Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Guatemala Part 5: Lake Atitlan, deep, blue, & gorgeous

Lake Atitlan with Volcan Toliman looming in the background. In the previous post, I showed you a little of Lake Atitlan, but mostly focused on the stunning Hotel Atitlan where we stayed. This time you will get a much better look at the lake. I took this photo during our journey from Chichicastenango to the lake. It was late afternoon, so the Volcan Toliman, and the larger Volcan Atitlan behind it, were wreathed with clouds. In front of me was a steep drop-off and I could glimpse the pale blue of Lake Atitlan at the base of the Toliman volcano, still many miles away. To locate Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, click here. As the crow flies, the lake is about 70 kilometers (40 mi.) west of Guatemala City. Although that seems like a short distance, the actual road distance is more than 161 kilometers (100 mi.) because the terrain is very mountainous with winding roads and hair-raising curves. The drive takes at least 3-4 hours. Buses and shuttles run regularly between Lake Atitlan and both Guatemala City and Antigua.

Scale model of Lake Atitlan area. I found this scale model in the middle of the plaza of the little lakeside town of Santiago Atitlan. We will visit Santiago in my next posting. The top of the model above is on the west. In the middle of the north (right) side is a small indentation that forms the inlet where Hotel Atitlan is located. To the south (left) side there are two long inlets. The upper inlet leads to Santiago Atitlan. Between the two inlets are Volcan Toliman (3,158m/10,361ft), closest to the lake, and Volcan Atitlan (3,557m/11,670ft) behind it. Above the top inlet (toward the west) are Volcan San Pedro (3,020m/9,908ft) and Volcan Santa Clara (2,282m/7,487ft).

Lake Atitlan at sunset. Even with a cloud cover, the view was gorgeous from the balcony of our room at Hotel Atitlan. At the base of Volcan Toliman, just above the waterline, you can make out Cerro de Oro, a small cinder cone (sort of a baby volcano). The lake surface above was ruffled by the rising xocomil, or "wind that carries away sin." At this time of day, travel on the lake can be treacherous. Lake Atitlan, a World Heritage Site, has a surface area of about 125 square kilometers (78 sq. mi.), and a depth of approximately 400 meters (1312 ft.). The lake fills a basin that is actually the mouth of a gigantic volcano that exploded 85,000 years ago. In a tremendous blast, called Los Chocoyos eruption, the volcano hurled 180 cubic kilometers of ash and rock into the air. By contrast, Mount St. Helens in the US' Washington State threw out only 2 cubic kilometers and Italy's volcano at Pompeii blew up 6 cubic kilometers. Traces of ash from Los Chocoyos eruption have been found from Florida to Ecuador. Around the edges of the caldera, or volcano mouth, are more volcanos, some of which have been active as recently as 1853, a blink of the eye in geologic time. To view a topographical map of the area where you see find all these features in detail, click here. If you click your cursor on the map, it will enlarge further.

Looking southeast at dawn from Hotel Atitlan. Behind the point of land on the left is the town of Panajachel, seen at the end of this posting. The surface elevation of the lake is 1,562 meters (5,125 ft.). This gives the area a spring-like climate year-round because the lake stabilizes the temperature, much like Lake Chapala where I live in Mexico.  Mornings, during March when we visited, are generally cool, clear, sunny, and beautiful. In the afternoon, clouds roll in to provide dramatic sunsets.

A roomy catamaran took us across the calm lake one morning. Even with nearly 50 tour participants and staff on board, there was plenty of room. Although the lake is choppy in the afternoon, the morning we went it was almost glassy. The broad catamaran design of the boat helped provide a smooth ride, even in the afternoon when we returned. The boat dock juts out from the base of the Hotel Atitlan gardens.

Waterfall cascades down the cliffs behind the hotel. As we pulled away from the dock, I looked back over the top of the hotel toward the cliffs that form the caldera rim. A beautiful waterfall drops almost vertically down. The walls of the caldera glow with the golden warmth of the morning sunshine. Atitlán means "place where the rainbow gets its colors."

