Few of us can claim to have investigated Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, the place Lonely Planet travel guides describe as “The closest thing to Eden on Earth.” However, in the absence of a spin around the lake, this article can give you an idea of the wonders of one of the most beautiful parts of the planet.
Easy to access, the lake is about a two and a half hour drive from Guatemala City or Antigua. Most arrive at the lake in the main town, Panajachel and stay in a hotel there or take a boat to other hotels on the lake. Getting to Panajachel is easy, and can be organized through a tour operator offering door-to-door services between Panajachel and Antigua or Guatemala City.
Showered in rainbows
Held in place 1560 meters (5100 ft.) above sea level by a natural dam of volcanoes makes for an ideal climate. It’s never uncomfortably cold or hot. The rainy season lasts from May to October, but the sun does shine some almost every day. The word “Atitlan” is a Mayan word that translates as “the place where the rainbow gets its colors” and in the wet season, you are sure to see a few colorful arches rising gracefully above the lake.
Visit lakeside towns by boat
There is no road that encircles the lake, so visitors will have to settle for the next best option; taking a boat across the smooth waters to any one of the towns that sit on its banks. There are 11 communities around Lake Atitlan (including Panajachel) and visitors will have a variety of locations and experiences to choose from. Munching on hummus in Moonfish cafe in the hippy retreat of San Marcos or partying until the early hours in San Pedro, Lake Atitlan will have something to keep you entertained. If you want to get to grips with the language, numerous Spanish schools are based in San Pedro for you to choose from.
Visiting the volcanoes
Lake Atitlan is the result of land collapse following volcanic activity 84,000 years ago, and since then volcanic activity in the region has built three impressive volcanoes that dominate the skyline around the lake. All can be visited from the towns surrounding the lake.
The tallest of the three volcanoes, Atitlan, dominates the stunning lake with which it shares its name. Atitlan’s summit takes about 8 hours to reach; the reward is a breathtaking view of the world’s most beautiful lake and Guatemala’s Pacific coast. Perhaps the most frequently photographed of all Guatemala’s volcanoes, San Pedro’s beautiful cone seems to rise from the waters of Lake Atitlan. The hike to the top takes about 4 hours, and while visitors will not get great views due to heavy vegetation on the summit, the crater serves as a refuge for rarely encountered species of plants and animals. Along with Atitlan and San Pedro that form the natural dam holding in Lake Atitlan, Toliman, the third volcano, has its own delights to offer. A small group of rare Horned Guans survives in the forest near the summit and hikers should plan on camping out for a good chance of sighting the birds.
Getting to know the locals
The lake basin supports a wide range of agricultural products, including coffee, that provides well for the largely indigenous population living around the area. Mayan cultural tradition is still strong, and many locals will be seen in traditional dress. Numerous humanitarian organizations, based out of the main centers of Panajachel and San Pedro, allow visitors who want to commit a couple of weeks to visit communities and assisting in various projects.
However you want to get to know Lake Atitlan, you will be surrounded by the awe-inspiring vistas that have left an undeniable impression on travelers over the centuries. With the ease of transport access from the big centers of Guatemala City and Antigua to help you get to one of the most beautiful places in the world, what are you waiting for?