How Guatemala's Most Beautiful Lake Turned Ugly

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People stand in Atitlan Lake, Guatemala

In his 1934 travel book Beyond the Mexique Bay, Aldous Huxley compared Guatemala's Lake Atitlan to Italy's Lake Como. The Italian body of water, he wrote, "touches the limit of the permissibly picturesque." Atitlan, however, "is Como with the additional embellishment of several immense volcanoes. It is really too much of a good thing." Guatemalans have interpreted this declaration by the author of Brave New World to mean that Lake Atitlan is the most beautiful lake in the world — which is the billing on most of the tourist brochures, despite Huxley's ambivalent phrasing.

Atitlan is indeed breathtaking, but nowadays it is leaving many visitors gasping for breath. A thick brown sludge is tarnishing its once blue waters. It is the result of decades of ecological imbalance, brought on by economic and demographic pressures. The unsightly and smelly layer, more than 100 feet deep in some areas, is chasing tourists away from Mayan towns in the area and posing huge cleanup expenses to a government already strapped for cash. Worse, the results of a University of California, Davis, analysis found that the bacteria is toxic. Scientists are urging residents to avoid cooking with, bathing in or drinking the water. Several towns get drinking water from the lake.

The sludge has huge implications for the area and Guatemala. The towns around Atitlan have become reliant on tourism. Scores of restaurants and hotels have opened. Generations of boatmen made a living by shuttling visitors across the lake. And armies of three-wheeled taxis, known as tuk-tuks, were imported from Asia to help move tourists around. Business is down significantly this year. Hotels say they have about half as many guests as usual. Tuktuk drivers report they barely make enough to pay for gas. Restaurant owners are considering giving up. The global recession may be a major factor but the stench isn't helping.

The problem is as much visual as it is olfactory. As the bacteria dies, a foul odor wafts from the water. "It's like trying to eat lunch in an outhouse," says English backpacker Brian Thompson, 22, pulling his t-shirt over his nose between bites of chicken at a little lakeside restaurant. "Tell you one thing, I wouldn't eat the fish." One restaurant owner says he's considering closing or renting the space to another operator, at a loss. "We used to have 15 or 20 tables a day. Now we get one," says Pedro Chavajag, 38, owner of Comedor Juanita, an eatery about 40 feet from a busy dock here.

Scientists first detected the cyanobacteria that now infests Atitlan in the 1970s. But the genesis of the problem dates to the late 1950s when the Guatemalan government introduced non-native black bass into the lake's waters believing that hotels and restaurants could lure more tourists if they could offer freshly caught lake fish on their menus. Over the years, however, the bass ate through nearly the entire food chain, including the the young of the rare Pato Poc duck. Their consumption disrupted the ecosystem and destroyed the organisms that would have kept the bacteria at bay.

Without natural predators, the bacteria needed only a source of food to thrive. That would be phosphorous, which is abundant among the hills and three towering volcanoes around Atitlan. The situation is aggravated by government distribution of chemical fertilizer containing extra phosphorous to poor farmers who liberally apply it to their fields. Widespread deforestation allows the soil to leach into the lake during Guatemala's six-month-long rainy season.

Even indigenous Mayans' unknowingly feed the bacteria by washing their clothes on lakeshore rocks with soap that contains phosphorous. An overabundance of phosphorous coupled with three weeks of unusually high temperatures — which the government blames on global warming — is a possible reason why the lake is blooming this year.

"I think everyone is beginning to realize that we all had a part in the problem," says Monica Berger, executive director of Association Atit Ala, a community development group pushing for a government cleanup of the lake. "It's easy to ignore the problem until it starts to hurt tourism and the lake's image."

With the future of one of its major tourist attractions in question, the Guatemalan government has announced an ambitious multi-part plan to cut sources of phosphorous. It calls for the construction of 15 sewage-treatment plants, a government-led conversion to organic farming for 80% of farmers in the lake's watershed during the next three years, and for educating residents and tourists about the environment. The cost: about $350 million, a huge expenditure for an impoverished country. "The problem has been accumulating for years but Guatemala has other expensive problems and, apparently, this was not a priority," says Margaret Dix, a Universidad Del Valle scientist who has studied the lake since 1976. "It needs money, input and a commitment. ... I think it can be restored to a large extent in four or five years. But it will never be like it was 100 years ago."