Lake Atitlan is one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. And if you don’t believe me, just ask Aldous Huxley. Oh, wait, scratch that, I’m pretty sure he’s dead. But he still said it, just ask around. It is an ancient crater lake formed from a collapsed volcano, leaving a picturesque body of water surrounded by stunning volcanoes, rolling hills and photogenic Mayan villages that deserves to be part of every Central American travel itinerary. This complete guide to Lake Atitlan will give you all the information you need to plan your visit.
Anyone who follows our blog will know that fabulous Lake Atitlan is one of our favourite places in the world. Hence my reckless use of the word “fabulous”. We have now managed to get there in 10 of the last 11 years and are hoping the stars will align for another visit this winter. So, we were probably long overdue to compile some of the more useful posts we’ve written about the area over the years into one post. This guide to Lake Atitlan should be helpful for anyone looking to plan a trip to one of the most beautiful lakes we’ve ever seen.
Lake Atitlan Scenery
Lake Atitlan is a volcanic caldera, which basically means it is a huge dip surrounded by volcanoes, and covers an area of 130 square kilometres and is a ridiculous 320 metres deep (roughly 1,000 feet)! Which means the scenery is pretty spectacular. I’ll let the photos do the talking.
Lake Atitlan Weather
Besides the phenomenal volcanic scenery, this is probably the biggest draw of the area. Often referred to as “eternal spring”, the temperature stays roughly the same all year round, ranging from around 15C at night to 25C during the day. Warm but not sweltering during the day, sunny but still reasonable for hiking and outdoor activities, and decently cool at night so it’s actually possible to use a blanket. Dry season runs from mid-November to the end of April and is the most popular time of year. We have often gone months at a time without a single drop of rain in the winter months. Rainy season covers the rest of the year, from May to early November, and is rather unfairly underrated. Yes, it rains most days, but usually not until the afternoon and evening. Mornings are usually still clear and perfect. On top of that, everything is green and lush, the dust is gone, there are far fewer tourists around and the multi-coloured cloudy sunsets and evening lightning shows have to be seen to be believed.
Lake Atitlan Villages and Towns
There are 13 villages/towns around the lake ranging from tiny (Jaibalito) to quite large (Santiago Atitlan – 50,000), each with their own unique personality and specialties. Most travellers base themselves in either Panajachel (expats and visitors from Guatemala City), San Marcos (“hippies”, new age) or San Pedro (backpackers). Of course, those descriptions mainly describe who they cater to most. In reality, there is a wide range of different types of tourist in each spot. Along with those three, San Juan is a popular day trip stop and our personal favourite, while Santa Cruz and Jaibalito are more rural and have awesome views of the volcanoes across the lake. For a complete description of each village including the type of tourist they cater to, hotel and restaurant options, nightlife or lack there of, and transportation go to our post on how to decide Where to Stay on Lake Atitlan.
Transportation on Lake Atitlan
Getting to Lake Atitlan
Most people will be coming to Lake Atitlan from Guatemala City, Antigua or Xela. All three have tourist shuttle options that can be arranged through your accommodation and they drop you off in Pana which means you may need to take a boat to your end destination village. These shuttles will feel pretty tight once full and will drive around for a long time picking everyone up and dropping them off so the trip can take longer than expected. The shuttles from Guatemala City to Pana usually go through Antigua and do the whole picking up and dropping off process there too. Even if the shuttle says that they go to San Marcos or San Pedro, they often drop you off in Pana and put you on a boat to finish the trip.
There is also the more expensive option of hiring a private shuttle but can reasonable if you have a group – we have used Chema based out of San Pedro on the lake. His phone number is +502 5091 0433 or +502 5016 2148 but you will need to speak some Spanish to book directly with him. This will usually cost $120 US from Guatemala City or pickup from the airport and $90 US from Antigua or Xela and is best if you are staying in San Marcos or San Pedro as he will drive you directly there and you won’t need to take a boat.
The cheapest transportation option in Guatemala is the Chicken Bus – old American school buses that are festively painted and filled to the brim. This option will cost about 25Q ($5 US) from Antigua to Panajachel and may require changing buses along the way. We have often used Chicken Buses and they are occasionally uncomfortable (always try to get on early and get a seat on the inside of the row as they put 3 people per row and the 3rd person only really gets one butt cheek on the seat), hectic and slightly dangerous but they are always entertaining and gives you a taste of Guatemalan life. Tell the bus attendant where you want to go and they will tell you where to get off and point you to the next bus if you need to change buses. We are rarely overcharged on these buses and they always have change if you only have big bills.
