gourmet restaurant & lounge in a beautiful lakeside setting:


The owner is from Spain and insists on being as sustainable as possible, ensuring minimal environmental impact; she calls it, “Ecology in Style.” And they also create healthy home-made creative, delicious and global cuisine. She tries to serve as much organic food as possible and buy everything locally including building materials.

Her 10 solar-powered cabins creep up through a small canyon/ravine all set in nature with lake views and solar showers. However, the bad news (or good news, depending on how fit you want to be) is that lake views are only achieved via many stairs! From the lodge/restaurant, it would take me about 10 minutes to reach my cabin, one of the highest perched ones:


Here I have made a self portrait in my eco bathroom which looks out at the Lake:


And here are some sunrise views from my cabin:



Although the rainy season had long since gone, the Lake has its own unique micro-climate and often has rain year round. One day while walking about, the skies grew dark:


I was going to head back home to avoid getting wet, but these gorgeous magical light rays appeared and graced my view of the village across the Lake:


I’m glad I stuck around!