Puffy, cotton-wool clouds skim across the blue sky. If you look carefully you can catch little blotches of colour scattered like large drops of rain throughout the sky – until you look closer that is. At first they look like plastic bags or paper floating in the wind; squinting you can see long, flapping tendrils and circular shapes darting back and forth, chased by the tendrils. A closer inspection reveals a line of string attached; running an eye along the string it ends in the clasped hand of a child tweaking it to keep the coloured, hand-made kite up in the air and encouraging it to go higher and higher – Kite-flying time has arrived.
Every year, towards the end of October, the winds pick up right across Guatemala marking the end of the rainy season and the beginning of the dry. The winds whip up the clouds and the humidity, and finally whistle through the country bringing with it the dry, cooler air.
A big celebration at this time is the Day of the Dead on 1st November. Cemeteries around the country get cleaned up and a new lick of paint ready for the arrival of all the family to picnic on the graves, bringing with them flowers and food to share with their ancestors and lost love ones, and celebrate their lives. It is a big community activity and the atmosphere is always festive and happy rather than sombre, as one might expect!
One of the local traditions (a mix of Catholic and Mayan) that compliments this, and has been going on decades, is the making of elaborate and ornate paper and bamboo kites to fly over the graves. The exact origin of this tradition is not certain: perhaps it is a way for spirits to be connected the Mother Earth and their relatives; or, it is a symbolic, spiritual act so that the spirits may travel along the string to the ground to visit their families and then return heavenwards. Alternatively, messages are carried skywards by the kites. Yet another theory was that the kites (barriletes, as they are known in Guatemala) were flown to keep evil spirits away. It seems that it may have developed from children being given kites to entertain themselves, while their families attended the grave-side celebrations.
In the towns of Santiago Sacatepéquez and Sumpango, lying between Antigua and Lake Atitlan in the Highlands of Guatemala, this simple cultural tradition turned into a public event some 100 years ago and is now a huge international event, attracting not only Guatemalans but tourists from all over the world.
Here there are kites unlike any others; giant circular or octagonal kites of up to 8 metres in diameter, all carefully constructed from a bamboo frame and tissue paper stuck together in intricate and colourful designs. They take literally weeks to make and are stood up in a huge field near to the cemeteries in these villages on the 1st of November. Here they are exhibited, and then as the afternoon wind pick up, a competition begins, to try and fly these vast, awkward, but very delicate paper constructions, with prizes going to those who are able to keep them up in the air the longest. Instead of a small child at the end of a piece of string, thick ropes are held by up to a dozen men!
It is the days running up to the Day of Dead that the whole country becomes alive with kite making and flying. Small children work hard making improvised mini kites made out of sticks, coloured plastic bags, tissue paper and newspaper. In Panajachel alongside the river running down in to Lake Atitlan dozens of children jostle to get their kite up the highest in the late afternoon, late October winds.
As the rainy season draws to an end, the winds will calm, but little reminders of the Day of the Dead and kite season will be left everywhere in the form of kites and bits of kits entangled in telephone and electric cables.
“OK to go down?” OK signs all round, and down we sank. A slow descent into one of the deepest volcanic lakes in Central America had begun. The three towering lake volcanoes metamorphosed into a wavering dark shadow as we dropped beneath the surface; five metres, ten metres, levelling off at 14 metres. Having never scuba dived in a lake before I had no idea what to expect – images of cold, murky, British gravel pits sprung to mind. This wasn’t, after all, the Caribbean Ocean or the Great Barrier Reef with their technicolour life – no, it was something else entirely…
My inquisitiveness had led me to squeeze myself into a full, 6mm wet suit with hood. Feeling somewhat like a hippopotamus in Lycra, I walked robot-like down to the boat – this had better be worth it I thought. So what exactly was I going to see? As I found myself adjusting my buoyancy at 14-metres depth, I began to take in my surroundings. The fact that I could actually see my hand in front of my eyes was definitely a good start; in fact I could see a good ten to 12 metres. And, as my dive buddy and I followed our sub-aqua tour guide, the beauty and mysticism that strikes you above the Lake water, began to take effect below the water too.
