Too Much Of A Good Thing
“Lake Atitlan, of Kashmiri-blue sapphire hued water, set in an emerald green girdle fronted by small beaches, inlets, and coves,” writes Latin America Correspondent Michael Paladin, “is placid in the morning and wind-whipped in the afternoon. It sits at a mile high altitude in the western highlands of Guatemala and is ringed by three spectacular volcanoes, San Pedro, Toliman, and Atitlan. The vibrantly green, perfectly shaped cones rise another 3,000 feet above the ‘unruffled surface, blue as a peacock’s breast…it is a view that qualifies beyond argument to be one of the wonders of the world’ (so said Sitwell in 1961).
“Aldous Huxley said that he did his best writing here and concluded that ‘it really is too much of a good thing.’ That was in 1934, long before anyone was paying any attention to what now is generally regarded as the most beautiful lake in the world.
“Today, the children of the hippie wanderers who flocked to San Pedro La Laguna in the 60s have returned to the region that attracted their parents. The small artist’s colony of Santa Cruz is alive and well. And Panajachel, the largest town on the lake, with some 14,000 inhabitants, serves as the entry point for the other 12 villages scattered around it.
“The streets of Panajachel are lined with colorful fabrics, handicrafts, and wandering tourists. Calle Santander is a five-block-long buffet of color, from phosphorescent blues and purples to day-glo reds, oranges, and yellows. The street is narrow, a sea of tourists parted by the huffing crimson tide of red tuk-tuks, that motorcycle with a shell, the three-wheeled shopper’s special. Once, after observing that this city’s fleet of tuk-tuks is shinier and cleaner than any others in the country, I was informed that the mayor owns the concession. (Typically, these are individually owned.)
“Pana, as its called, is home to some 200 or so expats from all parts of the world. Russ, the ex-lawyer from Boston, has been living here for 14 years, in a spacious house on a side street. His yard is a jungle. The gardeners are there daily, hacking away with their machetes. Dr. Guevara, who lived at the lake until she moved to Antigua, two hours away, still sees some of her patients there. She’s an Oxford-trained psychologist who explains that, not surprisingly, she doesn’t have many lake-region patients with stress-related issues.
“Around the corner, to the south and a half-hour away by boat or car, is Santiago Atitlan, home of Maximon, the cigar-smoking, heavy-drinking patron saint of lost causes, bad marriages, and favors granted (if you’ve got the cash).
“David Glanville, owner and proprietor of the superb Posada Santiago, came here in the 1970s and gradually built his hotel and restaurant. There’s an estimated 50 expats in Santiago, and poker is a popular pastime. David’s skills are legendary.
“San Pedro and San Marcos? Two entirely different villages, each with a distinct flavor. Pedro? Leafy, narrow, winding paths lead you past small bars, cafes, and signs indicating massage therapy nearby. It has lesser views of the lake and the only ATM on that side of the lake (reached by a steep climb up cobblestone streets). The pluses? Cheap rents, cheap houses. On the other hand, you pay a bit of a surcharge for ‘carrying’ for any and all consumer goods you buy locally.
“San Marcos? Southwest of Pana, northeast of San Pedro, 20 minutes by taxi or launch, it’s smaller, quieter, and more esoteric and laid-back. The expat residents here seem to be holding on more diligently to the traditions of their parents and professors from Maharishi University. Astral Traveling seminars? They got ’em. Pyramid Power? Check. There is also a definite air of tranquility, peacefulness, and serenity, thanks probably to the location. Living here you enjoy a constant stunning open view of the lapis-blue lake waters and malachite-colored volcanic mountains.
“‘Om’ may be the dial tone of the universe, but this place doesn’t answer the phone. I tried calling to make a reservation at a recommended hotel and restaurant. Voicemail told me to leave a message. I called back twice; same thing. Another hotel, Plan B, answered and took my reservation.
“Why would you want to live here? The weather is ideal. Neither snow nor soggy coastal humidity. Plus, no bugs. I’ve already told you about the views.
“The price for the perfect weather and the paradise views is the inconvenience of living at the end of a supply chain for commodities and daily necessities. Paul, the new British owner of the hotel/restaurant Paco Real in San Marcos, has to take the 20-quetzal, 20-minute boat ride to San Pedro for hotel supplies that the local gardens don’t produce.
“Armand Boissy of Atitlan Solutions (real estate agency), when asked about his reasons for living at the lake, explains, ‘The most beautiful lake in the world, views of three perfect volcanoes, spring temperatures year-round, and a friendly, welcoming community. Then there’s the Mayan culture, inexpensive lifestyle, proximity to Guatemala City for good low-cost health care, and easy access to the States.’
“How affordable is the cost of living? You could rent a two-bedroom condo in a gated community (Pana) for US$275 a month or a one-bedroom house (again, in Pana) for US$550. Rental costs are comparable all around the lake.
“Many homes are available for purchase in the $200,000 to $300,000 range; mansion-style properties are in the range of US$700,000. The quality of construction is excellent.
“With its small but established population of full-time expats from all corners of the world, this place is uniquely suited for the off-the-beaten-path, Taos-rather-than-Sante Fe, Big Sur-rather-than-Carmel potential overseas retiree. This is the end of a very beautiful road with stunning sunsets, a sapphire-colored lake, and the white-hot blaze of the Milky Way at Midnight. No Snickers.”