Lake Atitlan is a large lake located in Guatemala – in fact, it is considered to be the deepest lake in all of Central America. It is an endorheic lake, which means it does not flow into a larger body of water like a sea. Lake Atitlan is a very deep lake, but its depth has never been completely confirmed — its maximum depth is estimated to be near 340 meters, or 1,100 feet.
Volcanic activity formed Lake Atitlan well over 80,000 years ago. The three volcanoes that surround the lake support this explanation — volcanoes Toliman and Atitlan are adjancent to each other, and located to the south of the lake, Volcan (volcano) San Pedro stands alone on the west side of the lake and is a popular hike from the village of San Pedro.
Lake Atitlan is very important to the Guatemalan people. The lake basin supports the growth of a large amount of crops. For example, coffee, corn, onions, beans, squash, tomatoes, garlic, cucumbers, strawberries, and avocados can be grown in the basin area. In addition, the lake is full of wildlife. Many of these animals provide food for indigenous people living in the area around Lake Atitlan.
There are several villages that surround the lake. Many of the people who live in these villages still practice traditional Mayan culture through their way of life and dress.
Other villages and communities in the area have formed a culture that blends both the traditional Mayan and aspects of the Spanish, who invaded and conquered the area during colonization. An example of this is the large lake village of Santiago Atitlan. The people of this community are known for worshiping an idol called Maximon. Maximon is a combination of traditional Mayan deities, saints of the Catholic Church, Spanish conquistador legends.
While these traditional villages exist of the shores of Lake Atitlan, the town of Panajachel is very different from the norm. This town is the largest at Lake Atitlan and is characterized by a large number of tourists. In fact, quite a few “hippies” flocked to the area in the 1960s. These foreign hippies left the area during some of the military conflicts but began to return to the region towards the end of the 20th century.
Navigating your way around the lake may be difficult for some. There is no road that circles all the way around Lake Atitlan. Many people in the region can only access different villages and towns by boat.
If you have a chance to visit Lake Atitlan, be sure to take a tour around the lake on a lancha, or water taxi. Organized tours for tourists often bring you to three different villages (commonly Panajachel, San Marcos, San Pedro and Santiago Atitlan, with some tours also stopping in San Juan) around the lake, with about an hour to explore the villages. As of 2012, the cost is around $10-15 depending upon your departure town, and who you purchase the ticket through. If you need an English speaking guide, that will definitely cost more.
If you’d like to use the water taxis to navigate from town to town, be prepared to haggle on the prices. There are three commonly known pricing tiers for taxis: a) Mayans living at the lake, b) foreigners (extranjeros) living at the lake, and c) tourists. To give you a sense of the pricing, here are some estimates of the 2012 tourist-level pricing (in Quetzales) for destinations from Panajachel:
- Santa Cruz: Q10
- Jaibalito: Q10
- San Marcos: Q25
- San Pablo: Q25
- San Juan: Q25
- San Pedro: Q25
- Santiago: Q15
Some roads are built in the surrounding mountains but these roads only have short extensions along the shore of the lake. These roads have been hit by hurricanes, like Hurricane Stan in 2005, and have been destroyed by massive landslides. The roads have been rebuilt since 2005 and reopened to their original status, however.
If you’re considering traveling to Lake Atitlan, listed below are some of the approximate travel times from other destinations in Guatemala:
- Guatemala City: 3.5 hours
- Antigua: 2.5 hours
- Monterrico: 3.5 hours
- Chichicastenango: 1.5 hours
- Quetzaltenango (‘Xela’): 2.5 hours