Atitlan: Green with Envyronmental Problems

Thursday, December 03, 2009

We knew it before we went – every traveller was talking about it and warning those headed that way to be informed – but no trip to Guatemala is complete with a trip to Lake Atitlan, a high altitude lake whose shores are dotted with picturesque villages on steep mountain slopes all offering unique views on the three volcanoes that enclose the lake. And, due to an earthquake a few years ago that destroyed a sewage treatment facility, a lake that is now laden with the green algae-sludge that some know as cyanobacteria. You don’t want to drink, swim, or do much more than look at it now, which is really sad. The country is poor and reticent to spend the couple million repairing or replacing the facility so for the last few years this large lake has been home to an increasing amount of human waste, so perhaps it has been technically dirty for some time, but the bacteria bloom is quite recent. We arrived off the direct chicken bus from Antigua, 30 Q later, and had to pay another 25 Q to take the boat across. Being up close to the water and seeing the puke-green spray off the bow of the boat, we could see just how bad the situation was. We landed and then one of those annoying ‘I show you where to find hotel” people (the ones that insist on walking you the specific ones) took us to Hotel Buena Nueve.

It was fine there. A little out of the way but fine, especially for 30Q ($3.75) per night. Wandering around town we stumbled upon Amanda’s hostel, Zoola, which seemed pretty great and we arrived just as she finished her Spanish classes. Three of the El Retiro gang were back together again, and after wandering into and around town (and watching Che Part 1 at the Freedom bar with $1 Cuba Libres) we returned to hang out at the hostel and there was Jez. The four pack was back but unlike El Retiro, there was nothing going on here. The lake’s condition has hurt tourism pretty badly, which is sad for those who make a meagre living off of it (and believe me, San Pedro is so cheap that it’s VERY meagre) but I hope it presses the government to clean up the lake and fix the sewage plant. Even with the lake in its current condition, from afar it looks fine and it limits only lake activities like swimming, kayaking, and diving. The towns themselves are still pretty chill, friendly places to hang around with locals and fellow travellers amidst a pretty stunning backdrop. San Pedro La Laguna reminds me, for those who have been or at least for those who read my blog a year and a half ago, of Don Det in Laos. Bars with hammocks, movies, and cheap snacks, bakeries, dirt tracks through farmers’ fields, and water all around. I think it is a mistake to miss it, and of course the algae blooms and fades with climate and level of organic material/food in the water. There was a celebration the day before we left because the lake had grown noticeably cleaner.

Anyway, Phil and I also decided to recreate Dieter Libres after finding Quetzalteca rum in the market. I had to buy the limes from a restaurant, however as we’d neglected to get them early enough, but we were set and polished off the 500ml bottle pretty handily. After reuniting with Jez and a few others, we went out on the town trying to find a decent sized group of people to hang out with but in the end it was about six of us. Still, we had a pretty good night. The second day brought a little more exploration of the wild side of Lake Atitlan, wandering some of the aforementioned dirt tracks and trying to take a few good photos. We met with Amanda after her classes and she and I went for lunch while Phil went home and recovered from his hangover. I was craving fries and ordered some, forgetting that in Guatemala a plate of fries seems to take the better part of an hour. To be fair, the cut the potatoes and probably have to heat the oil from scratch, but it was longer than I felt like sitting around. There’s a pool here that’s sort of the drawing card for one of the bars and we were planning to sit around it in the sun, but in the afternoon it clouded over pretty badly and we nixed the plan, and practiced our Spanish instead.

Near to Lake Atitlan is a town called Chichicastenango, mostly known for its impressive Maya-filled markets on Thursdays and Sundays. That day, December 3, was a Thursday and Phil and I grabbed the morning bus to go and check it out. It was a worthwhile day trip for 60 Q ($7.50) as the markets had many things we had seen before but in much greater variety. I basically spent everything I’d brought with me though I think I managed to get some pretty good bargains. We returned that afternoon decided that it was to be our last day in San Pedro, even though this quiet little town both feels like it needs us and was, at the same time, growing on us. Unfortunately, I was pretty set on heading further west to Xela to do a bit of mountain climbing (the highest point in Central America is accessible from there, for example, not to mention another pretty spectacular climb to look down on an active volcano) and Phil was pretty set on getting to a beach as soon as possible. This would be, at least for now, our point of separation though I expect we’ll run into each other in El Salvador at some surf town. It was also Jez’s last night and we arranged to meet up at Zoola. We did meet up with Amanda, but Jez never showed. Oh well, I’m sure I’d be seeing him further along the Pan American highway too. Tomorrow, it’s just you and me again. Hope to see you on the bus.

Lake Atitlan Photos

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