All You Need to Know Before Visiting Lake Atitlan / Complete Guide

Here is your complete guide to Lake Atitlan. Everything you need to know before you visit, including a comprehensive guide to all Atitlan towns and the best things to do.

 

I was told I would love Lake Atitlan. I was told it was a magical place. Not only one of the most beautiful lakes in the world but probably the most incredible place in Guatemala. I was told there is something special about this place. Something mystical, spiritual.

I was a bit apprehensive before arriving. Often when we build something in our heads, the reality can be disappointing. Not because it isn’t a wonderful place, but because we killed it with our expectations.

With many places in South and Central America – their beauty is not always immediately obvious. You often arrive in a simple village where people live uncomplicated and often impoverished lives. Depending on where you land at first, you might encounter sites far from the image of dreamy beaches of Maledives or lush Austrian mountains. It is crucial to arrive at any place in Latin America with an open mind. Step slightly out of both your hostel and comfort zone, explore. And very often, within the same day, you will be amazed, and as you stay longer, it’ll get harder to leave.

I experienced it when I first arrived in Rincon del Mar in Colombia or Livingston in Guatemala. And in many other places, in fact.

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So I was sitting in a shuttle taking me from Semuc Champey, trying not to expect much but simultaneously not being able to withhold the excitement.

Suddenly the Lake Atitlan leaned out from behind the hills, and only remembering this moment gives me goosebumps now, as I write about it. It is a truly spectacular and incredible lake, and the views were breathtaking.

I stayed around the lake Atitlan for nearly two weeks. But I could easily spend a month there. Or possibly much more? Many ex-pats had the same thought as many travellers arrived there for a week’s visit and now call it home.

Complete guide to visiting Lake Atitlan / All you need to know before you go

Lake Atitlan is considered to be one of the most beautiful and unique places in the world. This deepest lake in Central America, sitting 1500 m above sea level, has a length of 18 kilometres and a depth of up to 341 meters. It is surrounded by numerous volcanos and enjoys what, for me – is a perfect climate. 

Lake Atitlan’s shore is dotted with numerous indigenous villages, with Maya people of Tz’utujil and Kaqchikel making over 90% of the local population. Each of the lake’s villages and towns is unique and known for something different like ceramics, textiles or holistic retreats.

Although the place is becoming more and more popular amongst western travellers and the indigenous people living primarily of tourism, the Mayan culture stands its ground very firmly. They wear traditional clothing, and in order to preserve their culture, they are discouraged from marrying outsiders. They still speak their original languages, and some speak it better than Spanish.

There are many legends and mysteries surrounding lake Atitlan and its creation. A story of a sunken city in the middle of the lake containing valuable treasure or about Lake Atitlan being the place where the world was created. The truth is that lake Atitlan was created due to a volcano eruption so large that the mountain sunk into the ground and created a bowl-like hole. 

Lonely Planet described Lake Atitlan as “the closest thing to Eden on Earth”. But for me, it is not only the beauty of the lake that makes it so special. With its Mayan towns and rich heritage, this area truly felt magical. 

I remember taking a boat trip to the other side of the lake (one of many), looking around at the surrounding volcanos and saying to myself: ‘Don’t you ever forget that moment!’ I didn’t.

 

Complete guide to visiting Lake Atitlan / All you need to know before you go

In this wonderful article I came across this ancient Maya prophecy translated by the author:

One day people of all colours of the sacred corn—red, white, yellow and brown (black)—will come to our land. And when they come, they will arrive on big birds and flying boats. They will come from many lands. When this day is upon us, it will be a time of great change once again and the world will need to remember the Old Ways.
This will be a time when all colours of the corn will be called to come together as one Tree of Life. It will be at a time when our own youth will have begun to forget the sacred ways. The people of these other lands will come because they will have forgotten, too. They will come to remember and to receive the ancient wisdoms.

When this time and these people come, you are to receive them and teach them. Those who come will have been called by the spirits. What we have cared for and sustained of the ancient sacred ways of our ancestors will again be needed, for the world will be out of balance and in pain. It is in this way that we will all come together as one Tree of Life, reborn of all colours of the corn. In our joining and our remembering, we will find balance once again.’

Complete guide to visiting Lake Atitlan / All you need to know before you go

Can you swim in Lake Atitlan?

Lake Atitlan is partially swimmable depending on the part of the lake, but you need to be aware of the bacterial issues that Lake Atitlan faces. Generally, it is not recommended to swim near the biggest towns of Panajachel, San Pedro, Santiago Atitlán.

Due to an issue with fertilizers and other chemicals used in agriculture making way to the lake and the irresponsible humans polluting it with trash, the lake is now contaminated with Cyanobacteria which can be harmful to live organisms, including humans.

