Adventures While House Sitting


Shot from Panajachel


The Mayan word Atitlan means “the place the rainbow gets it color”. Lake Atitlan is one of four Guatemalan lakes that mark the Mayan’s ancient territory and is the second largest lake in the country. This beautiful jade green jewel is 11 miles in diameter and covers 50.2 square miles of surface area.  It is one of the world’s deepest lakes (at least 1,120 feet) with depths that have never been fully probed. Atitlan’s surface rests at approx. 5,128 feet elevation and its southern end is framed by three lush green volcanoes just shy of 10,000 feet which lend a majestic backdrop to the lake, especially when viewed from the north shore.  The volcanic slopes and steep heavily vegetated mountains that rim the basin are punctuated by stark desert tan escarpments and waterfalls.  Lake Atitlan, considered to be one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, is part of the pacific fire ring and sits on the edge of the Sierra Madre mountain range.  The area experiences earthquakes, mudslides, severe winds and tropical storms.

Many well-known historic and contemporary explorers, writers and photographers have suggested Lake Atitlan should be considered the eighth wonder of the world. Indeed the lake is captivating with its clear aqua to deep green jade waters and it certainly has its mysteries. We frequently see a consistent wave action that is unexplainable and suspect a fracture line is releasing water which produces this wave.  In the 70’s an American spent two years in Santiago and saw a huge dried fish hanging from the rafters of a hut. He described it as having thick silver armor-like scales the size of his palm and vicious looking teeth. Recently a friend of ours was kayaking at dusk and saw a fish about 15 feet in length crest the lakes surface just 6 feet from his kayak. He described it as having large silver scales. Divers have reported seeing bright red pencil shaped fish that rise from the lakes depths to within 3 feet of the lake surface in the twilight hours.  Since the lake’s depths have never been thoroughly probed one can only imagine the unique creatures that dwell in the microenvironments around the thermal vents and in the deepest parts of the lake.

The combination of Atitlan’s nearness to the equator and its height of 5100 feet above sea level produce an ideal climate which is both temperate and healthful. Temperatures are mild all year with the winter months having the most dramatic daily fluctuation of both the hottest and coldest temps (50-80 degrees F.).  When we arrived in late July the temperatures did not feel too hot unless exerting oneself in the direct sun and the night temperatures were very comfortable even in sleeveless shirts and shorts. Now we have hot days and cool nights. The rainy season lasts from May to October, but even in the rainy season the sun shines part of each day.

A special phenomenon of the Atitlan Lake area is a strong wind known as Xocomil. The word has its origins in the Xocom Kaqchile language and means sins, in other words the wind picks up the sins of the population living around the lake and carries them off.  The Xocomil arrives in the late morning and the calm water becomes active with waves that push to the north shore. As hot air from the pacific coast rises and cools large voluminous clouds are formed over the volcanoes, clouds wisp around the volcanic caps off and on throughout the day creating a never ending variation in the already spectacular scenery.  On many afternoons a heavy fog moves in from the south and travels along the lakes surface obscuring villages, mountains, and volcanoes. This month the severe winter winds arrive from the North and the lake becomes very dangerous for boaters and water taxis. We experienced a few days of this from Oct. 31 to Nov. 3.  But it has been quiet since.

Lake Atitlan is actually the caldera of an ancient volcano. An enormous eruption, known as the Los Chocoyos* ejected 72 cubic miles of ash and rock, the tephra was dispersed over 3.6 million square miles and is used as a stratigraphic marker in both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans (known as Y-8 ash in marine deposits). The ash has been found as far north as Florida and as far south as Ecuador.  By comparison the Los Chocoyos eruption produced 90 times more ash and rock then the 1980s Mt. Saint Helen eruption. 

After the original volcanic activity that formed the lake’s basin, the three volcanoes that grace the southern shores of the caldera emerged. San Pedro volcano (this is the volcano we are living on and it is now at 9908’ and still growing), then Toliman and Atitlan formed out of the caldera (these are the volcanos behind Santiago). San Pedro is the oldest of the three and seems to have stopped erupting. Tolimán probably remains active, although it has not erupted in historic times and Atitlán remains active, with its most recent eruption having occurred in 1853.

