Lake Atitlan is like no other place on Earth I’ve seen yet. So much about it is amazing and unique. The crater lake is mysterious – a caldera created in earth some 80,000-plus years ago. Its ancient, majestic wonder is showcased by sunrises against three volcanoes.
Maya people speak old tongues; Spanish is their second language. No road goes all the way around the lake, boats and tuk tuks go village to village. Tourism drives this economy. And tourism contributes to the severe lake pollution – pollution that may not be remedied in our time.
It’s so polluted, many scientists say the lake’s environmental health might be lost forever by the year 2020. Yep. That soon.
The main problem is raw sewage discharged into lake from about 400,000 people on any given day. Agricultural runoff and deforestation play roles, but population explosion is the biggest culprit. Since the 1950s, more tourists have gone to the lake, reaching at least 2.1 million in 2014, the last official number I could find online. Human waste breeds cyanobacteria, algae that produce toxins that last a long time.
The problem was first noticed after a 2005 cyclone system dumped an extreme amount of water on the area. The storm destroyed a waste water treatment plant. That launched an incredible bacteria bloom. The lake’s never been the same since.
The scum became so widespread and problematic it was seen by NASA satellite in 2009. The blooms create dead zones. Some years are worse than others. We did not see that algae cover on the surface, but the bacteria live several feet underwater and only come to the surface to feed when the temperature changes.
My spouse went for a swim while we stayed on Lake Atitlan for six weeks. He snorkeled to check out the conditions just to do it. He saw fish, including a large, ugly fish he couldn’t identify, underwater plants, darkness where the depth increased. He showered off as soon as we got back to our Airbnb rental. He did not get a skin rash, he did not get sick – he was totally fine.
Many people jump into the lake for a swim – tourists and locals alike. In fact, many people wash their clothes in the lake, which also contributes a bit to the pollution. We have seen many people bathe in the lake.
Sometimes on the boat rides around to different villages, I saw what looked a lot like soap bubbles created in the wake. I have no idea if the bubbles actually were from soap, but it sure looked like it to me.
Back to the main problem – sewage. All scientists seem to agree the lake has reached its saturation point with sewage, and the constant inflow means the lake never has time to recover. At this rate, most of the scientists say, the lake will be impossible to save by 2020. There is division on how to save the lake – some scientists believe a pipeline around the lake will help; others say more waste water treatment centers will solve this issue.
I did not submerge myself in the lake. Since our visit was the start of rainy season, it was never so blazing hot that I wanted to jump in. I sat on the shore. I kayaked. I stuck my feet in to get a picture of plastic trash and a dead fish.
Sick dogs are one way locals can tell when the cyanobacteria becomes especially toxic. The dogs get sick from drinking the water, or from making contact with the water. There are stray dogs all over the place at Lake Atitlan, just like in other areas of Central America and Mexico. I saw a few dogs that looked really sick when we went to a local beach, but I am not a vet and I have no idea if the dogs were sick from toxins in the water.
The water level rises every 50 years or so, according to locals, and then falls again. Some reports quote fishermen as saying they have always seen some cyanobacteria in the lake – it only exploded in growth in the last 12 years.
Still, many people, especially expats, don’t eat the fish. Some fishermen try other work, like picking coffee or smashing rocks for concrete bags. Other fishermen haven’t given up. They take out their old wooden boats, drop a wire, and hope.
For now, Lake Atitlan is a beautiful, enjoyable place. But I wonder for how much longer if something isn’t done – and done fast.