I might have taken a laid back approach to my week in Lake Atitlán, but there are plenty adventure opportunities on hand for those who want to be a bit more active while visiting this high altitude Guatemalan highlight — paragliding off a volcano, hiking up a volcano, or diving below a volcano all come to mind. Of course, you know me — I went for the latter.
And I was perfectly situated to do so while staying at La Iguana Perdida, home of ATI Divers.
I’d heard all the warnings — temperatures are low, visibility even lower, and there is limited sealife — er, lakelife? — to see. Still, a close friend in Thailand had recommended it as a unique experience, and I don’t think I could turn down the chance to try scuba diving in a high-altitude volcanic lake, regardless.
I mean, the views on surface interval wouldn’t be too bad.
One morning at breakfast, I joined the resident divemaster, his trainee, and an American couple living in Guatemala for a dive briefing. The wind was howling and the water just looked cold. “Maybe we should reschedule for tomorrow?,” I ventured hopefully, all while knowing I’d only delay the inevitable. But no, the other couple was leaving the next day, and divers cannot leave the lake the same day they dive. Because Atitlán is ringed by tall volcanic ridges, leaving the lake for any destination involves altitude gains that cannot be made for eighteen hours after surfacing. Hence, you must stay put at lake level for the remainder of the day, and night, after diving.
So we suited up instead.
a historic photo of the lake from the dive shop
And we were off.
Our first dive site was one I’d heard good reviews of. Because the water in the lake continues to rise, entire buildings now sit below the surface. We were going to visit one such shell of a hotel. As we backrolled off the boat I was pleasantly surprised by the temperature off the water I plunged into — it stays at about 70 degrees at the surface year-round, though at depth we’d clock down to 66 degrees. When I surfaced to give the all-okay signal, the wind felt like a slap on my face.
We descended quickly.
Descending down the murky waters of an underwater stairwell is certainly a distinctive diving experience — and an eerie one. Later, the divemaster would admit that the visibility that day was about as bad as it gets in the lake. For someone so focused on underwater photography when I dive it was a little disappointing, but you certainly can’t win them all — and I’ve won many when it comes to good luck with dive conditions.
One other thing that contributed to the air of eeriness? The fish graveyard also known as Lake Atitlán. During our dive briefing I’d been fascinated to hear the history of diving in the lake, and of the lake itself. One of the more tragic chapters involved Pan Am’s attempt to turn the region into a sportfishing destination by airdropping a lake full of invasive species of fish into Atitlán in the 1950’s. The outcome, as anyone who has ever heard of an environmental impact study might have gleaned, was not positive. One introduced species — the name now escapes me, but it is pictured above — spawns frequently but dies quickly due to its inability to adapt to the lake’s temperature shifts. Hence, lots and lots of dead fish, which I had not been warned about on any tourism brochure.
Yet it was a fascinating dive. Hovering over a balcony it was easy to imagine a guest once lingering on it over their morning tea, as I’d that morning from the deck of Iguana Perdida — would that too someday be underwater? Petrified trees that once gave shade now provides a playground for fish, and a still-functional tap that once bore drinking water now supplies underwater entertainment for divers. The water that gushes when you reach out and turn the creaky faucet is noticeably warmer than that it pumps into.
After a surface interval in which I tried to will a hot tub into existence at La Iguana Perdida, we head back out for a second dive. This time we dropped off at Aguas Calientes. This dive would bring us sixty-five feet deep along the active fault line of one of the lake’s looming volcanoes, which sounds pretty impressive until you consider the fact that the lake reaches depths of over 980 feet — we were barely covering a blip.
My body temperature already low from the first dive, I was shivering within moments of descent. Good thing we were on the hunt for heat. Every few feet we’d plunge our hands into the silty floor of the lake, kicking the sand into beautiful patterns and getting literally and metaphorically warmer and warmer until we finally found the fault line — it was so hot that I could only stick my hands in for a few seconds before it felt like they were burning. Deep below the surface of Lake Atitlán, I’d never felt the power of an active volcano more intimately.
It was so hot we even boiled an egg! Once I’d properly marveled at that moment, we started working our way back up the underwater slope towards yet another sunken relic left behind by rising lake waters. This one was a former pool, sauna, and wet bar — a family’s epic lakefront deck, reclaimed by the lake itself. We watched as crabs scuttled in the corner of the pool before entering the sauna-turned-swim-through, in which a massive volume trapped air allowed us to pop out our regulators and have a brief conversation beneath the surface. We concluded our dive with a bit of play acting in the bar area, which was still stocked with glasses and empty lake water-filled bottles.
And then it was time to go have a real drink. (Of hot chocolate, that is. Did I mention it was freezing?)
