Well, it’s that time of year again. With our latest Pasajcap stay coming to a close this week it seems like an overall update is in order. Recapping what we’ve been up to, where we’re headed next, how effective that single Ibuprofen was in the morning following (perhaps) too much day drinking in San Pedro.
Now, I’m sure you have a lot of questions. Well, it just so happens, we have a lot of answers*. Not all of them are relevant, mind you, and many of them are to questions you never planned to ask, but answers nonetheless.
Lake Atitlán Quick Links
On the other hand, if this whole self-indulgent exercise sounds tedious and unpleasant to you, well, here are some of our most popular Lake Atitlán posts you can browse through instead. Posts with, you know, actual information. The rest of you – those who can’t quite control your curiosity or maybe are working and can’t quite believe how slow the time is passing – scroll on down to our Lake Atitlán 2023 FAQ.
The Ultimate Guide to Lake Atitlán
Where to Stay: The Best Hotels on Lake Atitlán
Best Yoga Retreats on Lake Atitlán
* The answers in quetstion are not necessarily “true”.
What is so special about Lake Atitlán?
Well, most people tend to say the volcanoes (there are three pretty impressive ones). Or the lake itself; calm and beautiful in the morning and rough and glittering in the afternoon. But, personally, I’m going to have to go with the accent on the second “a”. It’s not the easiest word for an English speaker to pronounce properly to start with, then they start messing with the syllable emphasis? How dare they?
Can you swim in Lake Atitlán?
Most definitely. Or mos’ def’, as people of my generation might say since we’re at that age where we are no longer really picking up new slang. We kind of solidified the “cool” section of our vocabularies a couple decades ago and are pretty content to stick with what works. Even if it happens to be a bit sketchy or whatever. Yada yada yada.
As for the swimming thing, yeah, we swim in the lake any day that we aren’t hiking (you can read more, so much more, about our weekly schedules below). Some people won’t swim in Lake Atitlán because they think the water isn’t necessarily – um, how would they put it – “clean”. And they may have a point. I mean, the sewage systems in the villages aren’t, let’s say, “good”.
But it’s a pretty big lake, and it’s VERY deep (300 metres, give or take), and water doesn’t really comingle, right? I mean, not all the way over where we are? Right? And that, friends, is what’s known as “justifying”.
Either way, we swim 3-4 times a week and don’t seem any worse for wear. I mean, I do my best not to swallow any (much?) and it’s not like Laynni would be interested in using lake water when she’s mixing her Skinny Bitches*, but, yes, in our opinion, you can definitely swim in the lake.
* Vodka / water / lime. Hey, apparently we ARE still capable of learning new slang.
How much does the water level change?
Interesting question, if I do say so myself. Guatemala has seasons, just not the same ones we have in North America. Here, there is the dry season (November to April) and the rainy season (May to October). The start and end points can be a bit blurry at times but you get the jist of it (Hmm, is that another dated figure of speech? Now I’m starting to regret opening that can of worms. Damn, did it again).
Anyway, in a typical year the water level rises by 1-2 metres during the rainy season (because of all the rain, presumably) and then slowly drops back down 1-2 metres during the dry season (because there isn’t any rain, presumably).
Simple, right? Except that sometimes the pattern just goes out the window for some reason, like in 2011 when we returned to find my favourite sports bar, La Playa, abandoned with the lake level halfway up the walls. And the water kept going up for the next few years after that, devouring countless docks, homes and water pumps along the way. Mainly those owned by immigrants*, since the locals seem to understand that this happens occasionally and wisely built all their villages safely up the hills.
* It recently occurred to us (and by “occurred to us”, I mean we probably read it someplace then forgot where) that white North Americans and Europeans that move to another country are always called “expats”, while non-white people who move from basically anywhere else TO North America or Europe are generally called “immigrants”.
