Lake Atitlán is a large crater lake in the western highlands of Guatemala. The lake is considered to be the deepest in Central America and is surrounded by traditional Maya towns and villages while flanked by three majestic volcanoes, Volcán San Pedro, Volcán Tolimán, and Volcán Atitlán. Today, the lake is one of the biggest tourist attractions in all of Guatemala with hundreds of thousands of travelers every year visiting the lake and its shore-side towns and villages. Many consider it the most beautiful lake in the world.
The caldera of Lake Atitlán was created by an eruption called Los Chocoyos, which occurred about 1.8 million years ago. So devastating was the eruption’s dispersion of ashes that the caldera created at Atitlán reaches a depth of 600 meters. A lake filled the caldera soon after the prehistoric eruption and continuing volcanic activity built the three volcanoes, Volcán San Pedro, Volcán Tolimán, and Volcán Atitlán, within the last 85,000 years. Only Volcán Tolimán and Volcán Atitlán are still active, the latter having erupted as recently as 1853.
Lake Atitlán has been the scene of much turmoil in the last 500 years. In the 16th century, the lake witnessed a number of battles between the Spanish and Mayan tribes, ending ultimately in Spanish conquest. More recently, the lake’s towns and villages were the stage for several atrocities committed by the government during the Guatemalan civil war. The government’s scorched earth policy during the civil war resulted in the destruction of many agricultural crops and infrastructure around Lake Atitlán. Many Mayan civilians also disappeared during this time. In 1981, the Oklahoman missionary, Stanley Rother, was assassinated. More infamously, a protest march in 1990 by the people in the area resulted in the death of a dozen civilians.
Recently, many of the towns and villages of Lake Atitlán met catastrophe at the hands of Hurricane Stan, which strucked in 2005. The subsequent mud landslides buried entire villages while destroying the homes of many others. Fortunately, the resilience of the people in the communities of Lake Atitlán has led to a swift recovery and tourism today is as vibrant as ever.
Lake Atitlán and its towns and villages offer not only the scenic beauty of its lake and three volcanoes, but also various natural reserves like the Reserva Natural Atitlán in the San Buenaventura Valley or the Los Tarrales Reserve near Volcán Atitlán, friendly and laidback local communities whose traditional Mayan culture still shine inexorably, and a well-developed infrastructure of restaurants and hotels.
Many visitors of Lake Atitlán enjoy not only the typical water sports like swimming, kayaking, sailing, canoeing, fishing and diving, but also the treks and hikes through the many trails in and around the lake’s periphery and its surrounding jungles, which are home to exotic birds and wildlife like the howler monkey. There are also numerous traditional small villages whose livelihood depends on the lake. In these communities, you’ll get to observe the traditional bright huipil dresses worn by the women and the wraparound pants worn by the men. Many stands and markets are set up in these local villages selling the high quality weavings and fabrics for which Atitlán is famous.
Towns and Villages
The major towns and villages around Lake Atitlán include Panajachel, Santiago Atitlán, Santa Catarina Palopó, San Antonio Palopó, Santa Cruz La Laguna, Jaibalito, and San Marcos La Laguna. These villages can be reached by boat or by driving around the edges of the lake.