Killer Kayaking: Beauty and Peril on Lake Atitlán

Nov 6, 2012

Just before nine a.m., Dale and I visit the vague square of dirt next to the Hotel Aaculaax, where a sign advertises kayak rentals. It will cost us 25 quetzales (three dollars) per kayak per hour. Neither kayak is high quality. Dale’s is one of those tippy toy-kayaks in which the paddler sits perched on top with nowhere to press his knees or rest his back. Mine allows my butt to fit inside, but is so shallow my knees poke out. Dale must envy my apparent ability to rest my back against the lip of my kayak. But in fact, this offers no support, only a thin hard line of fiberglass digging into the scar from my recent back-surgery.

We shrug it off. Third-world rentals: what do we expect? Surely we can stand anything for an hour or two.

This is a tippy toy-kayak in which the paddler sits perched on top. (This is not Dale, however. I often don’t carry a camera when kayaking.)

Our paddle in the volcanic caldera of Lake Atitlán is tranquil at first. We round the lush hill called Cerro Tzankujil and skirt the pretty cove on the other side, enjoying a closer look at the homes of expats and Guatemala City weekenders. The houses are painted brightly as flowers, complementing the tropical scenery, though the owners would surely get kicked out of any Home Owners Association in America.

During our stay in San Marcos La Laguna, we’ve seen several white-haired Americans who’ve moved here. Guatemala is outpacing Mexico as the hot spot for U.S. retirees to stretch their dollars. “What do they do if they need a hospital?” I wonder aloud.

We paddle past several fishermen tugging single handheld lines. The older gents wear cowboy hats, while the younger men wear ball-caps or wrap t-shirts around their heads — like gangstas or Tuareg nomads.

The sun beats strong on the water, all gentle ripples at this time of day.

After we’ve skirted the cove, I’m sure only half an hour has elapsed and I’m not ready to turn back. I have trouble doing anything without a goal, and the only two I can see are: 1) the village of San Pedro, which looks closer but will require crossing the center of the lake, or 2) the village of San Juan, which appears to be in the next cove and will allow us to hug the shoreline. Dale doesn’t hesitate in his choice. He points at San Juan: “That one.” He clearly doesn’t like the idea of crossing the lake.

Our destination looks to be 15 minutes away, or an extra half-hour round-trip. No problem.

I push and pull, push and pull, putting my whole chest and abdomen into paddling, and still my arms grow weaker and sorer with each stroke. The village never seems to draw any closer.

What does loom closer is an unpleasant close-up of cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae. Until now, I’ve only noticed clean water, pretty mountains, and unspoiled people. This closer look reveals toxic ponds of green scum amid a floating garbage dump. This muck laps a shore where several farmers water and weed indeterminate crops. One barelegged farmer walks right into the fetid pool to fill his bucket with polluted water. I watch in horror as he pours the ooze onto his crop and returns for more.

I glide past two fishermen casting lines into blue-green algae that bobs amid slimy wrappers, plastic bottles, and a sneaker. Note to self: “Don’t order fish for lunch.”

We reach San Juan about half an hour after making our decision, twice the time I predicted. We float on the outskirts of yet another algae bloom, where a primitive horror overtakes me: as if we might paddle into the muck only to find ourselves unable to escape a malevolent entity bent on devouring us.

 
We float on the outskirts of yet another algae bloom. (Those clumps are ordinary plants. The cyanobacteria is the green gunk floating between them.)

“Do you want to go ashore and stretch your legs, or do you just want to turn back?” I ask Dale.

“Turn back.”

“We could get out for just a minute…”

“Turn back,” he repeats.

I don’t know why I asked twice. I’m relieved to turn around.

As we turn back, I see we’ll have to traverse several scalloping coves I failed to notice on our way here. Someone has moved Cerro Tzankujil…a couple of times.

The waves pick up. Though they’re gentle rollers of less than a foot, my chest constricts. Have three hours already passed, and is the daily noontime wind setting in? Lake Atitlan’s waves can grow alarming by afternoon.

In my impatience to beat the wind home, I cut straight across the cove-lets. We’re still close enough to shore that, if the waves turn wild, we can hit land within five minutes. Still, I breathe a little harder and my heart pounds a little faster than my physical effort merits.

I’m glad Dale isn’t close enough to discern how nervous I am. Then again, who am I kidding? We know each other too well. He’s just far enough away to thwart conversation, but close enough to offer his comforting presence, exactly the right distance for me right now.

I’m still enjoying the scenery, but hating the pain in my back. I’m still appreciating the workout, but hating the work. We’re still safe, but I’m worried this could change at any moment.

Finally back in San Marcos, we walk through ankle-deep water and mud to reach shore. My calves cringe in anticipation of water-born diseases, parasites, or unexplained itching. When the rental guy says we’ve only been gone two hours I feel silly. My body declares it was three.

Several businesses have literally gone underwater.

Depleted, we eat at a rustic French restaurant called Tul y Sol, the only one in town that still directly overlooks the lake’s rising water. Many other lakeshore businesses have literally gone underwater. Their roofs float below us, the rest of the buildings buried past the first floor.

 
A small boat slams against a skinny wooden launch until it pries a board free. (I took this picture when things were calm, but take my word for it…)

A chill wind rises and increasing waves beat the shore with abusive gusto. Just below our perch, a small boat slams against a skinny wooden launch until it pries a board free. Then a kayak flips over. So you see, my fears of a malevolent presence in the lake were not unfounded.

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