And those two words tend to have very different connotations depending on who is using them. Which doesn’t really seem right. Which is about as strong a statement as I’ll make regarding this obviously divisive topic (on a public blog, anyway). Just know that if you are a white person now living in a country different from the one where you spent most of your life, we will henceforth be referring to you as an immigrant. Hope that doesn’t ruin your day.
What is the dog situation on Lake Atitlán?
There are a lot of them, for starters. Dogs are everywhere – on leashes, running loose, swimming, barking, chasing squirrels, fighting, sleeping in the middle of the road, growling at us on the trail, shitting, oh, so much shitting.
Um, does that answer your question? The main takeaway is, basically, that I don’t really like the dogs here.
Why do Guatemalans love bombas?
Maybe I should start by explaining what a “bomba” is, first off. It’s basically what it sounds like. A bomb. A small, cheap firecracker-type bomb that is, nevertheless, extremely loud. Guatemalan men love bombas. I mean, LOVE them. And, yes, I said men, not kids.
Truly, nothing is more satisfying to a Guatemalan man than setting off some obnoxiously loud bombas in a completely inappropriate setting. Say, Tuesday morning on the street next to the market. Or in the middle of the night on the dry grass of a hillside. For example.
Actually, there is one thing they find more satisfying. That’s if the bomba also scares the GD bejeesus out of some gringo. That’s the really orgasmic shit. Culture, baby.
Is there a reason we Pasajcappers do exactly the same things every week?
Monday – hike to Jaibalito, lunch at Hans, home to nap after a 2-beer lunch.
Tuesday – free day. We generally recommend quiet contemplation, maybe a pleasant swim, possibly some extra yoga. Definitely self-reflection. Loads of self-reflection. Tuesday is the definitely the day to self-reflect the shit out of things.
Wednesday – laundry. Not that I actually DO laundry, but that’s the day I politely drop my large bag of dirty clothes off for the Pasajcap cleaning ladies to deal with. It’s still a big day for me.
Thursday – this is where we get a bit crazy. Yes, we definitely go for a hike. But WHICH hike? Aha, that’s the crazy part. We switch up the specific trail every week. Well, switch it up within our rotation of roughly 4 hikes that we can all agree on (mostly). Wild stuff.
Friday – another free day. We swim, personally. I don’t know what other people do, other things, I guess. I mean, it’s a free day, how is it my job to keep track of everyone?
Saturday – walk/hike to San Pedro along roads the whole way, occasionally dodging speeding chicken buses, erratic pickups filled with commuting locals and overloaded tuk-tuks. Arriving at 10 am, Laynni and I head up to the San Pedro market for a quick fruits and veggies shopping stop while Bill and Jan go straight to brunch at El Barrio to “get a table and order the fruit plates”, he promises each time.
Sunday – “church”, of course, and by church, we are rather hilariously referring to Smokin’ Joe’s BBQ, where hungry gringos congregate to worship at the altar of not being vegetarian. We only occasionally make this trip and when we do, Laynni’s leftover pulled pork usually lasts for two more full meals.
Is Happy Hour mandatory?
Oh, yeah, how can I discuss our rigid schedules without mentioning Happy Hour? Bill’s rather ingenious invention (ok, maybe not invention, but he’s the one that started insisting on it years back, and is still the most consistent and enthusiastic participant) takes place every day (EVERY day) at 5 pm in the top palapa.
You can drink alcohol, or you don’t have to. Sometimes there are snacks, but usually not. Sometimes there are lots of people, sometimes just a couple. You can chat, or not. Sometimes it’s all very funny, sometimes not really. Sometimes we just sit around and quietly judge people.
It’s really up to you. The only rule is that Jan requires me to show up “3-6 beer in” at least once a week because, she claims, I’m “actually sort of funny then”.
What is the best hike on Lake Atitlán?
With Lake Atitlán being a giant crater lake formed millions of years ago by a collapsing volcano, it is somewhat inconveniently surrounded by very steep hills. Which means that although there are dozens of nice hiking trails around the lake (or, say, specifically 21 great hikes according to a certain wise travel blogger), many of them require a very steep climb, or a very steep descent, or sometimes both.