I have not swum in lake Atitlan. I have heard different opinions, and it’ll be challenging to find a clear answer as to whether you can swim in Lake Atitlan. I have seen some swimmers near Santa Cruz and San Marcos. While walking up to Santa Catarina Palopo, I saw some of the clearest waters, and I have heard some tourists went swimming in Lake Atitlan with no issues. But I also know someone who got a pretty nasty bacterial infection after swimming in the lake.

Back in 1968, the lake was so clean that you could see objects 16 meters under the surface. Nowadays, you can hardly see below 4 meters deep. The level of pollution of the lake varies from year to year. So if you are determined to have a swim, I am sure you could find a clean spot. Ask at your hostel on arrival.

Are towns around Lake Atitlan Safe 

The villages surrounding Lake Atitlan are safe to visit and are, in fact, very tourist orientated and walking around the towns of Lake Atitlan is perfectly safe. Of course, be mindful of your belongings, but this is valid advice wherever you go. I have walked around San Pedro and Panajachel after dark and never felt unsafe. I would still recommend that if you were planning to return from a night out quite late to take a tuk-tuk rather than walk around the empty dark streets.

Be mindful, however, if you are planning to hike alone outside of tourist areas. I have planned to take a long hike between Santa Cruz and San Marcos but was told that I shouldn’t do it alone.

I have heard sporadic stories of hikers being robbed on deserted treks, but I have also heard many fantastic reports from those hikes. So I was very torn. Unfortunately, I haven’t met any hikers who would like to go with me during my stay, and I decided to be responsible and skip it. If you’d like to take on an adventure of hiking, there are plenty of organized trips to nearby volcanoes, or you could get a small group together.

How many days do you need at Lake Atitlan?

Some travellers choose to visit Lake Atitlan on a day trip or just for a couple of days. I would not recommend it. There are tons of things to do and many charming villages to visit, so it is best to spend a minimum of 5 days at Lake Atitlan. And this is an absolute minimum in my eyes.

If very much pressed with time, you could visit Lake Atitlan for three days but keep in mind that lake Atitlan is a large lake surrounded by 11 villages. Depending on the kind of experience are you looking for, choose the part of the lake wisely as you will not be able to do it all in a short period of time.

If you are ambitious to see it all (all towns and majority of experiences), you are looking at a minimum of 10 days stay.

How to get to Lake Atitlan

The majority of visitors are coming to Lake Atitlan from Antigua, Guatemala City or Xela (Quetzaltenango). But you could also choose to travel to Lake Atitlan after visiting Semuc Champey or Rio Dulce.

From Antigua, you can choose to either arrive in Panajachel or San Pedro La Laguna. Many guides will advise you to go to Panajachel, but San Pedro is equally easy to get to, and in fact, this is where I was heading after my Antigua visit. There is no public transport to San Pedro, therefore, you will have to travel by private shuttle.

If you are heading to San Pedro and are determined to use public transport, you will have to get to Panajachel first and then take a lancha (boat) to San Pedro. 

I paid Q100 for my direct shuttle to San Pedro. Given I would have to pay around Q30 for lancha from Panajachel on top of bus fairs to get there – I figured it was a good deal. 

You can get to Panajachel from Antigua by public transport. There is a direct Chicken bus from Antigua to Panajachel costing around Q30, and the journey takes around 3 hours. Give or take. With chicken buses, you can never be certain. There is only one direct chicken bus to Panajachel, leaving at 7 am. If you miss this one, it will have to be multiple (4, in fact) chicken busses. Best way to find it is to purchase your tickets a day in advance from the Pacaya Expeditions shop near the McDonalds. Most likely, they will ask you to meet them the next day, and they will take you to the bus. Enjoy the ride!

If you’d instead rather take a later bus, you will have to take multiple chicken busses. First to Chimaltenango from the main bus terminal. Once there you will change for the bus to Los Encuentros and finally to Solola. 

You can, of course, opt for a direct shuttle from Antigua to Pana – but what’s the fun in that!

If you are travelling from Guatemala City, you can also opt for a private shuttle to lake Atitlan, namely Panajachel. Otherwise, hop on a chicken bus to Antigua and continue, as I explained above. 

The only feasible and semi-reasonable way of getting to lake Atitlan from Semuc Champey is by private shuttle. It is a long journey, though. But the majority of trips between main tourist hotspot in Guatemala are, so you should be used to it by now 🙂 This trip takes around 8 hours in theory but up to 12 hours in practice. 

If you really wanted, you could use public transport and get on a bus to Coban. Coban is a pretty big city, and I am not sure where the Lanquin bus stops but I’m pretty sure you will have to go either to Guatemala City or Antigua from there. So please do your research before you go – best ask at your hostel. Not much has been written about this route, and I have not done it myself (and I will very unlikely ever do), so if you are one of the wild ones – please share your experience in the comments!

If you would like to get to Lake Atitlan from any other part of Guatemala, I suggest that you don’t. Instead, choose to stop in Antigua or Lanquin (it will be worth it anyway) and make your way to the lake from there. 

