Back To Lake Atitlan

May 21st 2015, 5:29:00 pm

After finishing up in Xela for the second time, Rachel and I headed back to Lake Atitlan. I'd wanted to go back and do more yoga in San Marcos and some very novel scuba diving in the lake itself, and she had enrolled for another week of Spanish lessons and weaving in San Juan.

I spent most of the week staying back at the same hostel in San Marcos, but this time I got put in a different dorm. The place was basically a huge two level cottage with just six single beds, three upstairs and three downstairs. There was so much space it was crazy! It even had an upstairs balcony.

Charlie, the yoga teacher that I clicked with last time, was away on holidays the whole week and the replacements were really varied. Some did a very gentle practice, some were much more challenging. One in particular I had zero faith in. Part of her practice involved wildly throwing your arms in uncontrolled windmills as fast as you can... a great way to fuck up a shoulders in my experience.

I spent some time shopping for some pants in various towns around the lake, and continually ran into the same issue. You'd go into a store where nothing is sorted by size, look through their stock and pick out a pair you like. They of course wouldn't fit, and then you'd be shown a dozen other pairs of pants that share nothing in common with the ones you like. Pick out some nice looking black pants with grey stripes, be shown some awful pastel pink ones as a substitute. It seemed bizarre that I would see so many pretty fabrics at the markets, but they seem to choose the most gaudy fabrics to make most of the clothes from. If I'd been going home after Guatemala I probably would have just bought a bunch of fabrics and figured out how to make clothes from them myself.

I visited Panajachel one afternoon, supposedly the most touristy place on the lake, but because I hadn't done any research and refuse to get taxi's when I can walk just fine I actually completely missed the touristy parts of the town and wandered aimlessly through some rather dirty and grimy parts of the place. I barely saw another gringo the whole time I was there, and I saw basically no shops selling the usual tourist souvenir trash. Goes to show how different your impression of a place can be depending on where you go there.

Another day I visited Santiago, one of the bigger towns on the lake and one that I hadn't met anyone else who had really been to. I happened to be there on a market day and the place was crazy. Market stalls lining the roads all the way from the dock right up into the centre of town, where a bunch of rides and food stalls were set up in front of a church. This place surprised me in feeling way more of a tourist trap than Panajachel, but maybe that was just because it was market day.

The highlight of the week for me was going back to Santa Cruz to scuba dive in the lake. I stayed at the hostel attached to the dive shop, La Iguana Perdida, where I was put in a very nice dorm but not long after check-in I was told they had made a mistake and needed the bed in that dorm for a big group that was arriving. I said no problem, but when they showed me the second dorm it was horribly crammed full of beds, with only top bunks left and the top bunks were so close to the ceiling I couldn't even sit up, and no lockers to secure away valuables. I complained about the difference in quality between the two dorms hoping to get a discount or something, but instead they upgraded me to a nice little private double room. Winning!

The next morning I got up and had some breakfast at the restaurant then went out diving with Oli, the instructor at ATI divers on Lake Atitlan. This was my first time diving at altitude, and in fresh water, and in a collapsed volcanic crater from 80,000 years ago. The lake is 1.5km above sea level, and most lakes at this height would be damn cold, but geothermal activity in the crater actually heats the lake to a much more comfortable temperature.

I got given a 2 piece farmer-john style wetsuit, 7mm thick plus a hood (meaning 14mm of neoprene on my torso), and the water temps were about 22-24ºC so I was toasty warm for both the dives.

The dive boat was a tiny little fibreglass boat, small enough that when we did out backward rolls entries we needed to go at the same time on opposite sides so as not to flip the boat.

First dive site was in front of a hotel where the bottom part is now fully submerged underwater. We descended down over a flight of stairs, then dropped off the side down to the floor below. it was very surreal to be swimming around past all these obviously man made structures while 15M underwater. There were benches and steps and other landscaping features all around. At one point we come to a place where there is a still working tap underwater. We turned it on and you could hear the water flow and see particles on the floor move, and feel the much colder water come flowing from the tap.

At points throughout the dives we turned over rocks and saw these strange little insects with three forks of their body, which are apparently the baby versions of the beautiful blue dragonflies you see everywhere. Crazy to think they start out their life living under rocks at the bottom of the lake.

We poked out heads up through a gap in the ceiling up to the surface of the water and there was a little boy standing there who first asked if we could hear him, then told us his mum had dropped her prescription glasses and his dad had dropped a torch and asked if we could look for them. At first I wondered if he was just messing with us, or if Oli had staged it or something, but we had a quick scan around and I managed to quickly locate both of them and pass them pass up to the kid. Search and recovery win!

We saw lots of purple crabs that would extend out their arms and open their claws wide, trying to look bigger and scare us off, very cute. We also swam through a bunch of dead reads that looked like rotting bamboo.

After a nice long surface interval, dive two went went out to a site called agua caliente, where we went down above an underwater swimming pool about 3M under water, then followed the natural slope of the lake down where there was lots of really fine silt. Putting your hands in at various places you could find huge variances in temperature, but with everywhere being warmer than the lake water.

We came up to some rocks that covered geothermal vents, where you could see the water shimmering where the hot water mixed up with the colder water. Oli cracked open an egg and sat it on the vent, the flow of which pulled bits of egg out and sent them off separately in little chunks, definitely coagulating but not cooking as thoroughly as I had imagined it might.

We came up a bit shallower to a steeper slope and set off some underwater landslides of silt, which stirred up amazingly beautiful clouds of dust flowing down the slope.

We stopped and lay on the bottom, trying not to blow too many bubbles and had a bunch of fish come over and investigate. Fresh water fish all look the same to me, but it was cool to see them none-the-less.

Apparently most of the fish in the lake are introduced; Some by the Mayan people long ago for food, others by people trying to control a pest in the lake. Like every time you hear a story like that, they had no predators so they thrived, changing the environment and driving a bird that used to live in the lake to extinction. Way to go humans.

Next we found a sauna, which I swam in through the hole where the heating barrel would have once been. Inside looking up it was cool to see where all the air had caught in a big bubble on the ceiling with some sort of a cord switch hanging from the centre of the roof.

I went out the door and we headed in to the bottom floor of another hotel where there was a small bar with a few beer bottles which we pretended to cheers and have a drink. There was an air pocket above us so we could dump the water out of the bottles and bring them down with some air in them, so they’d float as we spun them upside-down. Turning them right way up the air gurgled out making some very strange sounds.

Visibility was probably only about 5M, and there was a fair bit of muck and algae in the water, but it was much warmer than I had been expecting. All up it was a very unique diving experience and made a lot of firsts for me. First altitude dive, first fresh water dive, first dive in a volcano, first search and recovery dive, first underwater exploration of a building. I couldn't see myself wanting to stay and dive here daily like I can at ocean sites, but as a two-off experience I loved it.

I didn't see very much of Rachel this week since she was studying another week of Spanish at a little school in San Juan where she was the only student, and her afternoons were all tied up doing more weaving at another women's cooperative. I did drop by to visit her a few times and see her while she was weaving.

At the end of the week she did come over and stay in San Marcos at La Paz for two nights, so we got one last day to just hang out and wander around together. We had a sad goodbye on my final day on the lake when we parted ways. After travelling together for 6 weeks I was actually pretty scared about going back to solo travel; losing the safe comfort of a friend that I'd gotten to know pretty well and venturing back into the realm of meeting new people every day, usually only for a few days at most, and all the repetitive small talk associated with that. The perils of being an introvert while living a life like this.