Clouds over Volcan Toliman create the illusion of an eruption. In the lake below the volcano, you can see two of the many water taxis--tiny in comparison to the massive volcano--that ply the lake from village to village. Many of these communities can be reached only by water. As I took this picture, we were heading directly south toward the volcano. Just above the boat in the center, you can see the small Cerro de Oro cinder cone. Famous writer Aldous Huxley wrote of Lake Atitlan: "Lake Como, it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing."

Looking west, the towering walls of the caldera rim are lined with small villages. The green ravine containing Santa Cruz la Laguna can be seen in the center of the photo. There is no road to the village, only foot trails leading up from the lake and down from the highway that follows the rim of the caldera. Jorge, our Caravan Tour director, told me that there are several small B&B-type hotels in the village with stunning views and the kind of isolation treasured by people like honeymooners.

A closer look at Santa Cruz la Laguna. The steep-sided ravine containing Santa Cruz is typical of many inhabited areas around the lake. People have lived in these communities for thousands of years. The Maya build terraces up the mountain walls to grow crops, gather pitahaya (a cactus fruit), and catch fish in the lake.  A number of archaeological sites have been discovered around the lake, including two, Sambaj and Chiutinamit, that are under water. Sambaj, with several groups of buildings and a city center, is 16.76 meters down (55 ft.) and appears to be from the Preclassic period. Chiutinamit was discovered by local fishermen who were amazed to find "a city under water." Divers have found pottery shards dating from 600 BC-250 AD (also Preclassic).

Heading into the Santiago inlet. Above, you can see Volcan Toliman. Volcan Atitlan, partially obscured by clouds is behind it to the right. The sides of the volcanos are heavily forested right down to the water. The Maya in Guatemala are separated into 22 distinct language groups, often at odds with one another. At Lake Atitlan, the three major Maya groups are the Tz'utujil, the Kaqchikel, and the Quiché. The habitual divisions among the Maya made them easy prey for a the "divide and conquer" strategy. The Spanish under Hernán Cortéz first employed this strategy when they used some of the Aztecs' subject peoples to help overthrow that empire. The Kaqchikel thought they could get a leg up on their ancient rivals by allying themselves with the conquistadors. They helped defeat the Tz'utujil and the Quiché, but when the Spanish demanded tribute from their erstwhile allies, the Kaqchikel learned a bitter lesson. In the end, the Spanish didn't want allies, they wanted subjects.

Volcan San Pedro and a water taxi. Across the inlet (to the west) from Santiago Atitlan rises Volcan San Pedro. The steep sides of the volcanos, and of the caldera rim, have produced massive landslides in recent times. In October 2005, Hurricane Stan caused a landslide at Lake Atitlan that killed as many as 1,400 residents of Panajachel and left another 5,000 homeless. In 2010, Tropical Storm Agatha resulted in more landslides with dozens more deaths. We could still see the paths of some of these landslides even a year later.

Terraces follow the steep ridges up the sides of the caldera. As in many areas of Guatemala's southern highlands, Maya farmers here take advantage of every square inch of arable land. Around Lake Atitlan they grow crops like onions, beans, squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, garlic, chile verde, strawberries, and avacados. The area around Hotel Atitlan was once a coffee finca. The terraces above are all hand-tilled. We sometimes saw Maya women hoeing their crops on a hillside, dressed in their beautifully hand-embroidered huipils (blouses).

Lucas takes in the view. I joined Lucas, seen above on the bow of our catamaran, to enjoy the stunning views ahead. Between photos, I learned a little about him. Lucas was born in Guatemala and his adoptive parents took him to live in the US where He is a high school student. They brought him to Guatemala on this trip so that he could learn first-hand about his native country. He is a very handsome and personable young man, and I suspect that he probably has girls swooning in both the US and Guatemala.

The back side of Toliman volcano. At this point, we were heading into the inlet leading to Santiago. Notice the smoke rising from the hillside just above the lake in the bottom center of the photo. Field burning is an ancient technique for getting rid of crop stubble, and killing weeds and insects. The ash from the stubble also serves as fertilizer. Unfortunately, the practice tends to pollute the air, if done on a wide scale. A good deal of the mountainside above has been deforested. Such deforestation also contributes to the landslide problem.

