I rarely allow myself the frills of participating in “touristy” activities—ziplining, staying at fancy hotels, and studying for a week at a “politically radical” Spanish school are usually not within my meager budget as a volunteer, blogger, and haphazard bartender. Luckily for me, when parents come to visit Guatemala, Emily-Kate and I get to indulge in the opportunities that are usually a little out of our price range. Just a few weeks ago, Emily-Kate’s mom, Teresa, came for a visit and we explored the country from west to east. One of our stops was the beautiful Lake Atitlan, about a four hour drive from Antigua.
While there we stayed at Casa del Mundo (in English, Hotel of the World) in a small town called Jaibalito that’s only reachable by boat. The hotel is worth mentioning not only for its beauty, but also for its pioneering environmental initiatives. It is one of the only hotels on the lake (if not the only) that has designed and carried out (usually the missing step) a sewage treatment system. This is fascinating to me because Lake Atitlan’s ecological balance has been off-kilter ever since black bass was introduced to help boost its tourism industry. Like other introduced non-native species stories you may have heard (ex: Nile Perch into Lake Victoria) the black bass of Lake Atitlan have severely altered the food chain and have left the lake in a damaged state. It also doesn’t help that the waste water from all of the major towns drains directly into the lake. Ultimately, the pressures of human population growth have pushed the lake into a less healthy state, and it’s good for me to see a local business doing something to mitigate this.
While staying at Casa del Mundo, we took a day trip to one of the lake’s main towns, Panajachel. We had heard from other visitors at the hotel about what an incredible place the Lake Atitlan Nature Reserve was, and decided to check it out for ourselves. For a mere $35 (thanks Teresa!) I flew with Emily-Kate and her mom through the treeline for two hours. To get to the first zipline, we hiked through the beautiful nature reserve for about half an hour. We saw monkeys, waterfalls, and walked on hanging bridges. The actual ziplining itself was incredible–there’s nothing like it, and we’d go again if we had another parent to pay for us. It was also inspiring to learn that the nature reserve is part of the greater Lake Atitlan community, and as an active part of this has educational outreach aspects to the reserve; among these include wonderfully illustrative signs informing people about the ecological imbalances of the lake ecosystem. It was a pleasure to experience another side of Guatemala, and to also support folks who are contributing to their communities in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way.
Laura Stephenson is a recent environmental science graduate from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, focusing in environmental and community health. She is currently studying Spanish in Antigua, Guatemala. Laura writes the “After” Life of an Environmental Studies Student series, telling stories of the activities and endeavors of environmental science and studies students after graduation.