 

How to get around Lake Atitlan

Not all of the Lake Atitlan villages and towns are connected by road.

The most popular way of getting around Lake Atitlan is by lanchas (passenger boats), but you can also travel by tuk-tuks or collectivos (pickup trucks) between some of the towns. It is worth noting because it will often be much cheaper than the lancha.

For example, you can easily visit San Juan La laguna from San Pedro by Tuk-tuk, which costs Q10 one way. The same goes for Santa Catarina from Pana. Here opt for a taxi (open track) which costs Q5 one way.

At San Pedro and Panajachel dock, you will find the prices set and displayed, and I suggest you have the exact change ready. The problem is if you are starting your journey elsewhere. The original asking price will always be higher; you need to huggle. The best way is to ask before the trip what is the actual price and just hand in the exact change to the guy collecting the money.

The prices from San Pedro la Laguna are as follow:
San Marcos – Q10
Tzununa – Q15
Jaibalito and Santa Cruz – Q20
I paid Q25 to get from San Marcos back to San Pedro, although the driver very reluctantly went down from Q30.

To get to Santago from Pana, you shouldn’t pay more than Q25. As a rule of thumb, no lancha journey should cost you more than Q25.

Important – Always make sure you take the last lancha before 7 pm. After that time, the public boats stop running, and the only available boats left are privately owned, and the prices skyrocket. I was warned that even the official last departure times are not the safest, so I always made sure I returned before 6 pm.

Complete guide to visiting Lake Atitlan / All you need to know before you go
I am catching colectivo from Santa Catarina / Complete guide to visiting Lake Atitlan

Complete guide to All Atitlan towns and villages

Panajachel

Panajachel (so-called Pana) is probably the best-known town at Lake Atitlan, mainly as this is where the majority of the travellers arrive at first, take off from and often settle for their stay. It is a decent town offering everything you might need including supermarkets, banks, numerous shops and a great choice of restaurants and bars. I really liked Pana and was surprised at how peaceful it felt given its popularity and size.


Panajachel has a lovely waterfront filled with food, drink and souvenir stalls, as well as a marina and a little park. This is where the crowd meets in the evening for the sunset and some good evening time.

Panajachel also has a great artisan market. It is also one of the flattest towns around the lake, so Pana is probably the best choice if you have mobility issues.

Pana is the best place to get your onward journey shuttle. This is where I got my San Cristobal de las Casas trip sorted.

If I came back to Atitlan and were looking for a semi-permanent location – it would, surprisingly, be Pana.

Complete guide to visiting Lake Atitlan / All you need to know before you go
Complete guide to visiting Lake Atitlan / All you need to know before you go
Complete guide to visiting Lake Atitlan / All you need to know before you go
Complete guide to visiting Lake Atitlan / All you need to know before you go

San Pedro La Laguna

San Pedro is where I arrived at first, and I must admit I really liked this busy backpackers town. Although it is a town full of travellers and backpackers, it doesn’t feel commercialized like Antigua. People are very nice. Actually, I met the nicest people in Guatemala around Lake Atitlan in general.

San Pedro is full of bars and restaurants, it is busy with tuk-tuks, motorbikes and tracks, but I still liked it. Even more, after I discovered the quieter part of the town closer to Hotel Pinocchio (very much recommended), where lovely restaurants and coffee bars were located. I even found a bar serving Polish pierogi!

San Pedro is famous for being Lake Atitlan’s party town. This is where you will find lively bars and party hostels. As you walk towards the ‘locals’ town centre, you will find a very good fruit and vegetable market and plenty of local eateries and shops.

As I walked around, I also found a gym, numerous Spanish language schools and arts and crafts workshops – no wonder so many ex-pats and digital nomads choose San Pedro as their home.

I also found San Pedro much cheaper than some other places in Guatemala and around Lake Atitlan. San Pedro is an excellent base for exploring the rest of the Atitlan.

Complete guide to visiting Lake Atitlan / All you need to know before you go
Complete guide to visiting Lake Atitlan / All you need to know before you go
Complete guide to visiting Lake Atitlan / All you need to know before you go
Complete guide to visiting Lake Atitlan / All you need to know before you go
My favourite part of town / Complete guide to visiting Lake Atitlan

San Marcos

San Marcos is a famous Lake Atitlan’s hippie town and a destination for those seeking a holistic and spiritual experience.

Cute and charming as it is, I found San Marcos a bit pretentious, though. It is more of a hipster than a hippie town for me. It is a lovely small town with great artisan shops and a plethora of vegan and vegetarian establishments. Yet the prices are often shocking, and there is really only a couple of streets where everything is located.

It is a great place for a day trip; I would not spend a night, though, unless my main aim was to stay in one of San Marcos trendy hostels like Eagle’s Nest. San Marcos is home to a couple of hippy, new age hostels with yoga retreats, meditation classes, and yes, I admit – gorgeous views!

