Sparkling waters, cruisy atmospheres, and traditional to its core, Lake Atitlan – and its surrounding towns – is a truly exceptional spot to have on your travel wishlist. The lake itself is known as an endorheic lake, which means it doesn’t flow to the sea, but rather rests inside a mammoth volcanic crater in the southwestern highlands of Guatemala.
It’s been a few years since I made the journey to Panajachel, one of the busiest towns on the lake’s edge, and the main gateway to the water, but my memories are strong and warm, just like the people, and I still haven’t gotten over the views. Oh, did I mention there’s also incredible food, gorgeous excursion options, and water taxis to zip you all over that sparkly water I mentioned earlier? Yep, there’s all that and more.
Welcome to one of the coolest places in Central America.
Where do I start?
Good question. Like my own trip to the lake, I highly recommend basing yourself in Panajachel (or Pana, to the locals), thanks to its neat collection of accommodation, bustling handicraft stores, obliging tuk-tuks, and even a pharmacy (which came in handy when my friend got a stomach bug and was bedridden for two days). But I digress.
Getting around Lake Atitlan is easiest – and most enjoyable – by boat, with two passenger docks in Pana alone. From here, you can head off to some of the well-loved lakeside villages like Santiago Atitlan (30 minute trip), San Pedro La Laguna (45 minutes), or Santa Cruz La Laguna (15 minutes). The small motorboats – or lanchas – work their way around the top spots on the lake in a counterclockwise direction, starting at 7am and wrapping up around 5pm, with prices starting at around Q10 (AU$1). The lanchas are also available for private hire, but this takes the price up to around Q400 (AU$70) for a round-trip to San Pedro. If you’re on a tour, however, this kind of excursion can be built into your itinerary for as little as $50.
So what do I do?
Even better question. There is so much to do on Lake Atitlan that it really comes down to your interests: are you into eating and drinking, getting out in nature, or meeting some of the locals and understanding their culture? For me, it was a mix of all three, and so I balanced my time out accordingly. One activity I highly recommend is a big ol’ hike. On my tour we had a driver drop us off on one of the outer hills that dip down into the Lake Atitlan region, and from there our guide led us on an eye-opening trek back down to Pana.
We passed through tall, cloud-like forests, fertile farming land where old men raked and ploughed the land for crops, right down to the little lakeside villages where fisherman floated in with the daily catch, and women knelt in the streets working tirelessly on their backstop looms, weaving intricate ponchos in traditional patterns. Oh, and almost fainted at the impeccable views of the lake and volcano that continued to dazzle us for the entire hike.
Something like this is easy to organise; if you’re not on a group tour (where your leader can help you out), the main streets of Pana are dotted with travel agencies looking to give you the best experience of the lake.
You’ll work up an appetite on a hike like that, so I advise you to check out Deli Jasmine on Calle Santander for a colourful atmosphere and meal, or neighbouring bar (and my personal favourite) Sunset Cafe, which looks out across the water.
In terms of actually getting out onto the lake and seeing some of the other villages scattered around the edge, my top spots would have to be San Pedro and Santiago Atitlan.
Starting with San Pedro, the best things you can have on your bucket list include Museo Tz’unun ‘Ya, a significant museum documenting the history of the local Tz’utujil people, as well as the Lake Atitlan region, with films on the creation of the lake and stunning photographs of San Pedro in its early days. But probably the most well-known adventure in San Pedro is the volcano climb, which takes you over 3000 metres above sea level. For Q130 (AU$23), a local guide will take you up, starting at dawn. Taking about 3-4 hours to the top, you’ll pass through various fields of beans and corn, followed by the tall canopy forests that surround the lake’s upper hillside. At dinnertime, stop off at Cafe Las Cristalinas for a family-made meal, fab coffee and a heavenly slice of carrot cake. Blue Parrot is another cracker when it comes to a fun atmosphere, drinks and a view.
In Santiago Atitlan, one of the most interesting visits I made was to Cofradía Maximón, home of the traditional Maya deity, Maximón. The life-sized icon sits inside a local home, dressed in a big hat and typical Maya scarves and attire, surrounded by flickering candles, flowers, and burning incense. Travellers and locals alike pay tribute to Maximón, leaving offerings to him and his custodians. Maximón’s home changes every year, after Semana Santa on May 8, and when I visited him, it felt like a journey through a maze, as our local guide weaved and wandered through back streets to find the latest abode he called home.
Another gorgeous architectural attraction is Iglesia Parroquial Santiago Apóstol, a beloved church built in the 16th Century, embodying the Franciscan style with towering white structures, an arched entrance, and exquisite white and gold interiors. The main streets are also lined with colourful stalls selling oil paintings, hand-woven baskets, and other crafts that easily catch your eye and find a way into your suitcase. If you get hungry, my favourite places here were El Pescador, with their rustic, home-style cuisine, and Cafe Rafa for the best coffee on the lake.
I’m sold, when do we leave?
I adored spending time in Lake Atitlan, serving up some of the best views, kindest people, and most relaxed ambiance I’ve ever encountered. The lake is most enjoyable during the warmer months, which lasts from November to May, with day temperatures in the mid-20s. In my humble opinion, it would be easy to spend several weeks unwinding by this stunner of a lake. You might stay even longer…
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