The area around Lake Atitlan boasts a wide array of activities for the visitor – from experiencing the local Mayan cultures to taking in the expansive panoramas from high above the lake in a tandem paragliding adventure!
Located approximately 93 miles northwest of Guatemala City (2.5 to 3 hours by car or 20 minutes by helicopter), Lake Atitlan was formed approximately 85,000 years ago by volcanic eruptions. With a surface area of 82 square miles and a maximum depth of over 1000 feet, Lake Atitlan is the deepest lake in Central America. Its location at 5,100 feet above sea level and proximity to the equator provides a year-round, spring-like climate; warm and sunny most mornings and cool and cloudy in the afternoon. The dry season typically runs from November through May. Even during the rainy season (June – October) it is usually sunny in the mornings.
The lake is surrounded by 12 indigenous Mayan villages, which were inhabited long before the Spanish arrived in the mid-16th Century. The first village that most visitors come to is called Panajachel, or ‘Pana’ for short. It is a mix of local Kaqchiquel Mayan, Ladinos, expatriate residents, tourists and travelers from around the world. Facing the lake from as seen from ‘Pana’ almost all of the villages around the lake are accessible by water taxi with the exceptions of Santa Catarina Palopo (10 min. by car), San Antonio Palopo (20 min. by car), San Jorge La Laguna (10 min. by car) and Santa Clara La Laguna (accessed via car from San Pablo).
Aside from the spectacular scenery and climate, one of the main attributes that makes a lasting impression on visitors is the friendliness and sincerity of the local people. Amazingly, even though Guatemala is approximately the same size as the U.S. state of Tennessee, it is home to no less than 22 distinctive linguistic groups (not dialects but completely different languages). Lake Atitlan alone, is home to two of these groups – the Kaqchiqueles and the Tzutuhiles. While most people from these indigenous communities speak Spanish as a second language, they proudly keep many of their traditions alive. One of the most apparent of these traditions, aside from the language, is the use of hand-woven textiles and outfits, which vary in design and material from village to village and which are still worn by most women and some of the men.
Although one can get a taste of the beauty of Lake Atitlan in a of couple days, there is certainly enough to entertain visitors of all ages and interests for a week, or much more… I have been visiting and living in Guatemala off and on for the past 23 years. Here are some of my recommendations for things to do around the lake as well as day-trips which are feasible using the lake as a base to explore western Guatemala.