It was almost dark as we rounded a bend that gave us our first look at Lake Atitlan, but even in that half light it looked pretty spectacular.
Now if you can picture half a dozen bobble head figurines on the dashboard of our van, that is essentially what we, the passengers resembled for the remainder of the steep descent, as we bounced around on our seats through a combination of the gradient of the incline as well as the horrible condition of the roads.
Our journey had taken about 4 hours, so it was certainly cool and rather dark when our van pulled to halt near the small towns’ waterfront.
We were accosted almost immediately by a local trying to sell us on the merits of first one, and then another hotel for the night.
With nothing planned, we acquiesced to his urgings and began a dark (and also a bit of a damp) trek that lead us through many narrow lane-ways to the first of his offerings, Hotel Pinocchio.
It was spartan, but cheap enough so we took a room (all this time assuming he worked for them), only to later find him puffing away on a cigarette as he lingered outside our room.
From appearances, he was waiting for a tip, but with our frugal budget and the fact that his services weren’t solicited, none was forthcoming.
We dined nearby on some basic, but at least generously portioned pasta and pizza to round out our night.
Our first morning was stunning, as the above photo illustrates, yet as much as a languid day appealed, we had a particular task in mind, that being to find a Spanish language school for a weeks worth of study (which you may have already read, but if not, can do so here).
I’ll say little more than we did in fact find ourselves a great school which we combined with a home-stay for first one, then an additional week in San Pedro.
It did actually mean that but for the odd excursion to a bar or an eatery, especially towards the latter part of week one when Baseball’s ‘World Series’ was reaching its thrilling climax (which our San Francisco Giants took home in a nail-biting game 7), we didn’t actually do all that much.
Mornings meant school, afternoons a bit of relaxation and a bit of study…
Still we did get some time to ourselves, especially towards the end of our time when our studies were finally concluded (we’re not fluent in Spanish, yet two weeks in one place felt like long enough).
We did also see, then later learn how variable the lakes water levels have been, and what this has meant for the residents of the lake.
Apparently the lake is presently at its highest level since the 1960’s, but during the intervening years the water level had plummeted, aided by a 1976 fracture that lowered the lake by 2 metres in less than a month.
Forgetting the past, many locals decided to build on this new waterfront property, yet now, with the water levels again risen (apparently 5 metres across 2010-2011 alone), the terrible outcome is very visible.
For us however, there was a silver lining, as one of Atitlans other waterside villages, Santa Cruz la Laguna was home to the lakes only dive operator.
This would be our first dive experience since getting our PADI Open Water accreditation, our first fresh water dives, and our first experience of diving at altitude!
With such pressure differences at the lakes 1562m height, it means only two dives are allowed per day, but that was okay with a pair of rookies like us.
What the risen waters meant for us and our dive, was our first site (known as Casa del Mundo) was in a now submerged hotel garden where we would explore up and down its now submerged garden terraces.
We spent the first few minutes getting used to the different buoyancy levels of fresh water, although this was offset significantly by our thicker wetsuits (to help us in the cooler altitude waters).
To put it in perspective, in Caye Caulker, a short wetsuit of only 3mm thickness was generally fine, however here, we had 2 layers of 7mm thickness.
This actually meant we needed additional weight, rather than less as we initially suspected, an extra 10-12lbs each!
Visibility wasn’t great, at best 5 metres, however it was pretty novel finding a submerged tap that still functions perfectly (hot or cold water, depending on the day)!
It was our second dive at Agua Caliente that was the undisputed highlight. Here, we were able to explore some of the lakes thermal vents where both the water, rocks and sand were in places very hot.
How hot? Well, at one point we even cooked an egg 19 metres below the surface!
We had a delicious lunch once out of the water, and wondered (amongst ourselves at least) why we hadn’t arranged to spend at least one night on this beautiful side of the lake…
Our final afternoon (the following day) on the lake was a real treat, perhaps it may even be labelled an indulgence.
We made the 20 minute walk from San Pedro to the neighbouring San Juan la Laguna, all at the prospect of a restaurant/bar that specialised in cheese and wine!
To be able to indulge in something we had missed for so long (good cheese), was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up, perfectly accompanied by some nice wine and a platter of delicious meats!
It was certainly a delicious, ultimately slightly tipsy manner in which we drew the curtain on our time lakeside…
* We shopped around (as usual) in Antigua for a cheap shuttle, finding one on 7a Ave Norte for $70.00 Quetzales per person for the direct trip to San Pedro La Laguna (many more expensive shuttles, dropped their passengers at Panajachel where they were then required to pay even more for a launch across the lake).
* Our dive excursion through ATI Divers (the only dive operation on the lake) cost us $513.00 Quetzales per person for two dives (you are allowed no more than two dives per day at altitude). You can’t miss them as you get off the dock in Santa Cruz la Laguna, they are there immediately to the right.