Three majestic volcanos: Atitlán, Tolimán and San Pedro guard Atitlán – a Mayan lake as large as a sea. Atitlán, a name that’s fascinating to locals and visitors alike. A place taken straight from the magic realism prose and poetry that is associated with contemporary Latin American literature. The sky, the volcanos, handwoven Indian costumes – they all reflect in the lake’s blue and transparent waters. Such a blue color is not something you can just forget. The air is fresh and clear. The sun shines through the billowing clouds and all at once it begins to get really warm and even more colorful. I wonder what it is that makes me feel so warm and pleasant inside – is it the sunshine or the beauty that I encounter in every single corner of this land. I could spend many months here, maybe even years – I sigh to myself and wave hello to Marielena, a small member of the Tzutujil community, who inhabits the bottom of the San Pedro volcano.

text © Dominika Zaręba

Two-dimensional journey

Guatemala? What am I getting myself and my child into? … Maybe this isn’t such a good idea after all? … these doubts linger on right up until the day of departure. Little Jagódka whose almost 2 years old helps me to pack her toys into the backpack, not in the least aware where we’re going to be in 24 hours. My worries disappear only when we get to Lake Atitlán.

The tranquility of this place hits us right away. I know that we’re going to have a good time traveling over the next few weeks across the Land of the Mayas. This is a journey in two dimensions, through the eyes of the mother and her daughter. To me it’s a return to a place I first visited over a decade ago. I’m re-discovering Guatemala through my daughter’s eyes. A little child can see and experience the surrounding world in a way that is at once enthusiastic and original. She teaches me to pick out details and specifics, which often are already impossible to notice or seemingly aren’t significant to a grown-up. A bird hopping around in the branches of coffee plants, a ruddy cat hunting in the green cornfields, children flying colored kites on the steps of a white, colonial-era church … As I follow my child’s gaze I begin to realize that the magic of Guatemala is hidden in these details and colors.

Reading the symbolism of the Land of the Mayas begins with a small pattern woven onto a traditional indigenous skirt (corte) or belt (faja). – The colors and patterns on the blouse represent the four colors of a corn ear – white, yellow, red and black – explains Cecilia from the village of San Pedro la Laguna. – But this isn’t the only meaning of these colors. White stands for sunrise, red means fire, blue represents water, green symbolizes forests, black relates to night, yellow refers to corn – she details.

Every shape and color has its own symbolism, the significance of which can be found in the Popol Vuh – the holy book of the Mayas. An amazing epic which for centuries has defined the rhythm of life and calendar of the indigenous peoples.

Lake – sea

… by the Creator, the Maker,

the mother-father of life of the human species

the giver of breath, the giver of heart,

the owner, the mentor in the light, which continues on,

of those who were born in the light, borne of the light;

concerned, all-knowing, whatever it is:


This is how the Popol Vuh tells the story of the creation – a story of the beginnings of life, when light is born out of the darkness. Lake Atitlán for the Mayas is one of 4 holy lakes, which represent the four corners of their world. Located at an altitude of 1560 m a.s.l and surrounded by volcanoes reaching more than 3000 m, it is considered one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. The magic of this place is connected to the amazing mix of landscape, nature and cultural heritage of the descendants of the Mayas. According to one local story, the lake was formed in the space left after an extinct crater. According to another version, the explosion of several volcanoes in the south changed the course of three rivers in the north, which initiated the formation of Lake Atitlán.

On the slopes of the volcanoes, the natives grow coffee, maize, beans and avocado. “The People of the Blooming Land” live at the base of the volcano “set against the magic mists of the lake”. This is how Miguel Ángel Astúrias, Guatemalan surrealist author and Nobel laureate writes in one of his legends about the locals. It is not difficult to imagine that many a work of literature in the magical realist tradition could be written in such a place as this. The story – dream – poem – which is so characteristic of Latin American literature, a story that draws on the mythology, belief, use of symbols of the native peoples of Latin America.

The colors of the Mayas

The villages surrounding the lake are inhabited by two groups of indigenous Maya peoples: the Kaqchikel and the Tzutujil, each of whom communicates in their own language (they both derive from a common proto-Mayan language), and wears garments with differing colors and ornaments. Even villages occupied by the same ethnic group differ in color and pattern preferences. Tzutujil women from San Pedro have a penchant for various hues of green and blue. In the nearby village of Santiago, on market day the streets are full of a great many shades of violet and amaranth. I buy Jagoda a dress from San Pedro la Laguna. From now on people here will call her „Sanpedranita”.
– Blue-eyed beauty – all local moms are quick to admit, because a child with blue eyes is a rare sight in these parts. The Maya women snap photos of us with their cell phones. We are exotic to one another. I admire their swarthy skin, beautiful dark eyes and straight, raven-black, thick hair, which they wrap in colored ribbons called cinta.

More than half the population of Guatemala are of Amerindian ancestry. In this respect, in Latin America only Bolivia has a larger percentage of indigenous peoples. In this mountainous, green land live more than 20 different ethnic groups with exotic names such as Quiche, Mam, Kaqchikel, Queqchi, Tzutujil… All the indigenous inhabitants are bilingual, at home and on the street they speak the language of the Mayas, but can out of nowhere smoothly switch over to Spanish, which they learned in school. „They don’t realize how lucky they are – so many parents dream that their children speak two languages!”– I think to myself and look over at Jagoda. Together with Maria she is counting the bananas in the basket, which Cecilia brought with her today from the market.. – Ocho, nueve y… – Marie counts. – Diez! – shouts the litte Sanpedranita.

