Lake Atitlán: Guatemala's Eden on Earth
Lake Atitlán, Guatemala, has been called "the closest thing to Eden on earth." Located in the central highlands of Guatemala, the lake is tucked between three imposing volcanoes—San Pedro, Tolimán and Atitlán—and at 1,000 feet deep, it is the deepest lake in the Western Hemisphere. But Lake Atitlán has much more to offer than breathtaking scenery.
The ancient traditions, beliefs and trades of the Maya people are preserved here in the vibrant textiles they create and sell in lakeside village markets, where the people are warm and friendly. Here, in the heart of the Mayan world, my Guatemalan friend Carlos Vivar took time to show me and my companions this fascinating place.
We chose to stay at the Porta Hotel del Lago in Panajachel, on the lake's northern shore. "Pana," as it's widely known, was once a small Caqchikel Mayan village. Today, this large resort town is a mélange of shops, cafés, restaurants and hotels. Dubbed "Gringotenango" by the locals because of the many tourists who frequent the town, Pana is just 90 miles from Guatemala City and has a lively Friday market. Sololá's central plaza was bustling with activity. Traders and villagers from all over the highlands besieged the plaza and surrounding streets, bargaining and selling their wares. I sat and admired the brilliantly colored costumes.
In the morning we boarded a lancha—a small, fast boat that takes passengers to the lakeside villages. "The lake is so calm," I remarked as we climbed aboard. Chino, our lanchero, grinned, then started up the engine. "Just wait," Carlos said without explanation.
Our lancha sped across the water toward the Tzutuhil Maya village of Santiago Atitlán. Around the lake, the towering volcanoes stood guard like great sentinels, their cones enshrouded by dense cumulus clouds. Nearby, on the shoreline, women washed clothes in water channels and children played tag on the sand.
Santiago lies along one of the lake's sheltered inlets on the western flank of Volcán Tolimán. It's the most visited lakeside settlement outside of Pana, yet many atitecos (as Santiago's people are known) adhere to the traditional Tzutuhil Mayan way of life, weaving and wearing embroidered huipiles (blouses) and selling their work at the large Friday and Saturday markets.
We strolled up the street from the dock, stopping in a shop to buy multicolored handmade masks, then hopped aboard a deep-red tuk-tuk that took us up the hill to the shrine of Maximón.
The mischievous Maximón is revered throughout the Guatemalan highlands. Part evil saint, part pagan idol, he moves from house to house every year, so you need a guide to find him. For a quetzal or two, though, any young atiteco will assist you.
Thought to be a combination of the biblical Judas, the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado and various Mayan gods, Maximón is said to have the power to cure illnesses and bring misfortune to his enemies, and many of the locals pay him homage hoping for his help.
We paid a small fee and entered Maximón's den—a smoke-filled, gaudily lit abode where several attendants sit quietly managing the offerings. Usually housed by a member of the cofradía (Mayan Catholic brotherhood), Maximón is a cigar-smoking wooden figure crowned by a hat, his shoulders draped in colorful silk scarves. We greeted his keepers, then offered Maximón a small bottle of Venado rum to quench his thirst (his favorite, Vivar told us), and a few cigars for him to puff on.
Our next lakeside stop, San Antonio Palopó, clings to the edge of a steep hillside as if it were about to slide into the water. Onshore, whole families sat cleaning scallions that they grow in their terraced fields. We purchased several of the town's renowned weavings from local vendors while walking up to the charming colonial church on the hill.
Back at our lancha, the water had become rough, the sky obscured by ominous clouds. Chino started the engine as fat raindrops began to splatter all around. "So much for calm," I said, but Vivar explained that it was just the lake trying to give us a message. "When the water gets choppy," he said, "that's the moment when the lake says it wants to be alone."
Halfway across the lake the sky opened up, letting loose a torrent of rain. Drenched, we docked at the Hotel y Restaurante Tolimán, where a young man waited with a pile of umbrellas. Despite the downpour, the setting for lunch was spectacular: The coffee-growing town of San Lucas Tolimán lies at the foot of Volcán Tolimán—the restaurant amid lush gardens on the lakeshore.
Dinner in Pana that night was equally atmospheric. Vivar took us to Pupusería Cheros, where the owners, his friends Ricardo Rochac and Carmen García, invited us to make our own Salvadoran pupusas—thick, mouth-watering corn tortillas stuffed with a mixture of cheese, beans or meat. Later, as we were leaving, I asked for their business card, and Rochac searched frantically for one without success. Suddenly he yanked his shirt off and gave it to me so I'd never forget "Pupusería Cheros", which was embroidered on the front. "Por una buena amiga, me quito la camisa," he said—"To a good friend, I give the shirt off my back." I was touched.
On our last morning, we drove to the 247-acre San Buenaventura Nature Reserve, a former coffee plantation in the valley near the bottom of the spiraling descent from Sololá. Beneath the high peaks capped with the mysterious, tropical cloud forest, we harnessed up for our morning adrenaline rush—a zip-line canopy tour.
The tour began with a 25-minute climb through the dense jungle. Hiking through the light-dappled shade, I caught glimpses of spider monkeys lolling in the thick tangle of leaves above.
When we arrived at the cables, made up as a series of six different velocity lines, I couldn't wait to begin. Zipping downwards high above the forest canopy gave me a bird's-eye view of this remarkable place. Stunning natural beauty, enigmatic culture and warm, friendly people—no wonder they call Lake Atitlán "Guatemala's Eden on earth."
For more information, go to visitguatemala.com.
Top ten things to do at Lake Atitlán:
- Visit the outdoor market at Sololá.
- Eat pupusas with the locals at Pupusería Cheros in Panajachel. For dessert, savor the pure chocolate of Guatemala just across the street at Dina's Chocolates. Both are on the corner of Calle Principal and Avenida de los Árboles.
- Take one of the lanchas for a tour around the lake, visiting San Pedro, Santiago Atitlán and San Antonio Palopó.
- Go shopping for the beautiful traditional woven textiles at San Antonio Palopó.
- Parasail, scuba dive, fish or swim in the lake.
- Visit the San Buenaventura Nature Reserve, where you can see a butterfly sanctuary, hike the reserve's well-kept trails or go zip-lining.
- Climb to the rooftop of the Porta Hotel del Lago for a panoramic view of the lake.
- Hike the challenging volcano trails for exercise and fantastic views (some trails are risky; check before you go).
- Explore Pana's nightlife. Most clubs and bars are located around the southern end of Calle de los Árboles.
- Sit back and relax by the lake.
TACA takes you directly to Guatemala City from San Salvador, Chicago, San Pedro, San José, Miami, Los Angeles, Mexico and New York City.
For more information, we invite you to visit our website at taca.com or your local TACA Center, or call a TACA Call Center (numbers are listed on the inside of your ticket jacket).