Water taxi races by a hillside vacation home on the outskirts of Santiago. This home is undoubtedly owned by a wealthy Guatemalan, or perhaps a foreigner. Local Maya generally live much more modestly than this.

Palapa on the point. As we rounded the point of land leading to the tiny harbor of Santiago, I spotted this lakeside palapa. The roof is thatched and held up by wooden pillars, the base is stone and cement. This palapa is not a dwelling, but a mirador (lookout point) for a home on the hillside above. The steps to the right of the palapa lead down to the water and are probably where the owner docks his boat.

Fisherman plies his ancient trade, in the ancient manner. From his tiny, oddly-shaped boat, he cast a circular net out over the water as we cruised by. Each time he cast, he would haul the net in, hand-over-hand, hoping to catch something to sell, or perhaps just for supper. In 1958, at the instigation of Pan Am airline, local officials introduced the Black Bass into Lake Atitlan, with disastrous consequences. Pan Am, of course, was looking to increase its profits by promoting tourism. Two thirds of the native fish species went extinct, taking with them the Giant Grebe bird, found only at Lake Atitlan.

More palapas in a lakeside palm grove. Nestled in the glade were several large palapas that are apparently part of a hotel complex. It has been very tastefully designed so that the property blends in with the forest around it.


Tuk-tuk driver in lakeside town of San Francisco Panajachel. This friendly guy took us from our hotel to Panajchel after we returned from our trip across the lake to Santiago. Tuk-tuks originated in Thailand and since their adoption in Guatemala have become wildly popular all over the country. They are 3-wheeled vehicles with enough room of 2 passengers, 3 with a squeeze. They get their name from the sound of their engines, and are an inexpensive alternative to taxis. Tuk-tuk drivers are, shall we say, highly creative in finding ways through heavy vehicle and foot traffic.

The Avenida Santander in Panajachel is lined with shops like these. In addition, there were innumerable small restaurants, bars, coffee houses, internet cafes, and inexpensive hotels and hostels. In spite of its tourist orientation, we enjoyed San Francisco Panajachel, usually called simply "Pana." The population is a bit more than 11,000, overwhelmingly Maya, but with some foreigners. It seems to be a haven for hippies and young foreign backpacker types, usually from Europe. Pana was the site of an ancient Kakchiquel village where the final battle was fought between the Spaniards and their Kakchiquel allies on one side, and the Tzutujiles on the other. After the battle, Franciscan friars founded a convent here. The San Francisco Church, also founded by the Franciscans, was the site of mass conversions forced on the Maya by their Spanish conquerors. In addition to shopping, tourists can catch a boat from the waterfront near here to visit other sites around the lake. For a map of Panajachel showing many shops, hotels, and restaurants, click here.

Taking a siesta, Guatemala style. This little girl and her baby brother nestled together at the foot of the shop run by their mother. I was enjoying some excellent Guatemala coffee in a sidewalk cafe across the street when I spotted them. Above them hang some of Guatemala's wonderful, hand-woven Maya textiles. If we return to Guatemala--and we will--we want to visit Lake Atitlan again, and possibly stay at one of the small comfortable hotels that abound in Panajachel.

This competes my posting on Lake Atitlan. Next week, I'll take you to the lakeside town of Santiago Atitlan, with beautiful textiles, and friendly people, but a dark history. I always welcome response from my viewers. If you'd like to comment, please use the Comments section below, or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Hi Jim, That top photo in this post is a classic--well done! And thanks, as always for your informative text.

  2. Thank you for your wonderful photos & blog on Atitlan. Visited there a few years back & fell in love. Have thought about it for retirement?Wonder if you know any Americans who have done this?
    Namaste Kathryn

  3. Nice post! I traveled to Guatemala last year and my best experience was with Guatemala transfer

  4. My daughter and I travel to Guatemala next May, thanks for the information about Lake Atitlan. Terrible about the bass invasion.


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim