As I mentioned in my previous post, I wanted to get some more time with the lake. Brandy had been in San Pedro for two weeks studying Spanish, but I’d been away for ten days at a silent meditation course. So I can admit that this folly was entirely my doing. Somewhere in those ten days I came up with the silly idea of kayaking around the lake, so when I got back to San Pedro, I immediately set to finding someone who’d rent legit kayaks and stumbled upon Kayak Guatemala. Lee, the owner sent me a bunch of info about paddle times and lodging around the lake. With his advice we plotted a three-day course around about 2/3 of the lake.
*See end of post for logistical info
April 3, 2016
This was to be a tough trip. Aside from being cyclists whose upper bodies muscles have atrophied into withered, prune-like farces, the weather made some odd decisions to our detriment. The lake generally has rather consistent weather patterns. Usually it’s very calm in the morning with winds pouring in from the coast roughing it up in the afternoon. We camped at the kayak rental place and awoke at the crack of dawn on the first day to wind rustling the tent. We tried to delude ourselves into believing that it was just some inconsequential breeze that would have no effect on the lake, but when we got up we could see the water was extremely choppy. We used it as an excuse to sleep in a bit and take our time getting going. If afternoon conditions were already happening, there was no reason to rush to beat the afternoon. We were a bit concerned because we were crossing open water through the middle of the lake with 1.5-foot swells running crossways. Our kayaking experience was rather negligible and I wasn’t too excited about having to upright in those conditions if one of us dumped. We crossed in about two hours, and it was actually kind of fun, albeit a lot of work. The afternoon winds usually bring in lots of fog and clouds, but this morning seemed to be the opposite and we were given the consolation of the clearest day we’d seen yet, which meant we had views all around and were even able to see Fuego erupting in the distance.
We landed on a windward rocky beach and Brandy foundered as huge waves filled her boat and battered her as we struggled to pull the laden craft out and dump it. After a long break we struggled into a large bay where we were planning to go to a city called Santiago de Atitlán. We were just about to cross when we noticed a beautiful posada and decided to check out the price. The price was good enough, the place was beautiful and it saved us 20 minutes of choppy water. It was only about 12:30, but we were done. Luckily they had really awesome and reasonably priced food because we didn’t have any supplies, having planned on going to the mercado in Santiago. They even made us egg sandwiches for the morning, which was a lifesaver because there were no places to stop the following day. We spent most of the rest of the day napping or eating.
April 4, 2016
The second day out was a big one. Our destination was San Lucas at the very southeast end of the lake and almost exactly on the opposite side of the massive Volcán Tolimán. It is only about nine miles of paddling, but the afternoon winds come from behind San Lucas, so we needed to be off the water by noon in order to avoid fighting headwinds. This shore is also where all the Guatemalan “elite” built their fancy-pants lake homes, which means that pullout places without armed guards are scarce for the 5-6 hour paddle and there is absolutely nowhere to get supplies. When we put in we were disappointed with the lack of glass water as it was already a bit choppy at 6:00 AM, but it was way better than the previous day, and in reality it wasn’t that bad.
We had some nice paddling for the first half of the day, but the views were a bit lackluster. Being right under Tolimán, we couldn’t really see it and San Pedro and Atitlán were Blokused from view. One thing that was interesting about riding through ‘the Hamptons’ as the kayak rental guy described it, was that there was quite a bit of submerged wreckage from the tacky vacation properties. The lake has no surface outflow, so it rises and falls depending on rainfall and tectonic shifts. It had dropped quite a bit over the last century, but there were some very heavy and sustained rains a few years ago. The lake supposedly rose about 18 feet within five years, but we’re not finding any good solid info online. All we could find was that it dropped six feet in one month in 1976 after an earthquake. Visually it is obvious that the lake has come up many feet because there are a ton of submerged trees and structures around the edges of the lake, especially in front of rich people houses. It’s pretty neat seeing stairways that go right down into the water. It’s quite clear, so you can see them below you. We had some fun exploring a couple of the more extensive ruin zones.
