Updated: Jun 21, 2018
You must go see Guatemala's Lago de Atitlán. It's one of Guatemala's natural gems and it's beauty rivals California's famous Lake Tahoe. Situated in the mountainous highlands of Western Guatemala, the lake is ringed by three volcanoes and is Central America's deepest. It was formed when a volcano erupted in a spectacular fashion 84,000 years ago, throwing ash as far away as Florida and Ecuador. The lake filled what was left of the caldera after that massive eruption. Lake Tahoe, on the other hand was formed by geological uplifting.
Atitlán was largely unknown outside of Guatemala until the late 1950's when the country began to seek ways to boost tourism. Sports fisherman were elated when the government introduced Black Bass into the lake in 1958. The results were tragic though. The voracious bass eliminated over half of the native fish species in the lake and drove the endemic Atitlán Grebe to extinction.
Atitlan means "at the water" in the Mayan dialect of Nahuatl, and the Mayans have called this lake their home since the early 10th century.
Many atitecos (as they call themselves) proudly adhere to a traditional Tz'utujil Mayan lifestyle. Each village on the lake has it's own distinctive colors and designs for their traditional clothing. In Santiago Atitlán, a community on the southwest shore, women wear purple-striped skirts and huipiles (a type of blouse) embroidered with colored birds and flowers, while older men still wear lavender or maroon striped embroidered pants.
My desire was to leave the tourist-drenched streets of Panajachel (humorously called Gringo-tenango) and spend time getting to know the locals in the less-visited communities across the lake. My first destination was the largest of the lake communities, Santiago Atitlán. I hired a launch and 30 minutes later I was on the docks of Santiago.
Nestled between the Vulcan Tolimán and Vulcan San Pedro, this ancient pueblo was founded by Franciscan friars in 1547. It was a sleepy little town until the horrors of the Guatemalan civil war crashed down on it. In 1981 a Roman Catholic Priest from Oklahoma, Father Stanley Rother, was assassinated in the rectory of the church. His sacrifice is memorialized with a plaque in the church.
A few years later, in 1990, demonstrators from Santiago Atitlán marched to a nearby army base to protest government-sponsored violence against the Mayans around the lake. The Guatemalan army opened fire and killed 14 demonstrators and wounded many others.
I was reminded of this history lesson when I visited my next community just across the bay, San Pedro de Laguna. 13,000 people call this place home, and it has become a tourist destination for its Spanish language schools and hikes up the nearby Vulcan San Pedro. It was while wandering the market on a Saturday that I came across one of the pueblo's patriarchs, Manuel "Pop" Garcia.
He sat alone in the shade of a veranda, watching the busy market. I asked to sit down on the bench beside him and and we struck a conversation. "Pop", as he is affectionately called, is 83 years old. He told me stories of his youth and of his little town. He was in the crowd that day in 1990 when the army opened fire on the demonstrators. I suddenly had a connection with those dull history facts because I could see the anguish that lingered in his eyes. I felt honored he would share his stories with a gringo. I asked permission to take his photo and he agreed.
Guatemala's civil war ended in 1996, and a generation has come to know peace in this beautiful land.
If ever you get the chance to visit Guatemala, head for the mountains to visit Lago Atitlán and meet it's people. It will change you.
About the author: JS Engelbrecht began his photography career in a High School dark room for the school's Year Book. Later he entered the fashion industry and product photography before turning his attention to Nature. "I moved from shooting pictures of beautiful jewelry to shooting pictures of natural beauty."
Now JS Engelbrecht enjoys capturing beautiful scenes during his travels. He is also a gifted teacher and guide for local photographers. Click here to see his fine art gallery.