Travel to Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlán is surrounded by a baker’s dozen of Mayan villages, bustling and distinct from one another. The villages on the north side of the lake speak a Mayan dialect called Cakchiquel; those on the south side speak Tzutujil. Many of the villagers still wear traditional Mayan garments, called traje, with patterns and colors particular to their respective villages.

Lake Atitlán is an azure gem – a place from a stor  ybook or a fantasy. Antoine St. Exupery wrote The Little Prince after resting in a hammock here; Aldous Huxley, author of The Doors of Perception and Brave New World, said that it was “really too much of a good thing.” Flanked by three massive volcanoes, alive with hummingbirds and fireflies, the lake has an air of fantasy that’s hard to shake.

Indigenous villages in Lake Atitlan:

Lake Atitlán is surrounded by a baker’s dozen of Mayan villages, bustling and distinct from one another. The villages on the north side of the lake speak a Mayan dialect called Cakchiquel; those on the south side speak Tzutujil. Many of the villagers still wear traditional Mayan garments, called traje, with patterns and colors particular to their respective villages.

Expats from around the world have settled at Lake Atitlán, and help in turn to lend the better-trafficked towns distinctive flavors. Panajachel is a transit hub, just down the hill from the municipal capital of Solola, where you can transfer from bus to boat or peruse overpriced crafts and fabrics from the vendors lining Calle Santander. San Pedro offers a maze of twisting streets, a lively bar scene, and an Israeli population vibrant enough to sustain several decent Mediterranean restaurants.

Smaller villages around Lake Atitlán also offer unique experiences. San Juan is home to a community of painters and artisans. San Marcos is a neo-hippie capital overflowing with health food stores, vegan restaurants, yoga centers and reiki massage. Santa Cruz is home to the Iguana Perdida – perhaps the best backpacker hostel in all of Guatemala. Santiago is recessed on a bay with garden-like lakefront properties, a classic town square, and a beautiful Catholic church with a rich history.

Lake Atitlán sits in the crater of a massive volcanic eruption that rocked Guatemala 85,000 years ago. The eruption was some 270 larger than Mount St. Helens in 1980; it was so large that the roof of the magma chamber collapsed, creating the bowl of rock in which the lake now sits.

The lake is surrounded by steep cliffs from which a number of small streams drain. It loses some water to evaporation, but no major channels drain out. The way in which water leaves the lake is not well understood – the best explanation is that a network of underwater cracks provide drainage.

Sometimes, the water falls unexpectedly; sometimes, it rises dramatically. In 2010 and 2011, the level of Lake Atitlán rose 17 feet in as many months. Vacation properties and entire neighborhoods on the shore of the lake were submerged wholesale. Local Mayan villages, which are for the most part built farther up the hill, fared better.

That’s because the Maya, from experience, know that Atitlán rises and falls. You can take SCUBA classes at a dive school in the village of Santa Cruz. The instructors there might take you to the bottom of the lake, where trees and buildings from Mayan villages of centuries past endure, shrouded in silt and algae.

There’s more to Lake Atitlan than described here – the lake is rich with secrets. There are hidden waterfalls, cigar-loving effigies of Catholic saints, half-finished castles in the shape of a dragon, zip lines over nature preserves, ramshackle bookstores on the edge of drowned barrios, and one of the best pupuserias outside of El Salvador. It’s a place that needs to be seen and explored in person to be believed.

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