Featured Photo Destination: Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
I have always taken the 6 a.m. flight. In my dozen trips and over two years in Central America I have always flown at that hour and with a few exceptions in the month of February. It is dark and it is cold. There is usually snow on the ground as I close the door behind me and shoulder my backpack and camera bag. And I smile because in a few hours everything will change.
For more than a decade I have worked as a documentary photographer with medical and humanitarian relief organizations in Latin America, Eastern Europe and elsewhere. But Central America, that often forgotten isthmus of seven countries linking the great continents of North and South America has called me back over and over. I have photographed its people, its landscapes, its cities and towns. I have photographed men dying and babies being born, from the tops of mountains and under the water. Every time I think I am done a new idea strikes me and the plans to return commence. I have always gone there specifically to photograph and my equipment has seen the change from film to digital and the evolution of digital equipment from marginal to superb.
Central America offers some of the most amazing vistas on the planet: thick jungle, deserts, active volcanoes, ancient ruins, some of the best reef systems in the world on the Caribbean side for divers and surfing on the Pacific coast. But of all the areas to photograph nothing quite compares to the Mayan Highlands of Guatemala. And within the highlands there is nowhere like Lake Atitlan.
You fly into Guatemala City–and if you left at 6 a.m.–you should arrive in the early afternoon. There are always shuttles waiting to take you to Antigua. They cost about $20 and the drivers take US currency so have a bill with you. There is generally little reason to linger in Guatemala City. It is chaotic and many areas are very dangerous (which is another good reason to arrive early). If you find you have to stay overnight in the capital find a good hotel in Zone 10.
But a ride of a little over an hour takes you out of the flat plains and into the mountains to the beautiful streets of Antigua. Antigua was the original Spanish capital of all of Central America. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions repeatedly devastated the city and the capital was finally moved to its present location in 1773. For years Antigua languished, but over the last few decades its old building have been restored. It is a magical city full of Spanish colonial buildings, ruined cathedrals and a central park shaded by trees full of purple flowers. You will often see Mayan people in their hand-woven traditional clothes and other sights that seem out of the history books. It is an excellent city to acclimatize, photograph, study Spanish and base other trips around the country. Spend a few days there but don’t get trapped by Antigua’s beauty. There is too much of Guatemala to explore and photograph.
Book a bus or shuttle to Panajachel. Panajachel, or “Pana” as the old Guatemala hands call it, is the primary transit city on the shores of Lake Atitlan. There are a dozen or more (depending on who is counting) towns and villages around the lakeshore and each has its own character. The whole area is a photographer’s dream. A few hours through the mountains bring you from Antigua through the bustling market town of Solola then down into the caldera of Lake Atitlan. The sight never fails to make me silent with awe. Some 20 miles long by up to nine miles wide, Lake Atitlan is the crater left by the explosion of a mega volcano about 80,000 years ago. In Mayan mythology it is the navel of the universe, one of the world’s most holy places.
Your bus descends the switchbacks into the busy town of Panajachel. From there you can catch a boat or “lancha” from the docks to any of the towns around the lake. There is the party town of San Pedro, the traditional Mayan city of Santiago with the shrine to the trickster god Maximon, the quiet meditation centers of San Marcos or my two favorites: the unlovely but very lively Pana itself or the tranquil beauty of Santa Cruz and SCUBA diving and hiking from the Lost Iguana hotel.
Atitlan is a good example of why a photographer needs to be ready. The clouds and light change moment to moment. The surface of the lake is tranquil, mercury smooth at daybreak and every afternoon the Chocomil, a wind from the Pacific, turns the lake’s surface to a rough chop. There are the Tzutuhuile and Kachiquel Maya and every town has its own distinct manner of traditional dress. Remember, traveler, that not everyone likes to be photographed, so make the effort not just to ask but also to get to know people. It will always make your photos better and more honest and it might just result in an invitation or information on the best places to be.
I have been to almost every town on the lakeshore and many nearby, photographing the lake in all seasons over more than a decade. I have photographed the lake using a wide variety of equipment at all hours of the day and night and the place never fails to surprise me. The surface of the water changes colors from every shade of blue through greens and purples and grays. One minute the sky is clear and the next enormous towers of clouds top the three volcanoes that surround the lake. There are traditional festivals, both Spanish and Mayan and other events throughout the year.
On my last trip I spent nearly three months in the area, studying Spanish and documenting the different towns. I carried the new (at the time) Panasonic GF1 in the new Micro 4/3 format, the waterproof/shockproof Pentax Optio W90 point and shoot and a Leica M6ttl with Fuji Neopan 400 ISO black and white film. I have found that portability and weight are decisive factors in travel and documentary photography and truly believe I obtained better photos with the small Panasonic than I would have carrying my Nikon D3 and a bagful of pro-lenses. Not only is the output of the little Micro 4/3 camera stunning, but it is always with you and it doesn’t change the mood. Pull out a huge DSLR in Guatemala and you’ll see what I mean. The whole tone changes, becomes serious or even unfriendly and the moment is lost. You also won’t make yourself the same target to potential thieves and your knees and shoulders will thank you. A documentary photographer I know, who works primarily in Africa, has shot several award winning photo essays using two amateur Nikon D60s for the same reasons. They take great photos, are small and light and they don’t call a lot of attention to themselves. Take this to heart. Good equipment is important but it need not be terribly expensive or the top of the line. In fact the large and heavy professional equipment, while it to has its place, can also be a liability. The best camera is the one you have, have practiced with and have with you all the time. You never know when that magic alchemy of light and time will come together into the perfect moment. The most expensive gear in the world is no good if you don’t carry it because of its weight or you fear it being lost or stolen.
Guatemala and Lake Atitlan are some of the most beautiful, photogenic places on the planet. They offer an incredible diversity of landscape and people and they’re only hours away by plane. From the Mayan Highlands you can easily reach the Pacific coast of El Salvador, the Mayan ruins of Tikal in the Peten jungle or Copan in Honduras. There is Belize and the Honduran Bay Islands for amazing diving, the nature reserves of Costa Rica and a thousand other things. Keep your cameras ready and your eyes open and be prepared for the adventure of a lifetime.