This article has been updated on July 11, 2021.
Much has been written about Lake Atitlán as well as the nearby colonial town of La Antigua Guatemala, mostly in a positive fashion. I admit that both places deserve compliments, although my subjective input here would not keep them in the same league. While Antigua certainly is one of the nicer colonial towns on the so-called “Gringo Trail“, Lake Atitlán is far more than just “yet another nice lake”. It’s actually spectacular and it’s also special when it comes to its vibes. Below, I will try to explain what I mean by that, right after we talk about the basic history, things to do, safety and other travel-related information about this beautiful place.
Few facts about Lake Atitlán
Atitlán translates as “between the waters” in the Aztec language. The lake basin is volcanic in origin, filling an enormous space created by a sinkhole from which the volcano erupted some 84 000 years ago. Lago de Atitlán is located about 50km northwest of Antigua at about 1560 meters above sea level in the Guatemalan Highlands of the Sierra Madre mountain range, which gives the lake rather stunning settings that include three volcanoes: Atitlán, Tolimán, and San Pedro.
The lake is 19km (12 miles) long and 10km (6 miles) wide, with an area of just under 130 km² (50 sq miles). When it comes to the lake’s depth, it goes up to 320 metres deep, which makes Lago de Atitlán the deepest lake in Central America. Lake’s surface could however drop or rise rather visibly within weeks, which is an act that helps to fuel many mysterious rumours about the Chakona (a local dragon-like lake monster) as well as about a local Atlantis (sunk city) hidden in the depths of the lake.
People and vibes
Several Mayan archaeological sites from around 300 BCE to 300 CE have however been found at the lake approximately 16m under the surface making some of those rumours rather “un-rumourly”. Up to the present day, the lake is home to the Cakchiquel and Tzutujil Mayans, who make up about 90% of the 380 thousand population living in numerous towns and villages that surround the lake, in what appears to me as a very happy and friendly manner.
Perhaps it’s the friendly locals, perhaps it’s the spectacularity of the place, but there’s something special about Lake Atitlán. I’m not that much into auras and energies but over here, I’ve appeared to be more happy and productive than in any other part of my then already 7 months long travels. The thing is that I’m not the only one who feels the same way. I’ve met people that got stuck here for years, while they originally wanted to spend few days on the lake and then carry on travelling further south all the way to Patagonia.
Sure that there are more places with the so-called “magic people magnet” abilities, where travellers get suck. For instance, once upon a time, the little town called Pai in Northern Thailand was like that. Even in Latin America, there are other spots where you meet travellers who failed to carry on their journeys because they’ve fallen for the charm of these locations. I have no idea why it happens to some places only but what I know is that Lake Atitlán is one of those places. Call it unique, magical, special or whatever you want, there’s something to it. And this isn’t a recent phenomenon, the place was even popular in the 60s when it became a mecca for many hippies…
It’s not that the villages around the lake are particularly pretty (no disrespect intended) but the scenic natural beauty here is just undeniable. Let me borrow the words of a master to describe Lake Atitlán‘s beauty: “Lake Como [famous pretty lake in Italy] it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing.” (Aldous Huxley: Beyond the Mexique Bay).
Towns on Lake Atitlán
Tip: the links highlighted in red are Google Maps locations to give you an idea about where we're talking about. If you save the locations you're interested in into: "want to go", once in place, it was easier to find those places, not to mention the rewievs ;)
If you are about to visit the lake for few days only, I guess that the town of Panajachel would be your best bet. It’s the most visited and conveniently located settlement on the lake when it comes to transport and it has perhaps the most developed tourist infrastructure. Although IMHO it isn’t the most attractive town on the lake, I must give Panajachel a credit for its variety of options, resources, natural beauty, easy travel connections as well as an element of the expat community.
Most action in this town of 15 thousand people town appears to be happening in and around the town’s busiest street Calle Santander, with a lot of cafés, restaurants, bars, hotels and this is also the spot where you can purchase some indigenous artwork, such as bracelets, scarfs and so on for your loved ones. FYI, with just one purchase, you can make at least two people happy: your loved one as well as the Mayan lady you’ll buy it from 😉
San Pedro La Laguna
San Pedro La Laguna favourite spot with classic backpackers. From the tourism point of view, it’s the cheapest and liveliest town on the lake. Given its popularity among the backpacking community, in San Pedro, there are excellent dining and nightlife options, all mostly by the lake’s rather cosmopolitan shore, while in the higher parts of town, things remain very traditional and local.
Although I personally loved San Pedro for its happy and lively vibe, I admit that it’s not for everyone. After all, there are rather intensive touts who will try to sell you whatever the backpackers might want to buy and the rather “meat market” parties in some of the locally popular establishments aren’t for everyone. But you don’t have to be part of it. There are also quieter parts of town to stay in rather than by the dock, plus the restaurant/bar options are rather diverse.