Frankly, you don’t have many options when diving in Lake Atitlán. There’s one Guatemalan-focused dive shop in Panajachel, and there’s one foreigner-focused dive shop in Santa Cruz — and that’s ATI Divers. Luckily, they’re top notch. The British owner of La Iguana and ATI Divers, Deedle Ratcliffe, was one on of the first divers to join exploratory teams around the lake in the 1990’s — she knows her stuff! Safety standards were closely followed and I felt very comfortable with the entire team.
At $65 for the day, it was a reasonably priced adventure!
Am I ready to trade in my ocean obsession for a fresh water habit? Nah. But! My first time high altitude diving, my first time lake diving, my first time sticking my hand into a volcanic fault line — not a bad day out in Guatemala.
What’s been your most unique diving experience?
ATI Divers did not pay or perk me to write this review — sponsored content will always be disclosed. All underwater photos in this post were taken with Canon PowerShot S100 and its Canon PowerShot S100 Underwater Housing. See a full list of my photography gear here.
What a trip to see remnants of town life submerged like that! I love the photograph of the tap and it’s amazing that it still works!
It was a really fun little trick 🙂 The whole dive was like an episode of Bill Nye The Science Guy!
There were a lot of fun surprises on this dive! I would have been in awe over the underwater buildings. Eerie indeed. I regret not diving in the Greek Islands, I missed out on all kinds of remnants of underwater ancient civilizations!
Diving in Santorini was a pretty cool treat! I’d definitely be down to check out diving some of the other islands next time I return… (notice how I’m just assuming/praying/forcing there to be a next time!)
Wow!! Those pictures gave me chills. I love places where time is frozen (one of my main reasons I want to go to Pompeii), so this would be a dream dive opportunity!
Atitlan is definitely a place where time stops… underwater as well as above!
NEVER would have thought about diving at Lake Atitlán. The murkiness and dead fish definitely sound like a bummer, but from the porch and petrified trees to feeling the heat of the volcano, it sounds like there was a good bit of magic to be found, too. Would definitely pay $65 for this! (Although, honestly, living in Australia has skewed my idea of a good deal so much I might pay $65 for anything :p)
Ha, I know, right?! At the time it felt like kind of a splurge (should I parasail or dive?) and now that I’m back in the US I’m like, man, that was darn cheap — should have done both!
I’m endlessly fascinated by abandoned buildings and ruins so I find this so interesting! The cold and murky waters would have been troubling though. I’m glad you found the downsides worth it!
I was happy to know that this is kind of the worst the visibility gets — I mean it was a bummer for me but good for other divers who go check it out and have better luck 🙂
I think this is pretty cool — sure the views aren’t quite what they are in the ocean — but how cool is it to talk under water without your regulators? TO be perfectly honest I am a bit skittish about diving, even though I managed to get my open water certificate, so the idea of being able to take out my regulator and breath normally sounds quite enticing 🙂
I’ve gotten to do it a few times in certain caves or wreck dives around the world — it is cool! It’s definitely just a quick “hey there!” because I’m sure its not great air to be breathing for long, but it’s a fun sensation. Kind of like diving in a glacial spring in Iceland and being able to take out the regulator and drink the fresh water I was swimming in — now that was cool!
I’m not so interested in diving, but this dive sounds weirdly fascinating!
It was definitely one of the more unique ones I’ve done over the years 🙂
That fault line dive sounds so cool. Wish I had underground hotels and fault lines to check out when I do my dive training this summer! In Minnesota, haha! I think we start in a swimming pool and end in a lake, lol.
Hey, maybe they’ll do you a favor and sink an old Minnesota hotel for you 🙂 Congrats on doing your dive training!
I absolutely cannot believe how incredible those images are. I’m absolutely fascinated by what lays beneath – how incredible to imagine that there’s a whole world underneath the water. Amazing! xxx
There is indeed! That’s what I love about diving… it takes you to a whole world you might otherwise have never known existed.
Wow, this looks incredible. I’ve never been diving in my life, but would love to try sometime. $65 seems like a steal for all that you got to experience. Dead fish aside, this looks fantastic!
Central America is full of bang for your buck when it comes to crazy adventures like this one. I love splurging on fun activities!
I agree with Silvia – I’ve never been interested in diving, but this looks really interesting and makes me want to check it out!
I love that of all the tropical wonders I post, this is one that gets people wanting to dive, ha! Hey, whatever gets you guys in the water!
Seems like this dive was the gift that kept on giving – working taps and boiled eggs? Not your usual underwater adventure! What an interesting day out xo
Certainly not the usual tropical fish and turquoise waters… kept me on my toes and I loved it for that! 🙂
Sounds like an interesting experience, but not one you’re so eager to do again any time soon.
I just got back from Cuba. Alex – why have you not gone there yet? With your love for diving, and the virgin, unspoiled reefs there, I think you would really enjoy it! Not to mention some places only charge $25/dive!
