Thursday, August 24, 2006

Lake Atitlan: shining jewel of Guatemala

Combine volcanoes, a beautiful crater lake, a fascinating mix of cultures and experiences, and you have Lake Atitlan, a breathtaking lake in the highlands of southwestern Guatemala. Lago de Atitlan was formed thousands of years ago after volcanic explosions formed a huge hole known as a caldera, and has a rightly deserved reputation as one of the most beautiful lakes in the world.

Spending a week in this gorgeous but very affordable spot a few years ago made for of the most memorable vacations of my life. The lake features no less than three volcanoes—Atitlan (on the north rim of the caldera) and San Pedro and Toliman, both of which lie within the caldera itself.

A number of different villages can be found ringing the lake, each with its own unique personality. The native Maya culture is alive and well in these villages, and you can see many people living much as their ancestors did, and wearing traditional Mayan dress. Roads around the lake are few and primitive, so to get from one town to another you'll be taking one of the many boats that ply their trade ferrying passengers around the lakeside communities.

Panajachel is the biggest tourist destination in the lake area. Since the 1960s it has been a popular destination for expatriates from the U.S. and other countries, and it still is a haven for hippies (both old and new). In Panajachel you can also find vendors selling native crafts, souvenirs, and food from throughout Guatemala, and the town is known for its active nightlife. What's more, Panajachel features boats to take you to nearly every other town on the lakeside, making it ideal place to start your exploration of Lake Atitlan.

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