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A postcard from Guatemala's Lake Atitlán

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

In Central America's highlands lies a beautiful lake that was created thanks to an extreme natural event. The area draws in over 300,000 tourists every year. NPR's Lilly Quiroz is now one of them as she traveled to the lake in western Guatemala.

LILLY QUIROZ, BYLINE: Lake Atitlan is more than meets the eye. It wasn't always a lake with teal-colored water. To better understand what I mean, we've got to go underwater.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER BUBBLING)

QUIROZ: The water is cool, but I can feel warm spots, too. What I'm feeling is a natural hot spring. That's because about 84,000 years ago, a volcano stood here. After Los Chocoyos erupted, it collapsed inward, and it formed what's called a caldera, or a volcanic crater. As I surface above the water, I can see the volcanoes that are still standing - San Pedro, Toliman and Atitlan - and the 12 towns surrounding the lake. They're also a part of the draw to the area. In one of the towns, Panajachel, I meet with a local Maya tour guide.

DAVID ALINAN: (Speaking Spanish).

QUIROZ: There are three Maya groups that continue to influence the culture around the lake.

ALINAN: Kaqchikel, K'iche' y Tz'utujil.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA 701")

PANTER BELICO: (Singing in Spanish).

QUIROZ: Surrounding towns have vibrant street decorations and shops that display colorful textiles mayas, or Maya textiles.

GLENDA ROSALES: (Speaking Spanish).

QUIROZ: (Speaking Spanish).

ROSALES: (Speaking Spanish).

QUIROZ: Glenda Rosales has run her shop in Panajachel for over 15 years. She's still waiting for tourism to reach its pre-pandemic levels.

ROSALES: (Through interpreter) We all rely on tourism here. If there's no tourism, then our sales are low. It is our job. It's what takes care of our families.

QUIROZ: Several locals feel the same.

ALINAN: (Through interpreter) Tourism contributes 80% to the economy of any community here today.

QUIROZ: But my tour guide, David Alinan, says this comes with pros and cons.

ALINAN: (Through interpreter) The positive side is the economic growth for several families - new access to technology and education. The negative part is the loss of identity.

QUIROZ: He says many people born here in the '90s don't know their native Mayan language, instead only speaking Spanish and a few other international languages. Still, Rosales encourages people from around the world to visit.

ROSALES: (Through interpreter) There's a lot of calm and peace here.

QUIROZ: It's an alluring draw to this area.

ALINAN: (Speaking Spanish).

QUIROZ: "This country is known as the eternal spring country." With brief showers some evenings, the hot sun begins to set behind the volcanoes that surround the lake. Lilly Quiroz, Panajachel, Guatemala.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAMIROQUAI SONG, "SPACE COWBOY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lilly Quiroz (she/her/ella) is a production assistant for Morning Edition and Up First. She pitches and produces interviews for Morning Edition, and occasionally goes to the dark side to produce the podcast Up First on the overnights.