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2024 Lake Atitlan Recap: Love/Hate Edition

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With another lengthy stay nearly complete, it feels like time for the latest edition of our annual Lake Atitlan recap, covering our latest 2 months here on one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. Yes, it’s gorgeous of course, something I probably mention more than is strictly necessary. And the weather’s truly fantastic, especially at this time of year when it never rains and the temperature basically always straddles our idea of the perfect range: 15C-25C.

But…

As with anywhere in the world – even our absolute favourites – there are less than ideal aspects as well. “No place is perfect” is a statement that goes double (at least) in Guatemala.

Two boats racing across Lake Atitlan in front of the volcanoes

For example, right upon arrival this year things immediately got very “Guatemalan”. The friendly Guatemala officials at the airport simply couldn’t wait to usher us into the country, warning us to be ready with our fancy new entry form QR code to show to… somebody, you’d think. Which we were, although many others were not and there was some minor chaos with people trying desperately to connect to the airport wifi (which is predictably not great) to fill out their forms, etc.

Meanwhile, we waited for a very long time at the baggage carousel clearly marked with the origin of our flight (Mexico City) and our exact flight number. Eventually the bags dried up, though, leaving 20 or 30 of us still standing there with worried frowns, looking around in confusion.

I finally asked one of the airport officials standing nearby who had quietly been watching this whole scene play out. Without hesitation, he immediately pointed to a baggage carousel on the far side of room, one clearly marked “Bogota”. And what do you know? All our bags were just sitting there waiting for us. For who knows how long. Why? No idea. Why didn’t he say something earlier? No idea.

Man admiring sunrise over Lake Atitlan

Moving on. We grabbed our bags and tried to figure out which customs line we needed to enter to have our ever-so-essential immigration QR codes scanned and verified. Not as easy as you’d think. Finally we were pointed in the direction of a lone woman intently scrolling on her phone with that weird half-smile that is usually in response to something mindless but amusing on Tik Tok or something similar. We approached, held up our phones, QR codes nicely zoomed and everything, at which point she spared the briefest of glances (no scanning, no need), nodded distractedly and vaguely motioned to us to continue on before getting back to her phone. Well. That seemed worth it.

So, sure, Guatemala may not always be the most efficient place in the world (he said, still handing out way too much credit), but it still has plenty going for it. And so what if every one of the positive things also has a corresponding downside to temper the enthusiasm and keep us grounded? Balance is key, I think.

So here is our (latest) list of stuff we love about our time in Lake Atitlan, along with an equally long list of stuff we… don’t love quite as much.

Lake Atitlan Pros and Cons

A truly impressive array of birds make their home on Lake Atitlan, something I seem to notice more and more each year (“Hey, look, an orange one!”). Which Laynni happily mocks, believing as she does that with age comes an inevitable descent into life as a “twitcher”.  She may be onto something. Even the gross vultures caught my attention this year.

Tree full of vultures

Nonetheless, the birds may be great but the scorpions (23 this year – oh, wait, make that 24 as I write this) certainly are NOT great. Not the big ones, not the small ones, not the ones dumb enough to get stepped on in the dark in the middle of the night, not the one who scurried away from the bathroom light to stick just his head under the baseboard like this somehow made the rest of him invisible.

Certainly not the one that scared the shit out of me by appearing in the sink after breakfast, got washed down the drain by a fair deluge of water, then scared the shit out of me AGAIN after supper, appearing in the OTHER sink after what one can only assume was a fairly long, damp and miserable day spent in the sewer trap. Although he presumably still enjoyed that more than being flicked out of the sink into a nearby bowl of leftovers (not ideal for either of us), unceremoniously dumped on the floor (amid plenty of frantic swearing) and, eventually, beaten to death with a heavy, duct-tape reinforced fly swatter (aka “scorpion club”).

Scorpion

And most certainly not the one that decided to show off one night by executing a dramatic pike dive from the headboard onto Laynni’s pillow.

One of the things we like best about staying down here is our group of friends – some permanent residents, some annual returnees like us. However, with all the group hikes, group restaurant excursions, daily happy hours and random passing chit chat, each year eventually leads us to a certain moment – a particular mood, shall we say – that could best be described as the “but I don’t WANT to talk any more” moment. Not the worst problem, clearly, but another great example of the need for moderation in all things (Even watching soccer? Pshaw, he exclaims.)

