The Senile Seven left the market at one o’clock for the hour long
journey to Panachel. Timing was just right – as soon as we set off from Chichi
the heavens opened. The road was incredibly steep
with plenty of ear popping as we went downhill steeply. Bear did his best with a
(Lago de Atitlán) is a large endorheic
(one that does not flow to the sea) in the Guatemalan
Highlands about thirty one miles west-northwest of Antigua. Atitlan is
recognised as the deepest lake in Central
with maximum depth of about 1,120 feet, Its surface area is about 50.2 square
miles and its surface elevation is 5,125 feet. The lake is shaped by deep
escarpments which surround it and by three volcanoes on
its southern flank.
Lake Atitlan is further characterised by towns and villages of the
people and should not be confused with Lake
which is located about forty miles southeast of Lake Atitlán and ten miles
southeast of Antigua. Lake Atitlán is much larger than Lake
the water" is the meaning of "Atitlan." It is a fusion of simple Nahuatl words
that belies the complexity of the entity it identifies. German explorer
the earliest prominent foreigner generally quoted as calling it "the most
beautiful lake in the world."
lake is volcanic in origin, filling an enormous caldera
formed in an eruption 84,000 years ago, Aldous
famously wrote of it: "Lake
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."
lake basin supports extensive coffee growth and a variety of farm crops, most
notably corn. Other significant agricultural products include onions, beans,
squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, garlic, chile verde, strawberries, avocados and
fruit. The lake itself is rich in animal life which provides a significant food
source for the largely indigenous
Geological history: The
region first saw volcanic activity about eleven million years ago, and since
then has seen four separate episodes of volcanic growth and caldera collapse,
the most recent of which began about 1.8 million years ago and culminated in the
formation of the present caldera.
caldera-forming eruption is known as Los Chocoyos
and ejected up to 72 cubic miles of tephra.
The enormous eruption dispersed ash over an area of some 6 million km²: it has
been detected from Florida to
and can be used as a stratigraphic
marker in both the Pacific
(known as Y-8 ash in marine deposits).
chocoyo is a type of bird which is often found nesting in the relatively
soft ash layer.
Since the end of Los Chocoyos, continuing volcanism has built three
volcanoes in the caldera. Volcán
lies on the southern rim of the caldera, while Volcán San
lie within the caldera. San Pedro is the oldest of the three and seems to have
stopped erupting about 40,000 years ago. Tolimán began growing after San Pedro
stopped erupting, and probably remains active, although it has not erupted in
historic times. Atitlán has grown almost entirely in the last 10,000 years, and
remains active, with its most recent eruption having occurred in
the 4th of February 1976, a massive
(magnitude 7.5) struck Guatemala killing more than 26,000 people. The earthquake
fractured the lake bed causing subsurface drainage from the lake, allowing the
water level to drop two metres within one month.
came in at Panachel and are staying in Santa Cruz
Ecological history: In
1955, the area around Lago de Atitlán became a national park. The lake was
mostly unknown to the rest of the world and Guatemala was seeking ways to
increase tourism and boost the local economy. It was suggested by Pan American World
that stocking the lake with a fish
prized by anglers
would be a way to do just that. So, the black bass (a non-native
was introduced in 1958. The bass quickly took to its new home and began eating
the native inhabitants of the lake. The predatory bass caused the elimination of
more than two-thirds of the native fish species in the lake and contributed to
the extinction of
that lived only around the Lago de Atitlán region.
A unique aspect of the climate is what
is referred to as Xocomil (of the Kaqchickel language meaning "the wind that
carried away sin"). This wind is common late morning and afternoon across the
lake; it is a said to be the encounter of warm winds from Pacific meeting colder
winds from the North.
lake is surrounded by many villages, in which Maya culture is still prevalent
and traditional dress is worn. The Maya people of Atitlán are predominantly
During the Spanish
the Americas, the Kaqchikel initially allied themselves with the invaders to
defeat their historic enemies the Tz'utujil
Maya, but were themselves conquered and subdued when they refused to pay
Santiago Atitlán is
the largest of the lakeside communities, and is noted for its worship of
an idol formed by the fusion of
traditional Mayan deities, Catholic saints and conquistador legends. The
institutionalised effigy of
Maximón is under the control of a local religious brotherhood and resides in
various houses of its membership during the course of a year, being most
ceremonially moved in a grand procession during Semana
Several towns in Guatemala have similar cults, most notably the cult of
While Maya culture is predominant in most lakeside communities, the
largest town on the shores, Panajachel,
has been overwhelmed over the years by tourists. It attracted many hippies in
the 1960’s, and although the war caused many foreigners to leave, the end of
hostilities in 1996 saw visitor numbers boom again, and the town's economy is
almost entirely reliant on tourism today.
The view from our bedroom
Several Mayan archaeological sites have
been found at the lake. Sambaj, located approximately 55 feet below the current
lake level, appears to be from at least the pre-classic period. There are
remains of multiple groups of buildings, including one particular group of large
buildings that are believed to be the city centre.
A second site, Chiutinamit, where the
remains of a city were found, was discovered by local fishermen who "noticed
what appeared to be a city underwater". During consequent investigations,
pottery shards were recovered from the site by divers, which enabled the dating
of the site to the late pre-classic period (600 B.C. - 250 A.D.).
There is no road that circles the lake. Communities are reached by
boat or roads from the mountains that may have brief extensions along the shore.
Santa Cruz La
can only be reached by boat. Santa Catarina
and San Antonio
are linked to Panajachel. Main places otherwise are Santa Clara La
and San Pedro La
the West, Santiago
the South, and San Lucas
Guatemalan civil war: During the Guatemalan civil
the lake was the scene of many terrible human rights abuses, as the government
pursued a scorched
policy. Indigenous people were assumed to be universal supporters of the
who were fighting against the government, and were targeted for brutal
reprisals. At least 300 Maya from Santiago Atitlán are believed to have
disappeared during the conflict. Two events of this era made international news.
One was the assassination of
in the church at Santiago Atitlán in 1981. In 1990, a spontaneous protest march
to the army base on the edge of town was met by gunfire, resulting in the death
of 13 unarmed civilians. International pressure forced the Guatemalan government
to close the base and declare Santiago Atitlán a "military-free zone." The
memorial commemorating the massacre was damaged in the 2005 mudslide.
Hurricane: Heavy rains from Hurricane
caused extensive damage throughout Guatemala in early October 2005, particularly
around Lake Atitlán. A massive landslide
buried the lakeside village of Panabaj,
causing the death of as many as 1,400 residents and leaving 5,000 homeless. Four
and a half years after Hurricane Stan, Tropical Storm Agatha
dropped even more rainfall causing extensive damages to the region resulting in
dozens of deaths between San Lucas Toliman and San Antonio
Since then roads have been reopened and
travel to the region has returned to normal.
ALL IN ALL VERY