photo of Lake Atitlan

Volcanoes in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. (ThinkStock)

What to do in Lake Atitlan

One of Guatemala's largest lakes, Lake Atitlán, situated in the Solola District, ranks as one of the world's most scenic locales. The misty blue water unfolds against a backdrop of three 10,000-foot volcanoes, Toliman, Atitlán, and San Pedro. Created by a massive volcanic eruption 85,000 years ago, the lake, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Guatemala City or Antigua, stretches 12 miles long and six miles wide with depths reaching over 1,000 feet.

Maya villages ring the azure lake, situated in Guatemala's Highlands. After Hurricane Stan in October 2005, mudslides in this region destroyed several Maya settlements; however, villages affected including Panajachel, the lake's largest town and the main gateway, have been fixed up since the disaster.

Calle Santander, one of the main roads in Panajachel, leads to the lake and spectacular views. The rest of the town is more functional than picturesque, with restaurants, hotels, and outfitters. Some eco-adventures offered include guided hikes of the San Pedro volcano (the best and safest way to explore the slopes), and kayaking. Hundreds of colorful butterflies flutter above plants at the Reserva Natural Atitlán and trails lead through woods and coffee groves to a waterfall.

Take a boat ride across the water to one of the Maya villages. In Santiago Atitlán, a popular destination and home to the Tz'utujil, traditionally dressed women layer a 20-meter-long tocojal (headband) around their heads, and wear lilac huipils, tunics delicately embroidered with birds and animals. Women line the streets selling clothing, carved birds, table runners, and other crafts.

The townspeople keep the tradition of praying to Maximón, a highland deity. Ask a guide or the vendors how to find his caretakers. For a small donation, you may be able to see Maximón, represented by a mannequin dressed in a black suit and hat, often smoking a cigarette. Supplicants bring flowers, candles, bottles of rum, and tuck money under his tie as offerings. The candles, the incense, the smoke, and the prayers create a powerful experience. Remind children to be quiet and respectful.

In the courtyard outside the Iglesia Parroquial Santiago Apóstol, a church dating to the 16th century and known for its wooden statues of saints and altar carvings that include the quetzal, your kids can meet peers and join in an impromptu soccer game. After all, kicking a soccer goal transcends any language barrier.

Tip: When exploring Lake Atitlán, be sure to go with a reputable guide.

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