Lake Atitlan & el Toliman Volcano

Travelers on pilgrimage from Chiapas, Mexico to Guatemala will find the route from San Cristobal to Panajachel one of the preferred nomadic routes of transport, for the ease of access, and the one day direct shuttle to and from the lake. It is also on the ‘Gringo Trail’ from Mexico. After spending four nights in San Cristobal, and visiting the Tonina pyramids near Ocosingo, I opted for this route as well, and decided to stay in a cheap backpackers hostel with a wake up call for 4 am. I didn’t need the wake up call in the end, there always
seemed to be a rooster nearby to hearken the dawn, and I was up on time to catch the early bird shuttle direct to Guatemala. From here, we ventured south through Comitan, and past passing several small pueblos with Mayan ruins, before arriving at La Semilla. At the stop on Comitan, our driver cut our dinner break short, because there were protests on the road from the rise in the Mexican gas prices. We had to take a one way dirt road, behind a slum to connect back to the main highway. At La Semilla, I had to leave the bus and get my passport stamped with an exit from Mexico and pay 500 pesos. Everyone was confused about this fee, and I had read this exit fee was already covered in the plane ticket into the country, but apparently not.

Everything went smoothly nonetheless, then we piled back into the shuttle and drove ten kilometers more, to the real frontier at Cuahtemoc. From here, we had to walk across the border and wait at the international office for several other travelers going to and from Guatemala. Men stood around holding huge stacks of pesos, and quetzals, the local currencies, and people took refuge in the shade of the collectivos. After a long wait to have the passport looked over and stamped again with an entry to Guatemala, we met our new driver who would connect us to Panajachel at Lake Atitlan, but first we would drive 5 more hours through the mountain pass, and through dense hives of urban acropolis; Huehuetenango, Chichicastenango, Xela, and finally Panajachel by dark. It was already quite late, and my main concern was finding somewhere to sleep. I was traveling with three other people, two friends from Israel and Germany, and my partner from Sweden. Our clan was quite eccentric to say the least. We asked some merchants where we could camp, and they pointed us in the direction of the playa.

Countless stray dogs wandered the streets looking for scraps, but I enjoyed their company, several of them joined us at the lake as we convened for dinner of tortillas and raw vegetables. Some village kids had been setting off fireworks, while two police officers watched apathetically, they didn’t seem to be bothered by them, and instead came to talk with us, but not for the presumed reasons. The male cop wanted to know where we were from, and said he was trying to improve his English. Fortunately my Israeli friend knew adequate Spanish, and we conversed in our own manner, and exchanged stories until they left us. I noticed that the police seemed to travel in pairs, usually a man and a woman, and I thought this intriguing. Afterwards we found camp in a grove of trees with perfect hammock distance, and I spent a rather chilled night hanging between two trunks, happy to be back in my hammock and my first night in Guatemala.

I awoke a couple hours before sunrise, and wandered along the playa wrapped in a goatwool poncho that I have carried with me on my travels. I only aroused the curiosity of the street dogs, and a few men drinking black coffee. At one far end of the playa I found a mayan circle altar, and the remains of a fire, and then went back to sit on the dock, and made myself a morning burrito, while I watched the glinting sun rise over the mountains and spread its light over Lake Atitlan and its three volcanoes. The morning harangue brought in a ceremonial music event, a rather strange mixed occasion of a baptism and a funeral, side by side, with mariachi music at full tilt. I didn’t really like the energy, and went with my companions for breakfast at a bakery to eat falafels, and cashew coffee. Afterwards I lingered at the Cacao museum and tried several of the artisan products they had on offer, cacao husk tea, dark and milk chocolate, and some of the roasted beans, I spent nearly an hour here reading over the information on the history, cultivation, and modernization of cacao, especially that of the Mayan cultural aspects, then made connections with some local growers that I would meet later.

At mid day, we boarded a boat that would take us to San Marcos, I had heard that people from the Cosmic Convergence festival were gathered here, and upon arrival I was swept by such a positive energy that soon took me captive. San Marcos is an attractor for Bohemian types, hippies, nomads, backpackers, yogis, communities, farmers, and travelers, and I met them all in one day. Every day spent here was like three spent elsewhere, it would take me an hour to walk the camino through the village because the opportunities for conversation and exchange were almost unlimited. Soon I had scribed a few pages of names and contacts of new friends, communes, destinations, and world travel tips, that were soon filling my journal. I spent the diurnal hours in the village or the surrounding mountains, foraging coffee, jocotes, avocados, and oranges, catching some wifi in a vegan cafe, and swimming in Lake Atitlan. By twilight, a warm fire by the dock, trading stories with other travelers, and getting some rest. I went out for some healthy goat cheese and pesto crepes at Shambhala, then caught a film in the back garden lounge which was shown on the projector. Another night there was a concert of folk and ethnic musics at an eco-cafe.

