Lake Atitlán

Last updated
Lake Atitlán
Lago de Atitlan seen from orbit.jpg
Seen from the Space Shuttle. Volcán San Pedro is at the left of the image; Panajachel is the largest white patch along the upper right shore. North is to the top of the image.
Location Sololá Department
Coordinates 14°42′N91°12′W / 14.700°N 91.200°W / 14.700; -91.200 Coordinates: 14°42′N91°12′W / 14.700°N 91.200°W / 14.700; -91.200
Type Crater lake, endorheic
Basin  countries Guatemala
Surface area130.1 km2 (50.2 sq mi) [1]
Max. depth340 m (1,120 ft) (est.)
Water volume20 km3 (16,000,000 acre⋅ft)
Surface elevation1,562 m (5,125 ft)
References [1]

Lake Atitlán (Spanish: Lago de Atitlán, [atiˈtlan] ) is a lake in the Guatemalan Highlands of the Sierra Madre mountain range. It is in the Sololá Department of southwestern Guatemala. It is the deepest lake in Central America.



Atitlán means "between the waters". In the Nahuatl language, "atl" is the word for water, [2] and "titlan" means between. [3] The "tl" at the end of the word "atl" is dropped and the words are combined to form "Atitlán".


Lake Atitlán is a lake in Guatemala with a maximum depth of about 340 metres (1,120 ft) [1] with an average depth of 220 metres (720 ft). [4] Its surface area is 130.1 km2 (50.2 sq mi). [1] It is approximately 18 km × 8 km (11.2 mi × 5.0 mi) with around 20 km3 (4.8 cu mi) of water. Atitlán is technically an endorheic lake, feeding into two nearby rivers rather than draining into the ocean. It is shaped by deep surrounding escarpments and three volcanoes on its southern flank. The lake basin is volcanic in origin, filling an enormous caldera formed by an eruption 84,000 years ago. The culture of the towns and villages surrounding Lake Atitlán is influenced by the Maya people. The lake is about 50 kilometres (31 mi) west-northwest of Antigua. It should not be confused with the smaller Lake Amatitlán.

Lake Atitlán is renowned as one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, and is Guatemala's most important national and international tourist attraction. [4] German explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt called it "the most beautiful lake in the world," [5] and Aldous Huxley famously wrote of it in his 1934 travel book Beyond the Mexique Bay: "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." [6]


The area supports extensive coffee and avocado orchards and a variety of farm crops, most notably corn and onions. Significant agricultural crops include: corn, onions, beans, squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, garlic, chile verde, strawberries and pitahaya fruit. The lake itself is a significant food source for the largely indigenous population.

Geological history

A view across Lake Atitlan from Panajachel to Volcan San Pedro Atitlan-Volcan-San-Pedro.jpg
A view across Lake Atitlán from Panajachel to Volcán San Pedro
Panorama view of the lake as seen from the top of Volcan San Pedro, or from the top towards the bottom of the satellite photo on the top of this page Volcan-San-Pedro-Panorama.JPG
Panorama view of the lake as seen from the top of Volcán San Pedro, or from the top towards the bottom of the satellite photo on the top of this page

The first volcanic activity in the region occurred about 11 million years ago, and since then the region 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. The lake now fills a large part of the caldera, reaching depths of up to 340 m (1,120 ft).

The caldera-forming eruption is known as Los Chocoyos eruption and ejected up to 300 km3 (72 cu mi) of tephra. The enormous eruption dispersed ash over an area of some 6,000,000 square kilometres (2,300,000 sq mi): it has been detected from Florida to Ecuador, and can be used as a stratigraphic marker in both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans (known as Y-8 ash in marine deposits). [7] A chocoyo is a type of bird which is often found nesting in the relatively soft ash layer.

