Thursday, May 5, 2011

Guatemala Part 4: Hotel Atitlan, a coffee finca that became a spectacular hotel

Volcan Toliman across Lake Atitlan. The photo above was taken from the garden terraces of the Hotel Atitlan where Carole and I stayed as part of our Caravan Tour of Guatemala. When I write about an area we visit, I ordinarily make some mention of our hotel, as long as it was comfortable and otherwise satisfactory. Hotel Atitlan is in a class by itself and deserves its own posting. Trust me, it is that spectacular. I will present more photos and information on lovely Lake Atitlan itself in my next posting. Appropriately, the indigenous word "atitlan" means "the place where the rainbow gets its colors."

Map of Lake Atitlan area. Hotel Atitlan is located on the north shore (top of lake in the map above). Just to the left of the town of Panajachel is an inlet where the hotel is located on sloping ground between two steep arms of land that reach into the lake on either side. Across the lake, directly to the south, are Volcan Toliman and behind it Volcan Atitlan. To the southwest are Volcan Santa Clara and Volcan San Pedro, which you will see in the next posting. The lake itself fills the mouth of an immense caldera, or volcanic opening, that may be more than 304m (1,000 ft) deep. The caldera was formed in a massive eruption 84,000 years ago. Surrounding the lake are the steep cliff walls of the caldera's rim, and a ring of newer volcanos . Volcan Atitlan erupted more than a dozen times between 1469 and 1853, and is considered still active. Also ringing the lake are a necklace of villages and towns occupied by Maya living a traditional lifestyle. Although the map shows a road connecting the towns around the circumference of the lake, many of these communities can only be reached by water, or by steep foot trails leading down from the road above. To locate Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, click here.

Lake Atitlan in the evening. I took this photo from the balcony of our hotel room, looking southeast. One of the arms of land that enclose Hotel Atitlan's property extends out to the docked boat. The town of Panajachel lies behind this arm. Clouds swirled around the volcanos, but Jorge, our Tour Guide, assured us that clear weather was likely in the morning. His prediction proved accurate. As it turned out--at least during our stay--Lake Atitlan's weather was very predictable. In the morning a bright sun would shine down from a clear blue of sky. By mid-afternoon, clouds would sweep in, with the sun lighting them up dramatically, as you can see above.

Entrance of Hotel Atitlan. The center of the parking lot contained this graceful fountain and garden. The hotel was constructed to blend into the landscape. The walls of the hotel were a gentle, rosy color capped with the rust colored clay tiles on the roof. All this blended well with the surrounding cliffs. The owners, Arturo and Susan Rivera are a Guatemalan-American couple who inherited a coffee finca (farm property) from Arturo's parents, Moisés and Blanca. The elder Riveras had begun their coffee business back in 1926 on this beautiful and secluded cove. After inheriting the property in 1970, Arturo and Susan built their hotel, starting with 14 rooms in 1971, and gradually expanding to a total of 65 rooms in 1992. There is nothing imposing or monumental about the hotel. Everything is understated except for the setting and the gardens surrounding the property, both of which are truly spectacular.

Hotel Atitlan never rises above 3 stories. The owners avoided the "tourist tower" effect found in so many resorts. In the photo above, our room is on the second floor, second from the left, and faces the lake while looking out over some of the incredible gardens surrounding the hotel. Each room is individually decorated and many of the textiles found in them were woven by local artisans.

Balcony hallways connect the rooms with the lobby and dining room of the hotel. The warm color of the floor tiles complimented the vibrant colors all around. The owners decorated the balcony hallways with fascinating antiques and some more recent wood carvings. This hallway overlooks the gardens of the back, or mountain side, of the hotel.

View from the balcony hallway. I was captivated by the lush jungle just beyond the balcony railing. I took over 3 dozen photos of the various gardens alone, and agonized over picking the handful to use in this posting. When I wandered around the gardens, I kept finding more and more of them. I didn't complete touring them all until the morning we left. To take care of all these requires a full-time staff of 22 gardeners.

 Cat with the "munchies". Some local artist produced this quirky little carving. It hung on the wall of the balcony hallway outside our room door.

Another view of the gardens from the balcony. I haven't been able to identify this interesting plant so far. If anyone can help, I'd appreciate it.

A permanent resident of Hotel Atitlan casts a skeptical eye on my photographic efforts. Many gorgeous parrots live in the trees and shrubbery around the hotel. Some of them will talk to you, if properly encouraged. When Carole called out "hola" (hello in Spanish) to one of these colorful birds, she received a honeyed "how're youuuuu...," perfect mimicry of the English of some previous North American tourist.

Hippeastrum hybrid of the Amaryllidaceae family. This is a bulb flower best for indoor growing or outdoors in a temperate climate. Hippeastrum is Greek for "horseman's star", or "knight's star" probably referring to the medieval weapon the flower resembles. The Dutch were the first commerical growers, importing several species from Mexico and South America. Hippeastrum now grows on most continents of the world.

