Four Dispatches From Lake Atitlan, Guatemala



Stumbling down a stone-work pathway beneath a dangling canopy of tropical flowers to a tiny stool on a clean floor in a quiet café. Buenos Dias San Pedro La Laguna.

The lake water at dawn is calmer than a stoned cat and the volcano siblings (San Pedro, Tolimán, and Atitlán) sit in the distance with a type of motionless serenity that only comes when you live to be a few thousand years old.

A friendly barista saunters over with a porcelain cup on a tiny plate.


Guatemalan coffee: strong and cheap. The steam rises like some twisting vine and then dissipates into thin air; my thoughts follow suit…

Coffee San Pedro

It was only a few days ago that I was a disgruntled employee working for minimum wage at a big-chain coffee shop on the east coast of the United States. We sold burnt coffee in styrofoam cups to hurried people, and these hurried people with the burnt coffee in the styrofoam cups would throw handfuls of cream, sugar, and flavoring inside until it tasted (somewhat) palatable.

My last cup of hurried coffee was at Logan Airport shortly after being groped by TSA officials with paranoid grimaces. They wouldn’t buy me a drink (to be fair, I didn’t really ask), so I bought one myself, gulped it down, and hopped out of the country. Hours later a dozen musicians playing marimbas inside La Aurora Airport welcome newcomers to Guatemala City.

It’s a city alive with gritty charm. A city where armed guards with darkened sunglasses patrol street corners as mazes of narrow one-ways snake off into the unknown; where smoke and fumes pour through the air as an elderly man with no arms meanders through traffic; where a young guy with plugged ears juggles three rusty machetes to earn a living.

Alongside the gritty aroma is the new scent of a creative class that makes powerful art for this man-on-a-wire city, a place caught between a troubled history and the promise of a new future.

But I digress…


“De Nada.”

Stepping off the elevated floor in a blaze of caffeinated glory, I strap on my backpack and walk to the dock where horizontal rows of small boats wait to connect locals and non-locals to the many villages around Lake Atitlán.

And – no money.

The ATM is nearby.

The ATM doesn’t work. Or I don’t know how to work it (much more likely).

Like any rational mammal, I anthropomorphize the stupid (and ugly!) machine and treat it like an unwanted metal box red-headed step-child. For some strange reason, the machine doesn’t respond to frustrated human emotions — an unsettling thought considering how much of our world is machine !

So it looks like I’ll have to finagle a way of staying here another night. A dark laugh helps to lighten the mood as I walk up a steep hill, away from the docks.

The birds are still singing away.


Rain Lake Atitlan

Now I don’t know who hired the sun, but it’s a terrible employee.

Besides showin’ up late and drinkin’ on the job, he clocks out to go hang at the beach just as I begin my walk uphill. Uncle Rain takes over and covers everything. Droplets fall with the intensity of a dying tap-dancer stomping the hallowed grounds of a last performance.

Alright, alright, maybe it wasn’t that intense, but you get the idea — it rained a lot.

At the top of the hill huddled beneath the overhang of a tienda stands the barefoot brigade. This trio of psychedelic cowboys refuse to wear shoes, exclaiming (with mystical reverence) “our bodies are electric and so is the earth; rubber shoes inhibit the flow of electricity between ourselves and the earth.”


That’s all very appealing for the poetic soul, but San Pedro is a dirty town, one full of doggy-doo, and doggy-doo plus rain isn’t too appealing for the soles of your feet. Now Jesus was a practical man so he wore sandals and although they resemble said famous carpenter I’m not sure which sole/souls they’re trying to save.

If any.

San Pedro Street

It doesn’t matter much, to me, at the moment, because the only saving I’m interested in is that of the financial variety.

My inability to access funds weights heavy on my mind because, you know, funds make fun possible. It feels uncomfortable to be so needy, but pauper’s don’t make it long in a place where cash is king, so I need to hatch a plan.