Finding trails that have more moderate and varied hills can be a challenge. Which is why I’d still say the best hike on Lake Atitlán is the Maya Trail, a beautiful ridge hike between Tzununa and Santa Cruz la Laguna. It is by far the most popular hike on the lake, and for good reason.
Sure, gringos are occasionally robbed on this trail (thankfully never us, so far) but, as they say, danger keeps us young. Actually, I don’t think they really say that. But they say something, obviously, maybe it has something to do with danger making you stronger? Being an aphrodisiac? I’ll make better notes next year.
Other hikes in the running would be coming down from Parque Chuiraxamolo and continuing to the Long Ridge Hike, or the San Antonio to Santa Catarina “Flower Route”.
Should I embark on a spiritual journey?
It is certainly “the thing” in this area. People love, absolutely LOVE, coming to Tzununa and San Marcos to achieve spiritual enlightenment. Usually via an overpriced multi-day workshop that includes at least one night of uncontrollable ayahuasca vomiting. So if you are tired of carrying so much money around, are in the mood to experience some incomprehensible hallucinations and are overdue a good purge of your stomach lining, well, my friends, you have come to the right place.
I joke, of course. There are many very serious, very legitimate spiritual/holistic/naturopathic/therapeutic seminars/courses/retreats/”journeys” available. And, likewise, many serious, focused, determined, non-pretentious people enjoying them immensely. But then, there are all those other guys. But, hey, variety is the spice of life, right? Or is that turmeric? I’m always getting those two things mixed up.
Are ant traps ethical?
I guess that depends on how nostalgic you are for that crazy ant farm you had for a week when you were a kid. Personally, when we first arrived, I found the massive line of ants constantly crossing our apartment via the kitchen counter (often stopping off to inspect any crumbs, utensils and peanut butter containers along the way) to be, let’s say, gross.
Enter a couple of Raid ant traps – problem solved. Ethics be damned.
What is the best restaurant on Lake Atitlán?
We all have our personal favourites, of course. For me, the pizza at Tuscani in Panajachel hits all the right notes after a long hike. Bill raves about the ceviche at Qaas Utz in San Juan and many people love Smokin’ Joe’s BBQ and El Barrio brunch in San Pedro.
But the only place that has (so far) gotten unanimously positive reviews is El Indigo in Jaibalito. An Iranian restaurant with amazing kebabs and rice, but also lots of other favourites (just the mention of their nacho platter sets Laynni to drooling), is the one place we all recommend. Not cheap but, hey, it’s an Iranian restaurant in the highlands of Guatemala. Unique ain’t cheap.
How often does the power go out?
Way too often, is the short answer. Universally disliked EnerGuate, despite its vaguely clever name, does not seem like a very well run company, in my opinion. Sure, it’s not all their fault. Some of the constant problems are surely down to poor infrastructure of the sort you might find in, say, a poor country.
But regardless of the deeper issues behind the power cuts, we don’t love having to deal with at least a few power outages per month. Sometimes for an hour, sometimes all day, occasionally for a few days. Thankfully, Pierre has a generator he fires up if the outage persists, bringing the wifi back online and offering a place to charge laptops (although we still have to be mighty careful about how often we open the fridge).
Plus our phones have data signals independent from the local power grid and we have a solar charger and a mini power bank that can charge them so, mercifully, we never actually have to live without the constant stream of information and interaction we have come to rely on like mental crutches. Whew.
Are there celebrities on Lake Atitlán?
You mean besides us? Ha! But seriously, Laynni was actually stopped on a hiking trail one day by a couple French ladies and was a little shocked when they mentioned our blog and even knew her name.
Of course, I had already passed these very ladies to little to no fanfare. Perhaps they weren’t able to differentiate me from the bevy of white guys in big hats and dark sunglasses hiking that trail. Or, perhaps, they actually pay close enough attention to our blog to determine that, if they’re being honest, they don’t necessarily care for the Dean character.
