Lake Atitlán is located in the highlands of Guatemala, in the department of Sololá. It is the deepest lake in Central America, with an estimated depth of about 340 meters (1120 feet). It is the 3rd largest freshwater lake in Guatemala. Maximum length and width are about 19 km (12 miles) long and 10 km (6 miles) wide, with a surface area of 128 square km (49 square miles). The lake sits at an elevation of about 1500 meters (5100 feet).
Lake Atitlán fills a caldera formed by a volcanic explosion approximately 18,000 years ago. The lake is endorheic, with no outlet to the sea. The level of the lake rises with rainfall and runoff from the surrounding mountains, and falls mostly due to evaporation.
Lake Atitlán is often called “the most beautiful lake in the world,” a quote mistakenly attributed to author Aldous Huxley. What Huxley actually wrote was a comparison with Italy’s Lake Como:
“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.”
The “immense volcanos” Huxley refers to are San Pedro (3020 meters) on the western side of the lake (right), Tolimán (3158 meters) on the southern side, and Atitlán (3535 meters) to the south of Volcán Tolimán. Of the three, only Atitlán is active, with its last eruption occurring in 1853. A small volcano, Cerro de Oro, sits on the southern shore. While some geologists consider Cerro de Oro a separate volcano, others refer to it as a parasitic lava dome from Volcán Tolimán.
Lake Atitlán’s population is primarily two indigenous groups: the Kaqchikel and Tz’utujil.Both languages are widely spoken, with Kaqchikel on the north and east sides of the lake and Tz’utujil on the south and west sides.
Lake Atitlan is also home to foreigners from around the world. Because of international residents and tourism, you will hear not only Spanish, Kaqchikel, and Tz’utujil, but also English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Norwegian, Hebrew, and Korean spoken around the lake.
Thirteen towns and villages sit on the shore of Lake Atitlán. Each town has a distinct vibe and character.
You can get news and current information about activities in each town through their FaceBook groups.
Sometimes called Gringotenango (“place of the gringos”), Pana is the most tourist-focused town on the lake. It is popular with international and Central American tourists who come for nightlife, outdoor activities, and voluntourism.
San Pedro La Laguna
The second most tourist-focused town on the lake, San Pedro has most of the lake’s Spanish schools and hostals. San Pedro has the lake’s best health food store, and is the only place on the lake you’ll see signs in Hebrew.
San Marcos La Laguna
San Marcos is the New Age town on the lake. You’ll find hostals, energy healing, massage schools, lots of yoga, and people walking barefoot. Footpaths though the main part of town, where no vehicles can go, add to the town’s ambiance.
Santa Cruz La Laguna
Santa Cruz is a laid back community with incredible views. Accessible only by boat, you’ll find both lakeside hostals and luxury hotels. The town itself sits above the lakeshore homes and hotels. The Municipality of Santa Cruz includes the villages of Jaibalito and Tzununá.
San Juan La Laguna
San Juan is best known for its women’s weaving cooperatives and its art galleries. The weaving co-ops specialize in handmade dyes from natural materials. San Juan is also home to eco-hostals and coffee tours.
Santiago is the largest town on the lake with a population of over 65,000. This Tz’utujil town is known for exquisite weaving and embroidery, and for woodworking. Santiago has the oldest Catholic Church on the lake, built in the 1540s on top of a Maya temple. Santiago is also known a home to the Mayan deity Maximon. The village of Cerro de Oro is part of Santiago Atitlán.
Santa Catarina Palopó
Santa Catarina sits between Panajachel and San Antonio Palopó, and the road runs through the center of town. Known mostly for the distinctive dress of the women, in the past few years, Santa Catarina has taken on new life and new tourism with the Pintando Santa Catarina project.
San Antonio Palopó
San Antonio is nestled into a hillside on the east side of Lake Atitlán. It is best known for its weaving and the beautiful ceramics made there. As the last town on the road heading south from Panajachel, San Antonio has a couple of small hotels but little other support for tourism. The village of Agua Escondida, high on the ridge above the lake, is part of the San Antonio municipality.
San Lucas Tolimán
San Lucas sits at the entrance to Lake Atitlán from the south coast. Though its poplulation is similar to that of Panajachel, San Lucas is largely untouched by tourism or the influence of foreigners. On market days (Sunday, Tuesday, and Friday) the market expands to several blocks with vendors from a variety of areas.
San Pablo La Laguna
San Pablo, located next to San Marcos, has no tourism. It is the least friendly town on the lake toward outsiders.