It took us two tries but we found the natural hot springs in Santa Catarina Palopó in Lake Atitlan! We had heard about the hot springs from several friends that have lived around the lake for years and last month we went looking for them. No luck. This past weekend we were determined to find them and succeeded. Here's the story.
Santa Catarina is a small pueblo (think town) 2.5 miles from our house in Panajachel. The population is around 6,000 people. It is an indigenous community descending from the Kaqchikel Maya. Many locals wear their traditional Mayan traje daily.
We told some friends about the previously elusive hot springs and they were interested in joining us for our second attempt.
Adults pay 3Q each (about 38 cents US) to ride in a pickup from Panajachel to Santa Catarina. Kids are free. Given the gorgeous weather and views along the route, Mickelle and I walked it while our friends and kids went via pickup.
The first time we looked for the hot springs we arrived in town in the late afternoon. After talking to locals we learned the hot springs are located in the lake. They are not self contained pools. There is a small section of the lake's shore that has underground fishers that vent heat into the lake.
Lake Atitlan is notoriously choppy in the afternoons. The rough waters foiled our plans of finding and swimming in the hot springs on our first attempt but we did find the general location. On our second attempt, we met up with our friends in Santa Catarina at 10:15 am.
Once we reached the town centro (center of town) we turned right, walking towards the lake down a wide alleyway filled with vendors.
After a brief walk we were standing in front of a dock at the lake's shore. Just before the dock, we turned right onto a narrow dirt path and continue along the shoreline.
The group posed for a few pics.
See the two bald guys in the picture above. The hot springs are located between their heads along the distant shoreline.
Lake Atitlan is known to have issue with contamination and sewage runoff into the lake, but not here. The water appeared and smelled healthy.
The trees above unfortunately died due to the rising lake, which was evidenced throughout our short hike.
After a short walk, we came upon the hot springs...and they were packed with locals.
The lake is very deep and because of that the water is brisk (Mickelle says freezing). Along the shores here there are about a half dozen areas where the hot springs flow into the lake. Those are the coveted spots. Sitting at or near those spots is comparable to sitting in a warm bathtub.
We swam, played and chatted with friends for about an hour and half before trekking back towards Pana. While the springs are probably not what you are picturing in your mind and they feel more warm than hot, they are worth the cultural experience. We'll be back.
We all decided to take a pickup back to Pana. While waiting for one to arrive, we gravitated towards a small tienda selling fresh fruit. They had pre-cut papaya, mango and coconut. They also had something I'd never seen before. The man running the store said it was a fruit called coubari (at the time I had no idea how to spell it). None of us had ever seen one before. It is hard, very hard. The only way to get to the meat of the fruit is to cut it open with a machete. For 1Q, I bought one and his assistant whacked it open.
The man with the machete went through three different coubari before he found a ripe one. Once he handed it to me I could not believe my eyes.
We passed it around so everyone could have a look. The first thing we noticed was it's smell...pungent and unpleasant. Mick would have nothing to do with it, but our friends would. We each took a bite and were floored...it was delicious. It tasted like a green tea protein bar. Just hold your breath, eat and enjoy. The texture is even perfect for a protein bar (except for the solid seed in the middle of the meat).
Upon returning home I spent a lot of time online trying to figure out what this fruit was, finally I found it. It's scientific name is "Hymenaea Courbaril", in tropical cultures it is known as "courbari" which is what the vendor called it. In English it is called a South American Cherry (although it's not a cherry), Brazilian Copal, or West Indian Locust. But it is most commonly known as "stinking toe" fruit because of the unpleasant odor of the pulp. If you google stinking toe you'll find a lot more about it than any other of the above terms. Here's a good write-up by the BBC explaining more about the fruit.
All in all, it was a successful excursion and it only cost us 6Q for the ride back + 1Q for the Toe (about 88 cents). Not a bad day.
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