Among all the countries in Central America, we chose to visit Guatemala because of the prevalence of indigenous Mayan culture here. For the same reason, we chose Lake Atitlán as our destination within Guatemala — indigenous people make up the majority of the population in the villages around the lake. We were especially excited to stay at Laguna Lodge, because it’s consistently ranked as one of the top eco-lodges in the world, in terms of sustainability and giving back to the local community. Its employees are all indigenous, and the building is adorned with Mayan relics dating from 1000 BC to 1200 AD, as well as more recent local art and crafts. The lodge is powered by solar energy, and the kitchen serves up locally-sourced vegetarian food.
We arrived at the lodge last night after a three-hour drive from Guatemala City and a 15-minute boat ride. There are no roads leading to the lodge, as it’s perched on the steep shore, surrounded by jungle, with just a few other lodges nearby. We spent the day enjoying the serenity of the place, relaxing and recovering. We’re glad to be here and excited for the week ahead!
Our lodge has its own effigy of the folk saint, Maximón, who is known as a trickster, protector, and consumer of booze and tobacco.
Our room in the lodge.
The view from our patio.
The Laguna Lodge where we’re staying maintains a nature reserve that protects over 100 acres of tropical dry forest, preserving the diversity of local species and limiting the spread of invasive ones. We spent this afternoon hiking pretty much every trail in this reserve. We clambered up and down very steep ancient Mayan paths, past Mayan ceremonial sites, and saw lots of endemic wildflowers and birds. Most of the time we hiked through a dense forest of trees, vines, and flowering shrubs, but the trail occasionally emerged on a ridge and rewarded us with spectacular views of lake Atitlán and the stunning volcanic landscape that surrounds it. Lake Atitlán fills the crater left behind by an enormous volcanic explosion millions of years ago, and is flanked by three younger volcanoes that formed steep conical mountains: volcán San Pedro, volcán Atitlán, and volcán Tolimán. The seismic nature of this area is hard to ignore — we’ve only been here two days and have already received four alerts of nearby earthquakes of magnitude 4.0 or higher!
Back at the hotel, we enjoyed relaxing massages from a couple of wonderful women from the local village. We’re getting more acquainted with the local language, Kaqchikel, which sounds like no other language we’ve heard before. Thankfully all of the hotel staff also speak Spanish as a second language, and with Bea’s Portuñol (Portuguese + Español), we’ve been getting by just fine.
Today, we spent most of the morning exploring the lake shore by kayak. We’ve noticed that the wind picks up in the late morning, so we got up extra early today and took the kayak out shortly after sunrise. We will forever remember this magical experience. We glided across the mirror-like surface, along a steep, unpopulated, and densely forested stretch of coast. We paddled in silence, interrupted by the occasional “Hola” of a fisherman on a traditional canoe, or by the chirping of birds and quacking of ducks. The sky was clear and the San Pedro and Atitlán volcanoes were gently illuminated by the morning light. We paddled for a long time, until we had nearly reached the large village of Panajachel, and our stomachs were growling with hunger. Time to head back and have brunch.
In the afternoon, we walked along the shore in the opposite direction, to the indigenous village of Santa Cruz La Laguna. It’s a very small village, even by local standards, with just over 3000 inhabitants. The only way to get there is by boat or by walking along the shore to the marina, followed by a steep uphill walk (or tuk-tuk ride) to the village. You see, indigenous people know that the lake’s water level experiences large long-term fluctuations, so they’re happy to leave the waterfront property to the lodges, and build their villages higher up. Smart.
The remoteness and size of the village only add to its charm, in our opinion. We loved our visit. We thoroughly enjoyed the quirkiness of the local architecture, with many ornately painted adobe-brick houses. We had a fabulous meal at Cafe Sabor Cruceño, a restaurant run by the local cooking school. And we found people to be extremely friendly, and very happy to engage in conversation with us. All the young people we talked with could speak Spanish (and therefore, Bea’s Portuñol was useful). The older generation often speaks only Kaqchikel, making it a little harder to communicate. Which is why we were so happy to meet Helena (or “abuelita Helena” as others call her), who has a long lifetime of interesting stories to tell, speaks perfect Spanish, and is pure joy to be around. We wonder how many other stories go untold because of language barriers.
The village of Santa Cruz La Laguna nestles in the hills high above Lake Atitlán.
The entire village has great views of Volcán San Pedro.
We had a fabulous meal and enjoyed the view from the rooftop patio of Cafe Sabor Cruceño.
It’s Thanksgiving today, and we feel extremely thankful for our adventure in Guatemala. We decided to celebrate with a visit to another village, San Juan La Laguna. We chose to get the full authentic local experience by taking one of the public commuter boats that connect the villages around the lake. We were told that we just had to stand on the dock and wave at a boat when it went by, so that’s what we did… four times! Boat after boat whizzed by, before one finally spotted us and pulled up to our dock. It felt just like trying to catch a taxi in New York City! The small boat was packed with locals commuting to work or doing errands in town, so we had to squeeze by to find a bit of a bench to sit on. We suspect that the other boats didn’t stop because they were full — this is the local version of the morning rush hour!
25 Quetzals ($3.20 US) and just over half an hour later, we arrived at the dock in San Juan. With more than 13,000 inhabitants, this village is quite a bit larger than the one we visited yesterday. It’s also connected by road to other villages, which means it has cars and buses in addition to the ubiquitous tuk-tuks. We marvelled at the tricked-out buses with extra bling, painted in bright colors and outfitted with gratuitous blinking lights. We walked along beautifully decorated roads and past expertly painted murals, visited the quaint Catholic church, and even managed to befriend a local family! Before heading back to the docks, we had an excellent meal of seafood on homemade tortillas at Soco’s Place — not a traditional Thanksgiving feast, but certainly a very happy one. Here’s to many more!
San Juan La Laguna’s main shopping street.
We realized long ago that experiences make us much happier than things. Today is Black Friday and we’re glad to report that we had a wonderful day without buying anything. It’s our last day here, and we decided on a full-day kayak excursion for our grand finale. We enjoyed our kayak morning adventure earlier this week so much that we couldn’t imagine leaving this place without a repeat. We were very aware that going for the whole day would mean dealing with the late morning winds, but we’ve been observing the conditions all week and we were confident we could handle it. As expected, the wind picked up during our return, creating small waves that made the paddling exciting but not dangerous — very similar to what we’ve experienced when sea kayaking around the San Juan Islands near Seattle. We enjoyed exploring more of Lake Atitlán’s coast, and can’t imagine a better way to do that than on a kayak.
In the evening, we had another amazing massage — we’ll really miss those! We also spent some time relaxing in the hotel and socializing with other guests. Our best trips abroad have often enabled us to connect with like-minded people, and brought us friendships for life. We especially relate with a quote from another well-traveled guest we met today: “I’ve got a long list of places I want to go, and I’m certainly not gonna leave travel for later in life!” Exactly!