Many consider Lake Atitlán to be one of the most beautiful lakes in the world.
It is situated at 1560 metres above sea level, has a water surface of 125 km², is up to 400 metres deep and up to 18 kilometres wide. The volcanic cones of San Pedro, Tolimán and Atitlán as well as the Cerro San Marcos and the Cerro Cristalino on the western shore of the lake form a truly breathtaking backdrop.
The history of the lake’s origins is just as dramatic as today’s panorama.
Lake Atitlán was formed about 85,000 years ago by a massive eruption of the volcano Atitlán, which emitted a mass of 180 cubic kilometres of ash and stones. What remained was a huge crater in the earth’s crust that filled with water from cracks in the rock layer. This is how the unique lake was created, which has no natural outlet. Due to the continuous volcanic activity in the surrounding area, the three impressive volcanoes Toliman, Atitlán and San Pedro on the southern shore of the lake were formed in the course of thousands of years. Those who want to climb one or more of them today should do so with a local guide.
For walks and smaller hikes along the lake shore, the villages of Santa Catarina Palopó (4 km) and San Antonio Palopó (another 6 km) are a good choice (from Panajachel). From the lookout point at Godinez, on the road to Antigua, the path begins, descending through pine forests and terraced fields to Santa Catarina. On the way back to Panajachel you can take a colectivo (or boat).
If you want to visit an authentic, less touristy market than the one of Chichicastenango, you should go to Sololá on Tuesdays or Fridays. The village is located a few kilometres from Panajachel, high above the northern shore of the lake and offers a wonderful view over the lake.
In addition to Panajachel, which has been popular for decades, several indigenous villages line the lake shore, which can all be reached by regular ferry boats.
San Francisco Panajachel, as it is officially called, is the tourist centre of Lake Atitlán. The conglomerate of hotels, restaurants, pubs and shops, where at most times of the year the number of tourists exceeds that of the inhabitants, is therefore also jokingly called Gringotenango.
Santiago Atitlán on the southern shore of the lake is increasingly popular but still less touristy than Panajachel. The Iglesia Parroquial Santiago Apóstol, built between 1572 and 1581, is one of the oldest colonial churches in the region.
The figures of saints inside wear traditional Mayan clothes, made by the women of the community and renewed annually.
Santiago is also a centre of the Maximón cult. Maximón, also known as Rilaj Maam or San Simón, is a syncretic connection between the Mayan god Mam and the Catholic Saint Simon (Judas). He is portrayed as a male figure dressed in modern clothes, to whom cigarettes, alcohol and flowers are offered as a sacrifice. Every year the figure changes its place of residence between the homes of the members of a Cofradía, as the Mayan Catholic brotherhoods are called.
The Maximón worship was and is also an act of cultural resistance against the religious claim to power of the former colonial rulers respectively of the today dominating social class of the Ladinos.
The inhabitants of the various communities around the lake can be recognised by their traditional clothing, which is still widespread among both men and women.
The typical headdress of the women of Santiago, for example, can be traced back to more than a thousand years of tradition. The effect of a halo is created by the almost endless red ribbon wrapped around it.