Text by Jeff Toorish
Photography by Curt Bowen and Jeff Toorish
“Lake Como, it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing.” Aldous Huxley
The word “atitlan” is Mayan for “the place where the rainbow gets its colors.” Perhaps that is why the remaining Mayan culture there is so powerfully colorful in culture, dress, and history.

Lake Atitlan itself is colorful in many other ways, from the deep greens of the surrounding hills, mountains, and volcanoes to the sudden burst of unexpected hues in the flowers that cling to the sides of the surrounding steep cliffs. Mornings and evenings are ablaze with breathtaking sun shows and late evening lightning storms. The lake is dramatic, mysterious, magical, and charming all at once.

It also hides treasures, myths, mysteries, and – perhaps — a monster.
Right: In many Guatemalan villages Maximon, a local deity also know as Hermano San Simon, “Brother Saint Simon Peter.” is still worshipped with offerings of tobacco, alcohol, Coca Cola, and a tropical plant with orange-red berries. Incense and perfume dedicated to him is scented with the orange blossoms or blended citrus odors of lemongrass, citronella, and sweet orange. With the proper offering he may even provide you with great discoveries from the lake.
Millions of stars fill the night sky as lightning illuminates the eastern Guatemalan mountains. Dozens of Mayan boats are moored to the dock, awaiting the sunrise and the start of another busy day on the lake.
A four-man team of explorers from Advanced Diver Magazine headed for Lake Atitlan on a purely reconnaissance expedition to determine the potential for future exploration. Meeting at the newly renovated airport in Guatemala City at one o’clock in the morning, the team of ADM Publisher Curt Bowen, Team Coordinator Keith Ambrose, Explorer Erik Foreman, and ADM Photographer and Journalist Jeff Toorish headed to the lake, a drive of three-plus hours. The late night trip over Guatemala’s fabled mountains in heavy fog landed us on the lakeshore just as the sun was rising. It was an unforgettable sight of one of the most magnificent places on Earth.

A short boat ride, a three hour nap, and the team was at the water’s edge for the first dive — a gear checkout. Because of the reconnaissance nature of this expedition, we had decided to use rebreathers to give us greater flexibility. Keith Ambrose has visited the area extensively, and had arranged for oxygen, helium, and sorb at the base. Curt and Jeff used KISS Classic rebreathers, with Curt’s specifically modified for exploration (a later ADM article). Keith used an Evolution, and Erik a Copis Meg.
Lake Atitlan has year-round water temperatures of about 70 degrees Fahrenheit. During our trip, air temperatures ranged from the 60s at night to the low 80s during the day with low humidity. We would be diving wetsuits for the duration of the expedition with the exception of Erik, who dives dry exclusively…or at least he would until an unfortunate cuff seal rip required him to switch to a borrowed wetsuit.

Due to the high surrounding mountains, the lake is the primary mode of transportation in the area. The water is constantly dotted with small Guatemalan canoes, usually with one or two natives aboard. The canoes take about six months to construct, and involve hollowing out a log and allowing it to cure. Then side panels are nailed in place. The canoes appear remarkably stable, and the local residents use them for self-transportation and fishing.

Below: Local fisherman sit in their homemade wooden boats as they hand jig fishing line up and down for hours, trying to catch the daily dinner.

The Nature of Recon

Reconnaissance, recon, if you will, is always tricky. In all honesty, the team did not expect to do much more than take the measure of the lake in an effort to determine whether future exploration would be warranted. The lake itself provides a beautiful, majestic, exotic location for recreational divers. ATI Divers, the only dive facility located on the lake, is located at La Iguana Perdida. They offer excellent training for divers from open water through rescue diver courses. For those looking for a vacation that offers more local flavor, nothing could be better.

Our base camp was also conveniently located at La Iguana Perdida (The Lost Iguana), a hostel in Santa Cruz that features traditional dorm style rooms along with some newer hotel style accommodations. It is the perfect place for a getaway, with a spectacular view of the lake and surrounding mountains. Owners Dave and Deedle Ratcliffe and their staff were extremely helpful. A beautiful place, but is there really enough to interest technical divers who wish to go beyond recreational limits?

We spent the next few days of diving finding out.

