Some time ago, I spent a year living in a beautiful place called Lake Atitlan, located in Guatemala. During this time I was lucky to find a dear friend, Petronela, and she invited me to her home in the hills of Santa Catarina, one of the 13 communities surrounding the lake. She worked in a hat and a weaving shop while her older sister and mother were artisans and together they supported themselves and eight younger siblings.  Upon my arrival, I really wanted to own a hand-made cowboy hat, everyday I would walk by the shop, Petronela would wave and I would admire that one hat. It was a bit of a splurge, knowing it didn’t match any outfit I owned, and would probably sit on my dresser collecting dust. Petronela saved it for me and one day gave me a great price I couldn’t refuse. That was how our friendship began.


We were like sisters even though her lifestyle was so different from mine. She lived with no electricity or running water. Water was gathered from a well down in the center of the home and cooking was done outdoors with fire. She spoke Kaqchikel, a Mayan dialect, and wore her colorful, handmade traditional garments with pride. Although she didn’t speak any English, we were still able to converse with each other, and together with her mother transformed traditional textiles into ponchos and wraps that I wore in my daily lake life. People would admire my ponchos and order one of their own, another way Petronela could gain further income for her family.


Santa Catarina

Santa Catarina was my favorite town to visit yet the entire lake scenery is gorgeous with volcanoes and green landscapes. During my time there, I witnessed the lake suffer and become filled with a toxic bacteria. It was really saddening, as there was such a strong energy in the community and the lake was a daily part of many people’s lives. Besides doing photo projects and living the bohemian lifestyle myself, a few friends and I started an organization called Artitlan, Artists for Lake Atitlan. We held events highlighting the importance of recycling and reducing waste and tried to build an awareness of environmental factors affecting the lake. Petronela was always involved and a great help with my various projects. Our activities included an art installation made out of recycled materials and a market showcasing locally made products. A highlight was a concert with 15 musicians from Guatemala city and a special performance by a Mayan women’s theater group retelling the stories of their ancestors.

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Although I was mostly based in Panajachel, the largest of the towns and closest to the city, there were more popular options for visitors to Atitlan, such as San Pedro for backpackers and full moon parties or San Marcos for the spiritual seekers. Santa Catarina was still the most picturesque and great for a day trip, exploring the steep streets and visiting all the Artisan shops, textiles and ceramics they are known for.

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One of my fondest memories was the time I spent with Petronela. I will always remember her as my Kaqchikel sister and she had such a warm personality and great spirit of the lake. I encourage any trip to Guatemala to include days spent visiting the many lake side communities of Atitlan and I’m sure Petronela will be there to offer a warm welcome. 

This is a guest post by Amber Urquhart.

FullSizeRender Amber is a photographer and travel writer who has spent the last decade traveling around the globe, engaging in a variety of experiences that only some can imagine. A Canadian artist, she left her home in Vancouver for a chance to explore other cultures and communities – her adventures have taken her from the London punk scene to metropolitan cities such as New York, Paris, through isolating treks across the Gobi Desert and touring with racecar drivers. She blogs at A Long Holiday and you can follow her Twitter and Instagram.