To Lake Atitlán

We left the colonial city of Antigua by taxi at dawn and ventured deep into the highlands for Lake Atitlán, a virtual inland sea ringed by towering cliffs and swooping volcanoes.
The gravitational pull of Guatemala City still held. Smaller tumble-down satellite towns crowded the highway and capped the surrounding hills. Construction was purely functional; square gas stations next to roadside diners with plastic tables and chairs; general stores adjacent to basic watering holes. Three of four minutes of driving time punctuated each cluster. Painted American schoolbuses wheezed up the hills and spewed tangy black fumes of diesel.
The four-lane freeway became a two-lane highway. The sky opened wide. We began crossing a plateau of rolling green hills checkered with farmland and residual patches of forest. This was not a tropical landscape. At 6,000 feet, palms and floppy banana trees are a rarity. Here was a temperate climate with suitably temperate vegetation; oaks, pines, and deciduous trees I couldn’t name. This was a Latin Ohio with volcanoes and mule carts.
Shelly and I feasted on a junk picnic of chocolate cookies from Chile, oat and honey granola bars from the States, and bottled water from France. We gladly shared our snack on the road with Hugo, our driver. We bummed him some Marlboros for letting us smoke in his car.
“Thanks so much for driving us all the way out here,” I said to him in Spanish.
“Eh, no problem,” he said. “I love driving tourists around. Last week I took two Israelis all the way to Tikal.”
Tikal! Deep in the Petén jungle thrusting north into the Yucatan, the Mayan ruins at Tikal, Central America’s Giza, are at least 14 hours away. The road is a punishing gash through the lowlands. It must have been quite a cab ride.
I told Hugo we needed a bathroom break. “In the next town up ahead there is a gas station,” he said. So we waited and passed through more farmland.
Run-down houses and shacks squatted on miniscule plots of corn. Every surface needed paint. The walls on the worst of the shacks were tin propped up with sticks. Roofs were made of scrap held down with rocks. Holes gaped in the sides.
Campesinos walked along the side of the road carrying primitive farm tools I had never seen before, presumably made obsolete by technology up north. Their faces were shrunken and cracked. They seemed to me a hundred years old. Somehow I doubt they complained much.
We reached Chimaltenango and drove through miles of highway sprawl. The city seemed to have no center but the highway and was totally unwalkable. Every building was filthy, shrunken, and slouched. Garbage was strewn everywhere. It seemed God had smote this town with a curse.
It was our bathroom break.
We stopped at a decrepit gas station and both used the men’s room. The women’s was locked and the attendent had lost the key. Half the toilet seat was missing, there was no paper, and the tap in the rust-stained sink was dry.
I stood and stretched my arms and back on the grass outside and imagined getting stranded in this place and having to walk out. I shuddered and felt very far from home. Antigua is beautiful, Guatemala City has its fancy neighborhoods and hidden charms, but Chimaltenango, at least from this road, seemed a place of absolute ruin. Maybe there was a nice downtown somewhere off to the side, but we weren’t about to stick around and find out.
Life in the countryside was hard, to be sure, but at least the campesinos had a little land, a lovely view, and a nurturing landscape. This was an evil place of vicious bars, squalid housing, feral dogs, and a shortened lifespan. For the first time the poverty in this country really got to me. I felt physically depressed and wondered what on earth I was doing in this god-forsaken place. I said so to Shelly, and she solemnly nodded without saying a word.
I have little desire to visit resort towns like Cancún, but I understand why other people do. Guatemala is beautiful, but it hurts me.
We left the populated region and entered a wilderness. No farms, no settlements, no houses. Only the winding road through the forest. It could have been Maine or Vermont, and as we kept climbing higher the leafy woods gave way to clusters of fat pines. These weren’t the evergreen spires I know from back home, but with a little mental adjustment I imagined myself on a weekend drive in Central Oregon above the city of Bend.
One of my simplest pleasures is backpacking and camping in the Cascade Mountains, that range of volcanic peaks dividing the West Coast of the United States from the interior mountain West. On a visit four years ago to Costa Rica I swore I would never camp in Central America. The jungle is exhilirating but frightening. Jaguars, crocodiles, bullet ants, tarantulas, bot flies, coral snakes, killer bees, malarial mosquitos, giant beetles, and Lord know what else creep and slither and crawl all over this place. I am not sleeping outside on that ground. But the highland forest of Guatemala is something else. There are some noxious fauna, I know, but it looks so peaceful and benign, unlike the manifestly hostile lands down below. Here is a place where I think I could sleep outside, under the stars next to a campfire with a cup of hard black coffee and a blanket.
We came at last to the lake. Or, I should say, the rim of the lake. The road until now had been more or less even, but now it descended down the cliff face like a waterfall. The surface of the lake rippled like the ocean from a plane. Three perfect volcanoes swooped up the other side.
The car dove downward around harrowing curves. Out the passenger side window was nothing but sky. God, I hoped Hugo’s brakes were good. In front of us was a chicken bus crammed with locals. I could see the headline now: FIFTY DEAD IN BUS PLUNGE HORROR. At least there was a guard rail.
The air became warmer and heavier as we went down. The trees grew larger and greener. The leaves were floppier, the vines twistier.
Panajachel is the lakeside town down at the bottom. Suddenly we were in a prosperous city again. The houses were bigger and dignified and freshly painted. The streets were lined with palms. All manner of tropical flowers tumbled over the garden walls. Thatch-roof restaurants followed the sand around the shore. A fleet of commercial boats plied the inland sea to roadless Indian villages and secluded Spanish towns tucked among the cliffs. International cuisine was everywhere. Japanese, Greek, Mexican, Italian, and Argentine. Shops bursted with crafts, goods, and imports.
The view from the shore is heartstopping. The majestic volcanoes are from a child’s imagination, perfect swooping cones topped with craters. This land is primordial. It really does look like the dinosaur age. I would not have been surprised to see pterodactyls circling above.
As we poked around in the shops, black mountains of cloud rolled in over the lake. Raindrops the size of my thumb splashed (yes, splashed) on the pavement. We ducked into a thatch-roofed Italian cafe on the shoreline. Thunder clapped, and sheets of rain swept the vast open water. We sipped red Chilean wine and twirled pasta on our forks. Lizard-tongues of lighting lashed the sides of the mountains. It was the perfect afternoon in the highlands.
A word about tourism.
Some people think tourists ruin a place, distorting its character with their own. There is some truth to this. Mayan seamstresses around Lake Atitlán sell hippie clothes they wouldn’t wear if you paid them. But don’t think a place would improve if the tourists left it alone. Panajachel is prosperous by Guatemalan standards. Europeans, Asians, and people from all the Americas inject thousands of dollars into its economy every year. The standard of living is markedly higher than in the destitute towns between the lake and Antigua. Tourism breathes life and variety into Panajachel. If people stop coming, it will wither. Giving the place “back” to the locals will only hurt them.
After statistics, there are no greater liars than maps. Look at an atlas. Central America is a coat hook for the South American continent. Guatemala is a tiny part of that hook. Lake Atitlán won’t appear on that atlas. Yet it’s enormous and overwhelming when you stand on it. You could fit a small nation inside. The maps can’t see this. The maps don’t show this.
That slender waist of green between our two vast Americas is itself another America, lush and fecund, tortured and hot, ancient and modern, European and Indian, prosperous and poor. It has a beauty that hurts, but it truly is not to be missed.




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