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.