The most stunning lake bordered by three enormous volcanoes and villages whose inhabitants descend from the ancient Maya and still practice traditional ways.
A wonderful morning at Sololá market allowed us to see an authentic slice of colourful local life.
Leaving Iximche we were on our way to Panajachel and Lake Atitlan. From a viewpoint over the town the lake looks beautiful, but a little hazy. We stayed at the Hotel Atitlan, right on the lakeshore, and our room had a magnificent view of the lake and its wonderful volcanoes. Mario had been talking to the owner of the hotel whom he knew well and when he discovered we were staying for a few days he upgraded us from our original lakeside room to this one with much better views - we were very appreciative!
Lake Atitlan sits in a caldera created by a mighty volcanic explosion. Three magnificent volcanoes dominate the skyline from the Hotel Atitlan. Directly south Atitlán at 3535m sits almost directly behind Tolimán, 3158m. Volcán San Pedro, 3020m, lies to the south west. The view over the lake is truly magnificent.
Mario had shuffled our itinerary a bit so that we could visit the Friday market at Sololá, so on our first full day here we set off after an early breakfast. Mario dropped us in the centre of town, right at the market, arranging to pick us up later.
Sololá is the capital of the region and villagers come in from all around the town to the market. It was full of local people and we only saw one or two other tourists. Thank goodness this is not a place which can accommodate large numbers of tourists - it would be really impossible considering how crowded the market is with local people and would really spoil the atmosphere.
Most of the women and lots of the men were wearing traditional dress which is still very common.
The women wear colourfully woven tops called huipils and long skirts, with their hair braided and maybe a velvet cloth wound around the head, a turban or strips woven into the braids. A baby might be carried on the back in a cloth sling.
The men wore shirts and trousers of similar colourful material and a kind of kilt fashioned from a large piece of thick cloth wrapped around the hips. They also favoured large stetsons - white or black.
In some parts of the market it was a real crush but the people were really nice and no-one seemed to mind the bumps and collisions as they wove through the crowded passages. The technique seemed to be to lead with the shoulder and keep going until you reach the trader you want then stop dead.
Everything you can imagine for daily life was on sale here: a huge variety of fruit and vegetables, chilis, fish, meat and household items such as pots and pans, ropes, tools - about the only thing which was significant by its absence was bread, or its equivalent, and I guess this is because every woman makes her own corn tortillas daily.
As usual drinks and hot food were also available from ad hoc cafés and stalls.
It was a lovely morning and we wandered for about two hours, thoroughly enjoying the spectacle, getting lost a couple of times but the large church was a good orientation point.
We returned to Panajachel for lunch, having a bit of a wander first after Mario had driven us around the old town, showed us some of the more interesting bits including the simple colonial Franciscan church and a very good chocolate shop!
The new town towards the lake has a lot of vendors clearly catering for tourists and we didn't find much to detain us, opting instead for a pre-lunch beer. We were plagued by wandering traders, one old woman was particularly persistent to the point where we quicky finished our beers and headed off.
We took Mario to lunch as a small thank you for being such a great guide and he recommended Atlantis which he knows well. Here I tried the traditional Pepian Pollo: chicken in a rich sauce flavoured with two types of chilli served with rice. It was very good.
Back at the hotel we had the afternoon to ourselves so after lying by the pool for a while we decided to explore the grounds which are extensive and very well looked after.
Behind the hotel are lots of lush tropical plants and macaws. One very aggressive macaw climbed off its perch and chased us - it looked quite evil! They are also quite noisy - every so often during the night, when they are put into a large cage in the gardens, one of them gives a startled screech as if it's been pinched!
We also saw hummingbirds in the gardens - much nicer than macaws!
In front of the hotel on the lake side the gardens are more formal with low hedges, tall trees and green lawns, fountains and a stream.
There were geese at a small pond and numerous wild birds - especially later in the day or early morning.
The following day we spent visiting villages around Lake Atitlan. We started early on a beautiful morning with the volcanoes standing out against a clear sky.