For this reporter personally, the second day was less than stellar. A camera housing flood at about 30 feet ended any chance of photography for the day. (The $2500 destroyed camera and lens were later sacrificed to the lake’s Dive Gods in an effort to prevent any further incidents.)
Partnered with team coordinator Keith Ambrose, I did continue the dive; however, we failed to discover any Mayan artifacts. The dive itself was beautiful, and only served to whet our growing curiosity.

Mystery and the Monster

As with so many deep lakes, Atitlan is home to an alleged monster. The myth goes something like this: During mid-day when the winds whip around the volcanoes and high mountains, the water of the lake becomes angry. The fabled lake monster, a serpent, lures boats to the center of the lake where it sucks them to the depths, never to be seen again. The monster has been used to explain lost boats and fisherman for centuries. Clearly, many local Mayans believe the myth to be true because they all seem to stick close to shore, not daring to venture into the deep waters in the middle.

The serpent appears to have no name, although we began calling her Ati. For some reason, we also began considering the monster to be female, although there is, of course, no actual proof of that. But somehow a female serpent seemed more accurate since it is noted to only take men to the bottom.
Left: Team coordinator Keith Ambrose, sporting his Evolution rebreather (which he refers to as the Cadillac of CCRs because it contains all the bells, buckles, straps, and whistles), prepares for another exploration dive into Lake Atitlan.
There is no doubt that a giant aquatic being could live in a lake of this size. Atitlan is the deepest lake in Central America, estimated at 1100+ feet / 335 meters deep in the center. It is 18 miles / 29 kilometers long and 16 miles / 26 kilometers wide with many inlets and a few islands dotting the shores. The lake is also ringed with about a dozen towns from small to relatively large by the standards of a mountainous region. The lake’s origins are volcanic, formed by a super caldera eruption 84,000 years ago.

Volcán Atitlán is still considered active, and has grown almost entirely during the past 10,000 years. Its most recent eruption was in 1853. Geologists and historians believe the water level has risen at least a hundred feet over the millennium, but on February 4, 1976, a massive earthquake struck Guatemala. Twenty-six thousand people died from the 7.5 magnitude quake, which fractured the lakebed, causing the water level to drop over 25 feet in one month.

All this may prove significant for exploration. The rising lake waters may cover Mayan artifacts and even portions of villages, kept intact by the fresh water. The subsequent drop in the lake’s level may make those same artifacts more accessible to divers within the technical limits.

But, of course, the ultimate depths of Atitlan could still hide the monster Ati until she chooses to show herself. We did not see her, but at deeper depths, there is always the thought that something in the darkness is watching…and waiting.
Above right: Dressed in customary garments, a local Mayan girl from the lake city of San Pedro sells her wares to visiting tourists. With a smile and determination, she quickly softens the hearts and wallets of several team members, leaving us standing in the middle of the bustling stone street seemingly dumbfounded, conjuring up excuses. We quickly determine that all purchased items were intended for our wives and children all along.

Right: A beautiful young woman from the lake city of Toliman poses in her colorful Mayan dress for the team’s cameras. She was quickly bombarded by a horde of other children attempting to get in the shot.
Diving the Depths

Each day starts at about 5:30 am with our boat, the Tornado, arriving at 6:45. The Tornado is one of the many 26-foot long fiberglass outboards that are the mass transit system on the lake. We load gear, often with the help of local youngsters who are eager to carry pretty much anything, for one or two quetzales, the local currency. The Tornado is captained by Mayan lake guide extraordinaire, Domingo Chavajay. Domingo has lived and worked on the lake his entire life. His heritage stretches back through generations and generations of relatives who also worked and lived beside the lake, most likely all the way back thousands of years to those people who actually made the artifacts we are searching for today. Domingo is strong in religion, dedicated to his heritage, and honored to return lost artifacts to his people. With a slight tear in his eye, Domingo kisses and softly blesses each of the team’s discoveries. I find it amazing and touching that an individual holds such a strong bond and dedication towards his heritage.