Woman taking a selfie of a group holding rum shots

Tigo Guatemala offers cheap Sim and eSim cards ($US2) and good value data packages with 10-13GB for about $US15. Nice. Although, strangely enough, even though I bought a brand new Tigo eSIM at the big, modern Tigo store in Guatemala City, somehow they could NOT sell me the Tigo data package. In the Tigo store. THAT had to be done at some random kiosk, apparently. I’m still not sure if it’s a truly bizarre policy, simply a guy screwing with me or maybe just a situation where his cousin owned the kiosk.

The volcanoes are truly amazing, not to mention quite nice to look at. When you can see them, of course, since this was a strange year with long stretches of haze without any crisp skies or clear views. Sure, maybe that sounds picky, but the view is the view, you know?

Hazy day over Lake Atitlan

**Note** While choosing photos for this post I realized that we did, in fact, have a lot of clear, sunny days. Just not all of them, which is apparently what we’ve come to expect.

Another thing I really love about Guatemala is the fact they have a national electricity grid, just like real countries. Of course, we’d love it even more if it worked ALL the time, not just a respectable amount of time. Speaking mainly on behalf of the stuff in our freezer.

Colourful street shaded with umbrellas

Meanwhile, the weather at Lake Atitlan from January to March is absolutely perfect, in our considered opinion. 13-15C at night, 22-25C during the day, no rain. But. C’mon, by now you knew there was going to be a “but”. The DUST, man. Walking in either direction from our apartment involves as solid 10 minutes spent in a fetid dust cloud. At the best of times. Just see what happens when a communal pickup flies by way faster than necessary or a gear-grinding water delivery truck rumbles past. Luckily, certain recent global events have left us all well aware of the useful – and surprisingly versatile – benefits of masking up.

Mayan village on Lake Atitlan

Now, those perfect temperatures and the general lack of mosquitoes (which weirdly varies from apartment to apartment) mean we can enjoy leaving our huge front windows open day and night, giving the whole place a “living amongst nature, but without sunscreen” vibe. Of course, the downside, at night especially, is Guatemalan men’s much-discussed affection for “bombas” – a cheap version of fireworks that don’t set off any cool colours or impressive visual displays but do make a whole lot of noise.

Anyway, every now and then, the local folk will find some reason (a very good one, I’m sure) to set off dozens of bombas continuously through the night. Hmmph. So, when that happens, we just need to hope it doesn’t also coincide with the few days around the full moon, because that is when the hippie drum circles also come to glorious life. Yes, I know that combination may sound extremely cool, but in actuality, it’s really not.

Now, one thing that has become a bit of an annual tradition is contracting some sort of “Atitlan ailment”. Whether it’s the dust, the food, the water or just too much spitting on each other while we talk at happy hour, it seems to get me at least once per visit. The downside? Being sick and immobilized.

Sick woman peering out from under a blanket

The bright side? Being sick and immobilized with this view.

Close-up view of San Pedro volcano

Over the years we have collected a wide assortment of beautiful hikes around the lake that keep us busy (and modestly fit) a few times a week. Unfortunately, over the years each member of our group has narrowed the list down to a few of their favourites and quite a few we feel we may have “done enough, I think”. By the time those lists all get cross-referenced and whittled down, we usually end up doing the same few hikes all the time. Cue the sympathetic tears.

The volcanoes of Lake Atitlan

Plus, group hikes. For better or worse. A big yes to: safety, socializing and festive beers at the end. A less emphatic “nope” to: wildly differing hiking speeds, endless photo stops and overwhelming the little German restaurant we like so much with our large group meals.

Large group of hikers taking a break

The main form of transportation around the lake is the “lancha”, public boat taxis that stop off at each village and any requested private dock around the lake. They are relatively cheap and fairly frequent. The downside: there is very little rhyme or reason to the pricing system. Actually, to be more specific, there are about half a dozen different pricing systems, each of which seem perfectly reasonable to each different group of individuals. The resulting unpredictability, heated haggling and indignant arguments? The stuff of legends.

Public boat full of people

With all the different villages and vibes around the lake comes a huge diversity of tourists, which is kind of cool. What is not as cool are the faux hippie “brave warriors” proving their courage mainly by getting high and jumping naked into the lake from the 2-metre-high dock. Not sure if the brave part was the height of the dock, the hugely original nudity or the terrible tattoos. It was a complex tapestry.

