Rainy season has finally caught up with us. It’s been at our back for months, ever snapping at our heels, following us north as we’ve backpacked our way through Central America. We’ll turn up in a new town, and the skies, inevitably, will be blue. We’ll roast in the sun for a few days. Then the cloud will come; rain hot on its heels. We’ll move on, to a new place, a little further north, where the rainy season is yet to arrive, and the process repeats itself. We’ve been lucky so far. We’ve kept ahead of the rain. But now, in Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala, our luck has run out.
It began raining shortly after we arrived yesterday afternoon. It rained all night. Heavy rain. Solid rain. Unrelenting rain. It seemed to have settled in, no sign of it ending. I was expecting a dreary morning to follow.
But no, sunlight streams through the windows when I open my eyes. That can’t be right. I get up and walk to the window. Blue sky outside, not a cloud in sight. The lake glistens seductively.
Lago de Atitlan
Won’t last. No point going out on the lake, I reason; we’ll get wet for sure. No point going to a lookout, or scenic viewpoint. No point going for a hike.
Breakfast comes and goes. It’s 8:00 am, 9:00 am, 10:00 am. The sun continues to shine. The blue sky remains in place. Lago de Atitlan continues to twinkle.
I figured wrong.
Today is the perfect day for an excursion. We should be out on the lake. We should be climbing to a lookout. How about the politically incorrect Mirador de la Nariz del Indio (the Indian’s Nose Lookout)? Yes. Let’s go.
Down to the dock, find a lancha (small boat used to ferry passengers about), pile in, take a seat, wait for it to fill. Ten minutes later we’re away, skating over the still water surface of Lago de Atitlan.
San Pedro, Lago de Atitlan
We dock in San Pedro, and proceed up the main street. San Pedro is a backpacker hangout, less family-oriented than the town of Panajachel, where Ami and I are staying. San Pedro is unpleasant. It’s full of backpackers more concerned with their looks than in any travel experience. They come here to show off their carefully coiffed dreadlocks, their designer ripped shirts, their insouciant, devil-may-care attitudes. It’s Guatemala’s version of Bangkok’s Khao San Road.
Panajachel, on the opposite side of the lake, is overlooked by the backpacker hordes. It might be less trendy than San Pedro, but it’s also a whole lot less pretentious, and it’s my pick of the two.
A bit of wispy cloud in the sky as we duck into a tour agency; nothing to worry about though. Book a car and guide. Get in the car. Start driving.
(Take note: some unsavoury locals at Lago de Atitlan like to extract an unofficial tourist tax from visitors; they do this by blocking roads and threatening hikers. Take a guide with you, let them handle the thugs, and save yourself a potentially dangerous confrontation.)
San Juan, Lago de Atitlan
We’re delayed in the neighbouring town of San Juan. It’s San Juan’s Day, and the whole town is out celebrating.
The main road through town is closed. We have to navigate the back streets, which are only wide enough for the passage of a single car, and clogged with traffic.
We’re further delayed when we hit a section of mock roadwork, controlled by local thugs. This is where we pay our tourist tax. Traffic is funnelled between a row of parked-up trucks; thugs and layabouts surround the car. No one gets through without paying.
El Mirador de la Nariz del Indio
The sky begins to darken as we climb, clouds sweep across the sky, covering the lake below.
It starts to rain as soon as we exit the car. Just light spittle at present, but judging by the colour of the clouds there is worse to come. Thunder rolls across the hills. We purchase two lightweight plastic sheets from a nearby store to use as makeshift ponchos. Our guide has his own raincoat; he knew what was coming.
Rain. And lightning. And wind. And thunder. It’s a wet, slippery climb to el Mirador de la Nariz del Indio. A narrow spike at the top of the mountain ridge. 360 degree views. Of Lago de Atitlan, and of the surrounding mountains. Or there would be if we weren’t fogged in. It’s a white out.
There’s a rudimentary shelter at the top. A couple of poles holding up a few pieces of corrugated iron.
I’m not so crazy about standing under an iron roof when there’s lightning about. The others don’t seem to care. Ami doesn’t care. Our guide, Jose, doesn’t care. The two construction workers don’t care. They’ll take their chances with the lightning.
Not for me. I’d prefer to stand in the rain. I go for a walk, retreating down the track a little, continuing along the narrow ridgetop.
Someone – I couldn’t say for sure who it is; maybe the local council, maybe the landowner – is renovating the mirador. They’re trying to increase its capacity, make it larger, and easier to access.
Part of the works include carving the top off the ridge to make it a flat, even platform. Doing so has exposed the highly erosive soil horizons that sit below the topsoil. With the topsoil gone, and the tree roots that held the topsoil together also gone, this place is now at serious risk of landslide. Small landslides have already been occurring on the either side of the ridge, a taste of what is to come.
A few conifers and pines – the type seen in public parks through Central America – have been planted alongside the path to try and stabilise the site, but it’ll take years for these trees to establish themselves. And before then, this ridgeline will be gone. The first big rain event that comes through could wipe it out, and that will be the end of el Mirador de la Nariz del Indio.
Practical information and how to reach Lago de Atitlan:
The town of Panajachel on Lago de Atitlan can be reached from Antigua via one chicken bus if you find a direct connection, or via multiple chicken buses if you do not (we had to make 4 changes). Distance is roughly 100 km; trip time could be 3 – 5 hours.
There are plenty of companies in Lago de Atitlan offering transport from Panajachel to Semuc Champey. Routes, vehicles, time of departure, and conditions differ wildly. Expect a 12 hour journey minimum.