San Marcos La Laguna
Although some people prefer to describe San Marcos La Laguna as “less party – more meditation” and there certainly are few temporary residents that would fit such a (healthy) description, at the end of the day it’s a small town with a rather dominant presence of a friendly hippie community and strong aromatic smell of the two major hippie ingredients: weed and Indian incenses 🙂 So in case, you were a hippie sympathiser and wanted to embrace your inner peace, then consider visiting San Marcos 🙂
Santa Cruz and Jaibalito
Santa Cruz La Laguna is predominantly a traditional village with a charming little bay and perhaps steepest slopes of all towns of the lake. In case you’re into diving, this might be your pick, otherwise, at the first sight, it appears that except for diving and dining there isn’t much to do in this town for a fun-loving tourist, to be honest.
If you want to take things very easy and stay away from tourism, think of Jaibalito. It’s a tiny village on the north side of the lake that is rather similar to its neighbouring bigger sister Santa Cruz. I’ve met few people who developed a certain affection for Jaibalito for its hint of an “off the beaten path” charm but it might not work for everyone…
Other towns on Lake Atitlán
As for all the other villages, they are not very touristy and lake’s visitors often only opt to check them out on a one day visit or during a popular “town hopping” activity. If you felt like exploring at least some of them, I’d recommend visiting the largest town on the lake Santiago Atitlán, especially if you are into local legends. People of Santiago make clothes for the statues of their saints that are placed in the town’s church. One local figure Maximón particularly stands out with its interesting mix of character properties. Click here to learn about this interesting figure.
Furthermore, I’d also recommend visiting San Juan la Laguna, perhaps one of the nicest and cleanest towns on the lake, where you can shop for arts and handicrafts as well as to learn how to weave from a group of Mayan ladies. If you’re into hiking, you will most likely end up visiting Santa Clara La Laguna, which is the starting/ending point of quite a few scenic hikes. And last but not least lake’s town to visit is Santa Catarina Palopo, a rather pretty town with some buildings painted in colourful traditional designs (read more here about that project), that is easily reachable from Panajachel by land.
Things to do on Lake Atitlán
Given the hilly terrain, I bet that you can guess that there are quite a few spectacular trekking options around the lake. Perhaps the most popular among them all is the Indian Nose hike. Doing it as a full trek, it’s actually quite difficult. Although it’s just 6km long, the elevation gain is 950 metres and you should be able to do it in about 4hrs. A popular alternative is to book an Indian Nose sunrise tour, where you’ll get a ride nearly to the top, only about a 45min walk from the viewpoint. Expect to start at about 3:45 am but the experience is well worth it 😉
Another popular route to hike independently is a moderate 10km/3hrs Lower Mayan Trail, which goes from Santa Cruz to San Marcos.* If you were only to do one or two treks, these two are the ones I’d recommend. However, if you were into trekking, there are quite a few more options you can consider. For instance, you could even carry on with the journey from San Marcos to San Pedro, which is an easy 10km/2-3hrs walk.
Among other popular moderate treks is a 10km/3hrs Long Ridge Hike, which you take from Santa Clara to San Juan. In case you wanted to challenge yourself, you can opt for the more difficult treks, such as the 6hr/1200 elevation gain Volcán San Pedro or even harder Atitlán or Tolimán Volcano hikes. And if you are a super fit and experienced hiker, you can even opt for a guided 3-day Atitlán to Xela hike.
Needless to say, that especially with the latter hikes, you should be aware of your fitness levels and not overestimating your abilities. *Furthermore, unfortunately, there were some reported robbery incidents from certain popular treks, such as on the Lower Mayan Trail, and roads in the remote areas between the villages. This is why some guides recommend going out with local guides to prevent any of this to happen. Trekking in groups also apparently helps.
I would personally recommend asking about the current situation in your hotel. I’m afraid that the decline in tourism caused by this bloody virus didn’t exactly improve the economic situation of those who resolved to crime in the past. Please note that there are many more trekking options of various difficulties, plenty of which you should be able and safe to do by yourself. As I said, if I were you, I’d ask around once you arrive at the lake because that way you’ll get the latest updates about your options as well as safety.
Other activities on Lake Atitlán
Except for trekking, the most obvious activity on the lake would be – take an educated guess – kayaking. For that, there are numerous options to rent a kayak and enjoy the views from the surface of the lake. You could also opt for a bike tour or the popular “town hopping” activity to explore the settlements around the lake. Of course, such a place can’t be without there are various yoga or meditation retreats.