We experience tremors and minor earthquakes on a regular basis; two of which woke us both from a sound sleep. The Catholic cathedral in Santiago was built in 1542, damaged repeatedly by earthquakes and partially rebuilt many times. Finally it was badly ruined in 1773 but has been rebuilt and still stands today.

The lake is fed by several small rivers and is endorheic which mean it does not have any surface outlets. Underground fissures and seep holes allow water to filter to two rivers which drain into the Pacific Ocean. On February 4, 1976, a massive earthquake (magnitude 7.5) struck Guatemala killing more than 26,000 people. The earthquake fractured the lake bed causing subsurface drainage, allowing the water level to drop 6 feet within one month and 21 feet altogether. This event disrupted the lakes 40 year cycle of high and low water levels which fluctuate by 66 feet.

Nicolas, the gardener, remembers the unprecedented 1976 event and how, prior to the massive earthquake, the water was just two blocks from his home. Fortunately the waterfront area of Santiago had not been developed yet.  He also said the area where the bodega, on this property, now sits was a good fishing spot. This home and outbuildings were built about twenty years ago and you can see the original stone walkway under the lake before it disappears into the delicate aquatic plants. We do not know how far into the lake the walkway extends but clearly twenty years ago the lake was at a much lower level. In the past five years this property has lost 120’ of lakefront as the lake climbs annually. We have been here three months and have seen the water level rise by about 6 feet, half of that was delivered by a single tropical storm. Since our arrival the lake has taken about 20 feet of this property due to the gentle lakeside slope. Now that we are heading into the dry season the lake will drop up to 3 feet before the next rainy season starts in May. But, due to the forty year cycle the water will continue to climb more than it recedes each year.

Lakeside homes and businesses were built in the past twenty to thirty years with no regard to the lake’s 40 year cycle. One has to surmise, based on science and local experience, that the majority of these businesses and homes will be entirely submerged within 10-15 years.  Already many expensive homes are partially submerged and abandoned or the water is very near homes that are still occupied. Most of Santiago’s waterfront is submerged. Two submerged ancient Mayan city’s; Sambaj and Chuitinamit (600BC-250AD) were at one time of great interest to visitors and archeologists but, we recently learned, are now too deep to dive to without specialized equipment.


“Water and air, the two essentials on which all life depends, have become global garbage cans”

Jacques Yves Cousteau

Lake Atitlan is in crisis. Locals do not grasp the significance of the lake’s ecosystem and consequently sewage, village run off (littered streets), farming chemicals and the practice of bathing and washing clothes in the lake have upset its balance. The water temperature is a steady 72 degrees and, in part, is fed by thermal vents this adds to the development of Cyanobacteria which rises to the lake’s surface and blooms during the dry summer season.  The bacteria possess health problems to the 200,000 lakeside inhabitants, many of which use the unfiltered water for drinking and cooking.

Mayors and village leaders plead with locals making announcements on the radio concerning fishing regulations, cutting reeds, hunting wild fowl etc…but the pleas are largely ignored and no enforcement appears to be in place.

Various groups are beginning to work on educating the locals to change deeply ingrained traditions and develop awareness. Some of the village leaders have installed clothes washing ‘parks’ in an effort to filter the water before it returns to the lake.

Lake Atitlan was declared a national park in 1955, but has never been properly administered.  At present Lake Atitlan is included in the list of the natural resources of the continents, from which 7 will be selected to be the Seven Wonders of Nature. If selected perhaps the designation will provide funds and education so that the indigenous people of the area can gain a new understanding and appreciation for the cycle of life that affects this rare and beautiful lake.

 *A chocoyo is a type of small parrot or parakeet which is often found nesting in the relatively soft ash layer.

Blog Stats

  • Total posts(26)
  • Total comments(17)

Forgot your password?