Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
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Credit: Andrew Geiger / Getty Images

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

When German explorer Alexander von Humboldt famously called Guatemala's Lake Atitlan "the most beautiful lake in the world," he was just trying to be accurate. Surrounded by the towering volcanoes that helped create it, Lake Atitlan and its cobalt blue waters set a scene that borders on being "too much of a good thing," as English novelist Aldous Huxley later wrote. But the area isn't just for Prussian explorers and British recreational drug enthusiasts: The area around the lake has a sublime hiking, paragliding, climbing, and mountain biking scene.

For starters, visitors can sign up with a machete-toting guide and tackle some of the countless trekking trails that crisscross the hills. Weave through coffee plantations, avocado trees, and corn fields en route to the rocky cone of a still-smoking volcano, or take a more leisurely route from village to colorful village, following in the footsteps of the Mayans, who still call the lake home.

Those looking for something more strenuous should consider the punishing Atitlan Marathon. Inaugurated in 2012, the route features more than 2,000 feet of vertical climbing over terrain more appropriate for beast than man.

Prefer wheels to walks? Bikers follow some of the same, rugged routes on a heart-pounding downhill sprint, helmet definitely required. For something more leisurely, pick one of the multi-day tours that take riders around the entire lake, stopping in tiny villages along the way to refuel with locally grown coffee and watch local residents live, work, and play as they have for centuries.

Those looking beyond the Earth-bound adventures have two options.

Take to the air with the folks at Real World Paragliding, riding the breezes high above the blue waves far below. Or, for a truly unique experience, go scuba-diving in Central America's deepest lake. Swimmers can pass along steep walls of a still-active volcano and warm their hands in mud heated by the molten lava buried far below them.

When it's time for a break from the adventure, head to the hillside Casa Palopo. A former colonial-style villa turned boutique hotel, the Palopo is a seven-bedroom luxury property frequented by the rich (Bill Gates), as well as the famous (Charlize Theron), who often arrive by helicopter at one of the hotel's two onsite helipads. The food from Palopo's restaurant 6.8 is gourmet (try the tuna tartare). The bar, complete with vintage barber shop stools and a Wurlitzer jukebox, is hard to leave. And the views from the infinity pool to the massive volcanoes across the lake are impossible to forget. Not that you'd want to.

More information: Visitors fly into Guatemala City, from where they can take a direct shuttle (3 hrs) or a helicopter (20-minutes) from the airport to Lake Atitlan.