Paddling in Guatemala’s Lost Kingdom
Words and Photos By Aaron Teasdale
“Before the world was made, only Lake Atitlan existed at the center of everything. Everything was covered with water. Then the three volcanoes grew out of the lake and lifted up the sky to support it.” —Tz’utujil Maya elder
Samuel Botan and I are sitting at a table overlooking Lake Atitlan in the highlands of western Guatemala where he is telling me that my plan to standup paddleboard around the lake is foolish.
“Foreigners come here and think they’ll just paddle around the lake, ‘Oh it will be so beautiful, so pretty and so nice,’” he says in his high-pitched gringo impersonation. “But the lake is a huge soul and some days it is mean. Like how some days you wake up and just feel like being not very nice to people.”
Sam is a guide and a Kaqchikel Maya born and raised on the lake. He has circumnavigated Atitlan multiple times in a kayak and says there are 53 rivers entering the lake and confounding underwater currents. He tells me about a time strong winds pushed him into the middle of the lake, nearly stranding him. “There have been many times where I thought I was going to die.”
“You see all those clouds?” he says, pointing to the growing cumulous mass behind three giant volcanoes on the lake’s south side. “That’s wind from the Pacific. It’s here almost every day and can make one-and-a-half meter waves. You can see it coming like a ghost.” He tells me it’s named Xocomil (pronounced Show-ko-meel), which means “the wind that cleans your soul.”
I think this is meant to deter me, but given what’s driven me here to this wild and unruly place, it sounds like exactly what I’m looking for.
“I’ve never done this before,” Sam says with a nervous laugh as he steps into the water next to a standup paddleboard.
“You can start on your knees,” I say as I start to thread out of the docks at the pueblo of Santa Cruz on Atitlan’s north shore. “Then you can hop to your feet.”
“We’ll see about that later,” he says with a chuckle. Some friends on shore yell for us to have a good time. “I hope this is going to be fun,” Sam calls back.
I’m at Atitlan on an extended tour of Central America with a pair of inflatable paddleboards, and one of my primary objectives is circumnavigating this lake. A mystical, 50-square-mile pool set in a giant volcanic caldera and ringed with Maya villages, I’d been dreaming of paddling it since I first decided to flee the United States. I needed a partner and no one knows paddling the lake better, so I figured I’d invite Sam along. What finer way to show him what these boards can do? I also hoped that he could show me the vibrant world of the Maya from the inside, instead of the foreigner’s view I’d gotten so far. Never mind his skepticism about making the approximately 40 miles around the lake in four days. Or that he’d never stood and paddled before. We’re off now and all that matters is the water, wind, our paddles and boards. Or so I think. As I’m soon to learn, paddling is only the beginning of this journey.
I’m thrilled when Sam tentatively stands on his board a few hundred feet from shore, relieving my visions of him paddling the entire lake on his knees. The first couple hours pass easily, as I teach Sam SUP basics under a golden sun and we pass the scattered shoreline homes of expatriates and remote Maya villages wedged against steep crater walls. A massive volcano erupted here 85,000 years ago, sending ash as far as Florida and Ecuador, and the gaping crater filled in to form the deepest lake in Central America.
It doesn’t take long for Sam to get comfortable on the board and we soon agree to pull away from shore into open water—1,100 feet of deep, blue water. A tour boat passes and a row of gringos raise their cameras to take our picture. After decades of civil war, Guatemala has now found a measure of peace and tourists are flooding in to experience what conquistador Pedro de Alvardo, the first European to lay eyes on it, described as, “The wildest land and people that has ever been seen.”
Seven miles of conversational paddling—with no grumpy winds or mischievous current—delivers us to a jungle-covered peninsula between two large towns where Sam locates a steep, stone stairway leading into the forest. After what feels like hundreds of steps, we meet a Maya woman, identified by her rainbow-colored traje, or traditional clothes, who leads us to some simple cabins in the trees with decks looking down on the lake. For lunch, we amble over to the stone streets of San Juan, an artist and weaver’s village of 8,000 Tz’utujil Maya.
