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Lake Atitlan: Geology

Embarking on a cultural journey, UPAVIM invites you to explore Guatemala through our upcoming tour blog series. This multi-part narrative will unfold the diverse landscapes and vibrant communities that define this captivating country, starting with the jewel of the Guatemalan Highlands—Lake Atitlán. 

Join us in unraveling the rich experiences that await, from bustling markets to serene villages, as we delve into the essence of each location on the UPAVIM Guatemala Tour. Discover the stories of Maya culture, vibrant textiles, and the warm embrace of Guatemala's diverse communities. 


Lake Atitlan - Part 1

Nestled within the picturesque landscapes of Guatemala's Western Highlands, Lake Atitlán (Spanish: Lago de Atitlán, [atiˈtlan]) beckons travelers with its breathtaking beauty and vibrant tapestry of cultural wonders. This enchanting destination, renowned as the deepest lake in Central America, unfolds as a mosaic of geology, history, and the rich heritage of Mayan communities.

Geology of Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlán isn't your ordinary lake—it's the deepest in Central America with an extraordinary maximum depth of approximately 340 meters. Positioned around 50 kilometers from Antigua, this region has witnessed millions of years of volcanic activity, marked by periods of growth and caldera collapses.

Lake Atitlán and its captivating landscape lies nestled amidst the Sierra Madre mountains in southwestern Guatemala. The lake as it stands today sits within the massive caldera created by the series of eruptions, which is fed by two nearby rivers, and does not drain into the ocean.

First, it's important to know what a caldera is. A caldera (Spanish for "cauldron") is a large volcanic crater formed by the collapse of a volcano after a major eruption, characterized by a circular or elliptical depression. These features result from the evacuation of magma (such as a volcanic eruption), causing the underlying structure to give way and the summit to collapse. Calderas vary in size, with some covering entire volcanic complexes. Their rims surround sunken floors, often containing lakes formed by precipitation or groundwater. 

The lake is a scenic masterpiece that was created by a colossal volcanic eruption dating back 84,000 years, commonly known as the Los Chocoyos eruption. The colossal Los Chocoyos eruption was actually the result of four different volcanoes: Paquisis, Tecolote, San Marcos and Xejolon. The eruptions resulted in the ultimate collapse of the area, forming the massive caldera that is now the lake. The eruption launched an enormous amount of ash, nearly 300 cubic kilometers, across a vast area from Florida to Ecuador. Evidence of the ash can even be used as a stratigraphic marker in both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans (known as Y-8 ash in marine deposits). Interestingly, it also became a haven for chocoyos, a type of bird, nesting in the soft ash layer.

Since the aftermath of Los Chocoyos, Lake Atitlán has been a canvas of geological transformations. Three new volcanoes emerged—Volcán Atitlán on the southern rim, Volcán San Pedro, and Volcán Tolimán within the caldera. San Pedro took a volcanic siesta around 40,000 years ago, Tolimán awakened after that, and the youngest, Volcán Atitlán, still occasionally grumbles, with its last eruption recorded in 1853. Nestled between Tolimán and the lake, across from Panajachel, lies another interesting feature of the landscape: Cerro de Oro ("Hill of Gold" in Spanish). Geologically, it is known as a lava dome, but it has been an inspiration for legends and stories locally and throughout history. For example, it is said to have inspired French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in his popular book The Little Prince.

(Lake Atitlán, with Tolimán and Cerro de Oras in the distance)

Fast forward to the 1970s when the region experienced a seismic jolt. A massive earthquake, measuring a magnitude of 7.5, struck Guatemala, causing significant damage and killing around 26,000 people. The lake's bed cracked open, resulting in a rapid drop in water levels by two meters within a month. The water levels now are currently high, with locals and landowners pondering what the effects of climate change will be on the lake.

Today, Lake Atitlán is home to 798 different plant species, 61 of which are endemic (appearing nowhere else in the world), 116 species of reptiles and amphibians, 12 species of which are endemic, 236 bird species, 12 species of which are endemic or from restricted areas, and 141 species of mammals, 7 of which are endemic.

In essence, Lake Atitlán is more than just a geological marvel; it's a dynamic story of volcanic and geothermal activity, ecological marvels, and the ever-evolving interplay of nature and human history.

For more information, please visit: 

Reserva Natural Atitlan Website

Lakes Form in Mysterious Ways: Lake Atitlan Scientific Blog

Atitlan Living Website 

Global Nature Fund - Ecological Information

Friends of Lake Atitlan (Amigos del Lago Atitlan) - Meet Atitlan