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THE MONA LISA OF LAKES

When I try to describe Lago de Atitlán to others, I end up frustratingly tongue-tied, much like I was upon catching my first glimpse of its cerulean waters. Even with the God-given genes of a geological supermodel, the lake is still blessedly rough around the edges, undeveloped and simple.  It resonates with a sort of sublime, natural humility that beckons you to feel at home in its otherwise overwhelming presence.  And very much like the Mona Lisa, Lago de Atitlán is deep, mysterious and ever hinting at the most secret of smiles.

Eleven-hundred feet deep, the vertical nature of Atitlán’s shores casts a dramatic spell on the first-time visitor. Being that the lake, itself, is the caldera of a former volcano, this is not surprising.  Along its southern coast, volcanoes Tolimán, Atitlán and San Pedro stand like a trio of prehistoric sentries, rising between 9800 and 11,600 feet. Upon arriving, we spent countless hours engaged in the simple act of staring. First gazing upward at the sharp escarpments rising around the lake, and then, down, down, down, into the hypnotic, shimmering, blue-green depths of its waters.

Travel on the lake is by lancha, small, motorized boats which seem to enjoy daring the afternoon winds to capsize them when overloaded with locals and their market-bound goods. Captained by a small army of capable lancheros, the public dock at Panajchel offers departures every 30-45 minutes to ports all around the lake. Paying $20 Quetzales each (roughly $3 US), we took the public boat back and forth to Panajachel, the locals with their stacks and sacks of vegetables and melons providing considerable ballast.  For around $16 US we could charter a private ride.  These boats are the only method of travel unless you are a yacht or helicopter-owning “gringo” (and by the way---here, unlike in Mexico, this term applies to anyone who is not a local inhabitant since birth.  Europeans, that means you, too).

Heads in the Clouds

As for securing a place to stay on a volcanic lake? It's easier than one might think.  Among an array of options on AirBnB, we quickly found Clemens and his wife, Jenny, offering up a cliffside flat with stunning 180-degree views for less than we would pay to stay in a boring chain hotel in the US.  Casa Tzan Cruz is situated on an outcropping 150 feet above its private dock.  No roads, no elevator, just a series of stone steps zigzagging their way across the rock and vegetation that grows decidedly more lush as you climb higher, finally culminating in a tiered, tropical garden.

The house, itself, is an architectural pupu platter of spacious, open-air design, modern comfort and a love of nature. Central American hardwoods line the floors and walls wherever there aren’t windows (a delightful rarity), trees grow in and out of the bathroom, and an impeccably constructed thatch roof completes this rather deluxe skybox.

When we stepped out onto the porch for the first time, we didn’t speak for a full five minutes.  The lake spread out below us like an otherworldly carpet of glass, ending at the feet of Volcanoes Tolimán and San Pedro, who stared back at us across the water in a sort of terrifying, volcano face-off.  A few nights later, we would get an even more thrilling view of the volcanoes as the backdrop for an intense and beautiful lighting storm over the lake.

 

While there are no roads to Tzan Cruz, plenty of things are reachable on foot.  Hiking along the cliffs, we stopped in to sample the charming café and grounds at hotel Casa del Mundo to the south.  We discovered amazing fresh-baked bread in the nearby pueblo of Jaibalito.  Santa Cruz, only 15 minutes to the north by way of dirt path and board walkways, met us with fresh, organic fare at both Isla Verde and La Iguana Perdida.

We savored the simplicity of life on the lake.  Playing the guitar on the deck, or reading in the window-lined living room was like floating on a cloud. We explored Panajachel, only 15 minutes away by boat, and returned with fresh bread, cheese, apples and chocolate. Casa Tzan Cruz owners, Clemens and Jenny became new friends; their dogs, a pair of German Shepherd-Akitas patrolling the grounds good-naturedly, like friendly, furry watchmen.  And the air.  It soothed us like an invisible, healing balm.  We slept better than we had in years.

Santiago

On our final day, we took a boat trip across the water to Santiago, the capitol of the Tz'utujil people, one of two indigenous Mayan nations who have lived at the water's edge for over 1000 years.  A lanchero named Ramos and his 11-year-old son, Mateo, met us at 8 AM at our dock, cast-off lines in hand.  We skimmed across the water like scissors across a layer of sheer silk, admiring the volcanoes as they drew closer.  Smoke from early morning fires hovered like ghosts against the hillsides.  In the distance, fisherman stood in their boats, barely perceptible shadows against the contours of the still-waking land.

After docking in Santiago, we quickly found David, a friendly and knowledgable guide, who showed us around town.  We toured a bustling market, admired Guatemala's oldest church (built in 1547), took in hilltop views and caught some face time with the local shaman.  Nineteen-year-old David makes his way as a full-time tour guide, learning English and other languages on the fly from gringos and adding to his existing arsenal of Tz'utujil, Kaqchikel and Spanish.  Seemingly passionate about the preservation of his indigenous culture, he spared no detail in explaining the customs, clothing, ritual and history of the Tz'utujil people.

God Love This Lake

Will Lago de Atitlán stay below the radar of stampeding throngs and the over-development that so often follows?  We hope.  We pray.  We would not blame the next person who runs (not walks) to their nearest airport, catches a flight to Antigua, hops a bus to Panajachel and makes a beeline for the lakeside, wood-fired hot tub at Casa del Mundo.  However, if we could?  We would (to nerdily quote Gandalf of Lord of the Rings), “Keep it secret, keep it safe.”

And so, to all visitors, we plead: please, be kind to this lake. Come and see. But tread lightly. It seems so little to ask in return for over a millennium of magic.

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To view full photo galleries of Lago Atitlan click here.

For more information on Casa Tzan Cruz visit: http://www.tzan-cruz.com.

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