Since the end of Los Chocoyos, continuing volcanic activity has built three volcanoes in the caldera. Volcán Atitlán lies on the southern rim of the caldera, while Volcán San Pedro and Volcán Tolimán 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 developed almost entirely in the last 10,000 years and remains active, its most recent eruption having occurred in 1853.

On February 4, 1976, a very large earthquake (magnitude 7.5) struck Guatemala, killing more than 26,000 people. The earthquake fractured the lake bed and caused subsurface drainage from the lake, allowing the water level to drop two metres (6 ft 7 in) within one month. [8] [9]

Ecological history

In 1955, the area around Lake 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 Airways that stocking the lake with a fish prized by anglers would be a way to do just that. [10] As a result, an exotic non-native species, the black bass, was introduced into the lake in 1958. The bass quickly took to its new home and caused a radical change in the species composition 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 the Atitlan grebe, a rare bird that lived only in the vicinity of Lake Atitlán. [11]

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 said to be the encounter of warm winds from Pacific meeting colder winds from the North.

In August 2015 a thick bloom of algae known as Microcystis cyanobacteria re-appeared in Lake Atitlan; the first major occurrence was in 2009. Bureaucratic red tape has been blamed for the lack of action to save the lake. If current activities continue unchecked, the toxification of the lake will make it unsuitable for human use. [12] A bluish gray stream of wastewater descending through the town of San Pablo La Laguna and emptying directly into the lake can be clearly viewed along the shoreline trail as you enter San Pablo.[ citation needed ]


San Pedro la Laguna and Volcan San Pedro San Pedro la Laguna, Guatemala.jpg
San Pedro la Laguna and Volcán San Pedro

The 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 Tz'utujil and Kaqchikel. During the Spanish conquest of the Americas, the Kaqchikel initially allied themselves with the invaders to defeat their historic enemies, the Tz'utujil and K'iche' Maya, but were themselves conquered and subdued when they refused to pay tribute to the Spanish.

Santiago Atitlán is the largest of the lakeside communities, and it is noted for its worship of Maximón, an idol formed by the fusion of traditional Mayan deities, Catholic saints, and conquistador legends. The institutionalized 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 Santa. Several towns in Guatemala have similar cults, most notably the cult of San Simón in Zunil.

While Maya culture is predominant in most lakeside communities, Panajachel has been overwhelmed over the years by Guatemalan and foreign tourists. It attracted many hippies in the 1960s, and although the civil 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.

Several Mayan archeological 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. [13] There are remains of multiple groups of buildings, including one particular group of large buildings that are believed to have been the city center. [14]

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". [15] During subsequent investigations, pottery shards were recovered from the site by divers, which enabled the dating of the site to the late pre-classic period (300 B.C. – 300 A.D.), [16] more specifically 250 AD. [17]

A project titled "Underwater archeology in the Lake Atitlán. Sambaj 2003 Guatemala" was recently approved by the Government of Guatemala in cooperation with Fundación Albenga and the Lake Museum in Atitlán. Because of the concerns of a private organization as is the Lake Museum in Atitlán the need to start the exploration of the inland waters in Guatemala was analyzed. [18]

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. Jaibalito can only be reached by boat. Santa Catarina Palopó and San Antonio Palopó are linked by road to Panajachel. Main places otherwise are Santa Clara La Laguna, San Juan La Laguna, and San Pedro La Laguna in the west; Santiago Atitlán in the south; Cerro de Oro in the southeast; and San Lucas Tolimán in the east.

Recent studies indicate that a ceremonial site named Samabaj was located on an island about 500 metres (1,600 ft) long in Lake Atitlán. The site was revered for its striking connection to the Popol Wuj of the K'iche' Mayan peoples. [ citation needed ]

Atitlan Lake.jpg
Lake Atitlán, from Tzam Poc Hotel near Santa Catarina Palopó

Guatemalan civil war

Aerial panoramic view of Lake Atitlan. Lago de Atitlan 2009.JPG
Aerial panoramic view of Lake Atitlán.