But still, the whole vibe felt a bit pretentious for me. Don’t get me wrong, I am a hippie at heart. But we all know that there are hippie towns and hippie towns.

Nevertheless, I would definitely recommend visiting for a day and making your own mind up. I also recommend visiting if you want to stock up on excellent bread, vegan chocolate bowls (!!!!!) and have an excellent vegan meal! San Marcos is also a great place to get a holistic massage or attend a cacao ceremony.

Complete guide to visiting Lake Atitlan / All you need to know before you go
Complete guide to visiting Lake Atitlan / All you need to know before you go
Ice Cream in San Marcos (because why not!) / Complete guide to visiting Lake Atitlan
Complete guide to visiting Lake Atitlan / All you need to know before you go
Complete guide to visiting Lake Atitlan / All you need to know before you go

Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz is home to the two most famous hostels at lake Atitlan: La Iguana Perdida and Free Cerveza. Apart from this, there is not much to do in Santa Cruz. It is definitely worth a day visit and a steep climb to the town (VERY steep!!!) though. Santa Cruz feels very local and unspoiled by tourism, so it’s definitely worth getting the local feel.

Unless I was happy with just chilling at the hostel, I would not consider staying in Santa Cruz for more than a day. Both mentioned hotels offer great natural retreats with spectacular views and a wonderful atmosphere and, for many, are a destination of their own. Also, if you want to stay at a hostel where a lot of travellers meet and make friends for future travels, visit Santa Cruz and stay in La Iguana Perdida or Free Cerveza. I have heard their Saturday parties are great fun (specially Iguana Perdida’s)!

But after that, head to Pana or San Pedro if you are planning on exploring the rest of Lake Atitlan.

You have to keep in mind that there is no big supermarket or cash point in Sant Cruz. If you decide to stay there and explore the lake from there, you will be forced to eat in the hotel (it can get pricy and there are no kitchens you could use) and take a lancha every day for your explorations.

Complete guide to visiting Lake Atitlan / All you need to know before you go
Complete guide to visiting Lake Atitlan / All you need to know before you go
Complete guide to visiting Lake Atitlan / All you need to know before you go

San Juan La Laguna

I utterly loved San Juan La laguna! This town is bursting in colour! From street art and extraordinary murals to incredible art galleries! This town is clean, friendly, colourful, artsy, authentic and wonderful to walk around.

It is also big enough for you to find some shops, supermarkets and ATM’s, so it is a good town to stay in for a little bit longer. It has a charming little waterfront and many fantastic coffee shops offering delicious Guatemalan coffee, hot chocolate and cakes! Heaven!

Every town and village around Lake Atitlan is unique and has its own speciality. San Juan is known for being predominantly home to indigenous art collectives and authentic Mayan craft shops. It is also where most likely you will get your authentic souvenirs a bit cheaper and directly from the source.

San Juan is a good hiking town. This is where the hike to The Indian Nose starts (the harder version), but also San Juan offers one of the most colourful and picturesque viewpoints – Mirador Kaqasiiwaan.

If you are looking for a base away from the hustle and bustle of Pana or San Pedro – San Juan might be a good choice.

Complete guide to visiting Lake Atitlan / All you need to know before you go
Complete guide to visiting Lake Atitlan / All you need to know before you go
Complete guide to visiting Lake Atitlan / All you need to know before you go

Jaibalito and Tzununa

Both Jaibalito and Tzununa are smaller and lesser-known villages of Lake Atitlan, yet still worth visiting. In fact, if you are looking for a peaceful retreat in beautiful surroundings, Jaibalito or Tzununa might be just your place.

Jaibalito is the least developed little town on Lake Atitlan, and many travellers don’t even know about its existence, and it’s only accessible by boat or hike. But because of this isolation, Jaibalito remains as one of the most authentic and charming Mayan villages on Lake Atitlan. Although Jaibalito isn’t a tourist spot, it does boast a couple of really good accommodation options. So if hiding away in a small charming village is your thing, you could book your stay with Vulcano Lodge or the famous Posada Jaibalito, where you’ll also find a great restaurant being a local meeting point. 

From Jaibalito, you can also take a hike to Santa Cruz or San Marcos.

If you fancy a small hike, you can take a road from San Marcos to Tzununa and explore this small town boasting a small indigenous population, many beautiful hikes and walks with great views. The town is also home to several organic farms ( including Atitlan Organics, which offers weekly tours on Monday mornings, starting at 10 am) and Maya Moon Lodge – one of the most tranquil and beautifully located hotels on the lake. If you decide to stay the night, you could also take a wonderful hike to the Tzununa waterfall. Really worth considering!

Complete guide to visiting Lake Atitlan / All you need to know before you go

Santa Catarina Palopó

Santa Catarina Palopó was one of those visits that came as a complete surprise for me. It was an adventurous day, a wonderful walk, and generally, a fantastic day. One of the most memorable days during my stay at Atitlan. 

