Well, although it has been a while since my last post, not to worry, you haven’t missed much. I mean, sure, we’ve continued doing a couple hikes per week, some new ones, some same old, same old. Most nights we spend an hour or two at “Happy Hour” in the palapa above our apartment, joining a group of fellow Pasajcappers to share beer, wine, snacks and all the trivial details of our generally uneventful days (if you think writing itself can be dull, you can imagine what talking about it’s like). We still try to swim most days even though the water continues to get colder seemingly every day (I’m proud to announce I recently finished dead last in a 6-person Maya Moon Olympic 1-kilometre swim event, proud that I finished without dying, mostly), and I’m currently on two different soccer teams (which one could argue may be two too many for a 43-year-old gringo), and I still venture over to San Pedro to watch the occasional Arsenal game (although their slow descent into irrelevancy will likely soon make my head explode, and then we’ll really have something to talk about), but it’s mostly about soaking up the Atitlán experience. So, further to that end, and for lack of much else of interest to talk about, here is a brief breakdown of the various different towns and villages around the lake. Whenever someone we know decides to pay a visit to glorious Atitlán, usually knowing only about the Mayan culture and impressive volcanic scenery, the first piece of advice they want is where they should stay. The answer is never clear-cut as there are many good choices, but luckily they all have their own unique identities, advantages and disadvantages, at least giving prospective tourists some ideas upon which to base their decision.
San Marcos la Laguna
I’ll start with San Marcos because that is more or less where we live. In actuality, we stay at Pasaj-Cap, a loose grouping of apartments and cottages about a 15-minute walk out of town. San Marcos is renowned, or reviled, for its hippie culture, depending on your stance on bare feet and woefully dated dreadlocks,. It simply teems with options for those earth-loving types who love yoga, holistic medicine, massage, spiritual gatherings, meditation, enlightenment training, and group bongo sessions. It might also be the only place in Guatemala where you can find people with a shared interest in the harmonium, and if you’ve always dreamed of living out of a dilapidated 1960’s school bus permanently parked on the side of the road, well, San Marcos has several to choose from. Despite this tongue-in-cheek hostility on my part, however, the overall vibe of San Marcos remains very friendly and welcoming, with people of all spiritual and hygienic persuasions co-existing comfortably. There are a number of good restaurants, a bevy of impossibly friendly vegetable vendors, and even a few all-purpose little grocery shops where you can pick up most of the main staples. Don’t come here for the night life, however, as restaurants won’t even serve you after 9:30 pm, and outside of the occasional special event (i.e. live music, midnight seance) , your late night options are basically non-existent. But the views from this side of the lake are excellent, you can rent kayaks, and there is even a designated swimming area with some jumping platforms for once you tire of kale salads and group hair-braiding.
San Pedro la Laguna
This is the most popular place to stay on the lake, and is justifiably considered backpacker central. It has countless excellent restaurants of all types, from Italian to Mexican to Israeli to Scottish to even, gasp, Guatemalan. Most of these places also double as bars, plus there are numerous more places that may serve food under duress but are mainly dedicated to catering to all the day-time alcoholics wandering the streets. Both the hotels and restaurants tend to be cheaper here thanks to all the competition as well as a reasonable understanding of their main clientele, and it is also the place to be if you like to socialize and stay busy. Movies, sports, poker tourneys, weekly BBQs, trivia nights, the fascinating deterioration of elderly expats, there is no reason to be bored in San Pedro. Also, while you can easily procure a Spanish tutor in any of the villages, San Pedro is definitely the most popular place on the lake to work on becoming a more interesting linguistic member of Latin America. On the other hand, you can’t see the volcanoes because they are behind (and above) you, it can be rather hectic and noisy, you probably want to find a room away from the busiest of the bars, and although many do it I personally wouldn’t be too interested in swimming in a place with so much questionable sewage treatment, not to mention erratic boat traffic and so many scantily-clad gringos who have spent the past few months living on a strict diet of oversized lunch specials and dark beer.