As the week progressed, we clearly gained the feeling that Atitlan’s depths hold wonders and treasures. For our recon purposes, we will need something more tangible for proof. We quickly found many small pieces of clay pots, smashed either accidentally or over time. These tantalizing clues only serve to heighten our wonder and interest.
Above: Ancient hot flowing lava created strange but beautiful stone formations when it struck the cool waters of Lake Atitlan. Diver Erik Foreman poses above one of the millions of giant stones as the emerald green water above is illuminated by the sun’s light.

Above right: The team’s lake captain, Domingo Chavajay has lived, worked, and fished as did generations of his ancestors before him on the lake. His extensive knowledge of the lake waters, its people, and ancient civilization locations proved invaluable for the team’s success.

Right: ADM Photojournalist, KISS CCR explorer (which he refers to as his Yugo, which means “You Go” wherever the heck you want and dive), and author of this editorial, Jeff Toorish, prepares for another exploration dive into Lake Atitlan.
Volcan Toliman and Volcan Atitlan tower above the lake city of Santiago, seen on the photo’s distant shore. Up close, team divers prepare their equipment on a resident’s dock as a lonely Mayan fisherman wonders what these foreign strangers might be doing in the funny rubber suits.
The writer Aldous Huxley called Lake Atitlan “the most beautiful lake in the world.” Of course, Huxley did not have the opportunity to dive below the surface to view its ultimate magnificence. While terrific at recreational depths, the lake’s visibility truly opens up below about 100 feet / 30 meters. At depths below 180 feet / 50 meters, visibility increases to as far as your best light can shine. While the water is clearer at that depth, it is also more mysterious. As we glide over massive ridges of volcanic boulders, we peer down the sloping walls and into a black abyss, hundreds of feet deeper. The opportunities for deeper technical diving are clearly limitless. Perhaps just as remarkable, there has been little or no previous deep diving here, creating a location of unlimited exploration and high potential for great discoveries.

For these deeper dives, we choose an easy mixable rebreather diluent of heliair 14% 02, 33% Helium. This would give us greater options in the event a dive to 300 feet or more was necessary. From a recon perspective, however, exploration seemed most promising at depths of 90 to 180 feet.

Are You KIDDING Me?!

We had been searching, and, so far, our luck had not been very good. To top that off, I was having a slight equipment problem. Even though it was manageable underwater, it forced Keith Ambrose and me to the surface earlier than desired. We had been at about 160 feet, heading down to an area of petrified trees. The water seemed a bit murkier than we had experienced and we attributed that to a fissure, which seemed to be pouring colder water into the lake. Apparently, the fissure was the nozzle of some sort of water spring. Later inspection of my rebreather showed that it was not an equipment malfunction, but small foreign material that had gotten stuck in my CCR over pressurization valve, preventing it from fully closing. In two minutes I cleaned out the crap, and my KISS, as usual, was back to perfect working condition.

On this dive, ATI’s Australian Dive Master, Gene Mills, and ATI’s UK Dive Instructor, Andy Stratham accompanied us. Their knowledge of the lake and support in gas preparation made exploration much easier. Also joining the team that day was a very energetic and entertaining Open Water Diver, Siobhan “Rosa” Burgess.
After the invention of fiber rope, the Maya changed their boat anchor design from a round doughnut-shaped rock with a hole in the middle to a long oval shape with a groove cut around the stone to hold the rope in place.
While Keith and I were on heading to deeper depths, Gene and Rosa were enjoying a recreational dive to about 60 feet or so, poking around the bottom to see what they might find. Rosa was on an extended tour of Central America, and was indicative of the travelers and hikers who explore the area around Lake Atitlan. She had decided to take a year off from her work as a theatrical costumer and dresser for the Royal Shakespeare Company in her native England. Apparently, she could not pass up a chance to dive with the ADM exploration team. She became a de facto team member and all-around helper for the duration of the trip.

Surfacing with an equipment problem is never pleasant. In addition to getting to the surface, there is also the anxiety about what effect this will have on future dives. So when I made it to the surface with Keith and began swimming toward the nearby dock we had used as a staging area, the last thing I expected to see were two open water divers proudly displaying a relic they had recovered on a recreational dive.

The pot appeared aged, with a gray background and lighter diagonal stripes running its length. Gene was proudly holding it up, and Rosa was broadly smiling.

Gene hollered, “Look what we found.”

