The late afternoon sun is a ball of fire, sprinkling sequins of gold into the indigo water of Lake Atitlan in the heart of Guatemala’s Western highlands. It’s a gorgeous February day and the temperature is a perfect 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
I’m here to dip my toes (metaphorically speaking) into the depths of the vibrant indigenous Maya-Spanish culture and for a taste of day-to-day life in this vividly colorful country.
As I step into the lancha (ferry boat) that is to take me from the lakeshore village of Panajachel to my destination, San Pedro, I glance upwards at the turquoise-blue sky and notice a fluffy white cloud that seems to be sitting right beside the sun, like an angel in attendance to the Maya Sun God. If every cloud has a silver lining, this is a very special cloud—outlined in gold!
It seems like a good omen and a wonderful welcome to what the ancient Mayas saw as their Garden of Eden—Lake Atitlan, a sparkling lake that changes color from deepest indigo to sapphire or jade green, encircled by dormant volcanoes and a landscape painted in rainbow colors by a celestial artist. The communities around it such as Panajachel, San Pedro, and Santa Cruz are hubs of Maya life and seem a world away from the globalized bustle of Guatemala City.
After a 20-minute boat ride, we dock in San Pedro. Kind strangers turned instant friends help me haul my luggage off the boat. A few steps away from the dock, the head of my host family, Bartolo, greets me warmly and bundles me into a tuk tuk—a noisy, bright-yellow, motorized rickshaw and one of the preferred modes of transportation in the villages around Atitlan.
San Pedro la Laguna is the perfect soft landing for an authentic taste of local life while enjoying many of the amenities that one is used to in North America: cafes, restaurants, convenience stores, hair salons, spas, movie theaters, and even a supermarket.
Immersing in Local Life
For the next few weeks, I settle into a routine of sharing meals and conversations in my rudimentary Spanish (mixed with a little English) with my host family, going for Spanish lessons each morning to the San Pedro Spanish School, and exploring neighboring lakeshore villages with my teacher Teresita.
San Pedro is one of the most popular expat and tourist destinations around the lake, and there is a smorgasbord of Spanish-language schools to choose from. I found the San Pedro Spanish School to be an enjoyable experience. With one-on-one classes held outdoors in beautiful thatched cabanas (huts) overlooking Lake Atitlan, it was a fun way to improve my Spanish and become immersed in local life at the same time.
I was invited to local homes for coffee, to birthday parties, soccer games, and even to a wedding at the Church of San Pedro, located on the edge of the plaza in the heart of the village.
There was plenty of time to explore neighboring villages in the Lake Atitlan region; Chichicastenango is well known for its colorful traditional market, and Panajachel is popular with retirees from North America. Santa Cruz, San Juan, and San Marco are all short boat rides away and are ideal for day trips.
Beauty All Around
A profusion of color greets me everywhere—both in nature and in the brilliant artistry of the people. These rich colors are in the flowering trees that flaunt blossoms of gold, fuchsia, and violet; in the ever-changing hues of the lake; and in the emerald-green feathers of the humming birds. And then there’s the beautiful colors of textiles, woven by local women that are dyed with natural colors extracted from vegetables and flowers, and the glorious sunrises and sunsets, painting the horizon in blush pink, orange, and violet.
My senses are alive in this paradise by the rich aroma of coffee each morning, the smell of tortillas cooked on a wood-fired stove, the cacophony of the markets, and the sound of church bells each Sunday morning that usher in throngs of worshippers dressed in their best.
My trip wasn’t a typical touristy experience but a richly rewarding sojourn that was deep and fulfilling, where family, community, and culture take priority over material possessions. It was a time to stop and admire the bougainvillea spilling down garden walls and the murals painted by local and expat artists. It was a close encounter with people and their culture and a taste of local life.
Getting there: From Guatemala City airport you can take a shuttle bus to Lake Atitlan via Antigua, a beautiful UNESCO world heritage city worth exploring.
Best time to visit: Early November to late May when temperatures are 55-68 degrees Fahrenheit and when not too much rain will interfere with outdoor activities.
Hot tip: Pack as lightly as possible. You will travel by rocky boats and tuk tuks, so heavy luggage will be a burden. And don’t forget sturdy walking shoes. Clothes, toiletries, and other necessities are all available in San Pedro.
Susan Korah is a freelance journalist based in Ottawa. She has a Master of Journalism degree from Carleton University and writes on Canadian and international politics as well as travel and culture.