The Dying Lake and the Trampoline – What’s Living in Guatemala’s Lake Atitlán?

Nov 4, 2012

Today when my husband, Dale, and I leave our hotel, instead of turning left toward town, we turn right along the shoreline of Lake Atitlán. After only fifty feet, we spot the sign for the Reserva Natural del Cerro Tzankujil (Nature Reserve of Tzankujil Hill). A stone stairway leads to a loop trail, featuring a series of miradores, or viewpoints, amid tangled jungle and hanging flowers. It costs 15 quetzales, about two bucks each, to enter. The young guy who sells us our tickets says if we follow the loop to the left, we’ll see the trampolín first. We decide to turn right and save trampoline-jumping for last.

At the Reserva Natural del Cerro Tzankujil, a stone stairway leads to a loop trail featuring a series of miradores, or viewpoints.

The loop only takes a half-hour to walk. The two or three spectacular miradores along the trail are also called Mayan ceremonial sites. I’m not sure what makes them sacred. They’re little more than clearings with fire pits where anyone who wants to get spiritual can pull up a bit of dirt or a bench and commune with God, or gods, or nature, or whatever answers.

The two or three spectacular miradores along the trail are also called Mayan ceremonial sites.

At the first Mayan site, we happen upon two young, white, female hippies sitting cross-legged and muttering about crystals. I overhear one say something about “letting go and getting in touch with something-or-other.” Then they slip into meditation. The view certainly makes this a perfect place to get in touch with just about anything transcendent.

The view certainly makes this a perfect place to get in touch with just about anything transcendent.

Every time I’m sure we’ve seen the lake and its volcanoes in every possible light and from every optimal angle, a new view surprises me. Lake Atitlán and its cirque of mountains shifts colors constantly, from blue to green to violet to indigo to black, and dozens of shades in between. Meanwhile, the water shifts from sunny prism to soft glass to shattered whitecaps to black hematite. We climb the path until we’re overlooking a hidden cove embraced by hills so bright green, scattered with flowers so yellow, it’s as if someone has turned up the intensity to 11.

We climb the path until we’re overlooking a hidden cove embraced by hills so bright green, scattered with flowers so yellow, it’s as if someone has turned up the intensity to 11.

We take a detour down a steep muddy track to a narrow shoreline, an untidy tangle of mud, rocks, and trees. I’m still not sure I want to swim in the lake. The weather is warm, but “I only like to swim when I’m really, really hot.” Dale’s skeptical look suggests that he hopes it never gets hot enough to force a decision. Back in Colorado, a travel-health nurse warned us that schistosomes, or parasitic flatworms, live in Lake Atitlán. No one else will verify her tale, but I’ve had a disgusting experience with skin-tunneling worms before, in Malawi, Africa. I don’t care to repeat it, and Dale doesn’t care to find out for himself. For now, we’re satisfied with strolling.

I take a detour down a steep muddy track to a narrow shoreline, an untidy tangle of mud, rocks, and trees.

Nearby, in the lake, a fisherman wearing a white straw cowboy hat sits wedged in a tiny, crude wooden boat with a sharp nose and snub rear. He tugs repeatedly at a hand-cast fishing line – no pole, no net. His face is a bark-brown enigma under the shadow cast by the sun beating against his hat brim.

The fisherman tugs repeatedly at a hand-cast fishing line – no pole, no net.

We return to the path, climbing to a wide wooden deck with an open gate hanging over the water, about 20 feet below. This is the highlight of the reserve: a trampolín. Silly me, I thought trampolín meant trampoline, but it means diving board, or in this case, diving platform. A few swimmers goof off amid the rocks below. One young guy steps out of the water, up the steep embankment, across the platform to the open gate, and leaps off feet-first with a hoot of fear and exhilaration. He makes an impressive splash.

Silly me, I thought trampolín meant trampoline, but it means diving board, or in this case, diving platform.

When two uniformed cops stop by, I ask one of them if it’s dangerous to jump here because of the rocks. “Not at all,” he assures me. “In fact, it used to be even higher above the water, several feet higher. But the lake has risen ever since Hurricane Stan in 2005.” Still, a nearby sign warns that divers do so at their own risk. I tell Dale I want to come back and try it. He compresses his lips. “Okay, if you want to. But I still think you should give your back time to heal.”

“Okay.” I can’t hide my disappointment.

“Don’t let me stop you. You should do what you want. I just worry about you.”

“No, no. I know you’re right,” I say. “If I’d listened to you when you told me to go to the hospital, I wouldn’t even have this problem.” In January, I had back surgery to remove part of a herniated disk, and the surgeon said it could be up to a year before we see how much nerve function I get back. Since the diskectomy removed part of my disc, I’ll never have as much cushion in my spine again. So I need to decide if jumping into a lake full of possible worms and definite cyanobacteria is worth the pressure on my spine.

As I ponder, I lean against the trampolín rail, watching the fisherman work his way along the lake’s edge.

“¿Tiene suerte?” I call down. (Having any luck?)

“Sí!”

I lean against the trampolín rail, watching the fisherman work his way along the lake’s edge.

According to a professor we’ll meet later in Antigua, the fisherman might not have luck much longer. The lake’s cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, are building up to disaster-movie proportions. The algae blooms grew so invasive at one point that they almost choked all the oxygen from the lake. It’s better now, because farmers are reducing their use of chemical fertilizers, which run into the lake. But the bigger problem continues: human sewage seeping down from the villages. “Quite frankly, the lake is filling with shit” the professor will explain. “And if something drastic isn’t done, in a few years the lake will die.”

“Quite frankly, the lake is filling with shit” the professor will explain. “And if something drastic isn’t done, in a few years the lake will die.”

That’s hard to imagine on this day, as I stand atop the trampolín, watching kayakers paddle past the fisherman, in waters calm and crystalline green. I stare into a deceptive sliver of clean-looking water and contemplate the jump.

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