My reaction was, “Are you kidding me? Are you freaking kidding me? I can’t believe this!”

As we got closer, Gene hollered, “Just kidding, mate!”

The “great” find was a plastic jug, probably lost overboard by a fisherman or boater near the dock — definitely not a relic. Gene would later place this relic in the dive shop, tattooed with ADM, 2007.

Looking for Clues and Finding “Maximón”

We begin each dive day at 5:45 a.m. because the lake tends to get choppy in the afternoons, making it difficult to dive. This worked out perfectly because we wanted to learn more about the area around the lake. Thus, each afternoon the team headed to a different town bordering Lake Atitlan to discover more about the rich Mayan culture. Just as important, the more we could discover about the lake, the better the chances were that we would discover its hidden secrets.

Thanks to Keith, who speaks fluent Spanish, and help from others, we were able to discover a great deal about the area. Lake Atitlan’s history is varied, with an odd collision of the modern and traditional Mayan worlds. Tourism is clearly important to the area, but it is not the large-scale type of tourism found in other parts of Central America.

Religion clearly plays a crucial role in the daily lives of the Mayans here, with Protestant and Catholic rivalries historically significant. There have also been many historical periods of bloodshed in the high mountains. The Mayans of this area have shown a strong ability to adapt to new religious practices while still maintaining many of their traditional views.

That brings us to Maximón. (right) Maximón is an idol or saint, possibly the reincarnation of the pre-Columbian Maya God, Mam, blended with Catholic influences. He is portrayed by a life-sized wooden doll that is dressed in colorful, human clothing. The cult of Maximón is centered in the highlands of Guatemala, but its origins are not very well understood by outsiders.

Sometimes called San Simón, Maximón resides in a different house each year and is moved during a procession during Holy Week. Maximón is attended by two people, members of the
Cofradia, who keep the shrine in order and pass along offerings from visitors. Maximón is a fun guy, and visitors ply him with liquor, cigarettes, cigars, and money. He invariably has a lit cigarette dangling from his lips, and a hole in his mouth so his attendants can give him liquor.

Maximón is also something of a bully whom it’s best not to cross, but who can grant wishes for success. With that in mind, we found a guide who could lead us up steep hills and through narrow winding streets to Maximón’s current shrine location. We entered and engaged in ritual negotiations with the attendants, and eventually bartered the appropriate offerings, hoping that with Maximon’s influence, we would increase our odds of success in searching for Mayan relics.

Turning Recon into Discovery

Although we began this expedition for purely reconnaissance purposes, we never lost hope of making a significant find. Without doubt, there are Mayan relics hiding deep under the waters of Lake Atitlan. We had been scouring old maps, interviewing local historians, boat captains, and residents. We toured museums and took careful notes in addition to the research we had done prior to the trip. And, of course, there was the tribute to Maximón we had working for us.

The time was ripe and the exploration team was eager. We felt we had to be getting closer to a find, but in exploration nothing is certain. Still, we set out to dive a particularly promising area, and the feelings aboard the Tornado seemed heightened.
Left: Explorer Erik Foreman returns to the surface carrying an 1800+ year old Mayan incense plate that may have been used for burial rituals or other types of religious ceremonies.

Above: Prior to touching or moving any underwater artifacts, photographs were taken of their position and conditions. The incense plate is shown sitting upright and tucked under a giant table type rock. The theory is that the lake was probably between 100 and 140 feet shallower 2000 years ago than it is today. This discovery proves that Lake Atitlan truly holds important Mayan relics, and that there could possibly be a lost city beneath the lake’s surface.
Explorer Erik Foreman was in good visibility at 97 feet, scouring the bottom for pieces of Mayan pottery. ADM Publisher Curt Bowen was a few feet above him, camera in hand, looking for suitable photo opportunities. They had already been in the water for about 90 minutes, and were preparing to head to the surface via a series of decompression stops. At this point, they believed this area was barren of artifacts, but were enjoying the final part of the dive.

The boat had dropped them near some buoys marking a small pinnacle of volcanic rock. The two clear and one yellow buoy served as a navigation point on the surface, and the line down helped Erik and Curt specify a search area.

