Lago Atitlán, Guatemala
Lago Atitlán, Guatemala
In the Guatemalan Highlands of the Sierra Madre Mountain range lies a lake, revered for its inherent beauty and power. Surrounded by mountains and volcanos, Lago Atitlán is essentially a bowl— host for fog, rain, high winds and pure sunshine depending on the season.
Featured Volcán San Pedro, Volcán Tolimán and Volcán Atitlán, Guatemala
In my three weeks on the lake, I heard numerous accounts about the mysteries of Lago Atitlán. Some circles revere the lake as the umbilical cord of the universe, citing the area’s alleged extraterrestrial activity and energetic fields. Others refer to the lake as a divine feminine entity, and a mirror for illusion. I even met a person that claimed that hundreds of thousands of dead bodies rested at the bottom, as deep down as the mountains are tall.
Despite the many explanations I encountered, none were satisfactory in deciphering the truth about the place, or lifting the tangible veil of mystery that shrouds the lake to this day. Nonetheless, Lago Atitlán remains Guatemala’s largest tourist attraction, with thousands of visitors coming to its banks each year.
Fisherman at dusk, San Marcos La Laguna, Guatemala
The Lake was formed 84,000 years ago by a volcanic eruption, Los Chocoyos, that blew ash as far as Florida and Ecuador. Since Los Chocoyos, three volcanos have formed in the region, namely Volcán San Pedro, Volcán Tolimán, and Volcán Atitlán. Among the three, Tolimán and Atitlán are believed to be still active.
Archeological digs around the lake have found Mayan artifacts that date back to the Pre-Classic period (2000 BCE- 200 CE), and still to this day, two predominant Mayan groups inhabit the lake, the Tz’utujil and Kaaqchikel. Though the two groups turned against one another during the Spanish Conquest, both groups ultimately suffered similar fates under the Spanish conquistadors and at the hands of their own government.
In fact, during the Guatemalan Civil War, indigenous peoples were essentially assumed supportive of the rebel forces and made targets for horrific violence by the Guatemalan government. In spite of Atitlán’s violent history, The Maya people of this area have endured, resisting colonization with their language, food, and traditional dress.
Your tools in your hands
Though Mayan culture has overarching commonalities that transcend the diversity of Mayan dialect and region, each community is unique. You will find this most notably in the traditional wear, such as the women’s blouse, huipil, and skirt, corte. Each town has their own weaving patterns, which have been passed down for hundreds of years. The huipil featured below is from the Atitlán town of Tzununa, which means hummingbird water in Kaqchikel. The huipil embodies the colorful breast of the hummingbird; the triangular pattern pays homage to the surrounding volcanos.
Traditional huipil of Tzununa, Guatemala
Culturally and geographically, the lakeside communities of Atitlán have developed rather autonomously, as most towns are only accessible by boat, or lancha, via Panajachel. Though several of the towns have road access, there is no road that connects the surrounding villages together.
Las lanchas at Panajachel
Each town has something unique to offer, and there is a town to meet the needs of every kind of traveler. Here is a super short low-down on some of Atitlán’s towns:
Panajachel caters to the tourists that want a straight-forward, resort experience with easy access in and out.
Santa Cruz is considered quiet, more artsy and notably pricier.
Jaibalito doesn’t necessarily have a reputation that proceeds it, making it one of Atitlán’s best kept secrets for an authentic experience at the lake.
San Marcos La Laguna is considered a new-age meca, attracting those who looking to participate in the numerous spiritual and wellbeing services available.
San Juan La Laguna attracts visitors that are interested in the Mayan weavings, as there is a market and also several weaving cooperatives located there.
San Pedro La Laguna is known as the party spot on the lake. The town caters to backpackers with large hostels and nightlife.
Santiago is, in fact a city, and has the largest indigenous presence. The men still wear traditional Mayan pants, and the town is home to St. Maximóm, a saint that embodies the hybridization of Catholic and Mayan tradition.
Planning a trip to Guatemala? Check back for more information about Lago Atitlán and other worthwhile adventures in Guate.