“Lake Como, it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing.” Aldous Huxley
Although I am yet to visit the picturesque villages and towns surrounding Lake Como or navigate it’s vast waters, I have no doubt that Aldous Huxley was right. Lago Atitlán is veritably stunning. This 130.1km2 expanse of water, elevated 1,562m above Western Guatemala is one of the most beautiful lakes you will ever see, despite it’s ferocious beginnings.
It was formed 85,000 years ago when an enormous volcanic eruption ejected 300 km3 of ash and rock into the sky, spreading as far as Florida in the North and Ecuador in the South, eventually collapsing and creating the crater in which the lake fills today.
Although the view from the many villages circling Atitlan was enough for Huxley to wax lyrical on it’s beauty, I wanted to see it from above. I wanted to drink it all in, volcanoes and all, in one spectacular vista.
Of the lake’s bordering knolls, Indian Nose, La Nariz de Indio, is the most politically incorrect yet the most famous; a series of prominent hillocks that when seen from across the lake, resembles the profile of a sleeping Mayan. Considered sacred by the Maya inhabiting Atitlan, they would frequent the peak of his nose to conduct rituals and pray. Each morning during my stay in San Pedro I would look out from the rooftop of Hotel Mikaso and see the Maya still dosing in the tranquility of the dawn mist. Enquiring at the reception desk of Mikaso about hiking to this sacred spot, I was recommended the services of Elmer, a local hiking guide who takes tourists on the trails snaking around the lake.
To do this I had to set my alarm for 3.30am, the dreaded beeping from phone waking me from my stupor after only around 4 hours sleep. The plan was to meet a Elmer out front of the hotel at 4am and begin our ascent up Indian Nose. He arrived looking irritatingly fresh, a smirk on his face when he saw that our group was slumped in the hotel chairs, barely stirring, and eyelids fighting any attempt to stay open. “Estás cansado?” he laughed, only to be met with half-hearted, unenthusiastic grunts.
The hike begins in earnest in Santa Clara La Laguna, an hour’s drive from San Pedro. We slowly followed Elmer, half asleep, though the narrow, dark streets of San Pedro to the waiting chicken bus that was to be our ride over to Santa Clara. For the uninitiated, a chicken bus is the main form of transport in Central America; a retired American school bus that has somehow made its way south to spend it’s twilight years heavily decorated, crammed with passengers (not unlike chickens in a truck – hence the name) and transporting people wherever they wish to go. The driver did his best to wake us up, racing around the narrow lakeside roads, skidding around hairpin bends and braking like his foot was made of lead. Wherever he had to be, he wanted to get there fast and he wasn’t going to let the safety of his passengers stop him. The thin cushions and solid metal seat backs didn’t do much to protect me and it only took a few bumps or sharp corners to fully wake me as my head ricocheted off the seat in front. After an 45 minutes of what felt like taking a spin in a tumble drier we were dropped off in the middle of nowhere, a roadside with a steep incline on one side and a drop down to the water on the other. We were in Santa Clara.
I’d have never have found the start of the trail on my own; it seems to weave through back gardens and corn fields until you find yourself at the foot of a steep escarpment marked with a barely worn path up to it’s peak. We navigated it in the dark, Elmer at the head of our group with us using our phone torches to focus on the path and find our footing on the muddy slope. Elmer was steaming ahead, with my legs burning and chest pounding I could barely keep up. He would occasionally stop to encourage his wheezing group to move faster. If we wanted to get there in time for the sunrise we had to keep pace. It could have been the altitude but it may have been our relative unfitness but we were all slowing, our legs struggling to obey what our brains wanted from them.
We steered our flagging bodies up the slope, around switchbacks and steep steps until over one crest the earth seemed to give way, disappearing from under us to reveal a vast blackness. We were at Indian Nose. That blackness was the lake spread out thousands of feet below us, twinkling lights appearing on it perimeter as the towns surrounding it gradually wake up with us.
Elmer poured us each a coffee and we perched on the wooden viewing platform to drink in the caffeine as well as the view. We sat in silence and gazed across the lake as more lights began to appear and our eyes adjusted to the darkness, allowing the faint outline of volcanoes to precipitate from the black.
The sky gradually lightened as the sun began it’s ascent above the volcanoes. The duvet of mist covering the lake rose with it and the clouds clung to the peaks of the surrounding hills. I sat on the edge of the world and absorbed the the changing vista. The sky began to glow with a faint hint of yellow and San Pedro volcano materialised, towering over the town of the same name. It became clear that we wouldn’t get the orange painted skies that we had hoped for but it didn’t matter, clouds or no clouds, this was still a sight to behold.
By 6am the stars had vanished and the sky had become a light grey, patches of blue dotted here and there in the cloud cover’s sporadic gaps. A wisp of smoke was visible, rising above the horizon as Volcán de Fuego erupted a few hours away in Antigua. The whole lake is now spread out below us, it’s sheer size fully apparent. The clouds flowed like water through the valleys surrounding the lake and circled the peaks standing sentinel over the water. How incredibly huge the volcano that created this lake 85,000 years ago must have been.
I was loath to tear myself away from this spot but it was eventually time to descend the slope back to reality. The journey down was a walk in the park compared to the uphill slog of before as we practically jogged back down, energised by the incredible morning we had just spent up Indian Nose.
We hitchhiked back to town, riding the flatbed of a pickup truck, wind whipping past us as we took in one last view of the lake from above. Arriving back in San Pedro, the shops were only just beginning to open as residents and backpackers alike started to stir, unaware of what they had missed while they were sleeping.
Tips & Advice
Multiple tour agencies will cajole and harangue you as you wander around San Pedro, all of the offering trips up Indian Nose. The prices range from 50-200 Quetzals depending on which agency you choose. We paid 200Q for 2 people travelling with Elmer Gonzalez. His details are below:
Elmer Gonzalez, Tour Guide
Another tour company that comes highly recommended is Geo Travel, run by a Geology Graduate named Matt. He will go in to detail about the history and formation of the caldera in which the lake now sits.
It is possible to do the hike yourself but I would highly recommend taking a guide. Armed muggings and robberies have been known to take place on this trail and there is a chance that you may get lost, which can be dangerous in itself if it is the early hours of the morning. However, with a guide you will be completely safe and there is the added bonus of paying in to the local community.
Take plenty of water, even at this time in the morning it can be a hot and sweaty slog up the hill.
Sensible shoes – The walk is steep so I would highly recommend wearing hiking boots. If you don’t have any with you, then sturdy trainers should be fine.
Waterproofs – The weather around the lake can be fairly unpredictable so it is worth carrying a thin raincoat in case of a downpour.
Jumper/hoody – It can be fairly cold at the peak of the nose before sunrise so make sure you pack something warm. I’d recommend layering up so that you can remove clothes if you become hot while walking.
Have you been to Guatemala? What are the best hikes you’ve done there? Let me know in the comments below.
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