First, I decided to walk there from Panajachel. It wasn’t the original idea, but as I couldn’t find the collectivos and tuk-tuks were very expensive, after checking the route, I finally decided to take a walk. It is indeed a stunning walk, and the views over the lake are magnificent! If you take a walk, make sure you stop at the mirador located just 10 minutes away from the town. 

And the town is fantastic! Santa Catarina Palopó is known for its colourful buildings and for being home to traditional, vibrant Maya textiles. 

Santa Catarina Palopó is in the process of being transformed into a community-based art project called the ‘Pintando Santa Catarina’. The village will eventually transform into a colourful masterpiece with buildings painted in traditional Mayan patterns using eco-friendly limestone paint.

This village has a truly authentic feel and is a photographers paradise with bursting colours and stunning views. A must day trip from Panajachel. 

Once there, I finally found the best way of getting from Santa Catarina and back to Pana, and I hopped on a collectivo (pick up the track) together with a handful of other travellers and locals, and the ride was costing only Q5. 

Santa Catarina Palopó offers a real authentic Guatemala experience, and my Atitlan memories would be much poorer without this trip. 

Complete guide to visiting Lake Atitlan / All you need to know before you go
Incredible views en route to Santa Catarina / Complete guide to visiting Lake Atitlan
Complete guide to visiting Lake Atitlan / All you need to know before you go
Complete guide to visiting Lake Atitlan / All you need to know before you go
Complete guide to visiting Lake Atitlan / All you need to know before you go
Complete guide to visiting Lake Atitlan / All you need to know before you go

San Antonio Palopó

To get to San Antonio Palopo, you can continue hiking after visiting Santa Catarina, so combining both towns will make for a lovely full day hiking adventure. But you can also take a pickup track/collectivo if you don’t fancy the walk. 

As Santa Carina is known for its textiles, San Antonio Palopo is known for its renowned ceramics.  It is a small and relatively untouched by tourism village where the majority of women and men still wear their traditional clothing. 

Once there, you can tour the ceramic factories, walk to the top where the church cross stands for fantastic views or simply wander around the town. To go back to Panajachel, just hop on a pickup truck for Q5. 

San Lucas Tolimán

San Lucas Tolimán is a quaint village offering a little bit of everything, from nature hikes to luxury hotels. It is home to some nicest hotel resorts, and it is told to be an excellent spot for families.

It’s a coffee-growing town but also a getaway for the Toliman Volcano hike.

The highlights in San Lucas Tolimán include nature reserves and epic sunsets. I have not visited San Lucas myself, so if you have anything to add, please leave a comment 🙂

Santiago Atitlán

Santiago Atitlan is a town you need to go to if you want to find the mischievous,liquor-drinking and chain-smoking god Maximón.

Santiago is the most traditional out of all Lake Atitlan towns and villages and is home to the largest indigenous population of Tzutujile Mayas. Santiago is alive with colour, sound, and a vibrant community. The majority of both men and women are still wearing their traditional dresses. Santiago inhabitants take pride in their heritage and culture and try to preserve it by opening and running workshops teaching tourists about their culture and history.

What’s more, Santiago Atitlan has a dramatic history as it was where the tragic Santiago Massacre took place in December of 1990. During the civil war, the Guatemalan Army opened fire on a crowd of unarmed civilians, killed 14 people, and wounded 21. The Roman Catholic priest Stanley Rother was also killed in Santiago by right-wing death squads on 28 July 1981. It is said that It was here where Guatemala was reborn.

But what about the mischievous deity Maximon?

Maximon is a perfect example of the merging of Mayan and Catholic religions (very commonly happening). His present-day form is thought to be derived partly from Mayan God (Mam) and partly from the Catholic Saint, but also the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado.

Legend has it that Maximón was a notoriously self-indulgent man. He was famous for being a rum and cigars-loving womanizer who used to seduce married women, which resulted in his fellow villagers cutting off his arms and legs. But just before that event, Maximon was possessed by a god, turned into a saint and now is thought to possess extraordinary powers like curing illnesses, confronting Christ, bringing and eliminating misfortunes and, of course, impregnating women. Maximon is always wearing his signature cowboy hat, puffing away at a cigar or cigarette, and covered in colourful traditional clothing.

Every year, Maximón is elected a new home, where he is transported during an important procession every Holy Week in April. So the best way to visit this special Saint is to hire one of the tuk-tuk drivers to take you there. Be prepared to be asked to pay a small donation to visit him and another one to take photographs.

Complete guide to visiting Lake Atitlan / All you need to know before you go

Best Things to do around Lake Atitlan

Hiking around Lake Atitlan 

Hiking is one of the best things to do around Lake Atitlan. You will find hikes suited to all tastes, ages and fitness levels. 

