Sightseeing: A Weekend at the Lake
It is hard to imagine, considering the tranquility of Lake Atitlán today, what the area must have been like some 85,000 years ago when the massive volcanic eruption, Los Chocoyos, carved out the caldera which would later be filled by many stormy downpours. From the winding roads that lead to Lake Atitlán’s shore, you’ll get your first glimpse of the lake: the stunning vibrancy of its shifting waters, reflecting the sky above; the volcanoes Atitlán, Tolimán and San Pedro that punctuate the horizon; and the fertile green slopes that embrace the Maya who have called this area home for thousands of years. It’s awe-inspiring. And, the beauty and energy of the area is enough to make even a couple nights there feel like a real vacation.
At Lake Atitlán, there is a place for everyone; each village has its own ambiance. Panajachel is a bustling little lakeside town, where you’ll find lots of places to buy beautiful handicrafts, plenty of restaurants and hotels for every budget as well as a thriving nightlife. At Santiago Atitlán many residents observe the traditions of their Maya ancestors: the men work as fisherman and farmers and the women weave and wear beautifully embroidered huipiles. The town is also famous for its shrine to the Mayan saint Maximón, which is well worth visiting. Perched on the north shore of the lake, Santa Cruz, Jaibalito and Tzunumá are three small villages clustered fairly close together.
There, you’ll find a relaxed and welcoming atmosphere and hotels and restaurants with amazing views of the south side of the lake and the volcanoes. San Marcos La Laguna is nestled next to the water’s edge and under the shade of trees. This little town is known for its spiritual retreats and enlightening vibe. It also had a variety of restaurants and hotels, and a famous cliff dive. San Pedro la Laguna is well known for its chill atmosphere and nightlife; it’s a great place to hang out, listen to music, and meet other travelers, and there are plenty of great places to stay and eat.
Once you’ve gotten settled in the town of your choice, you’ll find there are a lot of things to occupy your time with, if you think that lounging in a hammock and watching the boats and butterflies go by is not enough. If you like to hike or go horseback riding, Lake Atitlán offers some exceptional opportunities along trails that wind past farmland and traverse lakeside cliffs.
For amazing views of the lake, follow the trail of La Nariz, a lakeside ridge shaped like a Mayan profile. Or, for a rewarding challenge, make the 3,000-meter climb up Volcán San Pedro. If flying is more your style, both zip-lining and paragliding are availed at the lake. And of course, what would a lake be without water sports? Kayaking, windsurfing, swimming, snorkeling and even scuba diving can be enjoyed – just be sure to check water and wind conditions before you head out! For the linguistically inclined, lakeside language schools offer the opportunity to study not only Spanish, but also some Mayan dialects. (Your hotel or tour company can offer you more details about these activities, as well as important safety information.)
In 1934, British author Aldous Huxley compared Lake Atitlán to Italy’s Lake Como, which he said was, “the limit of the permissibly picturesque,” adding that, “Atitlán is Como with the additional embellishments of several impressive volcanoes.” Just from photos you can see this is true. But, what you can’t see is the spirit of the lake. For that, you must venture there, and once you do, you’ll find that, “It is really too much of a good thing.”