Mario drove us to the public dock where we had a private boat to take us first right across the lake to Santiago Atitlan which is on the east shore of a finger of water pushing south-west out of the lake. To the south east are the two volcanoes Tolimán and Atitlán, to the west just across the water San Pedro.
Speeding across a mirror-flat lake towards majestic volcanoes we enjoyed every second of the journey on our way to villages where the people are descendants of the ancient Maya..
We saw several local men out in the traditional boats with a v-shaped uplifted prow close to Santiago Atitlan, as well as a superb view of volcano San Pedro.
Santiago Atitlan is quite a sizeable place, peaceful when we were there as we had purposely come early! We passed through a small covered market where women sell their fresh fruit and vegetables, though many also set up their produce on the streets.
Mario walked us up through the town talking about the local people and their customs and stopping at a lady whom he knew to show us the traditional stone sauna, still in use for treatment of certain ailments and for women after childbirth. There is a low stone bench along one side and water is thrown onto hot stones heated by a fire in a stone enclosure.
One of the most memorable experiences of our whole holiday was this lovely lady showing us how she makes yarn from raw wool and also how she winds a length of material around the crown of her head to create the traditional head-dress - an amazingly beautiful procedure.
We gave her something for her trouble, guided always by Mario as to an acceptable amount. She's quite famous, appearing on quite a few travel and tourist brochures and websites!
We've seen many wonderful landscapes and architectural sights on our travels but time and again it is the people, and generally those living very simple lives, who form the fondest and most enduring memories.
At the top of the town is the shrine of Maximon, one of the most curious idols we've come across. Resplendent in his special clothing and surrounded by offerings the model sits in the house of the family chosen each year to look after him - it is a very desirable task. Maximon is sometimes depicted as an unpleasant bully whom it's best to keep on side!
Devotees present him with gifts including cigars or cigarettes, which he "smokes", and rum, a little of which he "drinks", the rest given to the family who look after him.
Maximon is important to the local people, descendants of the ancient Maya. Mayan beliefs and colonial religious ceremonies fuse to form a strange amalgam and during Easter week Maximon takes a prominent part in proceedings.
The church in Santiago Atitlan is set on a huge plaza and reached by an impressive set of steps.
Inside the church is big and airy, white with large, gaudily clothed figures of saints and biblical characters along each of the long walls.
Evidence of the mixing of Catholicism and traditional Mayan beliefs can be seen if you look closely. A carved wooden lectern incorporates maize and a Quetzal bird - the magnificent national bird of Guatemala - as well as an angel and a lamb. The large wooden altarpiece is carved with a series of figures, the lower ones brightly dressed, and is exceptional in its tolerant combination of both Christian and Mayan elements. It was badly damaged in earthquakes and recarved by Mayan craftsmen who were encouraged to replace unrepairable panels with new carvings incorporating depictions of traditional Mayan beliefs - one even shows Maximon!
Mario left us to wander on our own until we met again at the boat to go on to San Antonio Polopo, again right across the lake to its eastern shore.
This is a much simpler village with no other tourists that we saw, though Mario said they would come! We walked up to the church from where there is a wonderful view across the lake. The current church is too small for this growing village and a new one is slowly being built right next to it.
We made a long walk back down to the boat, Mario pointing out so many interesting things along the way - the local building technique for instance, which uses a framework of bamboo poles and which is a traditional Mayan method.
Each village has its own traditional dress and distinguishing colour - here it is a beautiful shade of blue. Though the colours are not set in stone - one village completely changed the colour of their clothes because they got a good deal from a cloth salesman!
We passed a local man in traditional kilt tending his onion crop. Asking Mario to ask him if it was OK to take his photograph he said yes, if we would promise to send him a copy - Mario translating. So Mario took his address and we took his photo and after we returned we sent some photographs to Mario who delivered them next time he went to Lake Atitlan.
The day we left was amazingly clear and we were up very early taking photographs from our room and around the lake.
When we drove up and out over the mountains the view was absolutely stunning.