Nevertheless, that was a bit of a shoe on the other foot moment, coming not long after we had spotted some very popular Instagrammer/Tik-Tokkers in Panajachel whose travels we’d been following for years.
However, unlike the nice French women, who simply approached her and had a pleasant conversation like normal, non-psychotic people, Laynni went a slightly different way. Specifically, the stalker route, tracking these influencers from a theoretically safe distance while taking sneaky pics and sly videos. Both methods have their merits, I suppose.
Is Lake Atitlán touristy? FAQ
In certain spots, yes. But touristy is very relative. Compared to Puerto Vallarta or Cancun, Lake Atitlán is a quiet backwater. But compared to an actual quiet backwater, Lake Atitlán is quite full of tourists.
As always, though, it depends on exactly where you end up. Panajachel and San Pedro have loads of hotels, restaurants, travel agencies and tacky souvenir shops. San Marcos is hippie central (definitely the best place to stock up kombucha or get your psychedelic on with an all-night ayahuasca fest) and San Juan, with its art and textile shops and terrific street art, is the current darling of the day trip circuit.
Beyond those, though, touristy would be far too strong a word to describe quaint Jaibalito, holistic Tzununa, pretty Santa Cruz or colourful Santa Catarina Palopo. “A light dusting of tourists” would maybe be more accurate.
And if you actually venture to San Antonio Palopo (pottery), San Lucas Toliman (waterfront stuff), Santiago Atitlán (market, quetzals and a cigar-smoking demi-god) or San Pablo (gritty, well, if we’re being honest, dirty, I suppose) you are very likely to be the only gringo in town. Unless you’re not a gringo in the first place, which makes the math even easier.
Is boat travel a pro or con of life on Lake Atitlán?
Most people get around Lake Atitlán by “lancha”, the small open-air boats that travel between the villages constantly throughout the day. And these boat trips are undoubtedly fascinating and scenic, filled with a steady mix of locals going about their daily lives and tourists admiring the scenery and overpaying for the privilege.
However, the novelty does wear off eventually (usually around ride #2 each year for us now). The boats don’t follow much of a schedule, are often overcrowded (technically licensed for 25 or so, but we’ve seen some packed with as many as 45) and at least 75% of the “capitans” have made it their sole purpose in life to extract every possible quetzal out of their foreign passengers. Understandable, from a financial perspective, especially considering how rarely tourists actually know how much they should pay, but relentlessly exhausting, nonetheless. Much like some of these sentences.
Where is the best place to watch Arsenal humiliate Tottenham?
Alegre Pub, obviously, in San Pedro. Especially when a few degenerate Spurs fans have shown up early to commandeer the front and centre bar stools. Hope you had a good view of the beatdown, bitches!
But, really, any place is a good place to watch Tottenham hopes and dreams crumble into dust. Wouldn’t you say, Richarlison?
Is there a place on Lake Atitlán where I can play on swings?
Oh, I’m so glad you asked! Yes, there most definitely is! An exciting new addition to Parque Chuiraxamolo this year is a pair of massive swings (very sturdily built, obviously with a certain type of a hefty tourist in mind) that appear to dramatically transport the “swingers” as I like to call them, out over a spectacular cliff, with the lake and volcanoes forming a glorious backdrop for our juvenile escapades. With MUCH shorter wait times than Disney World.
What if I don’t like dust?
Ooh, that might be a problem. Devoted dry season visitors know that cultivating a natural ability to both tolerate and, dare I say, ingest, large quantities of road dust is an essential evolutionary step when it comes to maximizing your Lake Atitlán enjoyment. Even seamlessly transitioning my COVID masks into dust masks only provided a brief respite. About the same amount of respite as those five glorious days of surprise rain we got in March.
What is the best village on Lake Atitlán?
