A PhD-level scientist, Sankar Chatterjee possesses the passion for traveling worldwide to immerse himself in new cultures and customs to discover the forgotten history of the society while attempting to find the common thread that connects the humanity as a whole for its continuity. His most recent essays appeared in The Missing Slate and Travelmag - The Independent Spirit.
Photos courtesy: Shelley Chatterjee
Enchanting Lake Atitlán:
Nature’s Beauty in Guatemalan Highlands
While visiting Antigua in Guatemala during a recent trip, my wife and I came to learn about the beauty of the Lake Atitlán surrounded by the mountains and dormant volcanoes. The basin of the lake was created more than 80,000 years ago from a massive volcanic eruption in the area. The caldera thus formed was then filled up by natural water over the ages. So, we planned to spend a few days exploring the area.
The lake can be accessed near the town of Panajachel, about 100 km driving distance from Antigua. As we approached Panajachel, we got our first panoramic view of the enormous lake surrounded by distant mountains and volcanoes under a clear blue sky and bright sun-light.
Culturally, the small villages surrounding the lake have been inhabited by different lineage of Mayan descendants, namely Tz’utuzil, Kaqchikel and K’iche’, respectively. All the groups were colonized by the Spanish. Though Spanish influence had been permeated in daily life, each group still attempts to maintain respective traditions, being different from each other’s.
After entering into our hotel room, a view of the lake with a dormant volcano, named Volcán San Pedro, in the background, offered us a grand scenery.
Next morning, we caught a public boat to take a tour of this scenic lake as well as explore a few islands along the perimeter of the lake. As the boat began its journey, a dormant volcano with a trace of bellowing white smoke came to the view.
On one side of the moving boat, at a distant, a lone man was seen to enjoy the day while concentrating on his fishing in the calm water.
After an hour of an enjoyable mind-soothing journey on the lake in the midst of the nature on a glorious day, we arrived at our first destination, the village of San Juan. From the dockyard, we hopped into a tuk-tuk (a three-wheeled transportation device). The village is known for its local Mayan-themed traditional paintings. Thus, while going towards the center of the village, we stopped at a number of road-side galleries displaying the paintings. The village is also known for its hand-woven colorful textiles. They are created by various women’s co-operatives utilizing cotton obtained from locally-grown plants. The colors of a piece of textile come from natural dyes obtained from carrots, achote (a red seed used in local cuisine) etc. We visited one such place getting a tour of the various aspects of the entire operation. The profits generated from the sale of the textiles support the local women and their families.
Our next stop in the journey was the village of San Pedro, a short boat-ride from the village of San Juan. Rather going inland to explore, we decided to sit at a dock-side café with a cup of locally grown coffee and soak into the panoramic natural beauty of the entire lake and its surroundings on a glorious day.
Our last stop in the tour was the village of Santiago Atitlan, a short boat-ride from San Pedro. Our first destination here was a centuries-old church known as the Iglesia Parroquial Santiago Apóstol. The church houses both the wooden statues of various saints and the symbols from Mayan religion reflecting the assimilation of two cultures. From there, we headed towards the abode of God Maximón (pronounced Ma-shee-mon). Inside a temple and surrounded by the devotees, a wooden figure dressed in colorful scarves while wearing a black hat, the deity was seen to have a long cigar protruding from his lips.
Depending on the local region, this deity has different names, for example, San Simón and Rilaj Maam. Thought to be a combination of the Mayan gods, the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado and the biblical Judas, this god is revered throughout the country.
Our next destination was the Peace Park (Parque de Paz). During the long-running civil war in Guatemala, a brutal massacre of 13 unarmed innocent villagers by the army on December 2, 1990 took place here. After the peace settled in the country, the place was converted into the Peace Park with a mural on a boundary wall depicting the history of the country; a section was devoted to the depiction of life under the military rule as well as the day of the massacre.
We finished our tour of the islands here to begin the return journey towards Panajachel and arrived there just around a glorious sun-set.
Only then, we realized why the German explorer Alexander von Humboldt, famously described Lake Atitlán as “the most beautiful lake in the world”.