Each year we have an annual Septathlon of dumb games. It used to be a Decathlon but the number of events was eventually reduced from 10 to 7. Due to age, mainly. Anyway, it is a fun time. The downside: my poor choice of round foods for the distance rolling competition – I’m still reeling from back to back failures with a boiled egg and then a watermelon.

Two women trying to pass a toilet paper tube from one dustpan to another without using their hands

Quick ones:

We CAN work here, just more slowly than normal because, you know, Guatemalan wifi.

Table with laptop and view of Lake Atitlan and San Pedro volcano

Any day we aren’t hiking we go swimming in the lake. Unfortunately, this also means feeling obligated to swim in the lake.

Man jumping into the lake with San Pedro volcano in the background

Nearby San Marcos has a great bakery with excellent bread and there are a few terrific Italian restaurants around the lake. But the glowing food recommendations pretty much end there.

Man posing with his large meal of BBQ ribs

Guatemala is still a cheap place to travel compared to much of the world. But not nearly as cheap as it used to be. Back in my day… that sort of thing.

Two full shopping carts in a department store

The Mayan culture is still very prevalent around Lake Atitlan and is quite fascinating. On the other hand, the Mayan place names are impossible for my mind to retain. Too many “x”s I think.

Narrow street of colourful textiles

Laynni really enjoys a solid stretch of “hammock time” before the sun comes up every morning. Except when the hammock rope snaps and she falls – hard – on the concrete. She enjoys that less.

Woman in a hammock with a view of Lake Atitlan

Finally, it is possible to get a very affordable haircut at Lake Atitlan. Not a good haircut. But affordable.

Interesting Stuff

Sunrise over the volcanoes of Lake Atitlan

One day an adorable hummingbird took a wrong turn and ended up inside our apartment, seemingly baffled by all the confusing windows. While attempting to carefully usher it outside with a fly swatter (yes, THE fly swatter, it can be used for good as well as evil, it seems), doing my best not to touch its furiously beating little wings, it suddenly just landed on the swatter. Then sat there quietly like it didn’t have a care in the world as I walked it outside. And strategically waited almost – but not quite – long enough for Laynni to get a photo. Clever AND not too proud to accept help. Not your average bird, that.

One night we experienced a pretty big 6.1 earthquake centred on the Guatemalan city of Taxisco, which is not really that far from the lake. The bed shook, the windows shook, the plates rattled, then we said dumb stuff like “hey, did you feel that?”, and then it was over. Still, kind of interesting, right?

One afternoon we’re just minding our own business, enjoying happy hour with 7 or 8 friends and acquaintances, having profound discussions about important topics like scorpion sizes and all the latest gastrointestinal symptoms – SPECIFICALLY, of course – when, all of a sudden, out of the blue, without warning, etc. it RAINED. I know, right?

Bird flying against backdrop of pink sunset

The ants at Lake Atitlan can be quite invasive and admirably persistent (at least when not deterred by industrial-grade ant killer imported from your friendly neighbourhood Canadian Tire), and we have seen no better example of this than the morning we discovered a full chain of the tiny buggers going full World War Z in the bowl of water we keep our peanut butter jar in. Hundreds heroically sacrificing their lives to provide a bridge of corpses that their comrades and, hopefully, many future generations of ants could use to reach that sugary, nutty promised land.  At least until we dumped them down the drain and refilled the bowl with clean water.

Summary

We had a nice time.

Calm pool reflection of woman jumping in with volcano behind

Other articles you may want to check out:

Here are some of our other popular Lake Atitlan posts in case you’re considering a visit to this terrific place (just ignore all that whinging from before) and, somehow, found the rest of this post less than helpful from a planning perspective. Hard to believe, but just in case.

The Ultimate Guide to Lake Atitlan

Where to Stay: The Best Hotels on Lake Atitlan

Things to Know Before Visiting Lake Atitlan

Best Things to Do on Lake Atitlan

Best Hikes on Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan Swimming: Best Places for a Dip

Best Lake Atitlan Photo Spots

Best Yoga Retreats on Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan Transportation: Getting There and Around

The Nariz del Rostro Maya Sunrise Tour

Pasajcap Rentals: The Best Place to Stay on Lake Atitlan