By Mayra Beltran de Daetz
Guatemala — Lake Atitlan, located in the Department of Solola¡, has one of the most beautiful landscapes found anywhere in Guatemala. Its beauty has been compared with Switzerland’s lakes.
Along the margins of the lake, there are three imposing volcanos: Atitlan, Toliman and San Pedro. The lake is located at 1,560 meters at sea level and is 18 km long. Its depth varies and at many points it is not known, but drilling has reached depths of more than 350 meters.
In reviewing the history of the scientific origin of the most beautiful “Lake of the World,” as Atitlan is called, there are two versions. One version says that the lake is an old dead crater. The other is that the sprouting volcanoes interrupted the course of three rivers coming from the north. When the rivers reunited, their waters created the lake. The lake does not have visible water drainage.
The lake is surrounded by 12 colorful little towns that are called the twelve apostles: Santa Catarina PalopÃ³, San Antonio PalopÃ³, San Lucas TolimÃ¡n, Santiago AtitlÃ¡n, San Pedro the Lagoon, San Juan the Lagoon, San Pablo the Lagoon, San Marcos the Lagoon, Santa Cruz the Lagoon, Panajachel and others.
The Lake, located only two hours away from Guatemala City, takes longer to arrive at by bus. To get there, it’s necessary to cross very mountainous terrain and so travel is very slow. When arriving at the lake, the first town that you find is Panajachel. It is the place where all travelers vacationing in the region can find the hotels and chalets.
The meaning of AtitlÃ¡n comes from Atit, the feminine word meaning Moon, and Ala, meaning masculine man. The first Spaniards, in the 16th Century, put the two words together and named the lake AtitlÃ¡n.
While the scientific version of the origin of AtitlÃ¡n leaves nothing to the imagination, a legend of how the lake was formed is more popular and romantic among Guatemaltecos. It is said there existed an impossible love between the Sun and the Moon and that throughout the eternal ages they have been forced to live separated by an evil spell.
While one commands the day, the other endures its dark sadness at night. They undergo the separation in silence with the unique hope of an eclipse, thus to be able to see one another. They say that the Moon’s lovesickness ended with a single sweet tear. The tear fell on the same side of the Earth as Guatemala and formed the lake of AtitlÃ¡n.
I’m sharing these stories because it is a pity that this site of national pride with its tales of heavenly origins which has been the inspiration for so many painters, writers and singers is dying. It is dying from neglect, either from the residents of the area or from the government’s own disinterest.
The lake suffers with cyanobacterium contamination. It’s a bacteria that transformed the pristine waters of AtitlÃ¡n into a stinky, greenish mess. The contamination was first discovered three years ago by biologists. Ever since then, the biologists tried to warn the government and local communities of the bacteria’s threat, but no one listened. So nowadays, the biologists refer to the case as “the history of an announced death.”
The popular theory is that the contamination stems from a variety of factors: the widespread use of inorganic fertilizers, the dirt blown into the lake from Hurricane Stan, the growth of the local population around the lake and the nonexistence of water treatment plants needed to cleanse the sewage coming from the chalets, hotels and local communities.
Finally, people are paying attention. Sectors of the civil society have had meetings to discuss the problems caused by the bacteria. The AtitlÃ¡n Foundation, the mayors of the nearby towns, the government’s vice-minister of atmosphere, along with, nongovernmental organizations and biologists have met to discuss what can be done.
The problem at AtitlÃ¡n has affected all Guatemaltecos. One of the best columnists of the country expressed it like this: “It sometimes seems that in Guatemala we have a vocation to destroy our own wealth.” She goes on to write that we use to be the country of the green, green, green forests but that we have transformed the land into a slope of desert paradise with brown scars of erosion. She ends by saying our “crystalline lakes, blue volcano mirrors and mountains” have been used like waste baskets and consequently there has formed chemical substances that create ugly rare, mult-colored masses that only inspire fear.
Learn more about Mayra:
Mayra Etna BeltrÃ¡n Molina de Daetz is a native-born Guatemalan who lives in Guatemala City with her husband and teenage son. After attending one of the most noted secretarial schools in the country, Mayra graduated with a secretarial certification — and the ability to speak and write English, as well as, know French.
Yet, she wanted more of a career and so she took architect and graphic design classes at a local university in Guatemala City. Unable to finish her university studies due to finances, Mayra became a stewardess and has over 100 hours in the air.
Yet, she always wanted to be involved with the media and so she returned to school and was able to get a degree in sales and marketing.
As a result, she has worked for a weekly magazine and a newspaper.
I have had opportunity to attend International congresses, in which I have known very important people at the more important international newspapers, which has been a very gratifying experience and has allowed me to have friendships outside of my country.