The Atitlan Experience -- San Antonio Palopó

Story and photos by Eric Mencher

Part Two of a Four-part Series on what an average day might be like taking pictures around Lake Atitlán, Guatemala.

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The twelve towns and villages on the shores of Lake Atitlán, Guatemala, are all different from one another. Although they share Mayan traditions dating back thousands of years, their languages (not just dialects, but languages) might be different, the colors of the traje (traditional dress) are distinct (those in the know can identify where a person is from by the colors and patterns of their traje), and the physical appearance of each place is unique. I truly love ‘em all! It’s such a joy to visit each town. San Marcos is my choice to “live," Santiago, a bustling town, is great to photograph and witness life and sort of relax, and San Juan is a must-see for its amazing textile studios and murals (and a great wine and cheese restaurant). But San Antonio Palopó tops my list as THE place to wander and photograph and know that you are somewhere special.

With houses rising sharply on the mountainside above a curving shoreline, from a certain vantage point one might be reminded of a small Mediterranean village. But a closer look reveals something altogether different. It’s very traditionally Maya. Men and women and children all wear traje. Spanish, let alone English, is not commonly spoken. And many tiny things will also eventually be revealed, reminding us that this is not the Amalfi Coast.

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When I visit San Antonio, I always make a walking loop around town, first along the water, then a stop for a couple of the best empañadas in the world, then the burn in my calves as I straggle up the steep road to the center of town, There, I always seem to end up at the same place - the steps of the church that dramatically overlooks the lake. And nearby sits a cross. And people walk by on their way to school or the market or to socialize or to just sit. Or they sell trinkets to tourists like me (I’m affectionately called Señor Gato by one of the trinket sellers). As for me, I photograph.

So now I have a small series of pictures from this very special place. A young girl sits under the cross like an angel with a halo. A woman shields her face from the intense sun with a cloth that mimics the shapes of the foundation under the cross. At dusk, a vendadora (salesperson) stands next to the cross. I’m not sure if she feels the spirit of the cross of San Antonio as do I, or whether she merely marvels at the beauty of the lake, or she’s just waiting for the next boat of tourists to arrive.

Whatever her thoughts, as I leave she turns, sees me, and I hear a very loud “MEOW” coming from her smiling face. 

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