One of the more popular (and distinctive) hikes around Guatemala’s Lake Atitlan is the climb to Indian Nose.
If the name seems vaguely racist, that’s because it is. The silhouette of the cliffs surrounding Indian Nose roughly resemble the profile of a Mayan face. The peak of these cliffs is the tip of the profile’s nose. This “nose” is a particularly popular spot to visit early in the morning to watch the sun rise over Lake Atitlan.
A Heart-Stopping Early Morning Bus Ride
Our last day in San Pedro la Laguna, Michael and I decided to take a guided hike to Indian Nose to see the sunrise. We were given a name, a place, and a time to meet (EXCRUCIATINGLY early) the next morning. This seemed like enough information until we were standing by the entrance to the central plaza at 4:00 AM, shivering in the early morning chill and looking around skittishly. Where exactly was the “front” of the park? How would we recognize our guide?
As it turned out, it was easier for the guide to recognize us. Who else could his clients be but the shivering, nervous gringos standing alone in the street in the wee hours of the morning?
He shepherded us and two other hikers onto a bus as it passed out of town. We spent the next hour gripping the sides of our seat in a panic. The bus climbed slowly upwards towards Indian Nose on a two-lane road barely wide enough for the bus. The road switched back and forth over steep cliffs, forcing the long bus to perform complicated six-point turns. The moments when a car coming the other direction passed us were positively heart-stopping.
Finally, at 5:15 we reached our destination: a sleepy little village at the foot of Indian Nose. And now the rush began. We had forty minutes to make the steep, dark climb to the top before the sun rose.
A Steep Hike in the Dark
Our guide led us down an alley to a dirt path. The dirt path took us through local farms, rising steeply up through fields of corn and vegetables. We moved slowly with our phones held out in front of us as flashlights.
It was becoming clear why a guide is so highly recommended for this hike. The path to the peak was almost impossible to find and zig-zagged through dozens of different private properties. Our guide explained that he used part of his tour fees to pay the farmers for use of their land. (In fact, we heard from other travelers who attempted the hike that without a guide the land owners would demand payment upon entry).
We began to panic as the path got steeper and the sky started to lighten. Luckily, the light made hiking easier and we were able to speed up as time went on.
We took the last ascent at a jog and burst panting onto the peak mere seconds before the sun peaked over the cliffs.
The Sunrise Over Lago de Atitlan
I’ve seen plenty of amazing sunrises in my life, but this one was particularly breathtaking. The indescribable magic that pervades Lake Atitlan infected this view as well. The sun shimmering off the water; the fog obscuring the surface of the water and the tips of the volcanoes; the dozens of little towns clinging to the steep lands surrounding Atitlan…it was all perfect.
As we sat gazing out over the view, it was easy to understand why Atitlan is considered a spiritual place. Our ten days exploring the lakeside towns were filled with education, art, food, and some downright mind-blowing cultural experiences. This magical sunrise was truly cathartic, a fitting conclusion to our extended stay on the lake.
Next stop, Quetzaltenango!