The original tourist destination on Lake Atitlán, “Pana” has been a favourite of erstwhile foreign expats for decades now, and with the population pushing 15,000 is the largest city on the lake. It offers by far the most recognizable version of city life to be had in the area, with a large variety of hotels, restaurants and long-term rentals similar to San Pedro, but also a much larger local market, several actual grocery stores and more banking options. There was a time when almost all tourists spent time in Pana when visiting Atitlán, but now the increased options and infrastructure have spread the tourist trade out. However, it still seems to be the optimal choice for those who want to see the sights and enjoy the views but aren’t particularly interested in the rural, or optimistically-described “quaint”, simplicity of most of the other towns. It is not our favourite place, to say the least, but it certainly fits the bill for certain visitors and is by no means a bad place to spend a couple days.
Santa Cruz la Laguna
This pretty little village half-way between Pana and San Marcos can only be accessed by boat (there is a small road that comes in from the top of the crater but it is inconvenient and rarely used). The views from its picturesque bay are among the best on the entire lake, with unobscured looks at all three volcanoes looming on the far side (San Pedro, Toliman and Atitlán). While the bulk of the town is farther up the hill, almost all the buildings along the lake are owned by long-term expats who went looking for someplace beautiful, quiet and secluded, and found it in spades in Santa Cruz. The downsides: only a couple restaurants and the need to take a boat to get anywhere or see anything. A good choice for a tranquil, relaxed holiday, but not ideal if you plan to be an active participant in all the lake has to offer.
Has a lot of similarities to Santa Cruz, but is even smaller and has literally no road access. Its bay isn’t as charming as the one at Santa Cruz, but it also has a couple good restaurants and is a good place to really feel away from the tourist crowds. Casa del Mundo is a nice mid-range hotel about a 15-minute walk out of Jaibalito that has impressive views and a great swimming area, and is a place we often recommend for people more interested in relaxation than exploration, although everything on the lake is just a boat ride away.
This small village is actually just about as close to us as San Marcos. Only a few years ago there was almost no gringo presence outside of one terrific hill-top restaurant and one small hotel. Now it seems like a new project opens up every few months, although it is still light years away from being compared to any of the big stops. This is a place to really immerse yourself in the local culture, although at this point facilities are still pretty limited.
This large town is tucked into the valley between the three volcanoes, limiting the scope of the views but providing a very unique perspective. For all its size and burgeoning crafts industry, there really aren’t that many choices catering to tourists and tends to be more popular with day-trippers or those on long-term volunteer projects. Worth a look, but is an inconveniently long boat ride from most of the more popular locations.
San Juan la Laguna
In my opinion, probably the nicest town on the lake. While increasingly popular with day-trippers and tour groups, not many tourists stay here. It stands out from the crowd in its neat and orderly cleanliness, and is the best place on the lake, other than maybe Santiago, to shop for arts and handicrafts. It has a handful of excellent restaurants, including the outstanding El Artesano which specializes in wine and meat/cheese platters, a dynamic atmosphere and a shockingly impressive soccer stadium (as if I don’t already question my presence on a pitch full of 20-year old Guatemalans, I need a paying crowd to bear witness as well). Strangely, it is also locally famous for its women’s basketball, as well as being the often unnamed village the Quebecois Lev Tahor ultra-orthodox Jewish group fled to in 2013 (and later from). There is also an ATM.
That is about where my “knowledge” (read: unsolicited opinion) mostly runs out. There are several other villages, but they are so low on the tourist radar that I don’t really know anyone who has stayed in them. San Pablo is only 10 minutes by tuk tuk from San Marcos but has little to no tourist facilities, just one gringo-owned pizza place and a penchant for throwing a festival of fireworks and public drunkenness every week or two. Santa Clara sits way up the hill from there, perching on the lip of the crater rim at close to 3,000 metres above sea level (twice as high as the surface of the lake) and is the starting/ending point for a number of scenic hikes. Then there are San Lucas Toliman, San Antonio Palopo and Santa Catarina Palopo tucked away in the southeast corner of the lake, and catering to craft-seeking tourists in small numbers. To be honest, I’m fairly impressed that I actually remembered the names. So, what I’m saying, I guess, is you may need to look elsewhere for information on those places. Although I can tell you that San and Santa mean “saint” in Spanish, so there’s a starting point for you.
Hope some of that makes you think a visit to wonderful Lake Atitlán could be just the thing to break up your routine. If you have more questions, feel free to drop me a message and I’ll share any meagre amount of additional info I may have. Plus, we’re always looking for people to bring us stuff from home…