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.


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.


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. 


A Typical Day Photographing At Lake Atitlán

San Pedro Volcano in the morning light.

San Pedro Volcano in the morning light.

By Eric Mencher (aka Señor Amable)

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

Part 1, Early Morning

Around Lake Atitlán, the earlier you get out into the slight chill of the early morning, the more engaging your pictures might be. Even before the sun begins to warm me, a beautiful soft but faint light hangs over the lake. In the large lagoon behind the Posada de Santiago, a mist rises early, enveloping the fishermen in a surreal haze as they glide effortlessly through the still water. Some days I’m torn between taking pictures, doing yoga, or just stopping to witness the most incredible awakening of the day one will ever see. Usually I choose photographing (or yoga with my iPhone by my side, which really isn’t yoga) and my heart thumps as I race around the water’s edge, making decisions about the best angles, choosing between color or black and white or perhaps some quirky app, and wondering if I should have reserved the Posada’s canoe to really get out into the middle of it all.

As the sun slowly shares its golden light, I watch (and photograph) with awe as its rays first dance atop the San Pedro Volcano, then slowly work their way down like giant spotlights, highlighting every ripple in the water and every crag on the perfect pyramid that stares me down.


But wait! In the distance, I see a woman balancing a basket atop her head, stepping gingerly down a path near the water’s edge. Will I get there in time? How will she react? What will the light be like? Is it worth the effort or should I just stick with the gorgeous scene that seems so intent to unveil something new with every passing second? I choose (quickly) and race to her, arriving just as she lowers the basket of dirty clothes from her head. I murmur “buenos días” but she doesn’t really see or hear me and I make a few quick snaps and decide to not intrude any longer into her very public but very personal work.

So I slowly walk back to the dock behind the Posada. I look quickly at my phone to see if there’s a picture. Maybe, I think. But I’m moved and definitely conflicted and I’m wondering about life and whether the woman likes hers and whether she has a good family and is happy.

Back at the dock, with lots of questions and really no answers except perhaps for the answer that is the image in my phone, I make a few more snaps, including a black and white of a fisherman already heading to shore with today’s catch. And a color self-portrait of my shadow in a cayuco (fisherman’s canoe). Perhaps to say to myself, “yes, you’re an outsider, but yes, you are here in this moment and you want to share what you see with others.”

And I promise myself, tomorrow I’ll take the Posada’s canoe!