If you are into spirituality, I’d also recommend checking out the cacao ceremony. The ancient Mayans, who introduced cocoa to the world di drink a lot of chocolate themselves. For them, cocoa was and still is considered to be a divine substance of the drink. In the present day, many locals still practise the ancient ceremonial ritual of drinking and on Lake Atitlán, you can take part in this “semi-shamanic” ritual, if this was your “cup of tea” 🙂
As for other activities, the menu is still rather big, especially for nature lovers. You could, for instance, take a birdwatching tour, coffee farm tour and you can even volunteer in one of the local organic farms, not-for-profit schools, eco or art projects. Workaway should provide you with plenty of opportunities to help the local community and learn something new at the same time.
And last but not least, I’d like to re-mention the fact that quite a few travellers opt to take Spanish classes on Lake Atitlán, mostly in Panajachel and San Pedro. There are numerous language schools, many of which come with a great reputation. You can even have this experience enriched by living with a Mayan family, which is a great option to get to know the local traditions and dive into your Spanish even deeper.
Go out on Lake Atitlán
It appears that the whole lake is rather a social location. I mean that in each of the tourist towns mentioned above, there are few joints to grab few cold ones after a delicious dinner. When it comes to nightlife, as mentioned above, the richest social life on the lake, at least from the traveller’s perspective, is in San Pedro. It feels like that every day is Saturday and then when the real Saturday comes – you’ll know it’s Saturday – and it could get rather hardcore if you like partying.
But it’s not like you don’t have any other choices if you didn’t feel like partying hard. You do not have to go to the “meat market” joints, which you quickly identify during your first eve out by the dock. If the busy and drunk meat markets weren’t your preference, you can always opt to have few drinks in other, quieter areas of town (located on the left-hand side from the dock). There are also few places, such as Mixology that play nice electronic tunes, instead of the usual reggaeton and current smash hits. A tip, for your hangover, consider visiting Los Thermales, a little spa pool in town 😉
Well, and if you want something rather different, perhaps most suitable for a couple that’s freshly in love, I’d recommend tucking away for a night or two into one of the smaller towns like Jaibalito and find a charming little hotel, like Casa del Mundo and absorb the magical atmosphere of the lake.
Safety on Lake Atitlán
Well, I’m afraid that I can’t just say that Lake Atitlán is safe and move on to the next topic. Due to a troubled history and a 36yrs long Civil War that only ended in 1996, safety in Guatemala is a bit more complex subject. Although Lake Atitlán isn’t exactly dangerous, there are few precautions you gonna have to keep in mind. And those go a wee bit beyond the basic precautions of not flashing your valuables around and not wandering into dark empty alleys drunk at night.
As mentioned above, there is a problem with robbery incidents on the remote trails around the lake. I don’t mean to sound like an alarmist. To be honest, those are apparently quite rare incidents but they do happen from time to time. So if you want to make sure – get the local guide or at least walk in groups. And don’t take expensive electronics and large sums of cash with you.
Furthermore, there’s also nightlife. Personally, I haven’t experienced anything bad at all when walking across the whole of San Pedro on numerous occasions in the very late hours. On the other hand, quite a few people would recommend taking the tuk-tuk after 10 pm. Shall I consider myself lucky? I guess that with a crime it’s like with the lottery, there are low odds for it to happen but it happens sometimes. So please be cautious out there, especially when you’ve had a few 😉
As for the public transport around the lake – surprise – it’s nearly all done by boats (lanchas). There are direct connections between Panajachel and San Pedro, Panajachel and Santiago, and Santiago and San Pedro. For smaller settlements, or for a “town hopping”, you going to have to take one of the lanchas that run on a route Panajachel-Santa Cruz-Jaibalito-Tzununa-San Marcos-San Juan-San Pedro, which also stops in between at other villages and also what I believe are private docks.
How to get to Lake Atitlán
To get here from Antigua, it’s just under 90km. The alleged 2,5 hrs journey turned nearly 4hrs in my case, however, even the alledged 2,5hrs wouldn’t reflect the 90 km distance. This is unfortunatelly the general situation when travelling in Guatemala, given the hilly character of the nature and the dramatic state of their road infrastructure. Prepare to splash 80 Quetzals (€9,20) for this trip. FYI, there are numerous agents offering the same trip for different prices as it happens in these parts of the world…
Btw, in case you wanted to listen to some cool tunes that would gradually bring you to sleep, here‘s a series of Spotify playlists designed for long-distance buses/or flights to give your journey a cool soundtrack 😉 In case you wanted to daydream only, here are few playlists that could possibly enhance your experience 😉
When to visit Lake Atitlán
I’m personally a big fan of shoulder seasons. They often come with better prices and fewer tourists. For this kind of settings, think of October and November, which is right after the rainy season and before the summer properly kicks in. If you like the high season and crowdy vibes, then consider planning your trip for the summer, which is from November till May. Otherwise, the only two months to try to avoid are apparently August and September, because the hurricane season delivers some heavy winds and rain to the region.
