Lake Atitlán: One Lake Two Tales

Monday, May 04th, 2020
Picturesque view of Lake Atitlán

By: Gary Closs, Jr.

Lake Atitlán, Guatemala is equal parts beautiful and dangerous. Beyond the captivating beauty of the volcanic lake lie stories that few get to tell.  We, OSU graduate students and Asst. Professor/ CFI director Barbara Kowalcyk, were visiting the lake to learn more about its connection to food safety and its implications on One Health. My first glance of the lake came as we drove to Panajachel. The picturesque lake looked like the place meditation leaders tell you to imagine when you close your eyes. Three volcanoes (San Pedro, Tolimán, and Atitlán) surround it. The deep, blue lake was further decorated with rich green trees and kissed by the sunlight on the horizon. I took in the beauty of the lake on day one and found myself staring out my hotel balcony all night as the sunset turned the sky shades of pink and orange in the distance.

Overlooking Lake AtitlánView of Lake Atitlan from hotel balcony in Panajachel

Unbeknownst to me, I would be quickly redirected to the deeper stories and perils of the lake as we visited the Mayan towns along the lake’s shores. This metaphoric switch seemed to be physically manifested by the winds that rocked the boat as we traveled to the first destination of San Lucas.

Upon arrival, we immediately noticed the difference and instead saw a dying lake. We were even informed that children under the age of five had a 50 percent mortality rate. Women were directly washing clothes in the lake. Detergents add to the lake’s contamination; however this practice makes sense for town’s people who have limited resources. In an effort to reduce water contamination, several washing stations have been built near the lake but all but one were empty. Instead, there was an overwhelming amount of people washing at one particular station. More alarming, we learned about water practices among the town. Natives tend to believe that clear water equates to clean water. It is common practice for them to remove the debris from water and use it under the guise that it is now safe. Some do take measures to add chlorine but it is unmeasured and seemingly random.

 View of Lake Atitlán in San Lucas

As a student who studies foodborne disease and zoonotic pathogens, I was constantly paying attention to the chickens and dogs that roamed the premises and drank water from various crevices. I was made aware that it is common for such animals to come in and around the houses defecating near the people; further contaminating the lake through run off.  Runoff contaminated with pathogens and chemical pollutants can harm the fish, animals that prey on the fish, and humans as the contamination makes it way up the food chain through a process called biomagnification.

However, poor agricultural practices aren’t the only things adding to the lake’s contamination. Climate change and expanding tourism have greatly added to the destruction. The lake is contaminated with cyanobacteria, which has caused outbreaks in the past.1 Cyanobacteria are photosynthetic bacteria, often mistaken for algae, that can cause disease in humans and animals when ingested.2

Saving Lake Atitlán requires interventions, education, and financial assistance. Interventions must take into account the culture and daily routines of its inhabitants. Culturally conscious science and advocacy is what is needed to revitalize the health and stability of the lake and people. Fortunately, organizations like Amigos de Lago (a non-profit, non-governmental organization) have been developing safe plant mediation methods to combat the lake’s contamination. They have also been educating the natives on ways to conserve the lake and advocating for proper practices. Amigos de Lago graciously led our tour of the native towns and lake. The organization’s effort to include science, education, and advocacy prove to be a blueprint that culturally responsible conservation is attainable.

Plant mediation at the Amigos de Lago research facilityOhio State University graduate students with Dr. Kowalcyk at Santa Catarina Palopó with Lake Atitlán in the background

  1. Rejmankova, Eliska & Komárek, Jiří & Dix, Margaret & Komárková, Jaroslava & Girón, Nancy. (2011). Cyanobacterial blooms in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. Limnologica. 4 296-302. 10.1016/j.limno.2010.12.003.
  2. Water-related diseases. (2016, August 29). Retrieved from

Gary Closs


Gary Closs, Jr.

Graduate Research Assistant

Department of Food Science & Technology

Food Animal Health Research Program








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May 4, 2020 - 12:03pm --

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