The most popular hike is the Sunrise Hike to Indian Nose simply because it offers one of the most incredible views over the lake. The shape of the mountain resembles a Mayan face hence the name ‘Indian Nose’.

The recommendation is to hire a guide for this hike as it starts before dawn, and yet again, you want to avoid becoming a victim of a robbery. 

Another famous hike is the one between Santa Cruz la Laguna and San Marcos la Laguna. That is the one I had to skip as I couldn’t find anyone who would want to hike it with me, and I was advised against hiking it alone. Nevertheless, I have heard it’s a wonderful ridge hike!

Beautiful volcanos surround lake Atitlan, and you can actually hike most of them. Those are very strenuous hikes. The most popular are hikes to  San Pedro and Atitlan Volcano. Both are pretty strenuous, long, full-day hikes but the views and, of course, the satisfaction of a summit are unbeatable. You will need a guide for both hikes (please mind that the Atitlan hike is even harder than the San Pedro) as the trail isn’t always very well marked, and there were some reports of a robbery in the past. Having a local guide will sort both problems, and you can have a great memorable adventure!

You could take many easy hikes in half a day, like a walk to Santa Catarina Palopo from Panajachel or climbing one of many lake Atitlan viewpoints like the  Mirador Kaqasiiwaan in San Juan La Laguna

Complete guide to visiting Lake Atitlan / All you need to know before you go

Take a day trip to Chichicastenango Market

Although not located at Lake Atitlan, Chichicastenango is so easily accessible that you should definitely visit it for a day.

Chichicastenango town is famous for hosting market days on Thursdays and Sundays. Vendors sell food, flowers, pottery, crafts, plants, candles, and traditional incense), textiles, household products, pigs, chickens and other crazy items.

The famous masks used by dancers in traditional dances are also manufactured in Chichicastenango.

Right next to the market, you will see the 400-year-old church of Santo Tomás. It is built on top of an ancient temple, and the steps originally leading to a temple of the pre-Hispanic Maya civilization remain worshipped. Maya priests still use the church for their ceremonies and rituals. In special cases, they burn a chicken for the gods.

It is a fascinating visit. A true insight into the lives of indigenous Maya and their traditions.

Visit other Lake Atitlan Markets

You will find plenty of traditional markets in many towns around Lake Atitlan. Panajachel has a large artisan market full of wonderful Mayan products. I even bought something myself at that market although I hardly buy souvenirs.

Santiago Atitlan market is the place to go on Friday or Saturday to find paintings and handicrafts, baskets, flowers, fruits and vegetables. This is a terrific place to get a sense of the local culture. You will see local women in their colourful huipiles and purple-striped skirts and older men in white-striped embroidered trousers.

A great way to experience the traditional Guatemalan market is by visiting one in Sololá. This is the largest market in the region, and visiting it will have an added bonus of a crazy chicken bus ride to get there!

I liked the San Pedro market too. There is a great selection of fruit, vegetables and all sorts, for a good price and sprinkled with a very authentic vibe.

Complete guide to visiting Lake Atitlan / All you need to know before you go

Connect with Local Communities

Guatemala has a fascinating history and heritage, and at Lake Atitlan, it is maybe more prominent than anywhere else. What a better place to connect with locals, learn about their culture and give back to local communities. 

One of the best ways to connect with the local community is a homestay with a local family. Many Spanish schools offer this option, so if you want to learn some Spanish, I suggest looking into a homestay instead of a hostel. 

Take part in workshops. San Antonio Palopó, for example, has several pottery workshops where you can take a tour and see local potters at work. This is a great way to immerse in local culture and ask all possible questions not only about pottery but everyday life. When taking part in this type of activity, the money you spend goes directly to the community and supports local growth. You could also take a textile tour in San Juan or visit art galleries in San Juan and talk to the artists.

What better way to learn about the local culture than through food. Cooking classes are available in the majority of Lake Atitlan towns. 

And last but not least – why not volunteer or take part in a community project! Have some extra time on your hands? 

You could volunteer in the hostel (this not only saves you money but allows you to connect with locals and learn about their day to day life and struggles) or volunteer while learning about permaculture at Atitlan Organics

Take Spanish Lesson

Although I was surprised how many Guatemaltecos spoke good English (much more than in Colombia), it is good to know some Spanish while travelling around the country. Guatemala is known to be one of the best places in the world to learn Spanish. Its neutral accent and minimal slangs make Guatemala Spanish one of the most universal Spanish to learn.

Lake Atitlan is a very popular destination for Spanish learners and home to some of the best Spanish schools in the country. The majority of Spanish schools are located in San Pedro, and among the most popular, you will find Community Spanish School and San Pedro Spanish School.

Kayaking or Stand Up Paddleboarding on Lake Atitlan

Kayaking or Stand Up Paddleboarding is among the best things to do around Lake Atitlan. What a better way to experience one of the most beautiful lakes in the world! Some say that kayaking at sunrise is the most magical thing you can do at Lake Atitlan.

