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In the central highlands, 120 km from Antigua, Lake Atitlan was cited by author Aldous Huxley as being "the most beautiful lake in the world". It was formed over 80,000 years ago by a violent volcanic eruption; the caldera now contains 130 km2 of sparkling water, encompassed by hills and three towering volcanoes of subsequent birth: Atitlan (3,537 m), Toliman (3,158 m), and San Pedro (3,020 m). In the afternoons a wind called Xocomil (the wind that carries away sin) can cause the lake's surface to become turbulent. Being such a beautiful place, the lake has been home to many different cultures, dating back to 1000 bc or more. By 1250 the Tz'utujil Maya were established around the lake and by the 1520s they ruled over the whole of the lake area, except for a strip from Panajachel to San Antonio Palopo, which was ruled by the Kaqchikel Maya. In 1524 the Tz'utujiles surrendered to the Spanish conquistadors, their Mexican allies and the Kaqchikeles, and began paying tribute to the Spanish crown. When the Kaqchikeles refused to provide ever increasing tributes in gold, the Spanish used their old enemies the Tz'utujiles to conquer them. Around the lake are 17 towns and villages, each with their individual characteristics, the cultures and languages still divided between Tz'utujiles and Kaqchikeles. Many of the inhabitants still wear their traditional clothing and continue the old way of life that revolved around the lake itself.


Panajachel (place of the Matasanos [a native fruit tree]) Located on the NE shore, after the conquest the Kaqchikel settlement was used as a missionary base by the Franciscan Order, who named the town San Francisco de Panajachel. One of the larger towns, and the most developed on the lake, it offers the most comprehensive facilities, and often serves as a springboard for visiting the other villages. Its 11,000 population is a mix of indigenous, ladino and expatriates. Launches depart from two docks for the other lakeside communities.


Santa Catarina Palopo This small community, 3 km from Panajachel, is confined by steep cliffs and the lake. The 2,900 population is almost entirely Kaqchikel. Their traditional livelihood of fishing was ruined after Black Bass were introduced into the lake for sport fishing, and the locals now rely on agriculture and textiles. The traditional huipil (blouse) of Santa Catarina is woven in deep blues and greens, and the women now have thin metallic strips gleaming in their headdresses.


Santiago Founded in 1547 at the foot of the Toliman volcano, this is the largest town with a population over 32,000, about 95% indigenous of Tz′ utujil descent. Livelihoods include fishing, farming and making Cayucos (local canoes). Artisans specialize in painting, woodwork and weaving textiles. The stunning men′ s pants and women′ s huipiles are woven and then beautifully embroidered with birds. Some of the older women still wear the traditional tocoyal, an 8 meter length of red fabric wound round their head like a halo. Santiago is home to one of the three “original” Maximon characters, a pagan deity or god who receives offerings of alcohol and cigars. The market is held in the streets on Fridays and Sundays. The people of Santiago suffered terribly during the country′s 36-year civil war, while hurricane Stan in October 2005 brought a mudslide which destroyed the nearby village of Panabaj.


San Juan La Laguna Boasting one of the best sandy beaches on Atitlàn′ s shoreline, on the western side, this small village of 8,000 inhabitants is almost exclusively Tz′utujil. Traditions of farming and fishing stand alongside the weaving of reed mats or petates, and textiles. Many of the women have organized themselves into weaving cooperatives, exporting much of their high quality handiwork, and one group makes their dyes from local plants. Artists paint in the Arte Naif or primitivist style, some tinting their works exclusively in local natural dyes.