I was scuba diving in Lake Atitlan – one of Guatemala’s greatest treasures – mysterious and hypnotic. The 21st century has only recently begun to touch the centuries-old traditional way of life of the indigenous people who live in the small communities scattered around its shores. The indigenous peoples in Guatemala are of Mayan decent and make up around 60% of the population. There are numerous Mayan groups who not only live in the Sololá department of Lake Atitlan, but are spread throughout the temperate mountain and volcanic regions of central Guatemala: the Highlands. Their colourful culture has relatively recently begun to captivate tourists from all over the world, who flock to their artisania markets.
It is nigh on impossible not to be affected by the spectacular situation of the lake – many believe it is an eighth wonder of the world. For Aldus Huxley, in ‘Beyond the Mexican Bay’ (1934), “it was really too much of a good thing”. It oozes mystique and magic, which explains only too well why the lake has played such a significant role in Mayan culture. Some academics believe it appears in the Mayan holy book, ‘Popul Wuj’: the story of the creation of man and Mayan culture. The kaleidoscopic locals living by the lake help to maintain these characteristics, as do the myths that surround it. The lake’s profound and unexplored depth (up to 320 metres/1,000 feet in some places) has led to a variety of tales about sunken villages, lake beasts and mysterious floating lights. Like so many other lakes around the world, Atitlan has its own resident monster: a dragon-like creature called Chakona or Arcoirs, who lurks down in the lake’s deepest depths.
It is believed that over 100,000 years ago a series of huge volcanic eruptions rocked Central America. Several times larger than Pompeii, volcanic stone and lava were violently ejected and thrown as far away as Guatemala’s Caribbean coast, and even the Gulf of Mexico. A gaping hole, now surrounded by three smaller volcanoes, was left: San Pedro to the west; Toliman to the south; and the largest volcano Santiago, behind the latter. This caldera, which later filled with water, became known as Lake Atitlan. It lies 1,652 metres (5,000 feet) above sea level and contains 13km by 26km (8 miles x 16 miles) of continually changing waters, transforming from glassy smooth in the mornings, to a blanket of white horses in the afternoons, when the Xocomil wind moves in. Occasionally the North wind (Norté) howls across the lake for four to five days; which at times can seem incessant.
My first introduction to the lake had been the main village of Panajachel – or Pana as it is more commonly known – sitting on the eastern edges. What was probably once a small, lakeshore town has been dramatically altered over the past decades due to its situation and road access (several villages on the lake have no road, access is only by boat). It is easy to see why it has become known as Gringotenango – backpackers, hippies, tourists and bus-tour groups, mix with the local ladinos (Guatemaltecans of Spanish decent) and Mayans. At the weekends the wealthy and middle-class flock in from the capital and Antigua, to add to the general mélange. It is not until you explore beyond Pana however – where it is so easy to forget where you are – that the lake’s true splendour makes its everlasting impression. You cannot help but be drawn in, and absorbed by the lake’s spellbinding qualities.
My sub-aqua experience began in the small village of Santa Cruz, on the north shore of the lake; one of the villages accessible only by boat. A small scuba diving school, ATI Divers, is based at the lakeside hotel La Iguana Perdida. Here I learnt that diving in Atitlan is somewhat different to the ocean diving that I was accustomed to. Our dive briefing explained that dives here are classified as ‘altitude dives’, and therefore involve altered dive tables for dive planning. (Any diving above 300 metres altitude is classified as altitude diving.) These altered dive tables take into consideration the different atmospheric pressure that is encountered at altitude. This meant that as Open Water divers we were only able to dive to a maximum depth of 14 metres (46 feet), rather than the usual 18 metres (60); when using the altered dive tables, 18 metres at sea level is read as an equivalent to 14 metres at Lake Atitlan’s altitude. The lake water here is of course fresh, and the lack of salt can affect divers’ buoyancy differently to that in the ocean – our guide warned us that we might encounter some difficulties with establishing our buoyancy at first.
