Some myths about Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

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.

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Missing tourist

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

Indian’s nose | La Nariz de Indio

All we seem to do nowadays is study, study, study. We’re in week four of our Spanish studies at The Co-operative of Guatemalan Spanish Teachers and the weeks are flying past.

Most weekends the school lays on some kind of event or excursion, and this Saturday morning we got up far too early to climb the Indian’s nose – a mountain overlooking Lake Atitlan. After about an hour and a half of lung busting climbing, we reached the summit and were treated to this spectacular view.

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala, showing San Pedro volcano


More photos of Lake Atitlan taken from the Indian’s nose.
Podcast: Studying Spanish in Guatemala Episode 1
Podcast: Studying Spanish in Guatemala Episode 2
Podcast: Studying Spanish in Guatemala Episode 3

A house by the lake in San Pedro La Laguna

We’re now into week four of our Spanish studies at The Co-operative of Guatemalan Spanish Teachers in San Pedro, Guatemala, and the Spanish is noticeably improving.

House in San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala

Having spent two very interesting weeks with Jose, Maria & two year-old Felix as part of our homestay with a Guatemalan family, we both decided that our studies would benefit from a bit of ‘space’ for a couple of weeks. Although we’d thoroughly recommend the homestay experience to anyone learning Spanish in Guatemala, you are living with a family & depending on various factors such as the size of the family’s house, number & age of the children, and their TV watching habits etc. you may find that from time to time it can prove a challenge studying.

What you may lose in terms of privacy however, is more than made up for with the extra Spanish conversation practice the family provides, and of course what you learn about Guatemalan life.

Luckily for us, nearing the end of our homestay early last week, Tina was walking past one of the backstreet restaurants near the Cooperative School, and having struck up a conversation with the manager was offered a house rental. We went to see the house, and couldn’t really believe it – a house with a beautiful garden right on the shore of Lake Atitlan (see photo above). We accepted right away and moved into our new house two days later.


Photos of our new house & garden
Podcast: Studying Spanish in Guatemala Episode 1
Podcast: Studying Spanish in Guatemala Episode 2
Podcast: Studying Spanish in Guatemala Episode 3

Costs of studying Spanish in Guatemala

Accommodation costs: Guesthouses range from $4 a night, for a basic room with a private hot shower, up to about $20 a night for something much fancier.

Study costs: About $90 a week for 20 hours one-on-one Spanish language tuition (a significant proportion of this is used to help out particularly poor local families that the Cooperative school works with).

Homestay costs: About $60 a week for accommodation, with 3 meals a day provided 6 days a week (on Sundays students eat out).

Restaurant costs: Meals average about 25 Quetzals ($3.30) in most of the ‘tourist restaurants’ but are as little as $1.50 in other restaurants. A soft drink is about $0.60, a litre of local beer is about $3.50.

House costs: A bit less than the homestay with two meals a day in the manager’s restaurant thrown in. We’re not sure how this compares with other houses in the area, but imagine that if you’re staying here longer term you should be able to find something comparable.

Podcast: Studying Spanish in Guatemala #2

[Download MP3 | Add to iTunes | Subscribe to Podcasts]

This week Tina and I have moved in with a Guatemalan family as part of a homestay arranged by the school we’re studying at – The Co-operative of Guatemalan Spanish Teachers. You can listen to the podcast we made below:

In this podcast, we discuss what it’s like to live with a family here, along with how our Spanish studies have been going moving into their second week. We finish the podcast with a trip to the colourful Sunday market at Chichicastenango – two hours from San Pedro.

Studying Spanish & living with a Guatemalan family


Our photos of Guatemala – including Lake Atitlan, San Pedro, The School, & Antigua
Podcast: Studying Spanish in Guatemala Episode 1
Podcast: Studying Spanish in Guatemala Episode 3
Video tour of the school including an interview with Luis, the Coordinator

You can also view the accompanying photos of Chichicastenango, Guatemala here.

