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Sharing a cab with a total stranger as the rickety old Datsun coughed its way higher into the Guatemalan Highlands, the overwhelming allure of Lake Atitlan became apparent before I even caught sight of its shimmering shores.
“I arrived while crewing a sailboat, never got back on, and simply haven’t bought a ticket out of here yet” offered my suddenly mysterious rideshare partner.
“That was eight years ago”.
Once the serene expanse of water set at the base of three towering volcanoes came into view though, it all seemed to make sense. In a place so relaxed and idyllic, and with so many different villages ringing the mountainous shores, time could pass in an instant without anyone seeming to care.
Descending the steep switchbacks toward the lakeshore, the first town you encounter is Panajachel, or simply Pana to the local panga drivers. Home to roughly 14,000 residents, Pana is the initial point of entry from the rest of Guatemala. A fast-paced marketplace in comparison to surrounding local villages, the Mayan culture and influence immediately becomes apparent in this bustling port town. Along the main thoroughfare of Calle Santander, on every cobblestone street corner, are colorful shopkeepers eager to sell you some of this region’s proud heritage. From their roadside markets leap traditional Mayan dress, jewelry, and locally crafted musical instruments that all contribute to the flare of the Mayan Highlands. With its high concentration of budget hotels, restaurants serving Mojarra—the local fish found in the lake—and inviting bars that provide the region’s semblance of nightlife, Panajachel is the vibrant hotspot of the entire lake district.
While Panajachel bustles and thrives, those wanting to experience the lake from a more relaxed perch need only venture out to the surrounding villages ringing the altitudinous lake, which is actually located at just over an air-thinning 5100 ft. While possible to drive the perimeter of the lakeshore and connect the villages by steep, switch-backing roads, the preferred method of travel is a quick boat ride, or panga, with clear views of the towering volcanoes and wind on your face.
Situated on the opposite shore from Panajachel, the town of San Pedro de la Laguna rises steeply from the ferry dock and offers kayak rentals, simple roadside markets, and open air café patios with stunning views of the entire lake region. One of only two Tzutujil speaking villages on the lake, the traditional dress, or traje, is different than that of the surrounding villages. In fact, the traje is virtually at the center of much of Mayan culture, as each village’s style of dress is subtly different from that of their neighbors. Besides the vibrant colors and interwoven patterns seen on local villagers and in curbside markets, the Mayan style of dress is a defiantly proud exclamation of who they are and the heritage they represent.
Around the perimeter of the lake, tucked away in narrow coves and set against steep lakeshore cliffs, other villages such as Santiago and Santa Cruz offer a wide range of activities, such as touring historic cathedrals to climbing lush green volcanoes. You can even scuba dive for Mayan artifacts. Or, if you’re content to simply lie in a hammock and listen to the waves lap against the dusty shore, that’s alright too. Rightly considered by many to be “the most beautiful lake in the world”, it is easy to spend a lifetime—or at least eight years—exploring and experiencing the rich culture up in these highlands in the sky.