When you picture warm afternoons by the lake, would you ever picture yourself in Guatemala? While it may not seem like the natural choice, Central America's Lake Atitlan is a surprisingly tranquil and gorgeous vacation spot. There are various local restaurants offering a low-key ambiance and high-quality food, making it impossible to say no to a picnic with unfiltered views of the lake. The villages dotted along the lake provide leisurely strolls past local artisans selling handmade clothing, woven bags, dolls and oil paintings. The sunsets are almost as delicious as the coffee. And it's all part of the lakeside experience.
While munching on a breakfast of fried eggs, black beans, tortillas and delicious fried bananas at Kape Paulinos, my Guatemalan tour guide, Pablo, prepared me for the beautiful day ahead. From historical and charming Antigua, we would be visiting Lake Atitlan, the same lake Aldous Huxley describes as, “really too much of a good thing," in his travel book Beyond the Mexique Bay. The village of Panajachel, the main gateway to Lake Atitlan and its villages, was nearby and I was eager to get there.
When we arrived, Panajachel presented me with a spectacular view of Lake Atitlan. It is truly breathtaking, and is only made more wondrous by the majestic volcanoes that frame it. Lake Atitlan is 18 kilometers in length and the coast is dotted with towns boasting biblical names like Santa Catarina, San Antonio Palopo, Santiago Atitlan, San Marcos and others. Villages in the lake’s basin draw tourists daily, as each indigenous community possesses Mayan culture, wellness and spirituality.
After crossing the lake to the Tzutuhil Village of Santiago de Atitlan via ferry, I visited the confraternity of the local saint named Maximón, to experience one of the ancient traditions still preserved today. People from various corners of the world come to ask for health and prosperity in their lives in exchange for a small bottle of the local spirit, Quetzalteca. Inside the small, smoke-filled room, a group of men look after the deity’s statue. A table was filled with tiny bottles of Quetzalteca, most of them empty. Pablo told me the men remain constantly drunk because it’s a vital part of the process. While the Church considers prayers to Maximón to be witchcraft, the Christian community worships him as a saint and the experience I encountered is a mainstay amongst the villagers.
In the afternoon, Pablo and I posted up for a lunch of fresh avocado and tortillas, chicken, fish and spaghetti. Outdoor cooks grilled everything to order. We took our plates to a table overlooking the lake and enjoyed. The vista was stunning and the food was incredible—very light and refreshing, and every bite bursting with flavor. Like earth, wind and sky, I felt like vitality itself. While we ate, a lovely breeze caressed my exposed arms. Around the lake, it’s pleasantly warm during the day and cool at night—a nice respite from Guatemala’s more humid neighbors.
Before the day was over I strolled through the handicraft market on Calle Santander. Walking down the street was like walking through a box of Crayola crayons. I stopped once to buy two colorful oil paintings, one of the lake and the other of the resplendent national bird, the Quetzal (which happens to also be the name of Guatemala’s monetary currency).
Contented with my relaxing excursion to Lago Atitlan, I was ready to return to the liveliness of picturesque La Antigua Guatemala. The town is an enjoyable two-hour ride from the lake, and one hour if you’re traveling from Guatemala City. It was built in 1543 and is situated in a valley surrounded by three volcanoes and mountains covered with coffee plantations. A convivial memoir of the Mayan world, it is no wonder Antigua was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Just in time for sunset, I climbed to the roof of Café Sky for one of the most incredible sunsets I’ve ever seen. An ombre of delicate pinks and purples silently draped the looming Volcan Agua before the dark night sky took its rightful place, leaving me alone to sip my bottle of Gallo, the country’s most famous beer.
The charms of Guatemala are as varied as the colors of the country’s textiles and handicrafts. The Central American gem features ubiquitous natural wonders, a privileged location, ideal weather and delicious food. With so much character and traditional culture, Antigua, Lake Atitlan and its villages create a compelling draw for travelers seeking a relaxing winter hideaway. The incredible vistas, colorful handicrafts and warmness from the people combine to create a centering effect.