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You Say Italian, I Say Atitlan

Let’s say you want to visit the Italian Lakes, but you can’t finagle an invite to Clooney’s place.

Villa d’Este is sold out because an oligarch is tying the knot that very same week. Or maybe it’s the middle of March (when Italy is still springing back to summer). Or you’ve already been three times and feel like you should be trying something different. What to do, what to do?

The answer is easy. Get on a plane and go to Guatemala. The strikingly beautiful Lake Atitlan, in the western highlands region (a two to three hour drive from Guatemala City), is something of a South American doppelganger for Lake Como. Atitlan (heck, throw that in a word jumble and you almost get ‘Italian’) may lack the jet set vibe of its Euro brethren, but it has all the scenic sizzle and twice the culture. Encircled by steep and deep hillsides, and no less than three picture-perfect volcanoes, Lake Atitlan is like a giant bowl of gorgeous. The lovely, clean water plunges to 300 metres and ranges in colour from Baltic to St. Bart’s blue—a perfect complement to the usually clear skies.

At roughly 18 km long by 12 km wide it’s a decently large lake, but small enough to explore easily by boat. Hire a lancha (small, high-speed boat) for a few hours and skip along the shore visiting remote towns like Santiago, San Juan, San Marcos and Santa Cruz. For a perfect morning of activity, head to the hamlet of Jaibalito, kayak along the coast for an hour or so, and then hike back to lunch at Casa del Mundo or Club Ven Aca. Punctuate the day with several swims.

Perhaps because it’s so damn hard to move around the lake by road, the villages have retained much of their indigenous culture. In Santiago Atitlan, the most removed and traditional of the towns, you can wander the Friday-morning market and pay homage to Maximon (the hard-drinking, cigar-smoking ‘saint’). Throughout the region you’ll find skilled and colourful weaving and embroidery, with the most bodacious fashions in Solola. Its Friday market was once described as a “walking museum of fancy dress”.

At the end of your busy days you will, of course, need somewhere to call casa—a place to drink in the view and your accompanying cocktail. For complete calm, tip top service and absolute charm make your way to Casa Palopo in Santa Catarina Palopo. Now that, amigos, is how you say bellisimo.

Atitlan may lack the jet set vibe of is Euro brethren, but it has all the scenic sizzle and twice the culture.

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