English writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley famously wrote of it: “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.” One thing is clear; you definitely don’t need to be a famous writer or philosopher to appreciate the immediate impact this lake has on you. It’s ‘old school’ pretty, the kind of photograph you’d send home; the Facebook album cover.
But beauty isn’t the only thing this lake brings to the table. With a depth of around 340 metres it’s actually Central America’s deepest. Formed by a volcanic eruption over 84,000 years ago, it’s also the local people’s main source of food and water with a large amount of animal life which fisherman in makeshift boats prowl and hook from sunrise to sunset.
Sadly, the modern world has caught up with the area and the lake’s magnificence is at risk of being tarnished by pollution and lack of conservation. Thankfully the area is slowly awakening to the growing problem and pressure from the local villages on the Guatemalan government to save it is increasing. Despite this, the local food is some of the most exciting and fresh produce this side of the Atlantic; empanadas and tostadas are made there and then by women sporting dresses as colourful as the food itself, with food varying, only slightly, from village to village.
Surrounding Panajachel is a pair of most intriguing villages, which are well worth exploring. Home to a large hippy community from September onwards in search of a hedonistic retreat, San Marcos is the more prominent of the two, but Santiago Atitlán is the one to seek out. The largest but strangely least visited town is the closest you’re going to get to authentic Guatemalan life; men in traditional dress adorn the streets and build Cayucos to travel across the lake, while on Fridays and Sundays the village springs to life in a day-long market. Make sure you visit the Cojolya Weaving Centre; the museum gives you a full explanation and history of the backstrap-loom weave, used to create the colourful costume of the Tzutujil, the local indigenous people.
This lake isn’t just a beautiful tourist spot to come and adore, it’s a local way of life, a string of villages all with their own culture and people – one which, if not dealt with properly may not exist at all in decades to come. If there’s a time to visit, it’s most certainly now.