In the midst of a truly unprecedented trip, with the many impacts of the global pandemic surrounding us, a few things are holding this group and this adventure together. Foremost, of course, is the group of students and adults – we are familiar to each other, experienced learners, skills educators, qualified health professionals, and close friends. This little community is part of our CCS community and the benefits of that are obvious. Without them, none of this would work. But, beyond what we bring with us, there are things here that help hold everything together as well. Lake Atitlan and the small town of Cerro de Oro are two of those.
Lake Atitlan is widely considered the most beautiful lake in the world and it has shown us its many faces during our time living on its banks. Some mornings, the water shimmers an iridescent blue. On others, it’s impossible to distinguish between the grey clouds above and the turbulent surface. Volcanoes surround the lake, always towering but sometimes hidden behind clouds and mist. At night, communities emerge as flickering lights and booming fireworks. The physical presence of the lake is so unique that it helps connect our annual trips to Guatemala, giving a common experience to each different itinerary. We’re always in awe here.
This group has experienced the lake and its immediate natural surroundings in a few ways. Most travelers have summited the sleeping elephant, Cerro de Oro’s iconic mini volcano (extinct, that is). On the top of the elephant, the group was able to get up close to ancient Mayan carvings and to witness active Mayan prayer grounds. They were also able to take in various vistas in all directions. Everyone has been in a lancha, or local boat, at least once. From the water, the lake is incredible. It’s massive but also full of little corners that feel intimate and accessible. It’s an exotic, foreign body of water that is somehow very familiar. Almost everyone has felt the water too, either by jumping in or cautiously dipping a toe. It’s the perfect temperature and quite clear. No one knows exactly how Lake Atitlan formed but the most common explanation is that it’s the caldera of an ancient super volcano and that the surrounding volcanoes we see today are remnants of a volcano that collapsed on itself and eventually filled with water. There is no inflow or outflow from the lake and it’s estimated to be at least 1,000 feet deep at the center. We are each day left in awe.
The group has also experienced the various faces of the human side of the lake. Near our Airbnbs, the town of Cerro de Oro is small and friendly. Today, the group walked through the town’s streets investigating the religious history, the political situation, the educational system(s), and the history of the civil conflict in this area. We’ve learned a lot just by walking the streets, talking with the vendors, and reconnecting with friends the school has made over the years. Looking across the lake, it’s easy to see how other towns have transformed from something similar to Cerro de Oro to something quite different. The students have gotten to think about tourism and how it shapes the feel of a place and considered how their decisions here and in general in their lives can impact people in distant places very directly. In Santiago Atitlan, we felt the pace of things (Ali said it felt like the frenetic streets of Turkey). In San Lucas Toliman, we feel the daily commerce and connections of a booming junction town. In San Marcos, hippies and yogis seemed to have taken over. In San Pedro, the party scene is evident and clashes so clearly with the local population. Our students have witnessed so many different versions of the same basic process. It has helped frame a lot of things and helped make this feel like a definitively CCS trip.
As we prepare to move back to Antigua Guatemala tomorrow, many of us are already feeling sad. This place embraces visitors who take the time to experience it in the ways we have. We are so proud and so lucky. And that pride and that luck have been so important on this particular trip. The world that we are experiencing is a world in lingering chaos, coming towards the end, we hope, of an unprecedented time in world history. We feel that very directly as a group. But we also feel, thanks to Lago Atitlan, that some things have endured and that those things can help hold together and advance Great Journeys, Global Education Journeys.
Gracias, Lago Atitlan! Until next time!