And so it was – buoyancy established – that I found myself drifting through the cool Atitlan waters (approximately 19°C/66°F); slowly soaking up the different diving experience that was being unveiled before me. We swam through underwater petrified trees and looked up at huge overhanging rocks – small flashes of light were created by the sunlight refracting through the surface above. A handful of tiny fish called Crappies, or the odd Black Bass would approach to see what was invading their privacy, and angry Brown Crabs below us raised their claws in defiance at our rude intrusion. Fish I had expected to see, but crabs?
As we followed the underwater contours of the lake – past weird rock formations, silt, and grassy patches – I felt for the first time that I was diving to actually experience the sport of diving. Out in the clear, coral-reef waters that most divers know, you can easily forget what you are actually doing – diving. The lake transports you into a different dimension almost, on beyond looking at kaleidoscopic fish and multi-coloured coral. This wasn’t just about seeing; it was all encompassing, all enveloping.
Just like children making out shapes from puffy white clouds, I started perceiving human profiles in the rocks, and once even a penguin. It was easy to imagine some lake-monster’s lair lurking beneath in the obscurity that lay beneath us – perhaps not the time or place for an over imaginative mind! The lake’s silt is so fine in places that if you swim hard at it with you arm out-stretched you can sink into it, right up to your armpit – you then all but lose sight of your buddy, as both of you are shrouded in a cloud of disturbed silt, and the 12-metre visibility disappears into a pea-soup fog.
The highlight though, was towards the end of the dive, when our guide indicated for us to put our arm inside a large hole. The water above it shimmered like heat rising off a tarmac road in the middle of the desert. The water felt warm, turning to extremely hot the further we tentatively probed our hand. It was a hot volcanic vent; a reminder of the tempestuous and volatile environment that makes up the majority of Guatemala. Further on, we stuck our hands into some mud flats too. In places it was almost too hot to stick more than just your finger, but they made great hand-warmers as we did our mandatory, three-minute, four-metre (13 feet) safety stop at the end of the dive.
As we slowly ascended to the above-water volcanic world, I felt a strong desire to explore more of the lake’s charms both below and above the surface. I was hooked; an addiction that was to keep me at the lake for over a year, and return time and again until it became my home. And yet still there is more….
Few would doubt, having travelled around “The Land of Eternal Spring”, that one of the over-riding impressions left with visitors to Guatemala is the abundance of colour in every walk of life.
Indeed, this is exactly what local resident author Alex Morritt admits was the principal inspiration behind his book, “Glimpses of Guatemala – a poetic & photographic perspective”, published in May 2012.
“Whether it be the elaborately custom painted ‘Chicken Buses’; The open air street markets blossoming with fruits and vegetables of every conceivable hue; The dizzying array of beautiful hand-woven, naturally-dyed textiles; even the cemeteries…”, he continues.
“And to add the icing on the cake….key annual events such as during Semana Santa, when the streets of Santiago de Atitlan are dressed up to the nines with ‘Alfombras’ or street carpets lovingly laid out by young and old alike with the help of stencils and multi-coloured sawdust known as ‘Aserrin’ ; or on All Saints’ Day (Day of the Dead) in Sumpango, Sacatepéquez, where giant, multi-coloured kites sporting incredible designs are displayed with glowing pride and the skies above are awash with squadrons of smaller craft ducking and diving in the early November sun.”
“And then there are the much subtler renditions of colour no less magical….expertly terraced landscapes on impossibly steep slopes, like giant woven quilts sporting a maze of multiple green and brown squares, and every variation of tint in between”, he summarises, pausing for reflection.
Extract from “Guatemalan Street Markets” poem:
“..Bright red tomatoes,
radishes and peppers,
On sale next door to pairs of hedge clippers,
Deep purple aubergines, beetroot, and onions,
Flanked by a store selling quick cures for bunions,
A sea of dark green from fresh mint and lime,
Makes me wish it was Mojito time…