During the Guatemalan Civil War (1960 - 1996), the lake was the scene of many terrible human rights abuses, as the government pursued a scorched earth policy.[ citation needed ] Indigenous people were assumed to be universally supportive of the guerrillas 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 Stanley Rother, a missionary from Oklahoma, in the church at Santiago Atitlán in 1981. [19] In 1990, a spontaneous protest march to the army base on the edge of town was met by gunfire, resulting in the death of 11 unarmed civilians. [20] 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.


Torrential rains from Hurricane Stan 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, leaving 5,000 homeless, and many bodies buried under tonnes of earth. Following this event, Diego Esquina Mendoza, the mayor of Santiago Atitlán, declared the community a mass gravesite: "Those buried by the mudslide may never be rescued. Here they will stay buried, under five meters of mud. Panabáj is now a cemetery." [21]

Four and a half years after Hurricane Stan, Tropical Storm Agatha dropped even more rainfall causing extensive damages to the region [22] resulting in dozens of deaths between San Lucas Tolimán and San Antonio Palopó. Since then roads have been reopened and travel to the region has returned to normal.

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 INSIVUMEH (2008). "Indice de lagos" (in Spanish).
  2. "atl - Wiktionary". Retrieved 2018-08-17.
  3. "-titlan - Wikcionario". (in Spanish). Retrieved 2018-08-17.
  4. 1 2 "Atitlan, Lago Profile". LakeNet. Retrieved 9 December 2015.
  5. Morgan Szybist, Richard (2004). The Lake Atitlan Reference Guide: The Definitive Eco-Cultural Guidebook on Lake Atitlan. Adventures in Education, Inc.
  6. "Breaking News, Analysis, Politics, Blogs, News Photos, Video, Tech Reviews -". Time. November 29, 2009.
  7. Rose, William I.; et al. (1987). "Quaternary silicic pyroclastic deposits of Atitlán Caldera, Guatemala" (PDF). Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research. 33 (1–3): 57–80. Bibcode:1987JVGR...33...57R. doi:10.1016/0377-0273(87)90054-0.
  8. "Guatemala Volcanoes and Volcanics". USGS – CVO. Retrieved 2010-03-13.
  9. Newhall, C.G.; Paull, C.K.; Bradbury, J.P.; Higuera-Gundy, A.; Poppe, L.J.; Self, S.; Bonar Sharpless, N.; Ziagos, J. (August 1987). "Recent geologic history of lake Atitlán, a caldera lake in western Guatemala". Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research. 33 (1–3): 81–107. Bibcode:1987JVGR...33...81N. doi:10.1016/0377-0273(87)90055-2.
  10. "Bad-Ass Bass Rain from the Sky - Revue Magazine". 29 August 2011. Retrieved 22 November 2017.
  11. "Toxic Algae Invade Guatemala's Treasured Lake Atitlan". Environmental News Service. Retrieved 9 December 2015.
  12. Henry Benítez and Roberto Samayoa, "Samabaj y la arqueología subacuática en el Lago de Atitlán," in XIII Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueológicas en Guatemala, 1999 (Guatemala: Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, 2000), 2:849–54.
  13. Sorenson, John L., (2002) The Submergence of the City of Jerusalem in the Land of Nephi, Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute, 2002. P. N/A
  14. Lund, John L. (2007), Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon: Is this the Place, p. 61
  15. Allen, Joseph (2003), Sacred Sites, p. 34
  16. "Divers probe Mayan ruins submerged in Guatemala lake". 30 October 2009. Retrieved 22 November 2017 via Reuters.
  18. "Oklahoma Missionary Murdered in Guatemala". Archdiocese of Oklahoma City. Archived from the original on 24 October 2015. Retrieved 9 December 2015.
  19. "Guatemala Troops Said to Kill 11 Protesting Raid". The New York Times. Retrieved 9 December 2015.
  20. "Hurricane Stan and Social Suffering in Guatemala". David Rockefeller Center Retrieved 9 December 2015.
  21. "Agatha". May 2010. p. 6. Archived from the original on 2010-06-07. and the effects of Tropical Storm Agatha

