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How to travel responsibly at Lake Atitlán

Tourism is a huge boost to the economy of the towns and villages around Lake Atitlán. However, with an influx of tourists, there is a risk that the area’s natural beauty and unique culture – the very reasons most people visit – may be destroyed. Does this mean that you should stay away? Of course not. The secret is to be a responsible traveler so that your presence at the lake is a positive thing and not a negative one. It’s really simple to travel responsibly at Lake Atitlán. Here are ten tips:

Stay in environmentally responsible lodging

The possibilities for accommodation around the lake are endless, with something for every budget. Unfortunately, not all hotels, hostels, and Airbnb properties are as environmentally responsible as they could be. Do some research before you book accommodation and then opt for an eco-friendly place. Some questions to ask include:

  • How do they manage waste? Do they recycle?
  • How do they handle sewage? Do they have a sound septic-tank system or do they let the sewage run off into the lake? 
  • Do they use renewable energy?
  • Do they limit single-use products?

Support local businesses

When you support a locally owned business – whether it’s the mom-and-pop store down the street or a locally owned travel agent or restaurant – your money will go back into the local economy. In contrast, supporting a foreign-owned business may mean that your money will go into a foreign bank account.

Learn the language

In the towns on the southern side of the lake, most people’s first language is Tz’utujil. On the northern side, people speak mainly Kaqchikel. The lingua franca is Spanish. So, instead of shouting in English and expecting people to understand you, learn at least some basic Spanish at a reputable language school like San Pedro Spanish School.  Speaking to people in their language is one of the easiest ways to show respect.

Show some basic good manners

Politeness and basic good manners are greatly appreciated since they are signs of respect. Start with saying “please” – por favor or simply porfa in Spanish – and “thank you” – gracias in Spanish, maltiox in Tz’utijil, and matyöx in Kaqchikel.

Dress respectfully

While the warm weather and lakeside setting may make it tempting to wear skimpy clothing, it’s useful to remember that the local communities at Lake Atitlán tend to be quite conservative. Mayan women usually wear traditional dress when they go out and even at the beach they’ll wear knee-length shorts and T-shirts rather than bikinis. Men almost never take off their shirts in public unless they’re at the beach. If you walk down the street in your swimwear or short shorts, you’ll cause offense. It’s better to dress conservatively. If you enter a church or ceremonial site, you definitely need to cover up.

Ask before you take pictures

Mayan culture is incredibly colorful, especially in terms of the traditional dress that most women and some men wear. However, before you start photographing people – especially children – and their homes, the wares they sell, or their religious ceremonies, ask their permission. After all, how would you feel if someone shoved a camera in your face as you’re going about your day? Knowing some basic Spanish will come in handy when you need to ask for permission to take photographs. This way you can ask the person’s name, learn a bit more about them, and maybe even offer them a copy of the photo.

Don’t litter

Littering is a huge problem around the lake and often it’s the result of a lack of education about its impact on the environment. You don’t need to add to the problem. Put your trash in your pocket or a bag and carry it with you until you can throw it in a bin. Most stores will gladly let you throw your trash into their bins: simply ask for a basurero, a trash can.

Limit your use of plastics and single-use products

Even if you don’t throw your trash in the street, it may still end up in the lake or in the forests around the towns. So, reduce how much trash you create in the first place. Instead of buying single-use products like little packets of shampoo or take-out containers, invest in reusable containers that you can refill as you need to. The same goes for water bottles: most hostels and hotels will let you refill your bottle for free or for a few quetzales. Also, take your own bag or basket when you go shopping so that you won’t need a plastic bag. 

Don’t hand out money or gifts to children

Poverty is rife around the lake and if a child asks you for money or some other gift, it can be hard to say no. However, giving children money and gifts encourage begging and in the long term, it will do more harm than good. Some children may even start to skip school so that they can spend more time making money off tourists. Instead, donate to one of the many charitable organizations around the lake. This way you’ll know that your help goes where it’s truly needed.

Respect the law

Ordinary Guatemalans are constantly fighting corruption and crime to make the country a better place. If you don’t respect and obey the local laws, you are adding to the problem. If you refuse to buy illegal drugs, there won’t be enough business for gangs to operate in the area and young people will be more likely to look for more legitimate ways of making a living. In addition, not paying bribes will discourage corruption.