A Cauldron of Tranquillity

Lake Atitlan


A couple of hours west of Antigua, Guatemala, through rolling green hills of coffee and corn, a road descends, with an astonishing view, into the mouth of the immense and ancient volcanic cauldron that is Lake Atitlán. On the edge of the lake lies Panajachel, by day a sleepy town of cafés and all day breakfasts, while by night, live music fills the bars.

Waiting at the foreshore for a launch, the immensity of the lake is inescapable. The water, like an elastic skin, stretches to the volcanoes that stand, rising into the clouds, like the walls of a coliseum. The lie of the land and the angle at which the cliffs rise out of the water emphasises that the depth of the lake plunges, funnel-like, to 300 metres. The colour of the water too is as bewildering, so variform that it is indistinct – emerald green, cobalt, cerulean.

The cliffs that rise north-west of Panajachel recede occasionally to allow space for half a dozen towns to sprinkle themselves around the foreshore and up into its crags and ravines. A short boat ride to Santa Cruz, a small village huddled on a spur surrounded by lush gardens of a few basic hotels, offers an outstanding swimming beach beneath cloud lined cliffs and breathtaking views of the Volcanos San Pedro, Tolimán and Atitlán, all towering over 3000 metres.



Over a sharp ridge west of Santa Cruz, Hotel La Casa del Mundo is carved into a precipice rising straight out of the water. Steep steps lead down to rooms with spectacular views. Still further is San Marcos, tucked in a ravine behind willow trees and papyrus reeds. Mud brick homes and wooden bungalows lie in a maze of stone paths winding through banana trees, coffee plantations and market gardens. Cafés serve organic fruit and vegetables, yoghurt, granola and chocolate brownies made fresh from local cacao. Ducks waddle by and chickens forage through the gardens while dogs lie in the sun, understanding the harmony the lake seems to bring.

The locals are unobtrusive but so friendly that more often than not they will want to stop and talk, even if rain is imminent and they are a mountain ridge from home. But even in the rainy season the sun shines, the moon comes out and the clouds ring around the cone of San Pedro while fishermen haul fish traps into wooden canoes.

But if this is too quiet, there is always San Pedro de la Laguna, on the western tip of the lake, accessible by road but more welcoming by boat. There are two jetties here, one leading to Santiago Atitlán tucked between the two volcanoes further east. San Pedro is right at the foot of the volcano of the same name and it feels like a mountain town.

Walking up the main cobbled street reveals the business side of the lake, a variety of people from the surrounding villages buy and sell their wares here. Men in traditional clothing squat on the sidewalks and women in huipiles drift by, bundles of clothes or baskets of tortillas on their heads.



Narrow streets wind around bars, restaurants and thermal springs at the lower lying edge of town. Though barely wide enough for a horse to pass through, they do, for horses are abundant, whether chewing grass under sheoak trees or returning from the summit of the volcano. There’s no shortage of places to sit and have a drink while the sun goes down over the mountains that rise in a jagged line leading back to Panajachel. And you can stay watching the distant lights of the villages appear without breaking your budget; happy hours endless.

Back in Panajachel, a Guatemalteco leans on a wall leading down to the jetty, his white hat sparkling in the sun, when he feels something soft and wet nudging at his elbow. He jumps clear of the wall, relaxing when he realises that it is only a cow, lazily scratching its neck. While his friends chuckle, the hombre eases back against the wall. Mid morning, down at the lake, the tranquillity is infectious.

Solola market day

Lake Atitlan from above Panajachel


~ by Drifting, Rambling on January 28, 2008.

2 Responses to “A Cauldron of Tranquillity”

  1. Welcome to the blogosphere!

  2. I love your writing Tim,you took me right there and I love the title….I just haven’t time, will read all eventually 🙂
    love to you and Patrice, Philly

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