Lake Atitlán

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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.
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 Sololá Department,
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

Guatemalan Highlands upland region in southern Guatemala, lying between the Sierra Madre de Chiapas to the south and the Petén lowlands to the north; made up of a series of high valleys enclosed by mountains

The Guatemalan Highlands is an upland region in southern Guatemala, lying between the Sierra Madre de Chiapas to the south and the Petén lowlands to the north. The highlands are made up of a series of high valleys enclosed by mountains. The local name for the region is Altos, meaning "highlands", which includes the northern declivity of the Sierra Madre. The mean elevation is greatest in the west and least in the east. A few of the streams of the Pacific slope actually rise in the highlands, and force a way through the Sierra Madre at the bottom of deep ravines. One large river, the Chixoy or Salinas River, escapes northwards towards the Gulf of Mexico. The relief of the mountainous country which lies north of the Highlands and drains into the Atlantic is varied by innumerable terraces, ridges and underfalls; but its general configuration is compared by E. Reclus with the appearance of "a stormy sea breaking into parallel billows". The parallel ranges extend east and west with a slight southerly curve towards their centres. A range called the Sierra de Chamá, which, however, changes its name frequently from place to place, strikes eastward towards Belize, and is connected by low hills with the Cockscomb Mountains; another similar range, the Sierra de Santa Cruz, continues east to Cape Cocoli between the Polochic and the Sarstoon; and a third, the Sierra de las Minas or, in its eastern portion, Sierra del Mico, stretches between the Polochic and the Motagua rivers. Between Honduras and Guatemala, the frontier is formed by the Sierra de Merendón.

Sierra Madre de Chiapas mountain in Central America

The Sierra Madre de Chiapas is a major mountain range in Central America. The Sierra Madre de Chiapas is part of the American Cordillera, a chain of mountain ranges (cordillera) that consists of an almost continuous sequence of mountain ranges that form the western "backbone" of North America, Central America, and South America.

Sololá Department Department in Sololá, 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.



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."

Nahuatl, known historically as Aztec, is a language or group of languages of the Uto-Aztecan language family. Varieties of Nahuatl are spoken by about 1.7 million Nahua peoples, most of whom live in central Mexico.


Lake Atitlán is a lake in Central America 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.

Central America central geographic region of the Americas

Central America is located on the southern tip of North America, or is sometimes defined as a subcontinent of the Americas, bordered by Mexico to the north, Colombia to the southeast, the Caribbean Sea to the east, and the Pacific Ocean to the west and south. Central America consists of seven countries: Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama. The combined population of Central America has been estimated to be 41,739,000 and 42,688,190.

A caldera is a large cauldron-like hollow that forms following the evacuation of a magma chamber/reservoir. When large volumes of magma are erupted over a short time, structural support for the crust above the magma chamber is lost. The ground surface then collapses downward into the 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 known caldera-forming collapses have occurred since the start of the 20th century, most recently at Bárðarbunga volcano in Iceland.

Antigua Guatemala City in Sacatepéquez, Guatemala

Antigua Guatemala, commonly referred to as just Antigua or la Antigua, is a city in the central highlands of Guatemala famous for its well-preserved Spanish Baroque-influenced architecture as well as a number of ruins of colonial churches. It served as the capital of the Kingdom of Guatemala. It has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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]

Alexander von Humboldt Prussian geographer, naturalist and explorer

Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt was a Prussian polymath, geographer, naturalist, explorer, and influential proponent of Romantic philosophy and science. He was the younger brother of the Prussian minister, philosopher, and linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835). Humboldt's quantitative work on botanical geography laid the foundation for the field of biogeography. Humboldt's advocacy of long-term systematic geophysical measurement laid the foundation for modern geomagnetic and meteorological monitoring.

Aldous Huxley English writer

Aldous Leonard Huxley was an English writer and philosopher. He authored nearly fifty books—both novels and non-fiction works—as well as wide-ranging essays, narratives, and poems.

Lake Como lake in Lombardy, Italy

Lake Como is a lake of glacial origin in Lombardy, Italy. It has an area of 146 square kilometres (56 sq mi), making it the third-largest lake in Italy, after Lake Garda and Lake Maggiore. At over 400 metres deep, it is one of the deepest lakes in Europe, and the bottom of the lake is more than 200 metres (660 ft) below sea level.


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.

Indigenous peoples Ethnic group descended from and identified with the original inhabitants of a given region

Indigenous peoples, also known as first peoples, aboriginal peoples or native peoples, are ethnic groups who are the original settlers of a given region, in contrast to groups that have settled, occupied or colonized the area more recently. Groups are usually described as indigenous when they maintain traditions or other aspects of an early culture that is associated with a given region. Not all indigenous peoples share this characteristic, as many have adopted substantial elements of a colonizing culture, such as dress, religion or language. Indigenous peoples may be settled in a given region (sedentary) or exhibit a nomadic lifestyle across a large territory, but they are generally historically associated with a specific territory on which they depend. Indigenous societies are found in every inhabited climate zone and continent of the world.

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 600 m (2,000 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.

Tephra Fragmental material produced by a volcanic eruption

Tephra is fragmental material produced by a volcanic eruption regardless of composition, fragment size, or emplacement mechanism.

Florida State of the United States of America

Florida is the southernmost contiguous state in the United States. The state is bordered to the west by the Gulf of Mexico, to the northwest by Alabama, to the north by Georgia, to the east by the Atlantic Ocean, and to the south by the Straits of Florida. Florida is the 22nd-most extensive, the 3rd-most populous, and the 8th-most densely populated of the U.S. states. Jacksonville is the most populous municipality in the state and the largest city by area in the contiguous United States. The Miami metropolitan area is Florida's most populous urban area. Tallahassee is the state's capital.

Ecuador Republic in South America

Ecuador, officially the Republic of Ecuador, is a country in northwestern South America, bordered by Colombia on the north, Peru on the east and south, and the Pacific Ocean to the west. Ecuador also includes the Galápagos Islands in the Pacific, about 1,000 kilometres (620 mi) west of the mainland. The capital city is Quito, which is also the largest city.

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, with 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. 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. [12]


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. Santa Cruz La Laguna and 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, Cerró de Oro on The South East 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 ]

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". 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

  1. Morgan Szybist, Richard (2004), The Lake Atitlan Reference Guide:The Definitive Eco-Cultural Guidebook on Lake Atitlan, Adventures in Education, Inc.
  2. Newhall, Christopher G., Dzurisin, Daniel (1988); Historical unrest at large calderas of the world, USGS Bulletin 1855, p. 1108
  3. Vallance J.W., Calvert A.T. (2003), Volcanism during the past 84 ka at Atitlan caldera, Guatemala, American Geophysical Union, Fall Meeting 2003
  4. Kingery, Dennis (2003), Improving on Nature? , National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science
  5. Maudslay, Alfred Percival; Maudslay, Anne Cary (1899). A glimpse at Guatemala, and some notes on the ancient monuments of Central America (PDF). London, UK: John Murray.

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The Guatemala Health Initiative (GHI) is a private, humanitarian organization that works to improve the health of the poor, indigenous population in the remote areas of the western highlands in Guatemala. (Penn) faculty, students, and staff work in partnership to serve the health issues of the underprivileged Santiago Atitlán community in Guatemala. The goal of GHI is to strengthen clinical services and promote community health in resource-poor Guatemalan communities.