Our intrepid heroes this week can be seen posing in front of a stormy Lake Atitlan sunset. The lake really is the pride of Guatemalan tourism, famous for its stunning natural beauty, its varied Mayan villages and its beautiful climate. Lonely Planet called it “The closest thing to Eden on Earth,”and they weren’t far wrong.
Atitlan really does offer something for everyone. We spent our time between two of the main villages around its shores, Panajachel and San Pedro, as well as visiting a few of the smaller towns, San Marcos and Jaibalito. We really got a feel for the variety between the villages and saw how the locals live, as well as the ex-pats who have made the lake their home. We absolutely loved it.
The problem with seeing a lot of the area is that we were also able to see its problems. Like the Eden that it is supposed to represent, it is the people that cause Atitlan’s problems. Not individually, I hasten to add, the locals could not have been friendlier. It is more the problems of poverty, corruption and mass tourism, mixed together in a little volcanic crucible, that kind of dull Guatemala’s jewel.
The first and most obvious problem caused by the unholy trinity is the pollution of the lake. It really is heartbreaking to see the shores, especially around Pana, covered in litter and petrol spills. We learned that the lake is also used as a raw sewage dump – Pana used to have a sewage treatment system that was destroyed by hurricane Stan in 2005 and thanks to corruption and red tape was never repaired. Since then the population of Pana has boomed, yet all the waste produced by the newcomers contributes to the ruination of the natural beauty that drew them there in the first place.
That is not to say that nobody is trying to improve the situation. There are a number of groups – largely expats – who are trying to built links between the villages and put in place some much-needed preventative measures. Villages like San Marcos, which now boast pristine waters and a protected lakefront park, have largely succeeded. Unsurprisingly though, the majority of the Mayan locals are less than enthused about following the advice of their new Western neighbours. This is somewhat justifiable, given that over 70% of the fish in the lake have been eradicated by non-native breeds introduced for sports fishing (to draw in US tourists), the farmland surrounding the lake is saturated with pesticides (bought from the US) and non bio-degradable plastics line the shores (packaging introduced by, you guessed it, the US). Another major opposition to change is that the many villages of Lake Atitlan don’t exactly get along, with border arguments and distrust aplenty. Implementing change in each villages is a great place to start, but until there is a united front the damage done to the lake cannot be reversed. The main issue however remains that despite the huge income and tourism Atitlan bring to Guatemala, the Government is seemingly doing nothing to help the worsening situation.
As frustrating as this is to witness, it is very easy to forget Guatemala’s recent and very bloody history. It is still a developing country, with corruption and crime levels to match. Progress will be made, we just hope it is soon enough to save such an incredible place…and make no mistake, it is incredible.
Although Atitlan retains the mantle as Guatemala’s tourism jewel, for us, it was Antigua which continued to shine. After a week in Atitlan we returned for a few more days to Guatemala’s former capital and would happily stay longer. Although it is not without its faults – such as the homeless people who doze around the main square at night – Antigua gives off an impression of well deserved smugness. It is insanely photogenic, clean, safe, friendly, filled with amazing restaurants, accommodations and bars. Most importantly, it successfully caters to the hordes of tourists while still feeling authentic. It is the first place we’ve visited where we could genuinely imagine living…if we could actually speak the language that is. Perhaps with weekend visits to neighbouring Atitlan. Now that would be a good life.