A Month of Learning by the Lake

Lago de Atitlán is a magnificent lake that sits in the gateway to the western highlands of Guatemala, between the cities of Antigua and Quetzaltenango. The lake itself is at an altitude of 1,500 metres and is surrounded by a number of 3,000 metre-plus peaks and volcanoes, making for some incredible scenery.

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Near Santiago Atitlán

The western highlands are where the majority of Guatemala’s indigenous Mayan populations are concentrated and this is certainly evident in Atitlán. The traditional languages of Tz’utujil, Cakchiquel and Quiche are heard much more than Spanish, which is the second language for the majority of locals.

Santiago Atitlán, the largest of the five principle towns around the lake, hosts an annual festival benefiting various local causes and featuring local music, dance, theatre and art.

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Marimba band with dancers at the Atitlán Festival

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San Juan, a short tuktuk ride away from the slightly larger and more tourist-oriented San Pedro, is renowned for its backstrap weaving tradition. Clean, scenic, welcoming and more ‘untouched’ than its neighbour, it is well worth staying a night or two there.

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San Pedro does have its charms as well, though. Particularly for those who prefer their towns to be plastic-free – there is a ban on plastic bags and straws as well a polystyrene containers. Getting rubbish away from the towns around the lake is a difficult logistical effort (some are only accessible by boat and the others only serviced by narrow, steep roads) so it is clearly important to minimise its creation where possible. Inevitably a considerable amount of waste does end up in the lake and local men participate in a monthly cleanup around the shores.

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Road to the main dock in San Pedro

Attention is also drawn to the issues of water and energy conservation, all the more important in a fragile environment such as this. The main danger for the lake at the moment is the ingression of fertilizer and pesticides from local agriculture.

We spent a week in San Pedro, studying Spanish in the afternoons and visiting the local food market in the mornings. Our stay in the top floor of a local family’s house was organised by the Spanish school where we studied.

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Our terrace in San Pedro

We found a good variety of food to be sampled in the various towns, from traditional tamales (the only local fare we’ve found to be 100% suitable for vegetarians!) to less-traditional – but nonetheless inventive – vegan fare.

In this high-altitude region, coffee and cacao are among the dominating crops. Not a bad combination, it has to be said!

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The vast majority of local girls and women wear traditional dress, predominantly the product of the aforementioned backstrap weaving process. Homages to this craft are frequently represented in various forms.

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The outfits themselves comprise of three main parts: huipil (top), corte (wrap-around cloth as mid/skirt) and faja (belt). Also a delantal (apron) may be included. The designs are different in each village.

We spent Good Friday witnessing the culmination of semana santa (Holy Week) in San Pablo and neighbouring San Marcos. The day is spent decorating the street surfaces with detailed, brightly-coloured art, only for this to be trampled by the evening procession, which centres around Jesus in a coffin closely followed by Virgin Mary.

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San Marcos has a well-earned reputation for being the most ‘hippy’ of the towns (not just in the vicinity the lake, but possibly in the whole country). There are a plethora of spiritual, healing, massage and chakra-unblocking services available here.

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We took a 3-week yoga, meditation and ayurveda retreat at The Hermitage, located on the shore under San Pablo. The teaching was of a very high standard and we both developed a great deal in terms of our daily practices and tailoring them to our specific needs. The centre itself is off-grid (100% solar), features sustainable buildings and has well-working uses of grey water. Each morning, we would wake up before sunrise to birdsong and the whistling of a local fisherman (Jingle Bells was a firm favourite), and share the gardens with lizards, bees and humming birds.

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As the sun sets on our time in Guatemala (and therefore effectively Central America) we now turn towards Mexico!

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We’re very happy indeed with the Spanish and yoga tuition we had from:

Orbita – Spanish school in San Pedro

Living In The Self – yoga teachers during our retreat at The Hermitage

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