It was a long day for us and it got even longer when the winds came in earlier than usual. Everything was peaceful until we rounded a point and were slammed with powerful winds in the face that we would have to battle all the way into San Lucas. Head winds are bad enough on a bicycle, but at least on a bike you don’t go backwards when you stop to rest! It was horrible and we were utterly destroyed by the time we got to San Lucas. I kept thinking about how much fucking money we’d spent on these damn kayaks just to have a pretty lousy time and how goddammit, I should be doing something easy like hiking a volcano or something! I was quite angry with myself for such a stupid idea. Luckily the hotel was right in front of the beach so we didn’t have to carry the boats very far, and it was a good price to stay in a really cool old stone building. It looked like it had been a castle or something and our room had a nice view of the lake. The town was pleasant and not touristic and we took advantage of the afternoon to get out and have some ice cream, eat some cheap food and chill on the dock taking in the beauty.
April 5, 2016
After our first two tough days we were looking forward to a calm one, but didn’t get on the water until 7:00 AM because we needed to sleep in and weren’t as concerned about the winds today because they shouldn’t be in our faces. Naturally we were confronted with wind as soon as we started paddling, and of course it was the opposite direction as the day before, so yet again, in our faces. Luckily it wasn’t strong, nor did it last long. This day turned out to be quite different than the previous two and went far to make up for the misery. It was again extremely clear, and this time we were exploring a much less developed coast, such because of the huge, sheer cliffs that drop right into the water. There were still several mansions, but most of them were more beautifully designed, clinging to the cliffs. It was also nicer because we were now across the lake from the volcanoes, so we actually had views of the monsters. We slowly made our way up the coast to the next town, San Antonio and stopped for breakfast at a cute hotel with beautiful views. San Antonio was also impressive from the water. Like most towns around the lake, it’s on a steep hill. The buildable area is in a large bowl surrounded by cliffs and you can see the entire collection of buildings stacked up like blocks filling the bowl. All around and above the village are green terraced farms that make it look even more awesome.
The following town is similarly pretty and our views just kept getting better and better as we rounded the north side of the lake. We paddled much further (~13.5 miles) than the day before, but took our time and had several breaks. We were also stronger and had the technique down, so we felt much better on the water. Oh yeah, we weren’t pounding into the wind either. The views of the three volcanoes and the villages and cliffs around the lake kept changing as we moved on. In the afternoon the clouds started piling up around the volcanoes and we were treated to some great cloud shadows on the cliffs. We also had some nice wetlands areas to explore.
Towards the end of the day the winds picked up, as expected, and the water was rough for our last hour or so into Santa Cruz, but this time it was really fun because we were feeling much more confident and strong on the water and the wind was at our backs.
Would I do it again? Hmm, I’m not sure. It was an incredible experience, and the last day really helped make it, but the extremely high price to rent the kayaks made it a tough pill to swallow. We spent about two weeks worth of budget on a trip that lasted three days. We’re willing to do that from time to time because we have a lot of very cheap or zero days to balance things out, but the expense must be justified by awesomeness and I’m not sure this trip hit the target.
We rented through Kayak Guatemala in Santa Cruz. They were were legit, real kayaks and came with good paddles, dry bags and a bilge pump. Brandy’s had a slight leak though. Most of the kayaks available to rent around the lake are horrific quality and not suitable for more than an hour or two pleasure paddle. We paid $50 per person (regardless if you get two singles or one double), per day, which in retrospect is very high. To compare, I just searched kayak rentals in Tahoe, which is similar to Atitlán in many ways, but way more expensive. I found a place that rents single kayaks for $65 a day and doubles for $85, so Tahoe actually would have been way cheaper for us. We probably could have found a better deal somewhere else, but I didn’t want to spend hours or days searching around the lake to save a few bucks. The owner gave us quite a bit of info about conditions, paddle times and lodging and also let us camp on-site, which was very nice. He told us he normally doesn’t rent per day to people who aren’t doing one of their guided tours, but I’m not sure if that’s just what he says to give him the out to send you packing if you’re a bozo. They normally do pricy guided tours around the entire lake that take about a week and are more relaxed in terms of miles per day. The tours are out of reach for the budget traveler, but could be a great trip for someone who is willing to drop a stack for a beautiful paddle they don’t need to plan.