Saint Francis of Assisi occupies the end of a carved, antique table in the balcony hallway. Among other things, Saint Francis (1181 AD - 1226 AD) is the patron saint of animals and is often shown surrounded by them. His actual name was Giovanni, but he picked up the nickname Francis because his father, an Italian, had a great love of France. Saint Francis started as a worldly young soldier, but had a vision during one of his campaigns that led him to renounce wealth and ultimately to become head of a new religious order. The Franciscan Order was the first to follow the conquistadors into the New World, arriving in Guatemala in 1530. They established missions and churches all across the new Spanish territory.

Fuchsia hybrid. This genus of flowering shrubs and small trees was first discovered on the Caribbean island of Hispanola (Dominican Republic and Haiti). It was named after a famous German botanist named Leonhart Fuchs (1501-1566). Fuchsia has almost 110 recognized speciels, most native to South America, growing as far south as Tierra del Fuego.

The Dancers. I found this charming little wood carving sitting on a chair in the main lobby of the hotel. Such treasures can be found throughout the hotel.

Callistemon citrinus (crimson bottlebrush). This plant got its common name because of what it resembles. Most of the currently known 34 species of Callistemon occur in Australia, in the east and southeast. The plant likes damp, cool conditions like those found along stream beds. However, it is very hardy and can be found in a variety of environments. The flowers of the Callistemon citrinus seen above appear in summer and autumn.

Main dining room. There was a huge stone fireplace on one side of the room, probably a good thing because the climate can get chilly at this altitude. We ate all our meals at the hotel and the food was excellent. There is another section of the restaurant outside next to the pool, on a covered patio overlooking the lake.

The pool area looked enticing, and included a heated spa. Behind the hotel, you can see the steeply rising cliffs of the caldera rim which surrounds the lake.

The rose garden was bordered by topiary. Topiary is the art of creating living sculptures. Live plants are trained to grow in particular shapes, sometimes abstract (as seen above), sometimes in the shape of animals. The word topiary comes from the Latin word for landscape gardener: topiarius.

Hotel Atitlan from the water. Seen from this perspective, the hotel almost disappears into the vegetation. The lake has risen recently, and the bottom stairs are under water. Lake Atitlan is the deepest lake in Central America. It is endorheic and has no outlet, losing water only through evaporation.

Amaranth, a genus of herbs. Amaranth is both an ornamental and a food plant, and has 3 sub-genera and 70 species. In Africa, it is grown as a food supplement and food experts see it as a way local communities can gain self-sufficiency. Amaranth can be used as a "pseudo-grain" by the gluten-intolerant, because the plant is not a member of the grass family and contains no gluten. It is presently cultivated for food on a small scale in Guatemala.

Palapa shelters lined this terrace on the lake side of the hotel. Although they looked very inviting, it puzzled me that I never saw anyone using them.

Alstroemeria hybrid.  The Alstroemeria genus, commonly known as Peruvian lily, or Lily of the Incas, has 120 species. Almost all of these come from Chile or Brazil. The Alstroemeria are all long-lived perennials except for one species native to the Atacama Desert in Chile. The plant's seeds were first collected by a Swedish baron named Claus von Alstroemer in 1753 on a trip to South America. The famous Carolus Linnaeus, who created the whole system of Latin names for plants and animals, named the plant after his friend Alstroemer.

Arbor leading back to the palapas on the terrace. I took this shot in the early morning, just as the yellow rays of sunlight were lighting up the gardens.

Madonna Lilies are strongly associated with the Virgin Mary in Catholic countries. The plant originated in the Balkans and the Middle East. The Victorian English associated the white lily with purity, modesty, and sweetness.

Volcan Toliman and Lake Atitlan over a flowering bougainvillea arbor. A perfectly clear morning dawned on the day we left Hotel Atitlan. Puffs of cloud hovered over Volcan Toliman, creating the illusion of an impending eruption. If you have occasion to visit Guatemala's Lake Atitlan, you owe it to yourself to spend a night or two at this hotel. If your budget doesn't allow that, at least stop by to wander the wonderful grounds and enjoy the spectacular view of the lake. Our stay at Hotel Atitlan was definitely one of the highlights of our whole trip.

This completes Part 4 of my Guatemala series. Next time, I'll show you around Lake Atitlan itself. I always appreciate feedback, and if you'd like to comment, please  do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Hello Jim, the photos are amazing. I was amazed to see in the little map of Atitlan that there are four volcanoes so close together.

    I don't know the name of the unknown plant either.But I must say that it was my favorite out of all the others you photographed.

    The balcony hallways look very quaint and I bet all of the antiques add to it's charm because they are most likely great conversation pieces.

    I look forward to your showing around Lake Atitlan.


  2. LOVE the topiary! And the carvings. Nice posting. I see what you mean about the hotel being a special place.

  3. You write an outstanding series of blogs!! I have greatly enjoyed them, and the memories they bring back of our travels with Jorge in Guatemala.


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim