I actually took this photo, and I’m not a great photographer. But that is how beautiful Lake Atitlan is. In 1993 I was working for Western Union’s international division, and I made a trip to Guatemala to visit our agents there. I don’t remember their names now, but they were very professional and kind to me (and all men, as was customary at the time).
We had our meetings in Guatemala City, which was like almost every other modern city except for the altitude (4550 feet, almost a mile-high city) and the tendency for the power to go out occasionally. The agents were very hospitable and took me out to an excellent Italian restaurant known for its seafood for dinner. They had urged me to plan on staying for the weekend, saying they would “show me around,” so I did.
The next morning I puffed up the stairs to the breakfast room at the hotel, feeling the altitude. My hosts picked me up and off we went, climbing higher and higher into the mountains. Then we wound around and down a mountain, passing villages named after saints, and arrived at Panajachel. Lake Atitlan is surrounded by volcanos, some active and some not. The lake is extremely deep and very still, except for before sunset, when a wind moves across the water. It is said to be the spirit of an indigenous girl who was killed by her lover. This photo was taken on the way down Panajachel.
The village itself was an old hippie hangout and spotted with Europeans in ragged clothes. I bought a red wool jacket trimmed with black braid and contemplated jewelry. We had lunch at a cafe and ate salsa the Guatemalan way, scooped up with small, soft flour tortillas.
Then my hosts took me to Antigua Guatemala, an old and well-preserved city with Spanish Baroque architecture and ruined churches from the 1700’s. I was a happy tourist. The shadows drifted toward evening. Suddenly my hosts snapped to attention. “We have to go,” they said. “Now.”
I hopped in the car and watched as the old Mercedes picked up speed. When we hit the highway the car practically took flight. As darkness fell we sped toward Guatemala City. I saw groups of people standing by the side of the road with bonfires, more and more of them as we got closer to the city. “What is that?” I asked, but no one answered me.
We arrived at my hotel and my hosts escorted me in. “Now I will tell you,” the lead agent said. “Tonight one of the Mayan exiles is coming back to Guatemala. There are two school bus loads of Mayans coming with her, and we expect trouble with the police. So we needed to get off the highway before dark and get you safely to the hotel.”
I’m not sure if the exile was Rigoberta Menchu, who had won the Nobel Peace Prize the year before for her advocacy for the indigenous Mayan people in Guatemala. But I’ll never forget that clear, limpid lake, or the sight of bonfires along the highway as night fell.