I am prone to the kind of anxiety that typically goes along with working a 9 to 5 job, and even in a location as picturesque as Lake Atitlan, the stress of my work can still creep up and overwhelm me. So while discussing the various worries and concerns buzzing around my head with a friend, I was excited when he described a spirit-journey of sorts that he experienced by camping at the Reserva Natural Atitlán (Atitlan Nature Reserve). He spoke of experiencing a personal encounter with himself, alone in the dark, in which he had a deep revelation. I was captivated by his emotional growth and I decided that I needed to get away and attempt this journey of awakening for myself.
What is the Reserve?
The Reserve is a verdant nature sanctuary located in Panajachel. It offers guests ample trails, a breathtaking butterfly reserve, zip lining expeditions, and a private beach with stunning views of the lake and volcanoes. Along the secluded trails, trekkers can spot spider monkeys, cross hanging bridges, and wonder at waterfalls. The Reserve also features a lodge and cafe for guests to enjoy.
Besides offering locals and visitors alike a breathtaking encounter with nature, the Reserve’s objective is to further environmental efforts. The reserve runs “environmental awareness campaigns, supports scientific expeditions for better policy making, and fosters conservation and responsible tourism.”
A day visit to the Reserve is Q70 for adults and Q40 for children 12 and under. A two-day, one-night camping visit is Q130 per adult and Q110 for children 12 and under.
Before leaving on my camping adventure, I loaded my pack with a couple liters of water, a flashlight, a camping knife, and snacks that would make a nice small dinner. I also brought any necessary toiletries, warm clothes, a sleeping bag, and plenty of insect repellant, which I was thankful for later.
It is also helpful to know that the reserve has tent rentals for Q40. Unknowingly, I pestered everyone I knew looking to borrow one and finally struck a deal with a paca owner to rent a large tent for Q100.
In my disorganized hurry it didn’t cross my mind to also test-pitch this tent prior to leaving. Sure enough, the overpriced and oversized temporary home also ended up being broken. Luckily, I was saved by my camping knife and used it to cut some dead bamboo to serve as a central pillar to keep my feeble tent standing.
Arrival and Check-In
The Reserve is located on Antigua Finca San Buenaventura in Panajachel. This road splits from Route 1 just as you begin leaving Panajachel for Solola. I took a tuktuk there, which took about 10 minutes and cost Q10 instead of the usual Q5.
Campers are free to check in as early as 8:00 a.m. when the reserve opens, which is a good way to maximize your time and money.
My experience of camping in the Reserve started a little rocky as I did not enter entirely prepared. Campers are supposed to check in to the reserve by 4 p.m. which, due to a delayed lancha, was a requirement I did not meet. Despite my being an hour late, the reserve staff were lenient with me.
Camp sites are located besides the visitor center and guests can choose from various adjacent plots that are sectioned off by rows of bamboo.
Grab a Map
Once dealing with the frustration of my tent struggles and accruing several mosquito bites in the process, I began seriously doubting whether any stress-relief or soul-searching was going to happen that night. On top of everything, throbbing club music was playing in an outdoor, tiki torch-lit area only a few feet from the campsite. As much as I might have enjoyed these tracks in another time and place, the pounding bass was not what I was looking for on my so-called retreat.
In order to escape the noise and chatter, I grabbed my flashlight and plastic bag of snacks and headed up the trail into the reserve itself.
The fact that I was unaware of my surroundings and the sun had set made me wary, but did not deter me. I had come looking for tranquility in nature and I was going to find it.
I had been to the Reserve once before, in the daylight, so, with the my flashlight as my guide, I had no trouble finding my way out of the visitor’s center and into the earthy sanctuary of stillness and darkness. As I trekked deeper across the swinging wooden bridges and up the marked trails, the music softened to a faint pulse and then disappeared. It was in that space of dense blackness and gentle quiet that I made a friend.
Experience the Wildlife
Eventually, the beam of my flashlight illuminated a painted wood sign that indicated that the monkey viewing area was ahead. During my previous visit to the sanctuary, I couldn’t catch more than a glimpse of a monkey tail or a blur of moving fur high in the thick green foliage. This night, I didn’t expect to have much more luck, but, as an avid animal lover, I couldn’t resist the urge to climb down to the edge of the fence to peer into the enclosure.
Immediately, I saw a small black and white monkey on the ground, about 20 feet away from me. I approached slowly, the way I would with a squirrel or skittish dog, but the monkey didn’t show any signs of fear. In fact, the nimble creature walked right up to me. And suddenly there we were, crouched, and staring at each other, just inches away through the chain link fence, alone in the middle of the jungle.
The monkey probably assumed I was one of the reserve workers and a source of food. She stretched her long hairy arm far through the fence and began grasping to find the food that she believed I had brought to her. Her amazingly human-like hand explored my arms and legs, examined my cell phone, and tugged at my shoelaces. It was incredible.
I fed the mono one of my two green apples which she halfheartedly nibbled at, perhaps hoping for something different. I talked to her and scratched her head in the way that my dogs and cats like. I turned off my flashlight and, for a while, simply held her hand. It looked like mine, as did her straight square teeth and her dark probing eyes. It was only her strong leathery tail that was completely foreign to me. I was captivated and lost track of time.
Perhaps an hour later, I felt raindrops leaking through the thick canopy above and decided to return to my camp. After a final hand squeeze and scratch of her wire-haired neck, I returned to the trail and followed it back to civilization, still overwhelmed with wonder. As I got closer to the visitor center, the bass-heavy music abruptly ceased, and I thanked the rain for granting me quiet. I quickly threw the rain-fly over my tent and then zipped myself in for the night, the remainder of which I spent in peaceful meditation, listening to the rain bounce soothingly off of my nylon roof.
Returning to Civilization
After waking up to the sound of rustling leaves and singing birds, you are free to enjoy the Reserve for the rest of the day. Whenever you decide to leave, no check-out is necessary, except if you need to return your tent.
That next morning, after making my way out of the Reserve, I felt calm and rested, but not changed. Perhaps I had been naïve to expect to have a life-changing, anxiety-abolishing experience through a single night of camping. The reality was that I had an amazing experience that night. I had been briefly pulled into the present moment and stayed there temporarily. I know now that by allowing myself to fall into more of those moments, I might learn new ways to overcome the stress and distractions that get in the way of living the life that I want to live. Spending a night at the Atitlan Nature Reserve was a very good place to start.