Lake Atitlan – beautiful, but too much water

(February 28 – written by Dave)

Our guest cottage was amazingly quiet overnight.  We both slept great.  It probably had something to do with not having an alarm set as well.  The Guatemalan central highlands turned out to be harder than we thought they would be.  We’re mostly at the top of them now and over the next few days we’ll work our way down to the coast and the border with El Salvador.

Brekkie at the lodge was nice, nothing fancy but they did serve proper Guatemalan coffee which was rich and strong.  Hard to think that we are almost half way through Guatemala and this is our first local coffee.  I snapped a few photos of the guesthouse garden this morning – it’s summer all the time in Guatemala.

Flowers in garden 5Flowers in garden 4Flowers in garden 3Flowers in garden 2

Our goals for the day were pretty simple.

  1. Learn something about Lake Atitlan
  2. Figure out how to get out of here
  3. More good food for Nancy
  4. Good local coffee
  5. Sunset photo of the lake

I’ll start here with Lake Atitlan.  Lake Atitlan was yet another place we’d never heard of before starting this trip.  It is stunningly beautiful.  It was formed about 84,000 years ago when a massive volcano erupted, collapsed and started filling with water.  Like Crater Lake that we saw up in Oregon, Lake Atitlan is endorheic – that is, a closed drainage that normally retains water and has no outflow to other bodies of water.  Water leaves via evaporation and/or underground water seepage.

There are three “new” volcanos on the western shoreline that formed after the big eruption.  None have them have erupted since 1853 though only one of them is considered extinct.  Water quality in the lake is a real issue.  Pollution from farming, and general human activities has increased through the years causing algae blooms in the lake that kill of fish and bird life.  As with many poor countries people don’t have the financial wherewithal to do everything in the most environmentally friendly fashion.

The lake is surrounded by many villages, many of them occupied by traditional Mayan peoples.  There is considerable tourism, but much of the lake is still “unspoiled”.  Several villages are only accessible by boat as there is no road that goes around the lake.  As we discovered yesterday, the roads going into and out of the lake are really steep.

Human activity has affected the lake water levels at well.  Normal yearly water flow into the lake, balanced with the water draining through the water table and evaporation, create a relatively stable water level.  The issue comes when less regular hurricanes or tropical storms drop sudden excess water on the region.  Naturally people living above the lake want to protect their properties – they build efficient ways to move the water, they line stream beds so that they don’t erode, they do whatever they need to clear the water.  Less water goes in the ground and the water reaches the lake much faster.  The lake rose 16 feet immediately after one storm.  More frequent and intense storms (perhaps caused by global warming) mean more lakeside villages get flooded.  Rising water is a real concern for the future.

Lake and flowers

Lake in the afternoon

On the lake 1

Man fishing – the boat was pretty rough

On the lake 2

Too much water

On the lake 4-001

Fisherman heading home at sunset

Onto project number two.  We rode down here and really didn’t enjoy the ride.  Sure the views were stunning, but the road surface was great to horrible.  And the grades were often over 16% – we had to really pull on the brakes.  It is not technically and out-and-back location but the other roads out are dirt and equally steep.  To ride back up the way we came in, would mean climbing 16% grades on a road with no shoulders, shared with chicken buses and their black exhaust smoke.  No thanks.  So we’ve arranged with our guest house to get us a ride back to where we left the highway yesterday afternoon.  Tomorrow morning they pick us up at 7AM, take us to the top and we’ll ride onwards from there.

Project number three was food.  We were going to go back to Japanese but instead decided to try a vegan/veggie place that had falafels on the menu that sounded really good.  Boy, what a choice we made.  I didn’t get a photo as, well, everyone has seen falafels but they tasted great, along with a great side of humus – yum.  We stopped in the Finnish Cafe next door for cardamom sweet rolls – because that’s what you do in Guatemala.

Next it was onto project four, get some good local coffee.  We found a highly rated place called Cafe Loco – run by none other than three Koreans – yeah, I know, Japanese, Finish and now Koreans in Guatemala.  Anyway, the Koreans were coffee purists that had been to both Sydney to learn about flat whites and Portland to buy beans from Stumptown.  We couldn’t go past the flat whites and they did them just right.  They roast their own beans and may mail-order – it would be worth looking.

Flat white - yeah

Flat White – yeah

Flat white - yeah 1

Home sweet home

Even though it wasn’t on our list, we wandered the shops a bit in area where we found the food and coffee.  The bright colours are just great and make nice photos.  Nancy is an absolute magnet to the sellers.  For starters, it’s quiet now with regard to tourist as it’s mid-week.  Plus she has blond hair and about a foot in height over the locals.  I walk about 10 meters behind her and chuckle.  She figured out how to tell them we are travelling by bike and have no room but the sellers are pros – they offer her smaller and smaller items, a scarf instead of a blanket, then a hair band instead of a scarf.  They don’t give up that easy – all good fun really.

Street seller

Street weaver/seller

Street fabrics 2


Street fabrics 1

Mostly bracelets

Street seller 3

Seller on the move

Rouge jackpot!

At the store – more Rogue – they have some distribution network

Nancy the target 1

Nancy fending them off

Bike shop in town

Local bike shop

Last project was a sunset photo of the lake.  I had visions of all three volcanos and a bright red sky.  Well, there were some clouds about and the volcanos never really got lit up.  All the same, I had some fun getting a few photos while Nancy headed back to the room to rest from her non-shopping shopping trip.

Sunsest on lake 1

Sun setting on the lake

Sunsest on lake 4

Lake sunset

Tomorrow we are off the Antigua, the ancient capital of Guatemala.  We have to ride about 50 miles and then we’ll have another day off there.  Are we feeling bad about taking a bus ride up the hill – not at all – knowing we could do it and needing to do it, well, that’s the difference age brings.  We’ll get enough of a ride in without having to beat the chicken buses off on a steep hill.

12 thoughts on “Lake Atitlan – beautiful, but too much water

  1. My goal is to visit the place of origin for all of my favorite coffees, Guatemala is on the list. The ride up the hill sounds like a grand idea, no need to spoil the great coffee and food experience…

  2. Love the colors of the fabrics the street vendors are selling. As a quilter, there is no way I could pass them up, so good for Nancy for fending them off. The garden flowers are wonderful too. Looks like a fun place to explore.

  3. A medical doctor I know is taking leave for a year, I told her of your blog, she aspires to do the same thing and felt your blog would be inspirational. It is. Your writing and pictures are a joy.

  4. Love the flowers pictures. Actually, all the pictures are awesome! The sunset doesn’t look real it is so beautiful! It sounds like a totally awesome idea to get a ride back to the top. Wishing you a downhill day ahead…

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