Guatemala // The western highlands //

Lago de Atitlán

Lake Como, it seems to me, touches the limit of the permissibly picturesque; but Atitlán is Como with the additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It is really too much of a good thing. After a few days of this impossible landscape one finds oneself thinking nostalgically of the English Home Counties. Aldous Huxley, Beyond the Mexique Bay (1934)

Whether or not you share Huxley’s refined sensibilities, there’s no doubt that LAGO DE ATITLÁN is astonishingly beautiful, and most people find themselves captivated by the lake’s scenic excesses. Indeed its appeal is so intoxicating that a handful of gringo devotees have been rooted to its shores since the 1960s, and today Atitlán rates as the country’s number-one tourist attraction.

Hemmed in on all sides by volcanoes and steep hills, the lake is at least 320m deep and measures 18km by 12km at its widest point. Depending on the time of day its waters shift through an astonishing range of blues, steely greys and greens as the sun moves across the sky. Mornings are usually calm, but by early afternoon the xocomil wind makes boat travel quite a rock’n’roll experience.

The strength of Maya culture evident here is profound. Many of the villages remain intensely traditional – San Antonio Palopó, Santiago Atitlán and Sololá are some of the very few places in the entire country where Maya men still wear traje – despite the tourist presence. Around the southwestern shores, from Santiago to San Pablo La Laguna, Tz’utujil is spoken, while from San Marcos La Laguna to Cerro de Oro the Kaqchikel language predominates.

Most travellers base themselves in one lakeside village and visit other pueblos from there. Panajachel is the main resort, an enjoyable if touristy town that has an abundance of hotels and restaurants. San Pedro, with budget digs and a party vibe, is the main backpacker hangout, while those seeking tranquillity head for Santa Cruz, San Marcos or isolated spots on the north side of the lake. Other possibilities include San Juan, Santiago Atitlán and San Antonio Palopó all of which have a hotel or two.

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