Dodging squawking roosters, we step into a dingy-floored restaurant, where three Maya women sit weaving in the kitchen next to a sleeping dog. Sam tells me about an American woman who’d contacted him five months in advance to guide her on a one-day tour, asking countless questions about logistics, restaurants, boat captains, etc.
“She was living so far in the future,” he says. “She was nice, but a little crazy—but she didn’t know it.”
“You just described half the U.S.” I say.
“Here in Guatemala we live today, not in the future,” he says with a grin.
Following an afternoon spent wandering the narrow streets of San Juan and its neighboring village of San Pedro, both almost 100 percent Maya (except for a discordant gringo-traveler party scene in the latter), we sit at a small lakeside restaurant for dinner. I tell Sam that I like how Guatemalans, and especially the Maya, no matter how impoverished, show such gratitude in their lives. It feels like the opposite of my country.
In fact, appreciation is a pillar of the Maya worldview. According to one scholar, “The Mayan people’s main and ancient job is to be beautiful and grateful.”
“I think I can be more appreciative,” Sam tells me. “I think I can be more grateful. I’m trying to be better.”
When he asks why I’ve come to Guatemala, I explain that I’m here for the adventure, hands-in-the-soil culture, and unplugged lifestyle. I’m burned out on the thoughtless affluence and soul-deadening materialism of the U.S., I tell him, and I’ve come here on a quest to find what’s truly important in life.
The cooing of doves carries from the trees as we put in shortly after sunrise the next morning, the sun casting jewels across the rippling lake. Pulling our paddles through the water, we steer past a submerged basketball court, then a house with only its top story above the surface, both testaments to fluctuating lake levels. “The water stayed low for 15 years and people forgot,” Sam says of the dwellings, which were mainly built by foreigners and now serve as homes for fish.
Paddling past the outskirts of San Pedro, men chop wood on shore and topless women hand wash clothes at the water’s edge. The Volcan San Pedro rises before us like a great green pyramid, corn and coffee fields checkering its slopes. We’re leaving Atitlan’s tourist zones now and paddling into one of the last true Mayan strongholds. Unbeknownst to many, they didn’t fade into history like their contemporaries, the Aztec and Inca. Though famed for their ancient pyramids and temples, they still survive, even thrive, here in Guatemala in the face of a modern world that often seems hell-bent on their destruction. This is especially true here at Atitlan, where remoteness, tightly packed volcanoes, and the fortress-like walls of the caldera left them relatively undisturbed for centuries after the Spanish conquest.
Our destination for the day is Santiago, the Tz’utujil capital and an 800-year-old Mayan city tucked up the lake’s hidden arm. This is where warm Pacific air funnels through the volcanoes and gives birth to Xocomil. Sure enough, the wind picks up as we near the arm. Ahead, a local Maya man in a white hat and adobe-colored shirt stands upright paddling his wooden cayuco. It looks a lot like paddleboarding, except these guys have been doing it for centuries.
“Let’s catch up so I can get pictures,” I call out to Sam. But a funny thing happens—no matter how hard we paddle we can’t catch the guy. We gain just enough for to see his cayuco full of chopped wood, then let him paddle away, his adobe-colored shirtbillowing in the wind, us on our $1,000 paddleboards with carbon fiber paddles following in his wake.
We drop to our knees as we round a corner and fight our way down the arm, into Xocomil’s maw. Across wind-chopped water, Santiago rises on a lava terrace at the foot of the Toliman and Atitlan volcanoes. Atitlan, a perfect cone, is still active and rises over 6,000 feet seemingly straight up from town. In centuries past, its rumbling was interpreted as hunger and human sacrifices were performed at the crater to appease it. When we finally do reach the edge of Santiago, Tz’utujil women are standing in the water washing clothes at one of the city’s lakeside “laundromats.” Dodging schoolchildren and dogs and rickshaws (known locally as tuk-tuks for the sound their diminutive engines make), we carry our gear two blocks to a simple, concrete-block hotel.
Hungry as volcanoes, we head into the center of town for lunch, where it quickly becomes apparent I’ve entered another world. People in kaleidoscopic Mayan traje are everywhere in the streets, storefronts and homes. There are chickens and flies and men with machetes and groups of women clapping their hands together like applause as they form tortillas over flame-heated pans. Santiago has been here for at least eight centuries and with a population around 40,000, nearly every one of them Tz’utujil Maya, it’s the largest indigenous city in Central America. Here on the secret shore of Atitlan, hidden between the volcanoes, I’ve been transported to a Maya kingdom.