Further reading

Related Research Articles

A caldera is a large cauldron-like hollow that forms shortly after the emptying of a magma chamber/reservoir in a volcanic eruption. When large volumes of magma are erupted over a short time, structural support for the rock above the magma chamber is lost. The ground surface then collapses downward into the emptied or partially emptied magma chamber, leaving a massive depression at the surface. Although sometimes described as a crater, the feature is actually a type of sinkhole, as it is formed through subsidence and collapse rather than an explosion or impact. Only seven caldera-forming collapses are known to have occurred since 1900, most recently at Bárðarbunga volcano, Iceland in 2014.

Sololá Department Department of Guatemala

Sololá is a department in the west of Guatemala. The capital is the city of Sololá. Lake Atitlan is a key feature surrounded by a number of the municipalities.

Pacaya mountain and national park in Guatemala

Pacaya is an active complex volcano in Guatemala, which first erupted approximately 23,000 years ago and has erupted at least 23 times since the Spanish invasion of Guatemala. Pacaya rises to an elevation of 2,552 metres (8,373 ft). After being dormant for over 70 years, it began erupting vigorously in 1961 and has been erupting frequently since then. Much of its activity is Strombolian, but occasional Plinian eruptions also occur, sometimes showering the area of the nearby Departments with ash.

Volcán Atitlán mountain

Volcán Atitlán is a large, conical, active stratovolcano adjacent to the caldera of Lake Atitlán in the Guatemalan Highlands of the Sierra Madre de Chiapas range. It is within the Sololá Department, southwestern Guatemala.

Masaya Volcano Volcán Masaya

Masaya is a caldera located in Masaya, Nicaragua, 20 km south of the capital Managua. It is Nicaragua's first and largest national park, and one of 78 protected areas of Nicaragua. The complex volcano is composed of a nested set of calderas and craters, the largest of which is Las Sierras shield volcano and caldera. Within this caldera lies a sub-vent, which is Masaya Volcano sensu stricto. The vent is a shield type composing of basaltic lavas and tephras and includes a summit crater. This hosts Masaya caldera, formed 2,500 years ago by an 8-km³ basaltic ignimbrite eruption. Inside this caldera a new basaltic complex has grown from eruptions mainly on a semi-circular set of vents that include the Masaya and Nindiri cones. The latter host the pit craters of Masaya, Santiago, Nindiri and San Pedro. Observations in the walls of the pit craters indicate that there have been several episodes of cone and pit crater formation.

Volcán Tolimán mountain in Guatemala

Tolimán is a stratovolcano in Guatemala, on the southern shores of Lake Atitlán. The volcano has an elevation of 3,158 m and was formed near the southern margin of the Pleistocene Atitlán III caldera. The top of the volcano has a shallow crater and its flanks are covered with the thick remains of ancient lava flows that emerged from vents in the volcano's flanks.

Volcán San Pedro Volcano in Guatemala

Volcán San Pedro is a 3,020-metre (9,908 ft) stratovolcano on the shores of Lago de Atitlán, in the Sololá Department of southern Guatemala.

Maximón Mayan folk god

Maximón, also called San Simón, is a Mayan deity and folk saint represented in various forms by the Maya people of several towns in the highlands of Western Guatemala. Oral tradition of his creation and purpose in these communities is complex, diverse, and born of the ancient Maya traditions centuries ago.

Panajachel City and Municipality in Sololá, Guatemala

Panajachel is a town in the southwestern Guatemalan Highlands, less than 90 miles from Guatemala City, in the department of Sololá. It serves as the administrative centre for the surrounding municipality of the same name. The elevation is 1,597 metres (5,240 ft). Population was 11 thousand in the 2000 census, estimated as 15,000 now (Insituto Nacional de Estadística de Guatemala), and has approximately doubled each of the last few decades. The town of Panajachel is located on the Northeast shore of Lake Atitlán, and has become a centre for the tourist trade of the area as it provides a base for visitors crossing the lake to visit other towns and villages.

