Dramatic, ethereal volcanoes, summits softly draped in swathes of cloud, crouch serenely across an expanse of shimmering, rippling water. A melody of gently lapping waves and the breathless sighs of breeze-tickled leaves create a soothing soundtrack while the scent of exotic blooms wafts delicately through the air.
Formed in an enormous ancient caldera at 1,560 meters (5,120 feet) above sea level in the western highlands of Guatemala, and 18 kilometers long (11 miles), Lago de Atitlán (Lake Atitlan) is recognized as the deepest lake in Central America, reaching depths of around 340 meters (1,115 feet).
Three volcanoes dominate its southern fringe, Atitlán, Tolimán, and San Pedro, the latter two emerging from the lakeside.
Mayan culture prevails among the largely indigenous population of the various villages freckling the shoreline, many reached by dirt roads, some only by boat. Predominantly Kaqchikel and Tz’utujil, speaking different languages, inhabitants still practice ancient traditions and wear the typical hand-woven garb of their ancestors.
Tourism is a top income earner for the area. As one of Guatemala’s natural treasures and a highlight on any globetrotter’s itinerary, many jaded travelers believe it’s the world’s most beautiful lake.
Panajachel, the main town on the lake’s shores and the jumping off point to smaller lakeside villages, is about 150 kilometers (93 miles) from the popular colonial city of Antigua. Agriculture, primarily coffee and corn also boost the economy.
I spent a chilled out Christmas in Santa Cruz la Laguna, a sleepy pueblo accessed only by boat or foot. At the tranquil lakeside Hotel Arca de Noé, lush gardens tumble down to the water’s edge and volcano vistas dominate the horizon, soothing the soul.
The lake changes guise as wistful breeze or surly gale whip up the sleek, glassy surface, the ever-shifting light reflecting off its belly creating varying hues of metallic gray, emerald green and turquoise.