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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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.

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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!

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Kass Mencher's "Fixed in Eternity," Part 9

We conclude our presentation of Kass Mencher's "Fixed in Eternity" with today's installment of the series she produced for Exxplorevision, an Instagram community dedicated to promoting the work of women photographers. Kass and her husband Eric, both known for their distinctive style of photographing daily life, will be teaching a creative photography workshop in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala in February 2018. Our accommodations and studio space will be at Posada de Santiago, and we will visit many of the villages around Lake Atitlan, a place that has entranced the Menchers for years. This workshop is filling and is expected to sell out. We are offering an early sign-up discount until September 30. For more information about the workshop, including an extensive gallery of photos by Eric and Kass, and to register, please visit the workshop page here: http://www.seekworkshops.com/select-workshop/lake-atitlan-guatemala-mencher

Thank you, Kass, for sharing your words and photos.

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dawn chorus singing
imprint of a bird in the sky
it's the era of ether





As I've written previously, I've been to Lake Atitlán, Guatemala, nine times in the past seven years, usually for 2-4 months each visit. Originally the plan was to come only once. Obviously that is not what happened. 

There is a Mayan myth about a magic ring that was thrown into the middle of the lake. The ring was imbued with the power to attract and that is why so many people come once and stay, or in my case, keep returning time and again.
Others say there are 3 major energy vortexes that also have the power of attraction: the Pyramids at Giza, Machu Pichu in Peru, and Lake Atitlán.

I like the myth about the magic ring, but hey, that's me. I believe in magic. But whatever the cause there is no doubt that I am under the spell of Lake Atitlán, Guatemala.

Kass Mencher's "Fixed in Eternity," Parts 7 & 8

With today's installment of "Fixed in Eternity," we continue our presentation of Kass Mencher's project about Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. Kass and her husband Eric Mencher have lived several months per year since 2010 in villages around Lake Atitlan, photographing and observing Maya culture and the landscape surrounding the former caldera of, now one of the world's deepest and most mysterious lakes. In February 2018, the Menchers will co-teach "The Analytical & The Intuitive," a special photography workshop in which they will lead discussions and experiments in Light and Shadow, Space (and How to Use It), Composition, and Moment. Visit the workshop page to learn more: http://www.seekworkshops.com/select-workshop/lake-atitlan-guatemala-mencher
--Andrew Sullivan

All photos and text courtesy of Kass Mencher

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silent with stones
dawn
becomes day

“We tell ourselves stories to try to come to terms with the world, to harmonize our lives with reality.” - Bill Moyers

The world began on August, 13, 3114 B.C. And it began not far from where my lady at dawn is standing, in the waters off Santiago. “Before the world was made, on Lake Atitlán existed at the center of everything. Everything was covered with water. Then the three volcanoes grew out of the lake and lifted the sky. A cosmic hearth was created which they lit with a lightning bolt igniting new life in a new dawn” - Maya elder

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For eons the Maya have fished the same fish in the same way from their cayucos that they gracefully guide along the lake, making the difficult seem easy. And Chaac the rain god, also a fisherman, provided them with a varied bounty of fish for centuries and centuries until 1958, when a plague of large mouth bass from Florida and Alabama rained down through the sky from the wings of Pan Am Airlines. Like many ill-considered ideas prompted by self-interest (tourist dollars) and not much else, this did not end well.

The Maya ended up with less fish--not more--and many local species were devoured out of existence. Pan Am went bust and lake hotels were able to fill rooms anyway, without the help of the U.S. sports fisherman.

Today, fishermen's wives still get up before sunrise to make fresh tortillas for their husbands who still begin their days with the twilight of dawn.