Panajachel and Lake Atitlán
From Los Encuentros, the road descends through beautiful agricultural fields tended by Mayan Indians, many of whom still wear traditional dress. After passing the departmental capital of Sololá, the road becomes steeper, descending to the Lake Atitlán shoreline with gorgeous views of the large, crescent moon–shaped lake bounded by three volcanoes on its southern shore. You’ll also pass a waterfall or two along the way.
For centuries the beauty of Lake Atitlán has captivated travelers, including Aldous Huxley, who compared it to Italy’s Lake Como “with the additional embellishment of several immense volcanoes.”
Words cannot begin to describe the magic felt when seeing the lake for the first time, its waters shimmering in the afternoon light. Lake Como, as beautiful as it is, doesn’t have volcanoes, tropical vegetation, and quaint Mayan villages lining its shores.
Lake Atitlán’s origins can be traced back 85,000 years to a volcanic eruption that created the collapsed caldera the lake now fills, also spreading ash over a 1,000-mile radius. The lake was created when drainage to the Pacific Ocean was blocked after the emergence of the more recent Tolimán and Atitlán Volcanoes. It covers 125 square kilometers, being 30 kilometers long and 10 kilometers wide. Its maximum depth is more than 320 meters, though the 1976 earthquake that rocked much of Guatemala may have opened a drainage point somewhere, as the water level has been gradually declining ever since. A third volcano, San Pedro Volcano, which is just under 3,000 meters high, is somewhat lower than the other two but still offers a challenging climb on a path straight up its slopes.
The lake’s main tourist town has always been Panajachel, once a requisite stop along the “Gringo Trail,” as it was known in the 1960s, the path of American and European backpackers making their way down to South America. There are incredible views across the lake from “Pana,” as it’s often referred to by locals, though in recent years several of the outlying villages have started receiving their own fair share of visitors. Many foreigners like the more peaceful atmosphere of the other villages surrounding the lake. As one expatriate living in San Pedro La Laguna put it, “Twenty minutes in Panajachel is enough for me.” Still, Pana is worth at least a night’s stay for the excellent shopping and decent restaurants.
Lake Atitlán has begun exhibiting signs of eutrophication, with a green gulag of cyanobacteria making its first widespread appearance on the water’s surface in October 2009. A legacy of Hurricane Stan was the destruction of a wastewater treatment plant that was never rebuilt. Adding to the raw sewage streaming into the lake from the towns and villages on its shores are phosphates from agricultural fertilizers.
The race to save Atitlán is on, with numerous grassroots organizations working hand-in-hand with government agencies to clean up algal blooms and cease the indiscriminate pollution of the lake’s waters.
Getting to Panajachel and Lake Atitlán
Buses stop at the junction of Calle Santander and Calle Principal both leaving and arriving in Panajachel. Direct buses leave for Antigua ($5, 2.5 hours) at 10:45 a.m. daily except Sunday. There are 10 daily buses to Guatemala City between 5 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Six buses leave daily to Quetzaltenango ($2, 2.5 hours) and there are eight daily buses to Chichicastenango ($1.50, 1.5 hours).
The convenience and, most of all, safety of shuttle buses cannot be overstated. Recommended shuttle agencies include Atitrans (Edificio Rincón Sai, tel. 7762-0146 or 7762-0152, www.atitrans.com) and Servicios Turísticos Atitlán (Calle Santander near Calle 15 de Febrero, tel. 7762-2075).
There are two different boat docks for getting around to the surrounding villages. The first of these is at the end of Calle del Embarcadero and is for boats to Santa Cruz (15 minutes), Jaibalito (25 minutes), Tzununá (30 minutes), and San Marcos (40 minutes). The second boat dock is at the end of Calle Rancho Grande and is for ferry (one hour) and lancha service (25 minutes) to Santiago Atitlán. Expect to pay anywhere between $1.50 and $3 for the ride. Locals pay less than visitors.
© Al Argueta from Moon Guatemala, 3rd Edition. Photos © Al Argueta www.alargueta.com