Aldous Huxley once described Lake Atitlán, encircled by steep hills and three volcanoes, as “the most beautiful lake in the world.” Some of the most beautiful landscapes in the country make the lake a popular tourist destination, but the surrounding villages have preserved their Maya traditions well: colorful dress and Maya languages vary from town to town.
Today’s landscape around the lake has its origins approximately 85,000 years ago when a massive eruption blew volcanic ash as far as Florida and Panama. The volcano was depleted of its magma, collapsed, and left a caldera (large crater) which eventually collected water – Lake Atitlán now fills part of the caldera.
The lake, at almost a mile above sea level, measures 18km by 12km (about 11 by 8 miles) at its widest point, and averages about 340 metres (1,120 feet) deep.
‘Atitlán’ means “place of the great waters” in Nahuatl, the language of the Mexican troops who first came with the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado through the region.
The volcanoes of San Pedro, Tolimán, and Atitlán provide the backdrop to one of the world’s most beautiful lakes, which is also rich in Maya culture. Both Kaqchikel and Tz’utujil are
spoken in the villages around the lake, the former being the language of San Lucas Toliman. Towns like Santiago Atitlán and the departmental capital, Sololá, remain some of the few places in the country where men as well as women still wear traditional traje.
Women in San Antonio Palopó on the east shore, wear simple but unique blue weavings. The villages are predominantly quiet and small agricultural communities, although the town of Panajachel has, since the 60’s, become the largest tourist destination on the lake. Whatever the culture in each town, however, the lake remains central to life.
The lake provides essential water to the surrounding communities for drinking and cleaning. Men in small canoes can be seen fishing at the early hours of the morning, although the introduction of black bass for sport fishing has reduced biodiversity in the lake.
Women, likewise, make their way down to the lake in the morning to congregate and wash clothes; children swim in the lake for amusement and to cool off. In many ways and for many people, the lake is central to life and fundamental to the local culture.