Curt had already swum past the table type rock, concentrating on a potential photograph when Erik suddenly spotted something different, something that seemed out of place.

At first, Erik saw only the color, but the color was different than the surrounding rock. His excitement increased. Then the shape of the object came into focus; it was round, perfectly round. Round is not a shape you find in Nature very often — and never in these conditions.

There it was: an intact Mayan incense bowl, about 18 inches across with four formed legs, weighing about 10 pounds, and used most likely in a ritual type offering. It was the team’s first significant discovery, and the validation that this reconnaissance mission was valid. Lake Atitlan not only holds Mayan artifacts and relics, but with enough prodding, will give them up!

Curt and Erik completed deco and waited as the Tornado smoothly slid alongside them for pickup. The other members of the boat crew and exploration team moved into position to help the divers climb aboard. Curt smiled and said, “Nice dive, too bad we didn’t find anything.”

“Except this,” said Erik, holding up the ancient Mayan pottery.

It was a significant find. Later described by local historian and guide Miguel Tzul with these words, “This artifact is from the classic era, about 1800 to 2000+ years old.” With the discovery of this artifact came even more questions. The pot was found under a massive rock being naturally held up by two table leg type boulders. Close inspection and photographs taken by Curt prior to removal indicates that it would be almost impossible for a fragile piece of pottery to sink in the water, bounce off the hard rocks and land perfectly with legs down underneath a massive table type rock. Was the lake over 100 feet shallower 2000 years ago? Was the incense pot placed under the rock by human hands? If so, could there be a lost Mayan city hidden under the waters of Lake Atitlan? Future exploration will be needed to reveal all the wonders that the most beautiful lake in the world is secretly hiding in its extreme depths.

Below: Several stone tools were also discovered during the expedition. One was thought to be a stone hand tool that was probably used to grind corn or used as a hammer. A piece of volcanic glass (obsidian) was found that was used to make knife blades for skinning and cutting.
Found Artifacts Document Mayan History

By the end of the expedition the ADM team had discovered several relics, including:

• The perfect four-legged incense plate found in 97 feet.

• A donut-shaped boat anchor used prior to the invention of rope. Vines and reed ropes were threaded through the hole in the center, and it was used as a shallow boat anchor. This was discovered in 87 feet of water.

• The stone tool used to make either the anchor or something else that needed pounding. This was discovered in 125 feet of water.

• A nearly intact pot discovered in 130 feet.

• The pieces of a complete pot discovered in 125 feet.

• An arrow core, a piece of volcanic glass used to make arrow heads found in 150 feet.

The finds are significant, and each piece was carefully transported to the local museum in Panajachel for safekeeping and closer inspection by archaeologists.

In the end, it is hard to say what caused this expedition’s success. It may have been detailed pre-expedition planning or possibly the diligence and perseverance of the team that led to the discoveries. But maybe that offering to Maximón did the trick.

Lake Atitlan holds many more secrets and the promise of excellent discovery diving for future expedition teams. ADM will be returning soon!

WARNING: Guatemala has strict laws regarding the removal of artifacts from their country. As Deedle from La Iguana Perdida put it, “Removing a relic is the second most serious crime in Guatemala, the first being murder.” Divers should make arrangements to hand over any and all recovered relics to appropriate local institutions. In no event should anyone attempt to remove a historic relic from Guatemala by any means. To do so will jeopardize any future above and underwater expeditions.

The ADM Guatemala Exploration Team wants to thank:

• Dave and Deedle Ratcliffe, owners of La Iguana Perdida, for providing an outstanding and life memorable experience.
• Dr David Carey, Jr., University of Southern Maine for his help in researching the Lake Atitlan Area.
• The entire team and staff at La Iguana Perdida.
• Airek Evans for pouring the tequila.
• The guys at ATI Divers for helping keep things running smoothly.
• Miguel Tzul for his assistance with artifact documentation, local Mayan customs, and handling of artifacts.
• Capt. Domingo Chavajay for his excellent boat, navigation skills, and museum contacts.
• Siobhan “Rosa” Burgess for her assistance with dive and travel logistics.
• Bill “the expatriate” (last name withheld) for a good dinner, sacrificial rum bottle for the Dive Gods, and 4th of July monster firecrackers.