Podcast: Studying Spanish in Guatemala #1

[Download MP3 | Add to iTunes | Subscribe to Podcasts]

The following podcast takes the form of an informal discussion between Tina and I, recorded last week, during our first week studying Spanish at Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. We discuss the school, prices, and dangerous wildlife.

Cooperative Spanish School, San Pedro La Laguna, GuatemalaA day or two after arriving in San Pedro La Laguna by Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, Tina and I began studying Spanish at The Co-operative of Guatemalan Spanish Teachers. For a month or two before our trip began we had extensively researched countries and locations to study Spanish in, and settled on The Cooperative Language School here in San Pedro due to its low prices, its amazing location on the shores of Lake Atitlan, its community orientated philosophy and the fact that Guatemalan Spanish is very easy to understand.

We’ll be attempting to publish a new podcast every week whilst we’re here and will be studying for at least a month..You can listen to episode 2 of this podcast here.

Location map

View Larger Map

Further info

It costs about $82 for 20 hours one-on-one Spanish Language tuition a week (4 hours/day), although I have been told the prices may be increasing 10-15% shortly. You can choose to study more (up to 6 hours) or less should you wish to.

A homestay (living with a Guatemalan family) costs approximately an additional $85/week, and this includes three meals a day, but doesn’t include Sundays – which incidentally is the day in San Pedro that most restaurants seem to be closed.

Should you wish to stay in a guest house, you are looking at between $4/night (very basic indeed), $7/night (simple/mid-range), $10-$15 (private hot shower, & possibly other amenities).
Restaurant meals in San Pedro range from about $2 to $7 depending on where and what you eat.


Our photos of Guatemala – including Lake Atitlan, San Pedro, The School, & Antigua
Podcast: Studying Spanish in Guatemala Episode 2
Podcast: Studying Spanish in Guatemala Episode 3
Video tour and interview with the coordinator of the school
Podcast: Studying Spanish in Cuenca, Ecuador

Podcast: Arrival in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

[Download MP3 | Add to iTunes | Subscribe to Podcasts]

It’s about 15 years and two months since I left Lake Atitlan for the first time. In those years I’ve never forgotten it. Think Lord of the Rings combined with Nordic myth or Loch Ness and you may start to fathom the mystical atmosphere this volcano-fringed lake exudes.

View to San Pedro from Panajachel, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

There’s also a darker side, a side to which I think most travelers are oblivious. When I arrived here with three friends in 1993, we were dropped off in a small village to one side of the lake. The occupants seemed to retreat into doorways, staring at us from the shadows. Were we really so frightening a sight that people felt the need to hide from us? A year or so later, I discovered to my amazement that the village we had arrived in had shortly before been subjected to a brutal massacre at the hands of the Guatemalan government during a bout of civil war suppression.

Nowadays Lake Atitlan functions as a traveler Mecca on many levels – hippies, language students, party animals, or people attracted simply by its aesthetics – all congregate here and meditate, study, appreciate the view and frequently lose themselves in the freely available drugs.

We’ll be studying Spanish here (in San Pedro La Laguna) over the next few weeks during which time we’ll also be publishing regular updates about our experiences on

View our photos of arriving in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala here.

Video: Antigua, Guatemala

This video shows the beautiful city Antigua in Guatemala.

We spent 3 nights in Antigua when we first arrived jet-lagged to Central America. It is a great place to just relax and settle in to the rhyme of Guatemala (although most people will say that Antigua is not real Guatemala). We had been advised beforehand to NOT (under any circumstances) go into Guatemala City when we arrived because it is a very dangerous place. Therefore, we took a pre-booked shuttle (with Atitrans) straight from the airport in Guatemala City to Antigua.

Antigua offers many things to do: Spanish lessons, climbing the three volcanoes surrounding it, looking at the beautiful colonial architecture and churches, eating in some of the amazing restaurants and just enjoying the tranquil atmosphere. It is definitely worth a visit.