Lake Atitlán is a volcanic lake located in the Sierra Madre de Chiapas mountain range, in northern Guatemala. In Nahuatl, "Atitlan" means "at the water".
It is regarded as one of the most beautiful lakes in the world and is surrounded by small towns, many of which are popular among travelers. Lake Atitlán and the surrounding villages constitute a major tourist attraction due to a combination of incredible natural beauty, Mayan culture and atmosphere and the many activities that can be enjoyed here.
Panajachel is the best-known town, and a great starting point for exploring the beauties of the lake. San Pedro La Laguna or the very laid back village of San Marcos are off the beaten track. Other towns along the lake, such as Santa Cruz la Laguna and San Juan, are starting to get more attention from tourists, due to the popularity of the lake.
The German explorer Alexander von Humboldt called Lake Atitlán "the most beautiful lake in the world", while Aldous Huxley famously said: "Lake Como, it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing."
Formation and Geology
Central America is one of the regions in which volcanism is found in all its known forms, and Guatemala in particular has some of the most active volcanoes in the world. Some of the landscape features formed by volcanoes include the craters and calderas in which lakes form. Lake Atitlán is such a lake, together with Lake Amatitlán and Lake Güija, to name a few. Because of its size and depth, Lake Atitlán is probably the most representative among them. The lake’s basin fills a caldera that was formed by an eruption 84,000 years ago, eruption which is known as Los Chocoyos. Los Chocoyos ejected as much as 300 cubic km of tephra, dispersing ash over an area of 6 million sq km.
Volcanic activity has continued since Los Chocoyos, building three volcanoes in the process: Volcán Atitlán, Volcán San Pedro and Volcán Tolimán. Volcán San Pedro is the oldest, and stopped erupting about 40,000 years ago. Volcán Tolimán is probably still active, although it hasn’t erupted in recorded times. Volcan Atitlán is the youngest of them and remains very much active, with its latest eruption occurring in 1853.
On February 4th, 1976, an earthquake of 7.5 magnitude struck Guatemala. More than 26,000 people were killed, and the earthquake fractured the lake’s bed. This caused drainage from the lake, and the water level dropped two meters in one month.
The lake has a surface area of 130.1 sq km and a maximum depth of 340 meters, which makes it the deepest lake in Central America. It’s body measures 12 km in length and 5 in width and holds approximately 20 cubic km of water. It’s located at an altitude of 1562 meters and the caldera is guarded by volcanic mountains, some of which surpass 3,000 meters in height. Among these volcanoes are the aforementioned Atitlan (3,537 meters), Toliman (3,158 meters), and Santa Clara (2,402 meters).
A few small rivers flow into the lake, but the lake does not drain into the ocean, which makes it an endorheic lake. The subequatorial climate in which the lake is located means that it gets a lot of rain, the water is very fresh and the vegetation is lush. The water temperature remains high both in the rainy and the dry season, both at the top and at the bottom of the lake.
Guatemala City, the capital of Guatemala, is not very far from the lake, 64 kilometers to the West. The smaller city of Antigua is 50 kilometers away.
Ecology and the Extinction of the Atitlan Grebe
The area around Lake Atitlán became a national park in 1955, and forms one of the oldest national parks in Guatemala. Looking for ways to increase tourism in the area, the non-native fish species, the black bass, was introduced into the lake in 1958, in order to attract anglers. The bass began decimating local inhabitants of the lake, and caused the elimination of more than two thirds of the local fish species. It also greatly contributed to the extinction of the Atitlan Grebe, a rare bird that was endemic to the region.
This is a unique climate feature and its name comes from the Kaqchickel language, meaning "the wind that carried away sin". This wind is common in late mornings and afternoons, sweeping across the lake. It’s said to be caused by the meeting of warm winds from the Pacific with colder winds from the North.
Culture and History
The Maya people have dramatically influenced the culture of the cities and villages that surround the lake. Consequently, Maya culture is still prevalent around the lake, and traditional clothes are worn. The prominent Maya people of Atitlán are Tz'utujil and Kaqchikel.
The largest of the lakeside communities is Santiago Atitlán, which is known for its worship of Maximón, which is a deity formed by the mixing of traditional Mayan deities with Catholic Saints and conquistador heroes. Several other communities in Guatemala have similar cults (e.g. the cult of San Simón in Zunil).
Panajachel is a town which has been very popular among tourists, both local and foreign. It used to be an important attraction for hippies in the 1960s, and the town’s economy fully relies on tourism to this day.
There are several Mayan sites at the like. One of them is Sambaj, located 17 meters below the current lake level, which appears to be from the pre-classic period. The remains of multiple groups of buildings can be found here.
Chiutinamit is another site, and it was discovered by local fishermen. The remains of a city were found here. Objects found here include pottery shards, which helped date the site to the late pre-classic period, between 600 B.C. and 250 A.D.
Communities on the lake shore can be reached by boat or from mountain roads which feature extensions along the shore. Jaibalito and Santa Cruz La Laguna are only accessible by boat. Santa Catarina Palopó and San Antonio Palopó can be reached via Panajachel. Other places include San Lucas Tolimán in the East, Santiago Atitlán in the South and Santa Clara La Laguna and San Pedro La Laguna in the West
Small boats called lanchas provide transportation between villages. Some of them are private, while others are similar to share-ride taxis, going as soon as they accumulate enough passengers.
There are many coffee and avocado orchards in the area, and farms grow corn, onions, squash, beans, garlic, cucumbers, tomatoes, chile verde, pitahaya fruit and strawberries. The lake represents an important food source for the local population and is rich in animal life.