It is one of the most beautiful places in the world, certainly the most beautiful place I've ever been. Lake Atitlan sits in the Guatemalan highlands, about 80 miles west of Guatemala City. Aldous Huxley famously described Atitlan's beauty as "too much of a good thing." From the main point of entry at Panajachel, you can look across the lake and see three volcanoes, San Pedro, Toliman and the lake's namesake, Atitlan, which towers 11,604 feet above sea level. The waters of Lake Atitlan are almost impossibly blue and beautiful, and the lake's depth is well over 1,000 feet.
My host family owned land not far from Atitlan, in a small village named San Pablo la Laguna, near Panajachel. We went to Atitlan twice during my time in Guatemala, some 30 years ago. In 1979, the tourists were coming to Atitlan, but the amenities that are now on site were not there. Things were changing -- developers were building large lakeside hotels in and around Panajachel. My host family was, to put it mildly, distressed by this development.
What they loved about Atitlan was how "rustica" it was. It was a remarkably quiet place, largely free of the sounds of civilization, even though many people lived in the area. One of the things that's most striking about Guatemala is the brightly colored clothing that the natives wear. Along the road in San Pablo la Laguna, you would often see "las indigenas" as they quietly went about their business. They were generally friendly and would smile at you. Most didn't speak much Spanish, instead speaking the native Kaqchikel, a Mayan dialect. A few would shyly point at me, asking if I was a "gringo." It was pretty obvious, I imagine. Their clothes, which were expertly woven with intricate patterns and designs, were combinations of vibrant reds, blues, greens and yellows. It was a high-definition world, some 20-25 years before the advent of high-definition television.
It also seemed to be a place of unbelievable poverty, especially to a kid who had grown up in a fairly prosperous town. One day as I walked with members of my host family, I spotted a mother washing clothes in a stream. The water in the stream was filthy with effluent, excrement and goodness knows what else. The brightly colored fabrics were set to the side, while she attempted to clean several pairs of white trousers, which the men in the area often wore. The wind had shifted and the stench was nearly overpowering. In halting Spanish, I asked my host mother why they would be washing clothes in a dirty stream.
That is their life, she replied.
I thought about that for a moment. My host family, while not ostentatiously rich, owned a beautiful home back in Guatemala City, as well as the house in San Pablo la Laguna and a small but highly profitable coffee farm near Ciudad Antigua. They had hired two people from the area to work as domestic help at their home, so they weren't necessarily indifferent to the poverty they saw. They did accept it, though, as something immutable, something that could not be changed.
A few minutes later, we arrived at a path on the shore of Atitlan. I looked down the shoreline toward Panajachel, where the hotels were being built. I asked the host mother what she thought about the hotels.
They are terrible, she replied. This place is so beautiful, so untouched by the modern world. It is awful what they are doing.
There was no question that Atitlan is beautiful. But I wondered whether the hotels might bring more money, more opportunity to people like the woman washing her clothes in the polluted stream.
No, the host mother replied. These indigenas, I needed to understand, were not capable of understanding the world that was being built in Panajachel. It will ruin everything, she insisted.
I always wondered about that. Perhaps the idyll that my host family enjoyed, far from the noise and clamor of the city, needed to be ruined just a little. Maybe the money that would come from from tourism might provide a better standard of life for the people who lived around this beautiful place. I still wonder about that today.