During my six weeks of Spanish classes in San Pedro, some of the things I’ve discussed with my teacher have included the myths and legends surrounding Lake Atitlan. I’ve re-written a few of them below.
Seven or eight years ago, a French tourist in San Pedro with his family told his wife that he was going across Lake Atitlan for the day to visit Panajachel. After a few hours he telephoned his wife, and rather cryptically told her "I’m in a beautiful place, I’m surrounded by flowers and amazing plants and have an amazing view across the lake". His wife said he sounded elated, and she presumed he had changed his plans and decided to climb the San Pedro volcano instead of going to Panajachel.
After a few hours when he’d still not returned, she began to worry. When he also didn’t return that night, she notified the authorities. After a couple of days there was still no sign of him, and the authorities sent out helicopters and specially trained sniffer dogs to look for him. The San Pedro villagers also helped in the search for him, but after several days of extensive searching there was still no sign of him, and strangely, even the sniffer dogs hadn’t picked up a single trace.
Several years on, the locals talk of his disappearance as though the volcano opened up and swallowed him up. Local folklore talks of doorways to an ‘alternate dimension’ in the countryside surrounding the lake here, and when children are young, they are warned not to touch or go near any objects they come across in the countryside that seem ‘out of place’, as they could be gateways to this mysterious dimension.
The woodcutter’s story
In San Pedro there’s an elderly man with an interesting story from his youth. It happened about 40 years ago, and his experience has now passed into local folklore.
When he was young, he walked a few hours from home into a deserted forest near Lake Atitlan, where he stopped and began felling trees for firewood. Feeling weary after a couple of hours, he stopped to rest for a while, and placed his axe carefully on the lush grass covering the area in which he was working. When he went to pick his axe up again to resume work, it was nowhere to be found.
Utterly perplexed by this, he hunted for his axe for a couple of hours but was forced to give up as nightfall was approaching and he was some distance from San Pedro. He walked back to the village, and upon entering the house was startled to find his friends and extended family all gathered in his house. "Where have you been?!" they asked anxiously, "We’ve been so worried we’ve hunted everywhere but there was no sign of you!"
The woodcutter replied rather sheepishly that he’d lost his axe and had been hunting for it for a couple of hours, which was why he was a bit late home. "But you’ve been gone two nights!" they replied.
The woodcutter had no recollection of the time he had missed, and the next day returned to the spot he’d been cutting wood. The axe was back exactly where he’d placed it, and everything was the same except the grass that had previously covered the area was no longer there.
The Atitlan attraction
For many years locals in San Pedro have wondered why so many people come to Lake Atitlan and fail to leave. Since the 1960s Lake Atitlan has been a Mecca for hippie types, and there are countless stories of people coming here for a week, and remaining forever. It’s not hard to attribute this fatal attraction to the natural beauty of the place, but there’s something else here, an indescribable magnetism and energy.
There’s a local myth that attempts to explain the Lake Atitlan magnetism, and it goes back many centuries to the time of the Spanish Conquistadors’ arrival in Guatemala
When the Spanish first arrived in Lake Atitlan they were camping somewhere around what later became Panajachel, when one of the young soldiers set eyes on a local Mayan girl washing clothes in the lake. Transfixed by her beauty, but fearing there was no way she would consider the advances of a Spaniard, he concocted a plan to win her over. He visited a local witch and asked her to cast a spell on a gold ring, which would ensure that she would find him irresistibly attractive.
The spell worked and the young Mayan woman fell in love with the Spanish soldier. However, a short while later, the soldier’s commander found out about the affair, and ordered her execution. Standing over her body, the commander saw the ring, and stole it from the body. A short while later, he started feeling irresistibly attracted to the young soldier, and fearing that the ring had something to do with his developing homosexual tendencies, he took a boat to the middle of Lake Atitlan, and disgusted, hurled the ring in.
The story goes that through the years the ring has passed its powers onto the lake, working its spell on all who venture here