The word "atitlan" is translated from Maya as "the place where the rainbow gets its colors" and accordingly you will understand why so many people have been drawn to this magical lake for hundreds of years. Panajachel alone is an 800 year old town home to mostly Cachikel Maya and an increasing number foreigners from every corner of the globe, all coming together to soak up a piece of that serenity and originality that this place provides.
San Pedro La Laguna, much like Panajachel has a large population of bohemian tourists and ex-pats, however the indigenous people of the town still preserve their original ways of life and wear traditional dress, remain very conservative and practice the same style of subsistence agriculture that their ancestors practiced years ago. Just outside of town coffee crops are cultivated on the mountain side and hard working farmers hike up and back on a daily basis to tend to their crops. Walk uphill towards the town center (away from the docks) and you will see a whole different side to this popular lakeside village.
Santiago Atitlán is the largest of the communities around the lake with a population of over 32,000, 95% of which are indigenous Tz’utujils. Traditionally, it is fishing and farming town; it is also known for the manufacture of cayucos, wooden canoes. Directly from the dock, the main street leads visitors up to the main square where there is a vibrant and very lively indoor/outdoor marketplace where street hawkers target "gringos" as they wander by looking for good deals on original locally made souvenirs. Santiago is also home to a very interesting Maya/Catholic sacred statue called Maximon (also known as San Simon by the Spanish and Rilaj Maam by the Maya). All Guatemalan people worship this deity and go to him to ask for blessings or give offerings. During "Semana Santa" (Holy Week) in March/April, the statue is paraded around town and celebrations are held to worship this Guatemalan god. If you can, catch a glimpse of this interesting and very unique local custom.
San Antonio Palopo is one of the most interesting villages around lake Atitlan and the best place to really get an idea for how these traditional indigenous towns used to feel. Walking through the village one can see people wearing intricately designed "huipiles" (woven tunics) and women weaving fabric made of wool and cotton. Take in the views of this tranquil town and imagine what the villagers' peaceful life is like living in adobe houses with tin roofs, farming and selling souvenirs to make a living. This is one of the best places to purchase a "huipil" traditional hand-woven tunic knowing that the profits are going straight to the villagers.