Thursday, February 21, 2013

Too Much of A Good Thing

…that’s what Aldous Huxley called Lake Atitlan, about 50 km west of La Antigua.

I don’t know when Aldous Huxley was here, but millions of visitors have been here since, many who’ve written equally memorable, if less quoted, observations about the volcano-rimmed lake. There’s not much more I can add – except that the place sucked us in enough we spent more time here than anywhere else in Guatemala.

“Miss Tel Aviv is going with this guy she met -- In his own car!” Big Dog said excitedly. Miss Tel Aviv was our nickname for an Israeli woman we had befriended at our hostel. We weren’t going to go anywhere in the tourist shuttle vans and were reluctantly toying with the idea of the chicken bus, but now, we could insinuate ourselves into their ride. Or, Big Dog could. He can be a charmer when he wants.

It was hazy and overcast when we arrived at the lake so I wasn’t sure what the big deal was. Panajachel, the main town on Atitlan’s shores, is lined with vendor stalls and shops selling the famous Guatemalan textiles and goods made from them, along with silly souvenir T-shirts (“Du yus pik inglish?” and “Viva La Evolucion” with a Planet of the Apes commandant in a Che Guevara beret) and other knickknacks. Restaurants catering to the gringo palate were plentiful.

After a lunch at a lovely garden café jam packed with non-Guatemalans, we hopped on a boat taking us to San Pedro de La Laguna, Hippie Backpacker Central.

We normally try to avoid Gringo Ghettos when traveling, but maybe because of that, the novelty of being around all these young travelers was appealing.

Big Dog soon found out how much cred he had as someone who had done the long overland trek through Central and South America in the 70’s. Kids were listening, rapt with attention, to all his stories from the past. The awe and respect must have been intoxicating, especially when you consider the yawning disinterest from younger members of his own extended family.

 The Chill Out Lounge at Zoola

Is this Kuta West?

San Pedro is a good launch pad for exploring the nearby villages of Santiago Atitlan and San Juan, but every time we tried to get out of San Pedro, we’d get engaged in a conversation with someone. It took us days to walk the few miles to San Juan with its many weaving coops (all women) and never managed to make it to Santiago, though we did take a boat to San Marco one day. (It’s the New Age Center – and you know how I feel about the marketing of spirituality. As for BD, “Pay to stay in a tiny, rudimentary pyramid-shaped structure when I slept inside the Great Pyramid? Ha ha ha!”)

It wasn’t until we left that side of the lake, one windy morning that my poor bashed butt will never forget, bouncing over choppy waters back to Pana, that I saw what everyone was talking about.

When it’s clear, the lake is STUNNING. Absolutely, mind-alteringly incredible. And it’s from the Pana side that you get the full effect.

Perfect, green, miniature Mt. Fujis ringing this lake especially appeals to the Japanese me, but I guess it wasn’t just me because there were a handful of Japanese travelers, too, in a part of the world NOT overrun by them.

As for too much of a good thing, Huxley may have understood too well. I saw so many people who really looked like they had lost their minds. From the drugged out wacko at our hostel in San Pedro, to the dead drunk men on the outskirts of San Marco (the locals must be immune to all that “spiritual cleansing”) to the gringo in Pana staring down the very mellow local cops and harassing young female travelers to that man sitting on the side of the road whacking his head with his fists and wailing (perfectly normal behavior if he had just lost a close family member but otherwise Very Nutty)… I had nothing but sympathy for them.

Lake Atitlan, as Huxley warned, was too much of a good thing.

“I left my miiiiiind~~~in Lake Atitlaaaaaaan~~~”



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