Zip-lines and Butterflies at Atitlán Nature Reserve
In our travels, our thrills and chills moments usually revolve around tempestuous seas and random encounters with wild creatures throughout our extraordinary world. But there comes a time when we must take adventure into our own hands and seek out activities likely to induce butterflies in our stomachs and even the occasional scream.
Of the many things to do in Panajachel, Guatemala, a visit to the Atitlán Nature Reserve deserves a top spot on anyone’s list. Not only does it cater to those interested in nature and native animal life, but it also displays a thrilling sequence of zip-lines through hills and coffee groves with gorgeous views of San Buenaventura bay and the surrounding beauty of Lake Atitlán.
We spent a morning exploring some of the activities on offer, starting off with our first zip-lining experience ever. Admittedly, we were somewhat excited… [euphemism alert!]
After choosing our “Cables X-tremos” package at the visitor center (they also have Ultra X-treme, which is more expensive and therefore unsuited to our moth-riddled wallets), we met our two guides, Alberto and Celso, who promptly equipped our scrawny bodies with shiny gear and colorful helmets. We were either auditioning for The Village People or speeding through canopies. We hoped for the latter.
We performed a practice run on a short wire, trying to pay attention to the instructions: let the body sit on the harness, both hands holding the metal pulley, and release the right hand to brake as soon as the first guide waves a red flag. Braking should be done gently, letting the glove slide while slowly tightening one’s grip (do not yank the wires as if you were the conductor in a Wild West locomotive – that will hurt). Easy peasy!
The Nature Reserve is situated in an old coffee plantation, so much of the greenery is relatively recent. As the forest regenerates itself, new vegetation blooms, this time in tune with the lake’s natural ecosystem. There are many trails to explore, and we traversed a few while hiking to our first zip-line.
Nonetheless, to get there we would have to cross a few hanging bridges. Although not in the same league as those seen in Indiana Jones movies, they provided an extra element of excitement to an already stimulating trek. Busy looking at waterfalls and creeks, we were sometimes taken aback by their sway, and had to stop on our tracks in order to regain some semblance of composure. Indiana Jones makes it look so easy…
On our way, we stopped to admire spider monkeys and coatimundis, both furry and ridiculously cute. If in need of some animal love, take a banana or two and watch as their beady eyes shower you with unending gratitude. Well, not really – they’ll just sniff around your general area and anxiously wait for more fruity gifts. Greedy little bastards…
Our first taste of harnessed elation came courtesy of the Eye of Stone Flight, as the initial zip-line of the circuit is called. Every zip-line of the eight available in the “X-treme circuit” is preceded by a billboard detailing the ride (distance, altitude, etc) and ecological trivia relating to the Atitlán region.
Finally, we made our way down the wire. Although the distances are not extraordinary (the longest one of the “X-treme” circuit is 310 meters), the views of Lake Atitlán are magnificent. One of our guides would go first, in order to flag the correct time for braking. As soon as we jumped into the canopies our blood started rushing and our mouths screamed in exhilaration. We were immediately addicted.
As befits an adrenaline junkie, Elle repeatedly braked at the last minute, to the exasperation and obvious concern of our guides. She was allowed to continue only after promising to obey the red flag, which she eventually did, although always with a silly grin on her face.
By the time we finished our eighth ride through the air, Alberto and Celso had come to accept her mad ways and seemed to even enjoy it, if laughter is any evidence. The monkeys must have thought we were constantly cracking jokes.
Our whole zip-line adventure lasted a bit over an hour, but we wished we could have stayed longer. Furthermore, we really wanted to try the “Ultra X-treme” circuit, particularly after our guides told us one of the wires was 860 meters long. We hope to return one day with heavier wallets…
Following another round through the trails to admire the oak forest and the Old Mill Ditch, we headed out to the Butterfly Reserve, close to the visitor center.
As we stepped into the white dome we thought we had just entered some lost Eden, or a version of one of those sci-fi labs visited by a lone team of hardy survivors following a nuclear meltdown or a zombie apocalypse (or any other scorched Earth scenario), who discover nothing is as it seems and find an evil creature or a mad scientist lurking in the shadows, either of which ends up obliterating most of the team and carelessly ruining a blooming romance between the two remaining survivors.
Apologies, got a tad carried away there. Let’s just say it’s lovely, even without the drama.
The Butterfly Preserve holds not only a dizzying array of multicolored orchids but also almost 50 species of butterflies native to Guatemala. We became enchanted by their delicate flutter and giddy as they sometimes took a moment to rest on our shoulders and hair. The quiet setting is also a photographer’s paradise, so we only left after much nagging from our increasingly annoyed (and empty) stomachs.
Nonetheless, we still visited the breeding laboratory, where caterpillars and chrysalids bid their time inside glass enclosures, waiting for their ultimate spreading of wings. It’s a fascinating stop, and provides a great deal of information concerning the butterflies’ role in the lake’s ecosystem.
Ultimately, and in spite of our happy hollers along the tree tops, one of the greatest things about the Atitlán Nature Reserve is the way in which the zip-lines are harmoniously enmeshed into the surrounding landscape, and do not affect those who aim to only breath the fresh air and wallow in the lush solitude of a tropical forest. If ever by the shores of Lake Atitlán, be sure to visit. You’ll even get a certificate if you do any of the zip-line circuits!
The Atitlán Nature Reserve is located in the valley of San Buenaventura. Exiting Panajachel on the road to Sololá, follow the first left after the climb. It’s a 20-minute walk from the corner of Calle Santander and Principal, or a 10 GTQ/1 EUR pp tuk-tuk ride.
Opening hours: everyday from 8am to 5pm. Entry fee is 55 GTQ/5 EUR. The “Cables X-tremos” circuit (trek along the valley) costs 220 GTQ/21 EUR, whereas the “Ultra X-tremos” (trek to the bay) is 350 GTQ/33 EUR. Both circuits include the admission fee in their price.
All equipment (cables, gear) was in excellent condition and our guides were both helpful and professional (not to mention patient with Elle’s shenanigans).