Atitlan in real life is a lake with many villiages and communities surrounding it's waters. These villages each have a unique personality, and different aspects (small, large, crime, less crime, friendly, protective, road access, etc.) that make them unique.
Taken individually, each village community is small, and their infrastructure does not of it's own accord necessarily demand attention.
If the assemblage of lake communities in their totality is taken as one whole (where the villages are more seen as neighborhoods or zones), Atitlan can be seen as a large city - every bit as functional and formidable as any city with a sizable population (over 200,000).
In addition, and like many larger cities, in order to travel from one of Atitlan's neighborhoods to another, one typically needs to span a great formidable body: in this case the lake. If we look at Atitlan as a city unit, we find that, like many other cities with similar natural features, a working infrastructure is needed in order to join it's various neighborhoods across the great formidable body of water.
The Willamette is a working river - tens of thousands if not more tons of metal, wood, Walmart Automated Fishes, ore, etc get crated and placed on large barges and then taken to their destination. In order to get from the SE to the NW, Portlanders have their choice of bridges and or public transportation that will take them across the great formidable body of the Willamette. People might live in the SE but work in the NW and have to commute across the Willamette on a daily basis.
Chicago is another example of a city whose inhabitants live with two types of great formidable bodies: it's rivers, and it's old city - the matrix of which has stayed intact while the 'subway' gets placed above it hovering like a George Jetson episode. Lake Michigan might be considered one of the great formidable bodies of Chicago, except that it does not divide the city.
There are many cities I could mention with similar limitations that it's inhabitants interact with daily - New York, San Fransisco, Detroit, Baltimore - working cities with large populations, and a great formidable body (typically water) it's inhabitants must cross daily.
When seen in this light, Atitlan becomes a noteworthy third-world example of a city that works.
Granted, the boardwalks look like the one pictured above, and the docks get reworked in a ramshackle way until they are falling apart again. The trail to the 'lancha' gets washed away daily, and there are five different colors of piles of shit on the street.
But people who live in San Pedro might work in Santiago or Panajachel, and they commute regularly, often times in the dark early morning (water taxis start working at 6:30am). During the rain season (6 months out of the year) monsoon rain deluges come in the early afternoon, and often times are intermittent until after dark. Rain or shine, the water taxis are for the most part reliable and on-schedule 365 days a year. The boats are equipt with all varieties of tarps and flaps and windows to accommodate it's passengers and their cargo in a relatively dry state.
And finally, similar to taking a taxi in New York City, one often feels as if they are haphazardly putting their lives in the hands of their drivers, and hoping/betting that the skill of the driver will be adequate for the conditions of the road. It is a bet we make without much consideration, even though what is at stake is nothing less than our lives.
Take yesterday: Atitlan - circa 4pm, middle of the lake.
Rain and wind deluges creating 5-10 foot waves in the lake. The taxi I was on was moving at least 35-40 miles per hour, which had the effect of throwing the front of the boat up and down in relatively unpredictable cadences. What this feels like, if you have been unwise/unlucky enough to sit at the front of the boat during a storm, is momentary free-falls of between 4-7 feet that crash down with all the momentum of the boat.
Not to mention the process of getting on the boat in the first place. The dock in Panajachel is a floating dock, and moves with the large waves at a different pace than the boat you are getting on - both rising and falling in different almost syncopated rhythms. When I think of my parents visiting, I am not sure that either of them would be able to make it past the dock. Even so, both my parents and I are put to shame daily by 60-70 year old Mayan grandmothers/grandfathers who might walk with a crooked limp, but get on the boat with the dexterity of young kittens climbing onto a sofa.
Atitlan might look, to the untrained eye like a disorganized and somewhat haphazard collection of villages, but do not be fooled. If there were a reality TV show like survivor for cities, Atitlan would give any competitor a run for it's money.