The plan: go to a spot where credit cards are accepted, pay for everything on my card and get the Quetzals (Guatemalan currency) in return. To sweeten the deal, I add a bunch of happy hour tequila shots. No one gets screwed over and I buy some time.

It’s hopeful but tentative because, like travel itself, plans have a tendency to move around.

In low season, promises can be as good as currency, so I book a room with a promise and then hop online to grab a few numbers to call. With the free minutes that came with my 20 Q (~$2.50) cellphone, I dial my bank. Now in a situation where you have a very limited amount of minutes and no cash to buy more, the last thing you want to hear is “can you hold please?”

Guess what I hear first?

I hold, both my breath and patience, until the minutes drain away and I am out of breath and patience — exhaling a thousand swears.

Small rooms are terrible for big energy (which is why prison sucks), so I head on down to the ATM for a little chat. It wasn’t so much of a chat as a “now you listen to me” finger wag, which turned out to be as useful as showing a card trick to a dog.

Long story short – it’s more like a medium length story, but brevity is key – the barefoot brigade is a no show, I find a place that does cash back, for a 17% fee of course, and then swig down a happy-hour beer (…. and a tequila shot … and maybe another beer … “uno mas tequila por favor” ….).

Next morning down at the ATM I punch an option I didn’t try before — DDA – and money comes out. Kind of anticlimactic, huh? I slap myself, apologize to the machine for false accusations, and float on over to Santa Cruz.


Lake Atitlan Volcanoes

The clouds hang like a wilted sombrero from the crown of volcán San Pedro. As I slouch deeper into the adirondack chair my tired eyes fall from that hat in the sky to the water below, continuing to move with the waves as they ripple toward the shore.

It’s morning in San Cruz.

Six AM to be precise, and the entire village is standing a few inches above water. Women in huipiles, men in traje, and ornately decorated palm fronds line the dock as fireworks scream with explosive joy, hand drums keep rhythmic time, and out-of-tune saxophones screech their eerie notes.

A brightly colored lancha makes it way to the dock.

The drumming builds.

A smiling bishop in a sepia robe walks into the open arms of an entire village, and then heads for the center of town.

“Hmm..well…that was kind of strange” I think to myself before starting work. “Work” consists of drinking coffee, greeting people, drinking coffee, taking food orders, and drinking coffee. After work I grab a cup of coffee (caffeinated decision), but decide to have it in Panajachel.

This dusty little city is a jump off point for excursions to other villages on the lake. Although fairly modern, it still retains a certain non-bureaucratic charm, an unfinished chaos. Grimy pigeons hop on rusty roofs as lively beats blare from the street corners. A stray pit bull roams dusty streets. Spiky trees reach out to try and mug the potholed roads, but are held back by decaying fence and barbwire.

Panajachel Parade

The bar practically falls into the street, which is perfect for that ultimate traveling past time: watching shit go by.

A three-legged dog hops onto a ledge taller than itself to pick a fight with a dog who is much bigger and has four legs; a man in traje and a cowboy hat peers around the corner to see. Shortly after a chicken bus somehow pulls off a flawless three-point turn as a teenager grabs onto the back ladder while whistling a muffled destination. As the horizon pulls him away, an elderly woman balancing a mesh bag filled with papayas comes into perspective. Behind her is a small boy with a shoe-shining kit.

He stares at me.

I stare at my bare feet and sandals.

He walks away.

Taking his place is bootleg DVD man with a coat-rack full of Hollywood titles. As he departs the daily rain begins, so I leave this happy hour bar where expats slurp cheap beer and head for the embarcadero.

Back in the village it looks like a war is starting.

It’s one between sky and ground and it doesn’t look too promising for the latter because, quite literally, it’s losing ground. The water rushes downhill and collapses dirt mounds, pushing plastic bags and water bottles to the shore. All the miscellaneous debris get rotated in ouroboros eddies that feed on their own tales.


San Juan is a little (dare I say quaint?) artisan village that produces some of the finest handicrafts on the lake. Collectives of women pool together funds to buy materials, weave colorful garments, and sell them at small tiendas, sharing the profits equitably. This economic model seems to weave perfectly into their conception of self and community.