Sort of conclusion
There is something about Lake Atitlán that is unique. It’s spectacular, and it’s a place that makes many people stay much longer than anticipated. Why? What I can say for sure is that I felt generally great here. I felt creative, positive and energised. It’s exactly that sort of place people talk about when mentioning that it has a special energy, whatever that means. It’s stunning, it’s friendly and it has great energy – in other words – it’s special.
Furthermore, there are various fun activities one can enjoy, such as multiple spectacular treks, kayaking, studying Spanish and massive party options. For a liberal nature-loving long term traveller, or for someone who wants to take a break from the city, it’s, therefore, a perfect spot to take it easy for a while.
On the other hand, I admit that the “special energy” element and the visible tight economic conditions the locals live in might not be for everyone. I mean if you were looking for more luxurious holidays, this might be too much of an adventurous and perhaps a little rough place for you. Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not judging you. If you had the money and wanted a perfect luxury holiday in similar spectacular natural settings, perhaps look into Lombardy’s Lake Como.
Where to stay
On Lake Atitlán, there are numerous options when it comes to accommodation. Perhaps, the menu is a little shorter on let’s say non-budget options, you should be able to find any place that will fit your preferences. As I’ve mentioned above, the best tourist infrastructure is in Panajachel, which’s followed by San Pedro. But if you check the popular accommodation booking apps, you’ll be surprised to find various hotels scattered pretty much all around the lake.
I’ve personally stayed in two different places in San Pedro La Laguna and one place in Panajachel. Hotel Don Chema was located in a residential area, about 15 minutes walk to the centre. The Mayan lady who is running the place was very friendly and attentive. For $10,-USD, I’ve had a huge room for myself with an en-suite bathroom. The place was very clean and well maintained as well as a terrace with amazing views of the lake.
After over a week I have switched to cheaper and bit more social Hotel Paraíso. For $6,-USD, I’ve had a basic private room with a bathroom. It wasn’t exactly a Hilton but for the price, it was much better than one would expect. In the more expensive Panajachel, I’ve opted for ABU Hostel in a dorm for $5.50USD. The staff was very friendly and informative and there was also a nice little garden. Unfortunately, there are two ABU Hostels in town and this one is harder to find as it’s tucked away in one of the alleys. I haven’t checked the other one…
Practical travel and cultural tips
- Cash. In case you were going to stay in one of the smaller settlements on the lake, make sure to bring enough cash, because the only ATMs on the lake are in Panajachel and San Pedro, Santiago and San Juan la Laguna as far as I know…
- Please bear in mind that some Mayans don’t like being photographed. Always ask permission before you take a photo. This rule is even more strict when taking pictures of children. Child trafficking is unfortunately an issue in Guatemala and parents are therefore very protective of their little ones. Trust me, I’ve learned it the hard way. Regardless of the fact that it was by accident (the little child run into my picture), it wasn’t the most pleasant experience I’ve had on the lake…
- Flirting with the locals. It’s apparently forbidden for Mayans to entertain romance with non-Mayans.
Useful and interesting links
- La Laguna News a fcbk news page that is “committed to spreading relevant information” for its visitors
- Maximón: In case you are interested in local legends, please click here to read about an interesting and rather divisive figure
- Conservation and colonialism in Guatemala: An interesting long read that is looking into pollution and sustainability as well as the way of life of the local communities by Al Jazeera
- What is it like to volunteer on Lake Atitlán: Eliza Stein writes for Atitlan Living
Other locations to visit in Guatemala
Only about 2,5-4 hours drive from Lake Atitlán, there lies one of the two most popular destinations in Guatemala, La Antigua Guatemala. We’re talking about a pretty colonial town with cobblestone streets lined up with old houses in Italian Renaissance style and some impressive baroque ruins, a rather vibrant nightlife scene and great tourism options in the region. To find out what there is to see and do, where to grab a drink, safety and so on in Antigua, please click here.
Perhaps the most iconic of all Guatemalan destinations to visit would be Tikal, which is spectacular ruins of an ancient Mayan city that’s located in the vast jungle in the northeast of the country, nearby the picturesque city of Flores. To find out about this mind-blowing “Indiana Jones-like” site as well as what there’s to do in Flores, please click here.
Semuc Champey is a beautiful natural area that consists of a series of limestone turquoise pools located in Central Guatemala that often serves as a perfect (and much needed) stopover between Antigua and Tikal Ruins. It’s rather a unique and hard-to-get-to place but if you are nearby, it’s definitely worth it to stop by and enjoy the atmosphere of this pretty valley and friendly locals for few days. Read more about Semuc Champey here (soon).
Featured image by Lukáš Jančička from Pixabay