Last time I covered all the different villages around Atitlán and discussed the pros and cons of making each your home base during a lake stay (i.e. rowdy trivia contests vs. full moon chanting sessions). Now, children, our topic is “hey, you’re here, now what?” You’ve got yourself a cheap room with a view of the volcanoes and just finished vigorously devouring a hearty breakfast of eggs, tortillas and frijoles, then spent the requisite hour discussing just how ideal the weather is, not to hot, not too cold, etc. Now the rest of the day lies before you an unblemished canvas, or at least unblemished by responsibility. Those salsa stains are still going to leave a mark.
What to do on Lago de Atitlán:
It’s Hammock Time!
First on the list because it is usually the first thing that comes to mind. Despite a bevy of active options, at heart the lake is all about relaxation. The beauty, the slower pace of life, the practically interminable service in restaurants – they all tie in with what most visitors love most about the place. Whether you are perched out over the water with panoramic views or lying quietly in a secluded spot of shade under a large jacaranda tree, stretching out in a hammock with a good book is the essential lake experience. Or even a crappy book, because who are we kidding, you’re going to napping before the hour is out.
There are numerous hiking options around the lake, although only a couple that work well to do on your own without a guide, or at least someone that has done them before. There are three that stand above the rest in popularity.
Volcán San Pedro
This monster stands sentinel directly above the most popular backpacker hangout on the lake, the eponymous San Pedro la Laguna. Not surprisingly, climbing the old girl has become something of a rite of passage for those intent on mixing a few sweaty exertions into their normal routine of late night Gallo-drinking competitions and lazy mornings spent on the sunny deck of their favourite egg and beans joint chain-smoking cheap Guatemalan cigarettes. Most people take a tuk tuk to the park where the hike starts (at around 1,800 metres altitude). There you must pay a 100 quetzal entry fee (roughly $US13), which sounds a bit pricey for Guatemala but does include a guide provided by the park. Hiking times vary greatly, but on average most people take around 3 hours steadily climbing to reach the top (at about 3,000 metres), spend a half an hour there enjoying amazing views of the lake and volcanoes Toliman and Atitlán while repeatedly mentioning how surprisingly cold it is up there, then another 1 1/2 to 2 hours to get back down. It is a good idea to get the phone number of a tuk tuk or two to call when you get back to the trailhead or you might find yourself having to walk back down into town as well. A difficult hike, but not long in the scheme of volcanoes and most of it is mercifully shaded. No matter what, though, make sure to take advantage of the delightful rope swing about 2/3 of the way up, especially if you have a soft spot for feeling like a 7-year old kid in a nostalgic 1950’s drama.
San Marcos to Santa Cruz (or vice versa)
By far the most popular Atitlán hike that doesn’t involve climbing straight up something only to turn around and walk back down. This one can easily be done without a guide (just be sure to take the small path to the left when you reach Lomas de Tzununá at the top of the hill above the village of Tzununá), although there is an unfortunate history of armed robberies along this trail. You can either opt to hire a guide, or simply travel in a group and avoid carrying any valuables. Having said that, we have done this hike 30 times or more and never had any problems. Usually we go in a group of 4-6 people, but we have also done it with just the two of us many times without incident. I think it helps to look extremely not worth robbing, something our well-stained hiking t-shirts and my ill-fitting hat apparently accomplish in spades. Most of the trail is across the face of the hill high above the water with great views across to the volcanoes. Expect it to take anywhere from 1 to 2 hours to reach the village of Jaibalito (where you can stop for a drink or a cheap, tasty German meal at Posada Jaibalito, better known as Hans’ Place), then another half to one hour up and over to Santa Cruz. You can easily catch a public boat (lancha) back from either end, as it can also be done in reverse, or in sections, or some people even hike all the way back the way they came (you know, those embroiled in intense Fitbit step-counter competitions and such).
La Nariz del Indio (Indian Nose)
This is another up and back down hike, but up to a ridge in the northwest corner rather than an actual volcano. A ridge that, with a little imagination, looks a bit like the rather prominent proboscis of a stereotypical indigenous man. Whimsical, and just the right amount of racist. This hike starts in the village of San Juan la Laguna and is shorter than San Pedro, taking most between 1 1/2 to 2 hours to reach the top and slightly less to get back down. However, this trail is mostly exposed, which means you will bake in the sun the entire time unless you are smart/silly enough to start up around 4 am to catch the sunrise. Although guides here don’t cost much and are usually helpful, you don’t really need one, although there are a few spots along the way where entrepreneurial farmers now charge access fees to cross their land. It seems to fluctuate, but no matter what you can count on an official minimum of 20Q per person just to get in the park.
There are a variety of other options from the easy 1-hour jaunt to the waterfall above Tzununa, to the 2-hour gentle stroll down from Parque Chuiraxamolo to Santa Clara (with the option of continuing down past Indian Nose to San Juan), to full day excursions up Volcanes Toliman or Atitlán. For most of these you will probably need a guide, or at least a knowledgeable British friend willing to show you the way in exchange for slowing him down and bombarding him with stupid questions.