It’s a system that might contrast with neoliberal capitalism, or to be less grandiose, it contrasts with the idea that what we are fundamentally are individual human beings separated from other by the boundaries of our skin and focused solely on maximizing self-interest. This idea is a philosophy of self as much as it is an economic model.

But I digress.

I spot a fellow traveler I met a few days ago walk by, so we wander the roads a while. Out of nowhere, or more accurately, a patch of jungle, a group of orthodox Jews walk by, nod, and head into a concrete synagogue.

“Where are we?”

It’s a welcomed injection of the strange, of the slightly out of place. The “where” matters little though, because when you have nowhere in particular to go, it is impossible to get lost.


San Pedro Night

Street cats prance about at obscure hours, tangoing with the strange tones of a dozen yelping dogs. Tuk-tuk’s beep their pipsqueak horns and blare that all-too-popular (and all-too-overplayed) Guatemalan pop. Outside is a sort of pre-dawn, liminal space; one that exists just before the sun cries out its beautiful golden scream. In the dark, electricity dances atop the water like other-worldly ballerina’s.

Edison might have died long ago, but his residue gives life to this village.

Time for a walk.

Watching the day start is the best way to start the day. Families walk down to the lake for a morning bath as an old man with bare feet carries a bundle of wood uphill. Farmers slowly unfurl their market veggies. From a distance I hear the unmistakable refrain of an overplayed pop tune and hail down a ride. The tuk-tuk bumbles down a potholed road on its way to the most famous nose in San Juan La Laguna: Indian Nose.

Now this nose is not just any snout, it’s an anthropomorphized cliff that takes two hours of steady climbing to get up. It costs 30 Quetzals and a puddle of sweat.

Why do something like this? No idea. Maybe because it’s there … and for the view … and, well, the view is there for something right? If nobody visits and the view is never seen will the view get mad? Shrivel up like shy teenagers and insecure models? I don’t know, but you got to take it into consideration.

Or you don’t.

Either way it feels good (most of the time) and that’s a good enough reason to do most (but not all) things. Down at the bottom I collapse beneath the shade of a giant palm.

A few hours later I wake up, dazed, grab a few sips of water and stroll on to Wine and Cheese to meet up with S. Inside the charming restaurant, trumpet flowers dangle from a vined ceiling as polished typewriters and old photographs fill in the spaces between four tables. A refined man brings over a wooden plate with 23 cheeses, a glass liter of Argentinian wine, and a homemade basket of fresh bread. Pavarotti’s opera loops on an antique vinyl in the background as lost chickens waltz in and out.

The sun leaves when we do, replaced by a death-metal downpour that has us scurrying for our brightly colored jackets. Before we can get them on, we burst out laughing.

Outside, a bored horse is tied to a pole next to a bike behind a tuk-tuk in front of a rusty car. The whole evolution of human transportation stands in front of us, and an unamused chicken waltzes by.

The boat’s torn blue tarp tries to protect people from the rain, but there is no protection. Water soaks into the skin of locals and extranjeros daily, becoming an intimate part of life here. At the hostel people calmly sit on wooden chairs to watch it fall. Everything is calm except a small little ADD pooch its owner affectionately describes as a “ferret on cocaine”. This little street-dog turned, uh, “domestic” (in the lightest sense possible) is going wild.

Sleeping Dog

Wolves might howl at the moon, but she barks at the rain — continuously. The rain never stops, never even hesitates for a moment; it just plugs along with its inexhaustible drop-by-drop explosions.

A tropical storm is a-brewing and lightning rays squirm like newborn eels across the darkened sky. They explode in a giant burst and then fizzle out into thin nothings. Slack jawed and open-eyed, we watch for over an hour until the storm withers away, and the thunder of dreams replaces it.

It seems the relationship between Time and Intensity is inverse, so as time slows down intensity of experience speeds up. Things become most intense once the realization that they’ll be gone soon arises.

Time has slowed down.

And it’s time to leave.