Almolonga mountain in Guatemala

The Almolonga volcano, usually called "Cerro Quemado" is an andesitic stratovolcano in the south-western department of Quetzaltenango in Guatemala. The volcano is located near the town of Almolonga, just south of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala's second largest city.

Tzʼutujil people

The Tzʼutujil are a Native American people, one of the 21 Maya ethnic groups that dwell in Guatemala. Together with the Xinca, Garífunas and the Ladinos, they make up the 24 ethnic groups in this relatively small country. Approximately 100,000 Tzʼutujil live in the area around Lake Atitlán. Their pre-Columbian capital, near Santiago Atitlán, was Chuitinamit. In pre-Columbian times, the Tzʼutujil nation was a part of the ancient Maya civilization.

San Lucas Tolimán Municipality of Guatemala in Sololá

San Lucas Tolimán is a municipality in the Sololá department of Guatemala. The town of 17,000 people sits on the southeastern shore of Lago de Atitlán. The population is 90–95% Highland Maya. There is a population of about the same size living in the surrounding villages.

San Marcos La Laguna village in Sololá, Guatemala

San Marcos La Laguna is a village on the western shore of Lago Atitlán in the Sololá Department of Guatemala. The village is northwest of three volcanos Volcán San Pedro, Volcán Tolimán, and Volcán Atitlán. The village has an outdoor amphitheater and a few hostels. San Marcos connects to other lakeside communities by boat and a narrow road. The nearest city is Panajachel at the northern side of Lago Atitlán. The town sits at an elevation of 1,585 metres (5,200 ft); the lowest elevation is the lake shore at 1,562 metres (5,125 ft).

San Pedro La Laguna Municipality in Sololá, Guatemala

San Pedro La Laguna is a Guatemalan town on the southwest shore of Lake Atitlán. For centuries, San Pedro La Laguna has been inhabited by the Tz'utujil people, and in recent years it has also become a tourist destination for its Spanish language schools, nightlife, and proximity to the lake and volcanoes.

Santiago Atitlán City in Sololá, Guatemala

Santiago Atitlán is a municipality in the Sololá department of Guatemala. The town is situated on Lake Atitlán, which has an elevation of 5,105 feet (1,556 m). The town sits on a bay of Lake Atitlán between two volcanoes. Volcán San Pedro rises to 2,846 metres (9,337 ft) west of the town and Volcan Toliman rises to 3,144 metres (10,315 ft) southeast of the town. Volcán Atitlán, with an elevation of 3,516 metres (11,535 ft), is south-southeast of the town. Santiago Atitlan is southwest of Panajachel across the lake. Major highways reach Lake Atitlán at San Lucas Toliman and Panajachel. A road links Santiago to San Lucas Tolliman. Boats connect the numerous communities around the lake.

Cuicocha lake in Ecuador

Cuicocha is a 3 km (2 mi) wide caldera and crater lake at the foot of Cotacachi Volcano in the Cordillera Occidental of the Ecuadorian Andes.

Lake Ilopango Crater Lake of El Salvador

Lake Ilopango is a crater lake which fills an 8 by 11 km volcanic caldera in central El Salvador, on the borders of the San Salvador, La Paz, and Cuscatlán departments. The caldera, which contains the second largest lake in the country and is immediately east of the capital city, San Salvador, has a scalloped 100 m (330 ft) to 500 m (1,600 ft) high rim. Any surplus drains via the Jiboa River to the Pacific Ocean. An eruption of the Ilopango volcano is considered a possible source for the extreme weather events of 535–536. The local military airbase, Ilopango International Airport, has annual airshows where international pilots from all over the world fly over San Salvador City and Ilopango lake.