I’ve done a lot of cool dives that I loved doing once but wouldn’t do twice. But that’s okay 🙂 I’d love to get to Cuba someday. Of course it isn’t easy being a US Citizen but I’ll get there eventually!
This dive sounds fascinating to me. I love how the lake has consumed old houses and other relics…It’s the stuff of horror movies!
Ha, it is indeed! And appearantly according to local lore there’s a monster in the middle of the lake, a lá good old Loch Ness. We didn’t run into her 🙂
Memories.. we did this dive as well in 2008. No sunken buildings back then. I liked it because it was so different but the thing I remember most is one our fellow divers getting an asthma attack under water and her just going up with the divemaster shooting after her. As I was not an exerinced diver back then left alone underwater was scary. But i did my safety stop and got out and was very proud that i did not panic.
Yikes! It’s hard to pass judgement not having been there myself but according to standards the instructor should have done everything they could to have prevented it, but eventually let the diver shoot up alone. Good for you for not panicking… I’m proud too!
The underwater hotel looks amazing. I’ve never tried diving but I would be tempted to in a place with such a feel of history.
Lots of dive spots have a similar historic feel… basically anywhere with a shipwreck! It’s a really wonderful element that a lot of people don’t realize they’re in for when they start diving!
This sounds like an incredible experience. I can’t believe those guys on the old photo were diving in just their swimming trunks if the temperature is that low. I guess, locals are always tougher. 🙂
Ha, that is a good point I didn’t even think about… those guys were TOUGH!
Brings back some wonderful memories.
It was so different to any other dive experience we’ve enjoyed so far! 😀
So glad you enjoyed it!!
I did indeed! Glad you guys loved it as well. It’s hard to pass up something so unique.
Don’t leave us in suspense… did someone eat the egg? 🙂
Seriously though, pretty cool and unique to dive a frigid lake to a boiling hot volcano fault line, chill in an air pocket and turn on a functional faucet.
Ha, no eggs were consumed in the making of this post…
That is quite the adventure! That is so cool that you boiled an egg. Thanks for sharing your experience with us!
You are so welcome Paige… it always makes it double the fun for me 🙂
I had never considered that you might be able to dive at Lake Atitlan! Seeing your photos… I’m not entirely sure I would want to! They are quite spooky and I’m not sure I’d dig seeing a bunch of dead fish on my dive, though getting to feel the volcanic heat and be able to breath under water without your regulators does sound cool! Still, Tony & I are notoriously unlucky when it comes to good visibility, so somehow I believe that if we tried this we’d wind up experiencing an all time high of murk!
I actually feel like normally I have really good luck when it comes to visibility…. so I guess I can’t complain too much on the rare dives where I get the short end of the stick/viz. But it definitely makes photos all that much harder!
Nice nice images of underwater Lake Atitlan. Thanks for sharing Alex.
You are so welcome Christian! Glad you enjoyed.
Looks like so much fun Alex! hahah and that is hilarious that you guys actually boiled an egg. Love it!! xx
It was definitely a first for me underwater 🙂
Lake Atitlan is one of the popular and scenic locations of the world. I would love to learn and enjoy scuba diving as part of my travel. Great share this!
Thanks Maxi! Diving is a great way to open up a whole new world while you travel. Enjoy!
Great photos! I dream of diving one day, this looks fantastic. 🙂
Go for it, Jesse! It opens up a whole new world in travel. Diving is the best!
Can’t say I ever thought about diving while in Atitlan, but dang girl, now you make me wanna! A staircase and functional faucet? How cool!
Should we ever return to Guatemala, perhaps we need to brave it together 😀
Seems to have been amazing just by the look of the scenes an the smile on your face. The first time i went diving though, i was sea sick i almost threw up all my lungs out. You are luck it did not affect you at all!
I am pretty lucky, I only get seasick very very rarely. When I do though, it’s terrible! I wouldn’t wish that feeling on anyone.
Wow! This place looks amazing. Thank you to share, Alex!
You’re welcome, Michael. It was a fun find for me as a diver!
Wow! What an experience, looks like a blast (despite the cold that is)!
Nothing a little hot tub wouldn’t fix… I definitely suggested one to the team 🙂
What a diving experience! I look forward to using my dive equipment more often.
Me too! Can’t wait to take off on my dive trip to Bonaire in two weeks!
I’ve been doing medical mission work in Panajachel for the different Mayan villages for over ten years, and often hear about “oh don’t dive the lake because its contaminated-bacteria” and others who say “oh, its all good!” I’m torn on what to believe. Did your dive master at ATI address this issue? Is it valid etc etc. You turned out ok! ha ha “But did you die”??? Ha Thanks for the any info.
Hey Scott yes we did definitely discuss this at ATI! They are in constant contact with scientists all over the world regarding the safety of the lake and since they do it everyday I figure if they are willing to do that, I can do it once, ha ha! Definitely contact them for more scientific explanations and reassurance 😉