Finding Paradise in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Written by Lisa Montgomery
(A Highly Commended entry in the Off the Beaten Track Writing Competition.)

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala: Dark, glittering pool of water
Dark, glittering pool of water

After an incredibly bumpy three-hour drive from Guatemala City, basic needs such as food and sleep slowly came to suppress the initial excitement of being in a new place.

Just before sunset, as if it knew we were about to snap, the forest opened up and gave us the first view of the dark, glittering pool of water.

In an instant, the tiresome journey was forgotten. The view that greeted us was unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed before, and I immediately recollected the words I read about Lake Atitlan before embarking on this trip, that “there cannot be a place so perfectly situated”.

Volcanoes stand as guardians of the lake
Volcanoes stand as guardians of the lake

At an altitude of over 5,000 feet, Lago de Atitlan is really a caldera that was formed out of an eruption 84,000 years ago, and is now the deepest lake in Central America.

San Pedro, Atitlan and Toliman are three volcanoes that stand as guardians of the lake, visible from almost every angle. Although the two latter remain active, they have thankfully all been silent for over 150 years.

With what is probably the most pleasant climate in the world, it is no surprise that this secluded part of Guatemala causes both people and plants to thrive. The landscape consists of spectacular sub-tropical rainforest, plantations (mainly coffee and avocado) and gardens, cared for by the largely indigenous communities that live there. For thousands of years Lake Atitlan has attracted people to its shores, and despite the natural and political disasters of the past, the people remained.

Sub-tropical rainforest
Sub-tropical rainforest

This is where you’ll find one of the largest indigenous Maya populations in the world, and a culture shaped from the region’s history, encompassing elements of Mayan and Spanish heritage alike. Setting the beauty of the region aside, perhaps the most lasting impression of Lake Atitlan will be its people.

Almost everywhere you go, the people you interact with are warm and friendly, and demonstrate an admirable patience when you, in an embarrassing effort, try to utter the five words of Spanish you know.

Another aspect that contributes to the welcoming atmosphere of Lake Atitlan is that it doesn’t discriminate. No matter your interests or fitness level, there really is something for everyone.

For the active traveller there are numerous hiking trails (including a couple climbing the volcanoes) and kayaking opportunities. For the shopping and sightseeing aficionados the highly efficient boat transport system can take you to villages like Santiago and San Pedro, where historic buildings and local markets are sure to catch your eye.

Wave down one of the public boats
Wave in one of the public boats

With no roads connecting the villages around the lake, the main transportation is by boat, either with a private “capitan” or by simply waving in one of the public ones.

Along the north shore, colourful and romantic villas are scattered on the hillside, in the midst of tropical gardens and overgrown wilderness.

Take the lakeside plank walk stretching from the eco-friendly Laguna Lodge to The Hummingbird Hostel, and you will walk through more variations of vegetation that you thought possible. The clear domination of nature in this place, where the residents have adjusted to their environment – instead of the other way around – is truly what makes this place so special.

Relatively unspoilt by tourism
Relatively unspoilt by tourism

One of the people that was swayed by the lake’s beauty was the writer Aldous Huxley, who once wrote: “Lake Como, it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlan is Como with the additional embellishment of several immense volcanoes. It is really too much of a good thing” (Beyond the Mexique Bay, 1934).

Perhaps it’s thanks to its location, that despite excellent references like this, Lake Atitlan feels relatively unspoilt by tourism (with the exception of the main port of Panajachel).

However, visiting paradise on earth in Guatemala does have one downside; you will find yourself looking at the ‘For Sale’ signs with serious interest.

POSTED 18th NOVEMBER 2018 by STEVE HANSON on behalf of LISA MONTGOMERY who visited Lake Atitlan in 2016. The photographs were supplied by the author after the competition had been judged.