In Guatemala’s southwestern highlands, serenely nestled at the foot of three looming volcanoes, you’ll find the country’s most beloved tourism destination: Lake Atitlán. Central America’s deepest lake has been famously lauded by the likes of Aldous Huxley, who compared it to Italy’s Lake Como and referred to it as “too much of a good thing.”
In the time leading up to our trip to Mexico, Belize and Guatemala, I found myself looking most forward to the five days we had planned on Lake Atitlán. Judging by my research (and, let’s face it, the abundance of picture-perfect Instagrams filling up my cell phone feed) I was sure it wouldn’t be enough time. I hadn’t even gotten there yet and already, I was convinced I’d never want to leave.
From Guidebooks to Real Life
Fast-forward several months later to our second day on the lake. We were in the town of Santiago on market day. After exploring the stalls, visiting a church and stopping by a park, we were ready to head to a different village. As we neared the dock to catch a lancha – or motorboat – we were approached by a man who wanted to sell us a private ride. Ever the budget traveler, I had no interest. I felt perfectly willing to squeeze onto a bench seat and travel with everyone else.
But the man wouldn’t let up. It didn’t seem to matter how many ways we tried to politely express our disinterest. He began shouting and gesticulating wildly toward the dock, bargaining with no one. Confused by his determination, our party of four scattered in different directions in an attempt to shake him off. It didn’t work.
I didn’t want to be rude, and I can respect anyone’s need to promote their services, but my mood was slowly souring. Boat rides from town to town are the main way of traveling between the villages surrounding the lake. Many of the roads are in severe disrepair and are uncomfortable – at best – and dangerous – at worst – to drive on. This wasn’t the first time that approaching the dock area led to a confusing flurry of salesmanship. My patience was running out.
After finally shaking off the man’s advances and at last finding our way to a public boat, we rode to nearby Panajachel. Upon disembarking, we were immediately approached by two more men, aggressively trying to negotiate our next boat ride before we even had the chance to walk off the dock.
I was feeling more frustrated by the minute; with my surroundings but also with myself. I had been looking forward to seeing this lake for months, and it just wasn’t what I had been expecting. I couldn’t seem to shake the black cloud that was slowly settling over me. It wasn’t just the challenge of catching a lancha ride without feeling harassed. I felt saddened by the piles of trash floating around the lake’s edges. The towns were more developed and geared toward tourism than I had been expecting. We were having trouble sleeping with the incessant echoes of club music resonating from downtown San Pedro to the windows of our nearby hillside apartment. The chicken buses roaring by at all hours of the night weren’t helping, either.
All of the photos and articles I had seen portrayed Lake Atitlán as the ultimate destination for a peaceful and picturesque retreat, and I felt almost fooled; tricked by the perfectly filtered Instagram endorsements that had led me here in the first place.
In addition to feeling let down, I became upset with myself. Where was my sense of adventure? Was I really going to let my day be ruined by pushy salesmen? So what if I was oscillating between feeling carsick and seasick? This was all part of the experience… right? Plus, how could I be annoyed at the development and ever-present signs of tourism? I was a tourist myself. If I wanted to visit the lake so badly, how could I hold it against others who wanted to do the same?
I told myself I needed to stop dwelling on the negatives and instead try to make the most of my limited time in this beautiful corner of the world. It was easier said than done, but I became determined to improve my outlook, knowing I would regret it later if I didn’t.
Chin Up, Buttercup
In search of the peace and quiet we had thought we would easily find everywhere, we strayed from the club-filled dockside area in San Pedro, climbing uphill to the original Mayan area of the village. We found a quiet and colorful park and enjoyed local street art outside of a school. While it was only a short walk away, it felt like an entirely different world from the congested shore.
The next morning we started our day with coffee at Café las Cristalinas and then enjoyed breakfast in the quiet, leafy garden of Idea Connection. Loaded up with freshly baked croissants for the road, we made our way to Santa Cruz La Laguna and took a lakeside walk to the small village of Jaibalito, where we sat in the village’s only open café and enjoyed smoothies while playing with two puppies.
Thirty Feet Later
I thought back to our first day on the lake, which started with a sunrise hike to the Mayan Face lookout point. Our guide brought coffee and fruit to enjoy at the top and helped us stage cheesy photos. Afterward, we visited the village of San Marcos La Laguna and ended up at the Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve. The views of the lake and volcanoes from the walking paths were incredible.
The focal point of the reserve is a 30-foot jumping platform. While I can swim, I’ve never been comfortable in the water. To my friends’ great amusement, I still have to plug my nose when I go under. Despite friendly peer pressure, I was resolute that I would not be jumping. I perched myself on a nearby rock outcropping and became the designated group photographer. But our new friend Gus wouldn’t let up – he had happily jumped in more than a dozen times and was determined that all of us go. Before I knew it, I was timidly climbing up to the platform… just to scope it out, of course.
I’m still not sure how I convinced myself to jump – I only know I was struck by the feeling that if I didn’t, I would regret it. So as Gus continued to egg me on from the water below, I took a running start off the platform. I certainly didn’t look very graceful – the video footage shows that I went into the water at a slight angle, and I quickly formed bruises on my leg highlighting my poor form. But I didn’t care. I had faced a huge fear and I couldn’t help but feel proud.
It felt good reflecting on this small victory just a few short days later. I was reminded then of that almost addictive thrill that comes from pushing your limits in a strange new place. It’s the feeling that made me fall in love with travel in the first place, and each time I experience it, it’s just as exciting as the first time.
I realized that in the long run, feeling frustrated with lancha salesmen didn’t matter. Thumping late-night club music didn’t matter. And the lake’s pollution… well, the pollution still bummed me out. I’m not a monster. But I was grateful to be where I was, challenges and all.
Maybe Lake Atitlán didn’t live up to my expectations in every regard. But were my expectations realistic? No. They were inordinately high and were largely based on the perfectly curated world we see online.
Rewinding to Ireland
The whole experience reminded me of my very first trip abroad more than ten years ago. I visited Ireland with my sister during my freshman year spring break. I felt so excited to see the storybook pictures in all of my guidebooks come to life.
To this day, I vividly remember the confusion I felt on our bus ride from Dublin Airport into the city. The sky was grey and the scenes that rushed past my window were nothing like what I was expecting. I remember actually being surprised that there were parts of this renowned destination that were so drab and everyday. Wasn’t every single part of Europe supposed to look like the glossy ads I had always seen?
I laugh looking back on my surprise in Ireland when every little thing wasn’t perfect. But my trip to Lake Atitlán made me realize that some of that naiveté is still within me. And I think it’s something a lot of us get caught up in when we travel. Leaving our everyday lives in search of something more: more exotic, more beautiful, more interesting, more ideal than what we have at home.
It can be easy to expect perfection. But when you leave your everyday, you’re visiting someone else’s everyday. You know yours isn’t without its flaws, so why would you expect anyone else’s to be?
The Era of Instagram
For me, the answer to this question can be at least partially found online: on Facebook, on Instagram, on travel blogs, and elsewhere. Traditional marketing has always played a role, but in today’s era of millions of users habitually sharing all of those perfectly filtered moments, it’s become harder than ever to differentiate between highly curated galleries of images and the real world. And I say this as a travel blogger who has been an avid lover and user of Instagram for almost seven years.
It’s only natural to want to share your favorite memories and best photos while leaving out the less noteworthy and more disappointing aspects. But are we slowly creating an expertly tinted fantasy world that can never be lived up to in real life?
I’m sure I’m not alone in forming expectations for a place or experience due to various blogs and Instagram accounts, only to arrive and think to myself, “Wait. Is this it? This isn’t what it looked like online!”
As travel bloggers and Instagrammers, are we doing the places that we highlight a favor, or are we potentially setting people up for disappointment?
And on a more personal note: are our experiences starting to be shaped by what will get us the best post, the highest engagement, or the most likes, as opposed to what we’d want them to be shaped by if platforms like these didn’t exist?
After all, it’s not only the photogenic moments that are beautiful, memorable and valuable. (Like my crooked jump into Lake Atitlán.) But in the era of Instagram, that becomes easy to forget. It also becomes easy to forget that the places we visit are comprised of much more than can be conveyed through singular images online and in guidebooks. Real people. Real lives. Real problems. Real beauty.
Maybe my time on Lake Atitlán wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, and maybe part of me felt like a “travel failure” for not falling head over heels for it, as it felt like everyone else had. But at the end of the day, I feel so grateful to have been able to experience it, unfiltered aspects and all.
The ability and opportunity to travel is a gift. Drawbacks are inevitable. Not every aspect of a vacation will be perfect. Not every place you visit will be your favorite. And that’s okay.
There will also be beauty to take in. Lessons to learn. Something new to see, try, experience, or taste. And, if you’re lucky, maybe you’ll have the chance to surprise yourself by mustering the courage to jump off of that 30-foot platform, and you’ll still be riding that high six months later.
Even if you did have to remember to plug your nose on the way down.
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I’d love to hear your thoughts on and experiences with expectations vs. reality while traveling. Do you think platforms like Instagram play a role one way or the other? While I’m certainly not going to stop utilizing it anytime soon (and the same goes for travel blogs, of course!) I definitely want to work on becoming more mindful of my online habits in regards to traveling. Have you ever felt the same?