San Marcos seemed to be a haven for a lot of people, and it was here that I met with the most synchronicity and re-uniting with old friends. I had met a young woman from Iran in Palenque a year prior, and here met her again on the street, and only hours before a comrade from Poland whom I met in Canada while picking peaches, long haired and bearded, sitting outside a hostel. There were several other re-unitions during my time here. San Marcos is on the north of Lago Atitlan, and is steeped in dense jungle-like tree cover. It is easy to find wild fruit like avocado, jocote, mamey, coffee cherries, even mangoes in the slopes the encrater it. There is a trail loop that leads to several Mayan altars, and diving cliffs which can be accessed from San Marcos, and the neighboring town of San Pedro and Tzununa, also boast of several ecological communities, yoga retreat centres, even a zen monastery farm where the monks cultivate a lot of local products sold in town. I found it easy to find healthy food here including luxury items I could usually only find in bigger cities like kombucha, sourdough bread, kefir, organic peanut butter, and superfoods. There is a high degree of health consciousness here.

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After 6 days on Atitlan, I traveled with my partner to the south side of the lake to Santiago, here we left our pack, and then took a chicken bus to San Lucas, and then a tuk-tuk to the trail-head of the Toliman volcano. The chicken buses are something unique to Guatemala and a surefire way to get some experience and help stretch your budget while traveling. The story goes that Bluebird, one of the big American school bus companies sold several hundred buses to Guatemala to transport the children to and from school, but after the tourism boom, they started importing more and more, while this became a government project, they decided that despite the cost, they must be beautiful. In the beginning,
the farmers would take some of their chickens on board as they went to and from their lands, and this pattern soon got latched on to the name, and it stuck. Today, they are still used heavily by locals and can be just as crowded as a chicken barn, but also are the most economical way for travelers to get from town to town or long distance. They may be confusing to figure out, and look a little bit like the bus from Jack Kerouacs infamous story about the Merry Pranksters acid bus trip across America. They are flashy, but not decadent, and each one seems unique in their design. The same goes for the tuk-tuks, imported from Asia to deal with the flux of tourists. It is cheap, and fun to travel with, and lets you get places you wouldn’t normally be able to access on a full bodied collectivo truck.

We soon started off on the trail, although it was already well into the afternoon. We met with several men on their way back into town, carrying heavy sacks of coffee, with straps around their forehead, as well as youth in their early teens hauled heavy loads of avocados, or firewood stacks in extremely efficient manners. We continued to ascent and stop to catch a whiff of every new flower on the way up. As the vegetation changed from leafy vines, and tropical trees, to coffee and avocado plantations, to corn fields, and finally evergreen near the summits. At one point we came to a thrush of beautiful colored blue birds that resembled jays, though with a more tropical plumage, I felt like von Humboldt in his early days, climbing volcanoes, and studying plants on remote Central American mountains. Toliman is actually a twin volcano, with two peaks, and is within range of Volcan Atitlan. On the other side of the valley is Volcan San Pedro, and within the panoramic view of Lake Atitlan one can also see Volcan Acatenango, and Fuego, the latter of which was active, and was the object of obsession on this particular hike.

We had heard there was a cave where the locals held ceremonies, and played music, and from which one could afford a view of the erupting volcano and on a clear night could easily see the lava flows cascade down its summit. We did not in the end find the cave but did come to a cornstalk built hut with a flat terraced ground close to the top with a perfect view of Volcan Fuego a couple miles away. At nightfall there were murmurs of flute song, and possibly some chanting, which came from a couple hundred feet lower than us, I thought this might be the cave, and it was particularly especial for me to listen to it, while watching an active volcano. The sky was crystal clear and the moon nearly full in its pregnancy, so the lava eruptions were as vibrant against the cobalt black sky as street lights in a dark alley. One particular explosion flowed down the flanks of the volcano several hundred feet, and the whole cap glowed in a vivid neon red for nearly a minute, before turning black in the cool night air. The sound of the volcano and even the sensations of the vibrations could sometimes be heard from our corn field camp on the opposing end of the lake. It was a night that is permanently engrained in my memory bank and had already been translated into story more than once.

The next day would be spent getting back to Santiago to collect the packs, and take a boat over to San Pedro to spend the night. We had an Israeli style dinner in a lonely cabana bunkhouse with some friends, and caught an early bedtime to be ready for the next leg of the journey north to Lanquin, which will have to wait for another time to tell.

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