The city comes even more alive at night. As we stand amid a teeming, multi-generational mass of Maya, everyone laughing and talking, teenage sons with their arms around their mothers, multiple games of soccer and basketball happening on a court simultaneously, I can’t help but think that these fisherman and farmers and weavers who have nothing compared to the average American, actually have many of the things we’re missing most.
As grills come out up and down the street, Sam asks if I’d like street food for dinner. I teeter for a moment. I look at the men with beads of sweat on their brows furiously flipping and pushing around piles of what is surely extremely fresh meat of unknown origin on grimy grills in the street. Then I do what’s almost always the best thing, the thing that got me here in the first place—I choose adventure.
“You will?” Sam says, an unmistakable note of surprise in his voice. “Good!”
As if now given permission to show me the real food of Guatemala, he promptly begins surveying the grills like a health inspector, roving back and forth multiple times. “I’m indigenous and I like my food authentic,” Sam declares, and then adds with conviction, “I like meat.”
A few minutes later we’re sitting down at a tiny plastic table alongside a river of people and tuk-tuks with heaping plates of sausage, chicken, beans, guacamole and tortillas. I look at the mound of food in front of me and notice there is no silverware. I ask Sam how we’re supposed to eat.
He just laughs.
“When I was growing up we never had silverware,” he says before shoveling food into his mouth with his hands. I’ve just gotten over a bout of food poisoning and make an internal plea for an iron stomach as I dig into my food.
I ask Sam about his childhood and he tells me he was born here in Santiago in 1985 on a coffee farm, “Basically like a slave.” In the not-distant past, all Maya in Guatemala were legally required to be “employed” and the U.S.-backed military was killing thousands of them a year in one of the modern world’s unrecognized genocides. The army had a vicious presence in Santiago, going so far as to open fire on women and children, once even murdering a Catholic priest trying to protect them. When Sam’s grandparents “disappeared” his father fled with the family across the lake to Panajachel, where a burgeoning tourist scene provided some protection from military brutality. His father never had the opportunity to attend school or work anything but the most menial jobs.
“That’s why I can never be poor or sad,” Sam says. “I just have to remember my parents and how hard they worked and all of the opportunity I have had and I feel so much gratitude.”
I’m woken that night by a resonant rumbling that I feel as much as hear, deeper than I knew sound could be, that lasts on and off for 30 seconds at a time. Nearby, a volcano is hungry.
Shortly after sunrise we’re paddling into Santiago Bay shortly after sunrise amid fisherman in cayucos and a cacophony of birdsong. As I glide along in the soft light, three emerald volcanoes rising silently above the mist, the landscape feels so wild and primordial that I understand why the Maya consider Atitlan the birthplace of the world.
Before long we’re out of the inlet and back in the glittering expanse of the lake, periodically peeling the oranges and bananas we piled on our boards for breakfast. The water was 150 feet lower here 2,000 years ago and archaeologists have recently begun investigating the ruins of a lost city directly below us. All I can see when I look down is the cloudless sky reflecting on the water. I think about Sam’s story and how in the face of poverty, hardship and the murder of his grandparents, he feels gratitude. I think of the people swimming in wealth and opportunity without a fraction of that thankfulness. Right then, I vow to be more appreciative of what I have, of my family and my health, of this glorious day paddling in the sunshine along this mystical lake. Days like this are life’s nectar.
After three hours of hearty paddling along the base of Volcan Toliman, we reach the day’s biggest challenge. San Antonio, where we hope to sleep tonight, rises up the crater wall to our east, but to get there we have to cross three-and-a-half miles of open water. Sam is adept on the board now, but still feels exposed in such a large expanse without the psychological security of a kayak.
“OK, we have to paddle hard until we get across,” he says. “Xocomil can come and get us when we are in the middle.”
“Alright, let’s do it!” I cry, and we start thrusting our paddles with gusto. For about one minute.
“Uh, Sam?” I say, hesitantly, feeling some internal seismic activity. Thank you street food. “I need to head to shore for a minute. Right now.”
