Our next stop on the class trip was the gorgeous Lake Atitlán, where we stayed a few minutes outside of Panajachel in the Guatemalan Highlands. Surrounded by three volcanos, the lake has a reputation as one of the most beautiful places in the world for good reason. It is easily one of the most stunning places I have ever been.
Our group stayed at Hotel Atitlán, a property with botanical gardens so splendid that I felt like my pictures didn’t even come close to doing it justice. Right on the water, the place is basically made for tropical weddings. Seriously, it was another spot where I felt totally spoiled. That said, the lake is dotted with little hostels that one can stay in for cheap, and enjoy the same jaw-dropping view.
Pro Tip: Panajachel is the main tourist town on the lake, but I wouldn’t stay there. Nearly any other spot just a few minutes outside town will be more picturesque. The main reason to come to Lake Atitlán is its natural beauty, stay outside of Pana and take advantage of it.
Bonus Pro Tip: Roads connecting lakeside towns are few and far between, instead one gets around Guatemala’s largest lake by either water taxi or foot. The easiest way to do this is to make sure where you are staying has a taxi service available and that you have negotiated the cost of your journey prior to getting into the taxi.
Our group focused on learning about social impact ventures in the region, meaning we visited a lot of co-ops, socially conscientious companies, and nonprofits to try and better understand how different groups are helping the local people develop industries. The highlands suffered tremendous losses during the civil war, as the government took a “scorched earth” position with the indigenous people, assuming that any and all of them were either guerrillas or sympathizers. Hence, there are a lot of efforts to rebuild and develop the region and the indigenous communities since the end of the civil war.
The following morning we took a boat across the lake to Jaibalito to learn about some of the challenges faced by the local community, and how one organization, Amigos de Santa Cruz is working to try and help. Like a lot of nonprofits and co-ops in the region, Amigos is run by ex-pats, but they do have a fair number of locals working on their staff. We spent the morning touring Jaibalito and checking out the small shops, mushroom farms, and parks built by people working with Amigos. We then took a gorgeous hike over to Santa Cruz to visit their main community building for lunch and see their culinary training program in action (the food is tasty!). Finally, we got to peek inside their weaving co-op and see some of the incredible artisan work local women create, based on traditional patterns.
After a day hiking around, we spent the following day to rest up and took advantage of the stunning natural beauty of the lake. If you are at all outdoorsy, Lake Atitlán is a real treat. Some of the students when ziplining at Reserva Natural Atitlán, and reported that it was mind-bogglingly awesome. Others went kayaking with Kayak Guatemala. I used the time to lounge in the sun, and stick my feet in the cool lake water, which was just what the doctor ordered.
Pro Tip: The town of Santa Cruz is up a pretty beastly hill. You can either take a set of stairs up or grab one of the little tuk-tuks up the hill. Your tuk-tuk will probably be driven by a 12-year-old, but you won’t blow out your knees, so weigh your options carefully.