San Juan la Laguna. For now. One particularly busy day we counted 48 (!) lanchas jumbled around the messy maze of new docks. A number which may be unsustainable. I mean, at some point, San Juan will LITERALLY run out of overpriced multicoloured blouses. Won’t it?
Tigo or Claro?
Finding a consensus choice between the two main phone companies in Guatemala is about as likely as me picking a decent mango in the market. I’m a Tigo man, myself, and it has always served me well, but when I told a tuk-tuk driver this in halting Spanish he seemed to disagree, and his expression could only be described as “grossed out”. Definitive? Not at all. Confusing? Most certainly.
Is kidnapping a concern in Guatemala?
Disturbingly, I have heard it said that this is something foreigners here should be afraid of. Now, maybe I’m just reading between the lines here, but it always feels like any discussion about kidnapping in a Third World country generally implies that it is rich, attractive, well-dressed foreigners who should be concerned. So, no, I feel pretty relaxed about the whole thing.
What is the gringo fascination with St. Patrick’s Day?
Well, it can’t be about the green, can it? Because green is an objectively crappy colour. I mean, that’s just science. So maybe it’s the irresponsible drinking? Yeah, you know, I think I might be onto something there.
Potatoes or hashbrowns?
Where is Geronimo the Kale Guy?
Just off the San Pedro finca road, about a block toward the lake. And, if at first you don’t succeed, well, just wander the neighbourhood hollering “Hair-onimo! Hair-onimo? Hair-onimo!” I’m told that eventually works.
Shouldn’t good bananas be easier to find?
Yes. Yes, they should, dammit. Seriously, c’mon, Guatemala.
Do scorpions have a right to the floor of your apartment?
In theory… maybe. We are all creatures on this earth, sharing a complex ecosystem, coexisting in a delicately balanced food chain. And scorpions, as an ancient species of arachnid, have certainly inhabited the space where our apartment sits for millions of years, and who are we to determine who lives and who dies?
In practice, no, them bitches die fast.
So where to next?
Ah, what a perfect question to wrap this up. How convenient. Well, tomorrow we head to Guatemala City, as one does, before flying to London via Bogota (as one does?), where we’ll pick up a rental car and skedaddle (another outdated term, surely?) to Wales for a 10-day road trip.
Which sounds fun, obviously, although I’m mainly looking forward to filling in that irritating little gap in our UK + Ireland travel map. Then, once we’ve had our fill of castles, enormous greasy breakfasts and warm beer, we’re off to Porto, Portugal, where we’ll embark on a short version of the famous Camino Portuguese. Two weeks of walking from Porto to Santiago and the three B’s: bocadillos, blisters and beach towns!
Then back to London for an Arsenal-themed weekend when the Gunners – current (and hopefully future) league leaders – taking on Boehly’s Boys at the Emirates. Goosebumps…
Explanation: Laynni requested more information on that last sentence. The “Gunners” are Arsenal Football Club. “Boehly’s Boys” are a motley group of very expensive young men from all over the world purchased at great cost by Todd Boehly, the obnoxious American owner of Chelsea Football Club. Needless to say, game tickets are proving hard to come by.
Other useful articles you may want to check out:
San Marcos la Laguna: Lake Atitlán’s Spiritual Village
San Juan la Laguna: Lake Atitlán’s Artistic Village
San Pedro la Laguna: Lake Atitlán’s Most Popular Village
Santa Cruz la Laguna: The Best Views on Lake Atitlán
Jaibalito: Lake Atitlán’s Quietest Village
Tzununá: Lake Atitlán’s Holistic Village
Pasajcap Rentals: The Best Place to Stay on Lake Atitlán
Panajachel Guatemala: Gateway to Stunning Lake Atitlán
Santa Catarina Palopó: Lake Atitlán’s Most Colourful Village
San Antonio Palopó: Lake Atitlán’s Pottery Village
San Lucas Toliman: Lake Atitlán’s Secret Village