A short while later we’re powering across the lake with the most speed of the trip, the shore distant on both sides. The sun fills the world, beaming out of a crystalline sky and creating diamond-studded water around us. Sweat glistens on our bodies. I can’t help myself.
“Let’s jump in!” I say.
“Okay, that is a good idea,” Sam says.
The water is deliciously cool on our bodies. I dive down until my ears hurt, staring into the sapphire depths. It is surely bottomless, like staring into the birthplace of the world.
To our right, up a long inlet and towards the ocean, the water darkens. Xocomil. We feel it first like a soft kiss on our faces. Paddling harder, we pull for shore and San Antonio moves closer and closer. The breeze comes stronger, full and warm, smelling of burning corn fields. We can see Xocomil closing in on us like a living thing, until, a few hundred yards from shore, it catches us, coming in knee high, grabbing and spinning us away from land. But we’re close now and after a ten-minute battle we pull our boards onto a jumble of boulders.
As we clamber up the rocks a Maya woman washing clothes freezes at the sight of me.
“Azules ojos,” she says in awe. Blue eyes.
We cross a road and get two rooms at a small hotel made entirely of stone overlooking the water. We’re the only people there beside the cook, who’s also the owner, and we order fresh lemonades and empanadas and sit at wooden tables on a sun-drenched patio overlooking the lake. It’s 11:30 and Xocomil is lashing the water now. Half an hour later and we wouldn’t have made it. This new vantage from the lake’s east side is the finest yet, the three volcanoes rising from the great blue pool like the pillars of heaven.
After finishing three huge meat empanadas, Sam slouches into his chair. “Oh, I feel so happy, so blessed when I’m full.”
Following walking paths into the warren of homes and pathways that climb the crater wall, we spend the rest of the day exploring San Antonio, the most traditional of Atitlan’s pueblos. It doesn’t take long to see that virtually everything here is made by hand—homes, furniture, looms, food. Wood for cook fires is spread across roofs to dry. Terraced stripes of onions grow in fragrant brown soil. At an ancient, bone-colored Catholic church high above the water, women gather around a large display of pottery for sale, all of them, even the youngest girls, dressed in the customary San Antonio traje of midnight blue dresses and woven blue tops that look like cotton pulled from the sky.
I stand and watch the sunset from a path high in the village. Men are coming home from the fields now, hoes and machetes in hand, burlap bags or bundles of wood on their shoulders. We exchange smiles and “buenas noches.” The gentle calling of doves and splashing of waves on the shore below fills the air. The silhouettes of birds fly across the water, where fisherman paddle into shore. This is the life of the Maya now and as it existed centuries ago. The terraced agriculture, the wooden cayucos, the homes made of the earth, the children everywhere. I stand transfixed, almost brought to tears by the beauty of the slow, sweet, hard Atitlan life.
I make a toast at dinner and thank Sam for showing me the real Maya culture of Atitlan.
“We are connected forever now,” he says. “We have paddled Atitlan together. You are always welcome back here.”
At 5:00 a.m. a wind shakes the roof and rustles the trees outside my window. Concerned it might derail our final day’s paddle back to Santa Cruz, I step outside to look at the lake. A bright lozenge moon floats above the twin volcanoes of Atitlan and Toliman. Stars glimmer in the pre-dawn. The pueblos of Atitlan speckle the far shore like constellations. I put on my sun-bleached board shorts for the fourth consecutive day and stuff my few items of clothing, journal, passport, and toothbrush in my dry bag.
The hotel owner has a couple Guatemalan coffees ready for us and as Sam rouses I stroll onto the stone patio and watch the day’s first sunlight set the volcano summits aflame. Women are already walking past with laundry balanced on their heads. Early-rising fisherman bob silently on the water. Palm trees rustle in the wind. It occurs to me that this might be the single most relaxed moment of my life.
Nearer the water, the bold blue flag of Guatemala ripples and whips; there’s a wind alright. It’s Xocomil—the wind that cleans your soul—and it’s blowing straight to Santa Cruz. I’m grateful.
Special thanks to Samuel Botan and Kayak Guatemala for making this trip happen.