Many of the towns and hotels have kayaks available for rent. You won’t have to look far. Kayaks can be rented for as little as Q15 per hour. Simply head down to the main pier in any of the lakeside villages, and you’ll find a local guy or shop renting out kayaks or SUP boards. The cost of a stand-up paddleboard is around Q60 per hour.

Visit Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve 

Cerro Tzankujil nature Reserve is so much more than its epic Clif jumping spot. It is the place where you can have a mountain ridge hike while pondering over stunning views and swim in some of the cleanest water of lake Atitlan.

And of course, in Cerro Tzankujil, you will find a famous cliff for jumping into crystal clear water.

The Reserva Natural Cerro Tzankujil is located in San Marcos La Laguna, and the entrance fee is Q15 for foreigners and Q10 for locals. Small price to pay for what might be one of the best days you’ll have at Lake Atitlan.

Complete guide to visiting Lake Atitlan / All you need to know before you go

Eat the best Falafel (and more)!

There are many great restaurants in all towns around Lake Atitlan, with San Pedro, Panajachel and San Marcos leading the way. I had wonderful falafel at Shanti Shanti in San Pedro, but many restaurants serve this incredible dish (Sababa is the best for Israeli food)!

But if you don’t love falafel as much as I do, don’t worry! You will find all types of eateries, comedores and fancy restaurants in all towns of Lake Atitlan. 

Be sure to try local cuisine, though! Visit Café Sabor Cruceño in Santa Cruz (an actual cooking school), Pupuseria in Panajachel and of course Shanti Shanti in San Pedro. 

You will also find great vegetarian restaurants, pizza, Indian and seafood restaurants, as well as many fried chicken joints! Guatemalan folks love their fried chicken (for this, you need to try Pollo Campero!)

Complete guide to visiting Lake Atitlan / All you need to know before you go

Take part in a Little More Adventurous Activities

Lake Atitlan has loads to offer if adrenaline-packed adventure is what you are after.

Paragliding is an amazing adventure and is absolutely magical. But be sure to do your research and choose a respectable company. Real World Paragliding seem to have really good opinions.

There are several long ziplines over mountain canyons at Lake Atitlan. This is one of my favourite adventure activities and such a great way to top up an active day!

You can take the canopy tour at the Panajachel Nature Reserve and at Chuiraxamoló Ecological Park near Santa Clara.

Enjoy Guatemalan Cofee or Hot Chocolate (or Both!)

What can I say – Guatemala has the best chocolate in the world! (Maybe Mexico as well, lol) Its coffee is equally excellent, so you can easily spend afternoons and mornings just chilling in various coffee shops, sampling the coffee and chocolate and just living the life of bliss!

Psst… The cakes are also awesome! Nearly every time I ordered coffee, I also ordered a cake to come with it. I just couldn’t resist it! That is true in the whole of Guatemala, not only Lake Atitlan.

At Shangri-La Coffee Shop and roasters in San Juan, you’ll not only have a great coffee but also can take a coffee tour and buy original produce.

Complete guide to visiting Lake Atitlan / All you need to know before you go
Complete guide to visiting Lake Atitlan / All you need to know before you go

Attend Cacao Ceremony

Cacao ceremonies originate all the way back to Mayan and Aztec traditions of Central and South America and are traditional rituals meant to drive spiritual awakening and promote inner healing. This probably is one of the most interesting things to do in Lake Atitlan. If done correctly, the process releases negative emotions, promotes creative guidance and have the overall effect of relaxing and healing.

Cacao translates into ‘Food of the Gods’ and is believed to have magical powers in its most natural form. The majority of cacao ceremonies will include meditation and reflection, setting up the intention, breathwork, sound journey, dance, music. And, of course, ceremonial drinking of chocolate.

There is one place that everyone is talking about for the best cacao ceremony experience, and it is Keith’s Cacao Ceremony in San Marcos. I suggest you check it out if this type of experience rocks your boat.

get some Yoga On

Lake Atitlan is known for being a spiritual and yoga centre in Guatemala. There are plenty of yoga retreats scattered around the lake, but San Marcos is Lake Atitlan’s ‘spiritual’ mecca. You can stay at Yoga Forest for a retreat but also pop in for an evening community yoga class. Even if an actual retreat isn’t your thing, stay at La Iguana Perdida for a daily yoga class. 

You can also attend a yoga teaching course at Doron Yoga or just pop in for a yoga class at Hostal Del Lago in San Marcos.

Have Some Fun

How about just having some fun? No problem! San Pedro is a backpackers capital at lake Atitlan, and because of that, of course, a lot is going on. San Pedro is the only town around the lake where you can stay out later than 8 or 9 pm, so make San Pedro your base if you want to enjoy the nights out.

