We humans love to sit in reverie of the natural beauty that surrounds us. Those special and unique places that seem untouched, unscathed, and permeated full of scents, textures and photogenic views.
Lake Atitlan, settled in the Western Highlands of Guatemala, is a glistening example of this.
The Lake is the result of an impressive volcanic caldera, formed as a result of an underground volcanic eruption that created somewhat of a sinkhole, eventually filled with freshwater. It is surrounded by three Volcanoes, forests, coffee plantations, and dotted with small villages steeped in history.
Spanish is actually the second language, and there are many different Mayan dialects, with Tz’utujil and Kaqchikel families making up a large portion of the demographic.
The lake is sustenance to many people – in the form of drinking water, hygiene, agriculture, fishing and economy from tourism. It is a geographical testament to the magnificence of Earth and Fire merging forces.
It is a one-of-a-kind piece of beauty.
Pulling up Lake Atitlan on Google images will flood you with breathtaking panoramic photos of deep blue, shimmering waters, surrounded by towering, tree-lined volcanoes and pristine clear skies.
To some, this looks like heaven on Earth.
And surely it could be…
If it lasts that long.
After a cyanobacterial outbreak in 2009, Lake Atitlan was labelled
“Threatened Lake of the Year” by the World Water Forum.
What is cyanobacteria?
Cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, occur worldwide often in calm, nutrient-rich waters.
The problem exists when these algae multiply too fast and overpower the lake, which causes changes in the ecosystem.
Cyanobacteria forms scum on the water
Algal blooms can lead to very low oxygen levels in the water,
resulting in higher mortality of local fish, plant, and invertebrate populations.
Some species of cyanobacteria produce toxins that affect animals and humans.
Adverse health outcomes from exposure to cyanotoxins may range from a mild skin rash to serious illness or death.
Why is this happening?
When speaking on the environment,
there are always many factors contributing to issues.
According to the lakeside Natural Reserve in Panajachel, there are four big factors.
1) Population – Overflowing demographic growth
This includes residents and tourism alike. The lake basin has 510 people per square km of water (double than the rest of the country) and the population continues to increase rapidly (doubling every 30 years).
Many residents around Lake Atitlan are economically dependent on tourism, and this industry still continues to swell in the area.
When population increases, the need for other resources such as food, water, wood, waste management, hygiene and water treatment also increases.
2) Agriculture – use of commercial pesticides and fertilizers
All over the world, farmers make the decision to farm conventionally with chemicals in order to meet incredibly high crop demands. Lake Atitlan is no different.
Farmers are often poor and with many fertilizers and pesticides being subsidized, it provides a better economical choice – at the cost of the environment. Agrochemicals leave behind large amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus in the soils in addition to toxic poisons which then run off into streams, rivers, and eventually, the lake itself.
Many agrochemical companies do not properly educate on the use of these chemicals, and thus they are used in extreme excess.
3) Deforestation – logging & slash and burn agriculture practices
Lake Atitlan has been estimated to have lost over half of its native forest.
Wood in Guatemala is commonly used for cooking, building new infrastructure, and is chopped down to make room for more crops.
Due to the nature of the Highlands, the land everywhere sits on a slope. With poor farming practices decimating good soil composition, and a lack of forest that helps root the soil in place, erosion and mudslides are common. The problem is made worse when there are harmful chemicals and phosphorus-rich fertilizers present in the soil, which then run into the lake to become food for the cyanobacteria.
4) Fishing – for tourism’s sake
In 1959, Pan American World Airways spearheaded introduction of Black Bass in 1959 to stimulate more tourism and sport fishing. Later in 1999, a species of carp was also introduced. This forever changed the food chain and ecosystem of the lake.
The native aquatic species that once kept the bacteria in check, are largely non-existent, leaving the non-native species to overtake the lake and change the natural ecology forever. All in the name of sport.
All these factors, coupled with a completely inadequate sewage system, continue to place a lifespan on the Lake that we may see come to an end in our lifetime.
I had never thought about the implication of my presence quite like I did when I was staying around Lake Atitlan.
It was becoming apparent that every time I went to the market, every time I wiped with toilet paper, every time I hopped on a lancha or tuk tuk to visit a neighbouring town, I would be faced with a plethora of impactful decisions.
Being Western tourists, we tend to approach travelling through selfish eyes. “I just need a break” “I just want to explore” “I just want to see the world”
We don’t often stop to think how our intentions might affect others.
We don’t often ask the question:
“Is my presence wanted here?”
Now, I’m not telling you to roll up your sleeves and clean up the world’s polluted lakes with your bare hands.
But there are things we can be mindful of when we do choose to travel responsibly.
1) Do your research
If a hotel/hostel/resort is affiliated with conservation efforts, they will not hesitate to let you know. It will be often posted on their website and you can always contact them with questions. Try to find locally owned accommodations, or if you are feeling sociable, try Couchsurfing.
Once you land a good place to stay, familiarize yourself with the area.
Find out how garbage, recycling, and compost is dealt with, what the water and sewage system needs, and if they tell you not to throw the paper in the toilet –
DON”T THROW THE PAPER IN THE TOILET.
There is a good reason for it.
2) Take the slow road – Walk, Bike, Bus
When staying in a large country with time constraints, it can be tempting to just splurge
on a flight to an out-of-the-way location, especially if the local airlines are cheap.
But, choosing ground transportation – especially shared transportation, goes a long way toward conservation. It will also save you a lot of money.
Take the local chicken buses, hitch a ride if you’re comfortable, download MapsMe and you may find that cool farm-to-table event is within walking distance anyway.
3) Shop at the Local Market
Many places, especially in Latin America – will have some sort of Farmer’s Market
available, typically on their main streets. Use the Locavore app to help you hunt them down.
Here, you can choose local, fresh produce, and ask the farmers themselves about their practices. I highly recommend learning the language enough to have these conversations, or shop with someone who is fluent.
Bonus tip: Some markets even have second-hand clothing available, I most definitely went thrifting in Guatemala!
4) Seek out and support local initiatives
If you find an issue in your area that you care about, chances are there is a local organization working on the problem, and you may be able to visit, donate, or support them.
I found out so much about the Lake when I went to visit in Nature Reserve in Panajachel, and it inspired me to write this post.
I highly encourage doing proper research around the actual needs of the area before going, so you can enter with purpose and understanding.
5) Help Out
Working for a local cause while you’re travelling enhances the experience ten-fold.
Building a natural stove in Santiago
You really get to understand what life in the area is like, what issues people face, and how to help make real change.
I use a website called Help Exchange and had only good experiences on it! No matter where you are going, there will always be listings somewhere.
The connections that you will make by working with the local community is invaluable, and you will leave feeling like you contributed to something – and you will probably take away some big lessons you needed to learn.
Exploring this world is a beautiful, eye-opening experience.
But with our financial freedom comes responsibility, and the honus is on us to understand and – if we can – offset the impact we have when we travel.