It is the most important fresh water lake in Central America. It is located in the western mountain range of Guatemala, in the department of Sololá. It is without a doubt the most important natural attraction of the country, and one of its principal economic sources since it attracts not only international tourists from all over the world but local tourists as well.
The lake complements its beauty with panoramic roadways, riverside towns, mountains, and volcanoes.
It has a surface area of 131 sq kms. It is 1,554 meters above sea level and over 324 meters deep, having an average depth of 188 meters.
The main towns that surround its basin are: Santa Catarina Palopo, San Antonio Palopo, San Lucas Toliman, Santiago Atitlan, San Pedro La Laguna, San Juan La Laguna, San Pablo La Laguna, San Marcos La Laguna, Santa Cruz La Laguan, y Panajachel.
Xocomil: The native wind of the lake
One of the characteristics of Lake Atitlan is a strong wind known as Xocomil, the etymology of the word Xocomil, comes from the cakchiquel language: Xocom de jocom = gather and il = fish, in other words: "the wind that gathers the fish," for the inhabitants of the towns situated at the edge of the lake.
It happens usually around noon, when the warm winds coming from the south, hit the cold air that is coming from the high plateaus, this causes whirlwinds to form that agitate the lake water and it creates very strong waves.
Flora and Fauna
The basin of Lake Atitlan has a variety of climates that contribute to the diversity of the environment and the natural resources of the department.
We have four different types of forests:
- Broadleaf forests which can be found in the volcanic chains of Guatemala and the coastal regions.
- The mixed forests, which are forests that have species of broadleaf pines.
- The conifer forests, in the high plateaus, which are to the north and can reach heights of up to 3,300 meters above sea level, with a vegetation characterized by species of pine, cypress, and fir trees.
- The Xeric, or dry forests, which are situated in a few sections or fragments, restricted to a 200 meter strip around the lake, and characterized by several species of trees like the ceiba, and bursera simaruba or as it is known there: palo jiote.
The fauna in the lake basin is varied. We can find around 500 species of vertebrates, amphibians and reptiles like: frogs, toads, salamanders, and snakes; birds like the road runner, pavo de cacho or horned turkey, and the quetzal or mammals like pumas, ocelots, raccoons, bats, rats, spider monkeys, white tailed deer, wild boars, and several others.
Some of the species of plants and animals are endemic to the department of Sololá and its basin and are in danger of extinction.
Its origin is volcanic, it formed after a long tectonic and volcanic process of almost 14 million years in which several volcanoes surged, exploded, and scattered, giving way to new ones.
88,000 years ago, the explosion of the present day Caldera formed Atitlán. The formation of its three volcanos followed on the south side: Toliman 3158 msnm, Atitlan 3537 msnm, and San Pedro 3020 msnm. 3537 msnm, and San Pedro 3020 msnm.
On the north side of the lake are the jagged high mountains that formed from the explosion of the caldera. All this geological magnificence makes it a lake with unparalleled beauty and uniqueness.
Meaning of Atitlan
The word Atitlan derives etymologically from the nahuatl, Ati meaning "Water", and Titlan "between" which literally translates to "Between waters".
Cultures that inhabit the lake
Atitlan is the land of the Tz'utuhiles, Kaqchikeles, and Kiche's. Ethnic people descendent from the mayas, each one with their own language, culture, and traditions.
The language borders do not match up to the municipal borders, the Kaqchikel is prevalent in 11 municipalities; Kiche', in 5 municipalities and Tz'utuhil in 3.
In the region of Atitlan several archaeological sites of mayan villages have been found.
They are in Santiago Atitlan, San Pedro La Laguna, San Andres Semetabaj, San Lucas Toliman,and Santa Catarina Palopo.
The archaeological data comes mainly from Chu wi'tinamit that in Tzutujil means little and village.
Chu wi'tinamit is located on the east side of the volcano San Pedro.
It is believed because of the strategic location of the site, that this site functioned as a walled fortress.
Several other sites where ruins have been found are: Chukumuk, Xikomuk, Pachiuak, Chelchikabaj, Chejiyu, Chelechikabaj, Pachicotz, Chicayal, and Cojolujuyu. The majority of the ruins are in the area in between Toliman and Atitlan, giving the impression that it was only one site, with remains of ancient walls, terraces, roads, and pieces of ceramic and obsidian. Even though there are several places that are located on the way to San Pedro La Laguna (its prehispanic name is Chi-Tzunun-Choy) and Santa Clara La Laguna.