Lake Atitlan in Guatemala sits in the basin of the surrounding mountains and three volcanos. This aqua green lake is the deepest in Central America, plunging to depths around 1,000 feet (340 meters) and has a surface area somewhere around 50 square miles (130 square kilometers). It is easy to understand this fact when you arrive and notice a lack of traditional shore line that is replaced on all sides by sharply rising mountain side. It gives the look of complete isolation and this feeling is only solidified as you board the water taxis which are nearly the only form of transportation to and from the little towns that lay around the lake. The setting evokes emotions of complete tranquility and maybe a few otherworldly feelings. This hideaway is unique and a perfect spot for a relaxing getaway–and that was exactly what Christine and I were looking for. After six months of working in Nicaragua and Guatemala, taking extra college classes, and spending half of everyday in a Spanish classroom, we decided we could use a little weekend vacation to clear our heads. We booked three days on the edge of this surreal lake just below the town of Santa Cruz.
Getting to Santa Cruz is only a watertaxi away from the main port of Panajachel, where the shuttle from Antigua drops you off. As we stumbled over the locals getting in the watertaxi trying to guess which seat would keep us the driest during the ride to our hostel, we noticed that this lake was not what we had pictured and were immediately intrigued. The views during the boat ride were all straight up, and to the enjoyment of us both, absolutely resplendent. After a very quick 45 minutes, the taxi tied up to a wobbly wooden outcropping, and we climbed off trying hard to keep in time with the movement of the dock that was in a tug-of-war with the strong winds. As we looked around this new paradise, Christine voiced the realization that our plans of pure in-activity were probably not going to happen as this tiny area demanded to be explored.
Christine went out of her way to find us a room at La Iguana Perdida because it boasted no WiFi, and also because it was home to the only scuba diving company on the lake. Our initial plan back in our apartment in Antigua was to dive Lake Atitlan, our first altitude and lake dives. But after we booked the trip, we received news that there was no availability during our trip, so our big plans of nothing started to take shape. She and I mentally prepared for three days in a hammock in the sun with a book, or in Christine’s case, the latest Hollywood entertainment gossip magazine, (she claims she NEVER reads these, but I have caught her sneaking them like a kid stealing candy.) All of this careful planning for nothingness was in vain, however, as the realization sank in that we could do so many activities here! Diving was the original draw but there was also the strait uphill hike to the small town of Santa Cruz, hiking around the lake in, exploring the mansions that were hidden just out of view of the shoreline, Jet Ski rentals, waterskiing, pool time in nearby resorts, and even kayaking! In the three days on the lake, we would only find time to sprinkle in hiking and exploring. We decided our best use of adventure time would be to go kayaking. We had been off the water for too long and wanted to get in some boat time.
The morning after arrival, we donned our swimming britches and slipped on our flip-flops. We followed our hostel’s detailed instructions to the rental company by skirting along the shoreline walkway and cobbled together wooden bridges, tightroping for 7 to 13 minutes until we saw some kayaks. Ten minutes later, we found a house owned by an English speaking ex-pat with a huge green lawn and 15 or so kayaks for rent. Jackpot. The kayaks ranged from basic to sport models, singles or doubles, sit-in or sit-on. Now, Christine and I have done a considerable amount of kayaking in our lives, both together and separately, but it had been half a year or so, so we decided to play it safe. Continuing with our habit of underselling our abilities, we told the lady we were just novice at the sport and she set us up with a nice big, sit-on double. She said the added weight in one kayak would help with the strong winds that started the day before, had continued all night and were still rolling across the lake. She handed us life vests, paddles, and gave us a friendly shove off the beach that sent us on our way.
Usually I figure the best time to tackle the hard part of any journey is right at the start when you are still fresh, happy and strong. Christine concurred, so we started our two-hour rental paddling hard into the winds. With Christine in the front seat, I took on the task of acting as our rudder as we were tossed around by the wind chop. Christine would paddle, I would steer and then try to help paddle. We would get out of time, cross paddles, splash each other, cuss a little bit, and then start all over. It was ok though, because this was the hard part. In the end, we would turn around and just be blown back to the rental beach. Each time we would get going, the wind chop would turn our little yacht, I would try to correct our course and we would get out of paddling sync again. At one point, Christine turned over all boat related responsibilities to me and she took on my least favorite task of becoming the documentarian. As she filmed, I guided us along through the lake and we finally got to just enjoy the scenery. The lake was cool and clear and it felt amazing to be on the water again. The locals would pass by on the water taxis and as Christine tried to film, I tried to gain enough speed to ramp the taxi’s wake. This increase in acceleration would mix with wind, create a pretty big wave, and that wave would dump itself on top of Christine. As I pretended to feel horrible, I secretly planned how to do it again every time. Time passed and we both enjoyed sitting in the middle of the lake in the sun checking out the indescribable mountain surroundings. Without even realizing it, the time came to head back in.
When I eventually checked my watch we were about 15 minutes from the two hour mark that we paid for. Since the trip back was basically just turn around and sail home, the short amount of time was of little concern. We pointed the kayak’s bow back toward the beach and started to paddle half-heartedly while the wind did the rest. That was when Mother Nature decided she was fed up with our lazy attitude. The winds picked up and then did us the favor of shifting 180 degrees, blowing right into our faces. Now we were tired and out of time for our rental and had to fight the winds… again! Christine put the GoPro away so we could both buckle down to paddling. With each stroke we got in better time and made more and more progress. The kayak picked up speed and we cut through each oncoming wave. This progress did, however, come at a price. Each windblown wave that we punched through splashed up to cover Christine. Repeatedly, she let out a little shriek as the cold water soaked her and each time I tried to stifle a little laugh, pretty unsuccessfully. With each stroke, I began to realize I wasn’t sure where on the shoreline the little beach was and I began to think we overshot it. Since we were wearing out in a hurry, we decided to just paddle straight to the shore line and then walk to find the rental house if needed. Now the waves were crashing into the side of the kayak. This was less funny to me since that meant Christine no longer blocked the brunt of the water and I was getting just as cold and wet as she already was. She had very little sympathy for my complaints.
Just as I was about ready to give up and suggest she swim to shore to get help, we made it around a little outcropping of shoreline that blocked the wind. Miraculously, there right in front of us was the little dock that sat right on top of the little beach that we had launched this little aquatic adventure from just under three hours beforehand. Tired and soaked, I volunteered Christine to get out and pull the kayak in, after all, she was in the front. Christine had a better idea and had me paddle up to the dock so she could climb out and go get our flip flops. Then, in return for my gentlemanly manner of laughing at her misfortune, she let me wade through the water to pull in the kayak, I guess I had earned that one.
The trip kayaking Atitlan, even up just one side of the lake, was long and exhausting! Fighting the wind both ways was ridiculous and more than we had bargained for, but filled with laughter, so definitely worth it. It was a great first full day on the lake and in all honesty, we couldn’t have hoped for a better first adventure back on the water after so long away!