Another fun option is staying at  Free Cerveza, one of the most social and fun hostels at Lake Atitlan. Every day right before dinner, Free Cerveza hostel offers unlimited beer for one hour to everyone that has signed up with them for dinner. I have not stayed there personally, but I know some that did and really enjoyed it. 

Watch the Sunset with a Drink in your Hand

Sunsets at lake Atitlan are jawdropping. And there are plenty of bars and restaurants located right at the waterfront (especially in San Pedro) where you can order a beer or a cocktail and watch the sun go down. One of my favourite activities.

Complete guide to visiting Lake Atitlan / All you need to know before you go

Just Chill and Enjoy the Sun

Plenty of places to do just that at Lake Atitlan.

Choose a relaxing hotel with access to the waterfront or a pier you could just lounge on.

Many hotels in Santa Cruz are located by the water, where you can chill and get some tan right by the lake.

If the sun isn’t your thing, you will have plenty of opportunities to chill in a hammock somewhere in the shade. You will never want to leave.

Where to Stay at Lake Atitlan

Some hostels and eco-lodges around Lake Atitlan are now kind of legendary. Because of that, if you want to meet other travellers, I recommend spending at least one night in any of them. This is where all the backpackers and travellers are heading, although there are many cheaper options around the lake.

I personally try to avoid pseudo-spiritual hotels, and unfortunately, especially around San Marcos, the ‘new hippie’ trend is very much alive. I call it a ‘new hippie’ because it is often accompanied by money and fancy surroundings. Not what I associate with the hippie lifestyle. Altho I am a hippie at heart, I have not stayed in Man Marcos, for that exact reason. But some of my traveller friends loved it, so maybe I will give it a go next time!

However, I have some recommendations for you, and I do believe that staying in those hostels is the best way to make friends. The majority of them are also beautifully located, surrounded by nature and overlooking the lake. Ok, I admit, those are really cool hotels, lol

La Iguana Perdida, one of the cool Santa Cruz hostels, is beautifully located and famous for its Saturday party. Tranquil, as it is, Santa Cruz is home to yet another party hostel – Free Cerveza, one of the most recommended hostels around Lake Atitlan. 

Eco-Hostel Mayachik in San Juan has fantastic reviews – stay there if you don’t care for the parties but rather for the authentic vibe and charming, artsy town.

Eagle’s Nest in San Marcos is one of the most famous hotels around lake Atitlan, primarily for spectacular views and excellent yoga facilities, free morning yoga classes and other activities. It is on the pricier side, though.

If you prefer to stay in Panajachel, there is Selina, and there is not much introduction needed there. Dreamboat Hostel has a pool and great reviews so if Selina isn’t your thing, try this one. 

In San Pedro, Mandala Hostel has fantastic reviews. I also stayed in Pinocchio Hotel – great rooms for an excellent price, yet it seems like you cannot book the rooms online. I recommend it!

Useful Tips for Your Lake Atitlan Trip

 

  • Lake Atitlan lies at a higher altitude. It didn’t affect me, but it is good to be aware. It can make you feel sick and tired, so keep hydrated.
  • The weather around Lake Atitlan is just perfect. At least for me. Hot enough but not humid. I walked around in the middle of the day and was just fine. Mind you, the rainy season runs between May and October. I was there in October, and the weather was amazing, with few evening showers.
  • Don’t take pictures of people, especially indigenous, without permission. Maya people believe that taking photos steals their souls. Don’t be that person.
  • There are ATM’s located in all larger towns around Atitlan. San Pedro, Panajachel, Santiago or even San Juan. If you are staying in a smaller village, make sure you take cash. It is, however, relatively easy to pay by card around Lake Atitlan in restaurants. Yet some establishments, including hostels, will only accept cash. So be prepared.
  • Pack sunscreen and mosquito repellant. This doesn’t need an explanation, I guess.
That's it, folks, I poured my heart and some sweat into this post, but I also loved writing it! I will definitely come back to Lake Atitlan one day and, for sure, for longer this time. Let me know if you found this guide helpful and add anything you think I might have missed or just simply say hello in the comments. Until then, happy travelling!

That’s it, folks, I poured my heart and some sweat into this post, but I also loved writing it! I will definitely come back to Lake Atitlan one day and, for sure, for longer this time.


Let me know if you found this guide helpful and add anything you think I might have missed or just simply say hello in the comments.


Until then, happy travelling!

This post may contain affiliate links, which means that if you make a purchase through a link, I may receive a small commission, at no extra cost to you.

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Pati's Journey Within

Hi, I’m Pati. A traveller, photographer (aspiring), dreamer and hopeless believer in magic. I have caught the travel bug in my forties – and not planning to look back any time soon. I travel solo and on a budget and try to spend as much time and effort to truly immerse myself in the country I am visiting.

Whether you are like me and decided to change your life around a new dream or just wandering (because not all who wander are lost) – I am here to tell you that everything is possible. 

 

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