The trees that breathe the breath of the people

There exists the belief that the trees breathe the breath of the people that inhabit the buried cities, and that’s why in keeping with the legend and tradition, those who have to take difficult decisions seek help in their shade; the lovers find comfort, lost travelers find their way and poets find inspiration. [M.A.Asturias]

For me Atitlán is also the land of trees. Coffee plant orchards grow on the steep banks of the lake and the slopes of the volcanoes. The gentle aroma of coffee permeates every nook and cranny in the villages and gardens. It’s a shame that you can’t remember or record the smell of coffee seeds maturing in the equatorial sun on volcanic soil. – Do you give coffee to Jagoda already? – the owners of a small café on the lakeside ask me. Here in San Pedro, kids starting when they’re 6 months old drink coffee mixed with milk.– Coffee is a staple, everyday drink for us, it’s a source of energy and it makes you stronger – young women laughs and packs coffee beans into a hand-woven embroidered bag. These are the types of souvenirs sold here to tourists.

Volcanic soil, tropical forests, the humid air, the altitude and the temperature are so varied here, that Guatemala produces seven different types of Arabic coffee. Supposedly the finest coffee is grown at altitudes higher than 1000 meters, where there is plenty of sun and rain. – As much as 95% of our coffee comes from small, 12 ha plantations – Eligio, who works in the San Pedro Spanish School tells me. – Farmers in San Pedro, just as their grandparents, cultivate coffee using traditional methods, without applying artificial fertilizer. The beans dry up in the sun, which we have no shortage of – he smiles, taking another big gulp of his morning coffee. How many cups of coffee a day can you drink? During my stay in San Pedro, I figure out that the norm here is 5 to 6. You can get addicted, but the native populations brews a weak, delicate version of coffee – I console myself and glance over at the huge jug, which Ingrid is carrying with her from school. I look over to the coffee tree growing in the garden and immerse myself in Asturias’ „Guatemalan legends”: The breath of trees pushes off the mountains, where the road undulates like a band of smoke.

Confrontation of beauty and sadness

…such a deep resonance has in this sleeping landscape a falling leaf, or a bird, whose song awakens in the soul the Specter from Dreams [M.A.Asturias]

This beautiful land also holds within it many sad stories. The proud Mayas don’t want to talk about the recent times of the civil war, the humiliation they suffered at the hands of the military junta which ruled the country for 36 years, and the death squads sowing terror in the villages. From the time of the first free presidential elections in 1995, Guatemala is very slowly moving along on the path to democracy, trying to leave behind the period of decline and violence.
– Big social disparities between a handful of rich families, descendants of the Spanish conquistadores, Ladinos who rule the economy, and the impoverished indigenous province – says Nicolas Juarez Mendoza, a Spanish and salsa teacher, himself of Tzutujil Maya stock. – In Guatemala, corruption continues to be commonplace at the pinnacles of power, along with crime, mafia wars and drug trafficking – Nico lists. Sometimes it’s hard to fathom, why after so many years of suffering and humiliation, Guatemalans continue to vote for former military officials or politicians with clear connections to the old regime. The indigenous peoples for example are able to put their support behind people from the circle of the former general Rios Montt, who is responsible for the greatest war crimes, torture and ‘disappearances’ of thousands of Guatemalans, primarily descendants of the Mayas…

 We talk with Nico about politics, Latin American literature and belief in magic. – Did you know that every indigenous Guatemalan has his own guardian spirit, called a nahual – says Nico.

 Nahual, which always takes on the form of an animal, personifies the greatest gift of humanity, a God-given talent, and is also our life energy and an element which binds and connects us to nature. Nahual can take on the form of e.g. a jaguar, wolf, hare, eagle, owl, parrot, hummingbird, toucan, dolphin, monkey, bee etc. Nico doesn’t want to say what his nahual is. He wants to one day become a radio journalist. This 23-year old native Guatemalan, apart from his native Mayan language and Spanish, also is conversant in French and English. He dreams of traveling, he has criss-crossed Guatemala, but he’s never been abroad.

– For me, a resident of San Pedro, journeys will remain forever something in the realm of dreams – he sighs, looking down at a map of America spread out on the table. When he talks in this way, the large barrier between us, that sad divide between peoples from countries with contrasting economic and social conditions, grows even larger.

I tell Nico about a half-century of Communism in Poland, to try to narrow this divide. I have a funny feeling and hope that people like Nico or Marielena will one day set out into the world, driven by a strong desire to learn and discover. Just as Herodotus portrayed by renowned Polish essayist Ryszard Kapuściński discovered his worlds with the enthusiasm and delight that only a child has.

Meanwhile, Jagoda and Marielena have ran off to watch some boys who are constructing yet another colored kite and making preparations to release it to the wind’s care.

text and photos: Dominika Zaręba 

Quotations freely translated into English from Polish translations available in:

Miguel Ángel Astúrias, „Legends of Guatemala”, trans. Joanna Petry-Mroczkowska, Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków 1979.

Denis Tedlock, „Popol vuh: the definitive edition of the Maya book of the dawn of life and the glories of gods and kings”, Wyd. Helion, Gliwice 2007.


San Pedro Spanish School: