39 In Central America/ Thoughts

Travel Expectations vs. Reality Through the Lens of Lake Atitlán

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.”

Lake Atitlán views from Santa Cruz La Laguna

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.

Looking out over the village of San Pedro from our apartment’s balcony

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.

Enter: Self-Doubt

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.

Sunset in Santa Cruz

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?

Sunrise at the Mayan Face lookout

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.

In keeping with this post’s theme, I’m only sharing unfiltered photos here… and it was a lot harder for me to commit to than I’d like to admit!

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.

Pin this for later

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?

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  • Reply
    April 28, 2018 at 12:50 pm

    What a refreshing and insightful read. I agree that social media has set up unrealistic expectations for travel and unpleasant habits and feelings while traveling too. I am currently working to reduce my own reliance on (and addiction to!) Instagram and being more present in every moment. I also love how even though you were put off by certain things during your trip at first, you gave yourself the opportunity to reflect and reset and ended up with a more positive experience. The current cultures of instant gratification makes that hard, but it’s important in all aspects of life and of course travel.

    • Reply
      Caity Pfohl
      May 9, 2018 at 8:50 pm

      Thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts, Sarah! I agree that it can be so hard to resist the urge for instant gratification and wanting everything to be great right away. Even though they trip wasn’t “perfect”, it definitely reminded me of and taught me some very valuable lessons, which is a huge plus on its own, really!

  • Reply
    Stephanie (@Vaycarious)
    May 7, 2018 at 10:33 pm

    I’ve felt this way when traveling, too. I get bothered by all of the businesses catering to tourists, even though I’m one of them. But then I get a little further away from things and get to see people just living their every day lives, and I’m glad to be there with them.

    Still, I’m super guilty of sharing only the sanitized images of a place on Instagram. Thanks for sharing, Caity. #mondayescapes

    • Reply
      Caity Pfohl
      May 9, 2018 at 9:02 pm

      Isn’t that so funny? I find myself feeling so grumpy toward people and then realizing that of course I’m no different! But I agree that it can be such a nice change of pace to stray from the beaten path, even just a little bit. And I’m the same way with my photos – sometimes I find that going through them and editing them is half the fun! I often view my Instagram profile as a handy digital photo album that I can look back on, so of course I prefer to include the best ones. For me, I’m just trying to keep in mind now more than ever that Instagram does not equal real life and is not the most important part of seeing new places. Thanks so much for reading!

  • Reply
    May 8, 2018 at 4:25 pm

    I really enjoyed reading this and the memories all flooding back to me of my visit over 12 years ago! Back before there was any social media and shared photos to be inspired by. I was a young 22 year old traveling solo around south and central America, relying on The Lonely Planet and guide books! Sorry it seems to have become so commercialised, I can imagine how much it’s developed over the past decade. I loved hearing your account of it and remembering the fond memories I had of it all those years ago! xx

    • Reply
      Caity Pfohl
      May 9, 2018 at 8:57 pm

      Thanks so much, Lara! I bet it was so different back then – 12 years isn’t that long, but in this day and age I feel like it’s a lifetime for sought after destinations! As you can probably tell from the post, sometimes I wish we could go back to the pre-Instagram days! While there are definitely pros and it’s helped me discover some great spots, I do miss the spontaneity and mystery from the days of traveling with less of a preconceived idea already in your head. Thank you for sharing your thoughts! 🙂

  • Reply
    May 9, 2018 at 2:26 pm

    I certainly choose my better photos for Instagram but they’re not the over edited and staged photos that take hours to set up – no fun in that! PS My other half is from Dublin so I know to treat all blue skies in Irish photographs as suspect, I’m sure it rains whenever I visit! #Mondayescapes

    • Reply
      Caity Pfohl
      May 9, 2018 at 8:54 pm

      I agree – I think it’s more than fair to want to share the best photos, but the overly staged ones do start to seem a bit funny and more like a magazine shoot than real life. How fun that your partner is from Dublin! We spent time in Dublin, Galway and the Aran Islands and I would love to go back and see more! Thanks so much for reading 🙂

  • Reply
    Sarah Christie
    May 9, 2018 at 4:27 pm

    Ah its such a shame when somewhere doesn’t meet your dreams, I would not have liked that pushy man either but I am glad you found some lovely peaceful moments too, thanks for linking up #MondayEscapes x

  • Reply
    May 10, 2018 at 12:47 am

    Great post, Caity! It’s true, social media has taken over the world we live in. I try to remember to put my camera down and phone away & just live in the moment as much as possible. I also try to post some pictures without filters or a ton of editing.

    • Reply
      Caity Pfohl
      August 12, 2018 at 7:36 pm

      Thanks so much for reading, Melina! I have started to do the same – if I’m not careful, I’ll arrive somewhere, take tons of photos and then go on to the next thing. I love having photos to remember trips by but it’s so important to put the camera down sometimes!

  • Reply
    May 10, 2018 at 3:35 pm

    Such a great post as always, Caity! Social media is overwhelming sometimes and that’s coming from me, who’s on it constantly. I’ve made a serious effort the past couple years to always enjoy what’s real and to put down the camera once in a while to just be in that moment. Sounds hippie dippie but it’s much better than being swallowed into the void of social media! Thanks for joining Fly Away Friday, hope to see you tomorrow for the 50th one – exciting things happening! xo

    • Reply
      Caity Pfohl
      August 12, 2018 at 7:38 pm

      Thanks so much, Kana! 🙂 I’m also on it constantly – I actually run social media for local businesses where I live, so whether for work or pleasure, I find myself on Facebook and Instagram alllll the time! Sometimes I have to force myself to put down the phone/camera and step away…it’s so easy to get sucked in, but is so much more enjoyable when you can take some breaks!

  • Reply
    Janine Good
    May 10, 2018 at 4:15 pm

    I rarely take stock in the photos I see online as with the invention of Photoshop nothing is ever no filter. One of the largest bloggers in the industry my husband saw right through as using photoshop on their Instagram profile. Nothing is that pristine in real life or person-free. I also felt for you with the rude private boat tour guy. Thank you for coming to Fly Away Friday! Hope to see you for our 50th link-up tomorrow!!

    • Reply
      Caity Pfohl
      August 12, 2018 at 7:39 pm

      Thanks for reading, Janine! You’re right, it is kind of bizarre/scary that people can actually remove objects and people from their photos – a filter is one thing, but completely changing the scene is another!

  • Reply
    California Globetrotter
    May 10, 2018 at 5:13 pm

    Bravo for facing a fear and jumping in! Glad that your trip picked up a bit and the black cloud slowly dissipated but such a huge bummer that you were harassed and there was so much pollution! It is hard not to get your hopes up about a place when we’re constantly fed picture perfect images. #FarawayFiles

    • Reply
      Caity Pfohl
      August 12, 2018 at 7:41 pm

      Thanks so much – I was terrified and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to do it again but it’s definitely one of the best memories of the trip! You’re so right, too…one thing I’m trying to remember now is that it’s fine to enjoy beautiful photos but also important to regularly remind myself that Instagram is not real life! Not that real life isn’t beautiful, it’s just rarely so flawless (and that’s okay). 🙂

  • Reply
    Chiera McLaughlin
    May 10, 2018 at 8:51 pm

    I am definately guikty of only posting nicer puctures5, but not too overly staged. That pushy guy does not sound nice! Glad you were eventually able to have a good trip #flyawayfriday

    • Reply
      Caity Pfohl
      August 12, 2018 at 7:43 pm

      I’m totally guilty too! Sorting through photos after a trip and editing them has become something I really enjoy, to be honest. I’m definitely working on keeping things more realistic, though, including my expectations!

  • Reply
    May 11, 2018 at 6:11 am

    Oh Guatemala! Such a stunning country and so poor and corrupt! We visited extensively few years ago just before kids and just like you, felt in love with certain landscapes but we felt harressed in many occassions or simply not safe – despite having good Uni friends relocated back in Antigua and following their tips and advice at all times! I guess as travellers we have a duty to also understand that many of the locals in the countries are beyond poverty line and driving them to less than ideal behaviours. As usual in this life, best to embark on without expectations, emrace the rde – travellin s about growing and seeing the world through the local eyes and new perspectives rather than insta flowy fashionable dresses 😉 #Farawayfiles

    • Reply
      Caity Pfohl
      August 12, 2018 at 7:45 pm

      Thanks so much for reading! I love the end of your comment, too – while I definitely respect the ladies out there who manage to look great while roaming around, I’m usually in gym clothes while traveling!

  • Reply
    May 12, 2018 at 3:37 am

    It looks amazing, would love to go one day!🤗

    • Reply
      Caity Pfohl
      August 12, 2018 at 7:45 pm

      It’s a beautiful place! 🙂 Thank you for reading.

  • Reply
    May 12, 2018 at 12:10 pm

    I know just how you feel and have for various reasons felt many of these same things. One example is our visit to the Sistine Chapel, which is tainted by my memories of the tour guides pulling and pushing us to hire them. In the end we took a chance and it worked out okay, but I wish I’d been more prepared. While over editing is a definite thing these days a little touch up or crop isn’t a bad thing… that said, your photos here are splendid! #farawayfiles

    • Reply
      Caity Pfohl
      August 12, 2018 at 7:48 pm

      Thanks so much, Hilary! I actually have similar memories from the Sistine Chapel. I remember entering the room and being astounded at the number of people taking so many photos even though, for the art’s sake, they ask you not to. The whole vibe of the place was a little strange to me for that reason. I was a little bummed that visitors couldn’t enjoy it without snapping pictures, although I’m certainly guilty of having my camera out more often than not.

  • Reply
    May 14, 2018 at 7:05 am

    Oh I’m so glad that you got out of that funk and not let those pushy salesmen and noise pollution affect your experience at Lake Atitlan. Yeah, I have had experiences like this before – felt disappointed when I arrived at the supposed paradise, or that the site just wasn’t as beautiful or pretty as Instagram pics. But you know what, it’s up to us to create our own travel experiences coz nobody would have the same experience as you had. Btw, I really love your pics! 🙂 #FarawayFiles

    • Reply
      Caity Pfohl
      August 12, 2018 at 7:51 pm

      Thanks so much, Kat! And you’re definitely right, everyone’s experience is unique, even in the same place, and a positive attitude only helps!

  • Reply
    Clare (Suitcases and Sandcastles)
    May 14, 2018 at 9:42 am

    This is such a well-written and thoughtful post, Caity. I’m sure so many of us have experienced moments like these. Sometimes it’s the place, sometimes it’s the right place at the wrong time, with the wrong people. I’m as guilty as so many others. I want to make my photos, blog posts and Instagram posts beautiful and focus on that more than the less savoury side. Thanks for sharing on #FarawayFiles

  • Reply
    Corey | fifi + hop
    May 15, 2018 at 12:42 am

    Great idea for a post, Caity. There are so many levels of it I’d like to respond to, but firstly re: Insta I totally hear you. I have stopped following some big accounts because their photos are too perfect and don’t look real. Quite the opposite – they look dramatically unreal! For better or worse I have yet to use photoshop. I’m pretty old fashioned when it comes to photography and kind of think it’s unfair that certain images get so much attention when you know the original shot looked nothing like it. Unfortunately it’s the world we live in argh. About the lake, I would have felt the same way, and seeing trash would have really turned me off. I guess there will always be favorite and less favorite travel experiences. Thanks for linking up with #farawayfiles

    • Reply
      Caity Pfohl
      August 12, 2018 at 7:57 pm

      Thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts, Corey! Some of the content that gets super popular is confusing to me, too. And I am the same with Photoshop – I enjoy editing my photos but I do so with basic phone apps because photoshop and lightroom are too much for me!

  • Reply
    Skyler (Learningbrave)
    May 21, 2018 at 3:37 pm

    I loved reading your post! I appreciate truthful storytelling that includes both the ups and the downs. I felt like this when we embarked on our family travel. We sold everything and left our normal life to travel with 5 kids (crazy I know!), but all I had ever read online was about how wonderful everything would be. Exciting, fun and educational family experiences…but no one seemed to mention how terribly hard it can be. No one seemed to be talking about the crying kids, and the exhaustion, and the dashed expectations…along with all the wonderful elements. So I appreciate when a writer is able to include both of these, in photos as well as stories, I am trying to do this on our blog, to paint an inspiring yet realistic picture of places and experiences. I think that you have done this very well on this post! I loved the story of you jumping into the lake crookedly, it was the best bit! xx

    • Reply
      Caity Pfohl
      August 12, 2018 at 8:03 pm

      Thank you so much for reading and for sharing such kind words, Skyler! I totally agree – so many of my trips, especially the long-term ones, have included their fair share of challenging and frustrating experiences. It’s so easy to assume it will never be anything but glamorous, but that is never really the case! I am so impressed that you decided to travel with FIVE children in tow – what an amazing experience for all of you. I am not surprised to hear there are challenges as I find it hard enough to keep track of things for just myself on the road! I hope you are having a GREAT time and am excited to read about your adventures!

  • Reply
    James Smith
    May 28, 2018 at 3:41 am

    It’s fantastic. Life is beautiful if we can explore that perfectly.

  • Reply
    January 1, 2020 at 6:31 am

    Great post. I really like your blog – so refreshing to read and you have a lovely writing style. Keep it up! 🙂

  • Reply
    Charneice Keniell McKenzie
    May 11, 2022 at 12:47 pm

    Good to know. I’m planning a trip and already prepared not to want to leave. I’ll be traveling alone and the incessant demands sounds annoying and alrming. I’ll keep you posted.

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