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Lake Atitlan, in the Guatemalan Highlands, is reputed by its visitors and residents to be one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. Lake Atitlan gets its name from the Mayan word, "atitlan", which translates to, "the place where the rainbow gets its colors". Volcanic in origin, the 32,124-acre endorheic lake (one that does not flow to the sea) is approximately 5,125 feet above sea level, and measures 12 miles long and anywhere from 4.5 to 7.5 miles wide. Framed by the Atitlan, Toliman and San Pedro volcanoes, the area appeals to both adventurers and those looking to relax and simply take in the sights.
Lake Atitlan is characterized by many small Mayan villages throughout the area. The Mayan people are known for both their friendliness and quality, hand-crafted products. The largest village on Lake Atitlan is Panajachel, a town of about 14,000 on the northern shore of the lake. Most hotels and tourist facilities are located here. Vacation rentals can be found in other areas of the lake. While Panajachel has become quite commercial, Mayan culture and traditions are still prevalent in the other towns around the lake which are easy to reach by water taxi from Panajachel. The village of Santiago Atitlan, San Antonio Palopo and Santa Cararina Palopo are renowned for their textiles and clothing items, all hand made by native weavers.
Lake Atitlan is famous for swimming, scuba diving, snorkeling, kayaking and jet skiing. For those who would like to explore the beautiful scenery there's horseback riding, hiking and camping. A footpath encircles the entire lake, but new private homes and hotels have restricted some access to the lakeside path. Other activities such as hang gliding, rappelling, and canoeing can be arranged in Panajache. For an incredible view of area, consider taking a bus trip to "La Cueva Maya", the Mayan Cave, where you will be able to see the city, the lake and the surrounding volcanoes.
Sections of the shore of Lake Atitlan are part of the Nature Reserve of San Buenaventura. This reserve occupies approximately half of the San Buenaventura valley and is comprised of more than 250 acres of native forest. The Nature Reserve's aim is to conserve the natural surroundings of the area. Privately funded, hopes are that economical alternatives for uses of the land will not only preserve the integrity of the environment, but benefit the native people as well. The nature preserve has nature trails, a butterfly preserve, a bird refuge, an orchid garden and a visitor's center. The forests around the lake are also one of the last habitats of the Quetzal, Guatemala's national bird.
Aside from the many other recreational activities available, Lake Atitlan is one of the most challenging largemouth bass lakes in the world. In 1958, Guatemalan officials took the advice of former airline giant, Pan American World Airways, and introduced black bass into the lake. The hope was that fishermen worldwide would want to visit the idyllic lake. Predatory in nature, however, the black bass eliminated some two-thirds of the otherwise native fish species. This in turn caused the extinction of the rare Giant Grebe bird, which was only found at Lake Atitlan. To this day, bass fishing remains as a popular Lake Atitlan recreational activity.
Lake Atitlan draws thousands of tourists and vacationers every year. With its three towering volcanoes, scenic hiking trails, beautiful beaches and lakeside Mayan villages, a vacation to this lake will soon have you understanding why others call it the most beautiful lake in the world.
Note: Blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, are threatening the splendor of Lake Atitlan, a situation that has gained international attention. Although the Guatemalan government released an official action plan in 2009, funding is not yet available to implement the plan. The Health Minister has advised people to avoid direct contact with the lake when algae blooms are present.
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