Most of the time mornings are calm, with the wind and waves only kicking up around noon, which makes it a great lake for kayaking. Just be sure you’re on the correct side of the lake before things take a turn for the rough. Kayaks can be rented in a variety of places in San Pedro, as well as San Marcos and Santa Cruz. The inevitable sunburn is generally not included in price.
There are many different schools of thought on this, varying from “Amazing! We do it every day!” to “I wouldn’t touch that water with one of your lesser appendages.” Much of the difference, however, can be attributed to location. Septic and sewage treatments rules and regulations are a somewhat nebulous entity around here, and a topic that most people steer clear of in hopes of maintaining a positive outlook on lake life. So, while willfully knowing very little about the details, I do still have eyes, and based on what I’ve seen I have no interest in swimming off any of the waterfront decks in San Pedro or Pana, would need to take a good, close look at things before venturing in near San Marcos, Jaibalito or Santa Cruz, but feel fairly comfortable swimming off our Pasaj-Cap dock nearly every day. The same would go for any of the houses or hotels located away from the villages. Having said that, changes in weather and water temperature occasionally lead to some unattractive floating algae so the subject remains in constant flux. Still, there is nothing like a woman in a bikini swimming in the middle of nowhere to draw a small, tentative crowd of dugout canoes and their shy little fishermen.
These types of life-affirming and enriching (especially in the case of poker) activities can be found in pretty much any village, although certainly San Marcos is the unquestioned capital of all things spiritual (be they tantric, holistic or simply hallucinogenic), while San Pedro is the best place to find a little light-hearted competition in the form of cards, trivia contests or seeing who can craft the most convincing lies to impress that group of encouragingly drunk German girls.
You can choose from two lines in Parque Chuiraxamolo near Santa Clara, or eight more in Atitlán Nature Reserve near Panajachel. Not surprisingly, the latter also has wildlife viewing but, although I haven’t been, I believe it is mostly focused around some short hiking trails and a dome full of butterflies. Not exactly the Serengeti, but maybe better than watching tourists fawn over all the different colours of Gallo t-shirts for sale.
Spending some time wandering through the crowds and jumbles of blankets covered in sale items at one of the local Mayan markets is a great way to kill a morning or two, and offers a fascinating look at the local Mayan culture, not to mention an incredible opportunity to pick up a bargain-price machete or 20 pounds of fresh green beans for less than 20 minutes of parking back home. Every village has its own version, but for my money (of which you won’t need much), San Pedro is probably the most interesting one right on the lake, but with a little extra time you can kill two birds with one stone, so to speak, by taking a 15-minute chicken bus ride up the hill from Pana to the Sololá market, also checking “dangerously erratic bus ride along a narrow mountain road” off your list of essential Guatemalan experiences. Market days are different for each village so make sure to ask around, and by no means should you count on late night shopping just because it’s Thursday.
Speaking of shopping, I’ve heard rumours that tourists, from time to time, like to buy things. Sometimes even things they really don’t need, and maybe barely even want. If that happens to apply to you, well, fear not, as there are many places to part with a goodly chunk of your grimy but colourful quetzals. Tourist paraphernalia in Pana, art and textiles in San Juan, crafts in San Marcos, and a little bit of everything (including “ganja, amigo?”) in San Pedro. Really, all those things can be found in any of those four, but don’t expect a whole lot to choose from in the other villages (although delightful Mayan atmosphere is mostly free).
Fútbol (aka Soccer)
Leagues take place on the weekend in San Pedro, San Juan and Tzununá in a mix of very different styles. Joining in is not for the faint of heart as most teams are comprised of small but speedy Guatemalans currently in their athletic prime, and with a lifetime spent at altitude. It really is something that should only be attempted by the very fit and, of course, the no-longer-so-fit-but-still-deluded-into-believing-they-are. On average, my body remains sore until early evening each Wednesday.
One of the more popular activities among visitors and locals alike, there is a wide variety of methods making it possible to find just the perfect alcohol environment for your particular tastes. Slightly depressing expats determined to speed up the aging process via a strict regimen of drinking alone in the morning tend to prefer the sports bars of San Pedro and Pana. These are also the best places to find “night life”, which on Atitlán is more or less defined as any bartender that will serve you until 11:30 pm. San Marcos has some nice restaurants and decent lounges, but be prepared to turn into a pumpkin by 9:30 at the latest (be careful, though, because even as a lonely pumpkin on the dark road by yourself it is still very easy to end up with dog shit on your shoe). San Juan, Santa Cruz, Tzununá and Jaibalito all have places that serve alcohol but most drinks tend to disappear with the setting sun. And if you like to watch the occasional strip show and prefer to pay handsomely for the privilege of having sex, well, Pana is certainly your best bet.
When it comes right down to it, though, what separates Atitlán from somewhat similar lakes around Central America is the unrivalled beauty of the volcanic scenery and the unique Highland Mayan culture. So, while keeping active isn’t necessarily a requirement to enjoy your time here, those who can only spend so much time sitting around volcano-gazing or soaking up the local ambiance can still choose from that whole laundry list of activities. Just remember that that napping between the hours of 2 and 4 pm is mandatory and enforced by law, or at least annoyingly judgmental looks.