Transportation Around Lake Atitlan
The main form of transportation around Lake Atitlan is the public boat that goes from village to village. The most common boats start in Pana and end in San Pedro, there are two options. A faster direct one that cuts across the middle of the lake and the one that goes along the edge past the villages of Santa Cruz, Jaibalito, Tzununa, San Marcos and San Juan before stopping in San Pedro. It is always best to know the price and have exact change as being overcharged is common. The best way is ask someone else on the boat if you don’t know the price, never the boat driver or helper, and hand over the exact amount to him as he stands on the dock as you exit the dock. The boats go every half hour and the last one from San Pedro is at 5:00pm. There is also a boat from San Pedro to Santiago a couple times a day. If you are at a private dock you just wave down the boats as they pass and point in the direction you want to go. At most of the villages there is also the option to hire a private boat but make sure to bargain. It can be a good deal if you have a group and is much faster and more comfortable.
All the villages have tuk tuks. The base price to anywhere around the village is $5Q ($1 US) per person. If you are taking them from village to village the price varies – e.g. 10Q from San Pedro to San Juan or San Marcos to San Pablo and more for a longer trip. Make sure to confirm the price before leaving, especially village to village.
The last option is the back of a pick up truck. This isn’t as common but it is our usual form of transportation when going from San Pablo up to Santa Clara on the edge of the caldera to go hiking. That trip is 5Q per person.
Lake Atitlan – People and Language
The local Guatemalans around the lake are predominantly Mayan, and Spanish is actually the second language for most. Everyone speaks one of the three different Mayan languages on the lake – Kaqchikuel (Tzununa and east), Tzutujil (San Marcos and west) or Kiche (some of the villages up the hills away from the lake). Children learn Spanish in school, but some never get to go or don’t finish, and many older people didn’t have any formal training. Everyone speaks some Spanish, however. While the common use of Mayan languages means there are times you won’t understand what’s being said, it provides a big benefit for amateur Spanish speakers like myself in that most people speak very simple Spanish. Unlike Mexico, where they speak 100 miles per hour and the slang is practically a language unto itself, most Guatemalans around the lake are just proficient enough for us to understand. Usually.
On the whole, Guatemalans are fairly reserved, the Mayans in particular. They are unquestionably friendly, always willing to return a smile or greeting and happy to help. But never fawning or overbearing. And they are far too proud for tourist worship, which suits us just fine.
Lake Atitlan Fiestas
As is the case in most of Latin American, in Guatemala the next party or festival is always just around the corner. From minor religious days to sprawling annual village “ferias” (fairs) that can last several weeks, they love their festivals. None bigger, of course, than the Easter celebrations that draw huge crowds to the lake each year. Known as Semana Santa (Holy Week), each village offers its own special take on the incredible sawdust carpet art and grandiose processions. Semana Santa in San Pedro and San Juan are particularly impressive and worth a visit on their own.
To be honest, I only really know the basics of Guatemalan history – Mayans, Spanish colonialism, invasive capitalism, war atrocities, drug cartel issues, drawing the ire of the USA (like everyone else). But I do enjoy speculating (i.e. making things up):
Things to Do
We can – and have – stayed busy for months with all that Lake Atitlan has to offer. In my opinion, the hiking and scenery are the big draws. The first range from short strolls to strenuous volcano climbs like Volcan Atitlan – the trails aren’t always easy to find so here are the 16 best hikes around the lake with maps. While the second features in basically everything you choose to do.
Water sports, such as kayaking and paddle boarding, are increasingly popular, while many come to learn Spanish or to volunteer on an organic farm. Atitlan is also one of the world’s best yoga destinations. Our post on the Ten Best Things to Do in Lake Atitlan gives details on our favourite ways to keep busy during our annual stays and the activities we always take visitors on.
Another great benefit of Lake Atitlan is how many other interesting destinations there are within easy driving distance.
Antigua is one of the most beautiful colonial cities in Latin America and its Semana Santa celebrations last for 6 weeks and are among the most elaborate and fascinating in the world. The hike to nearby Acatanengo volcano provides once in a lifetime close-up views of the very active Fuego volcano and there are many small villages to explore. Here is our complete Guide to Hiking Acatanengo Volcano with what to pack, what to expect, how hard it is and other useful tips for this once in a lifetime experience.
Quetzaltenango (known as Xela, pronounced “shay-la”) is Guatemala’s unofficial second city and just a nice, pleasant place. I’ve always had a soft spot for its appealing combination of urban amenities, picturesque old town squares and comfortable highland climate. It is the second most popular place to learn Spanish in Guatemala (the most popular is San Pedro on the lake) and it is the setting off point for a number of outstanding volcano hikes like the hike to Volcan Santiaguito and a terrific 3-day hike from Xela to Lake Atitlan. There are also the Fuentes Georginas hot springs nearby that can be visited on a day trip from Lake Atitlan along with the fascinating vegetable market in Zunil on Thursdays.
Chichicastanengo (“Chichi”) is only a couple hours away from the lake and is famous for its biweekly market (biweekly as in every Thursday and Sunday, not twice per month) and extremely picturesque cemetery.
Nebaj is an amazing rural trekking area north of Chichicastanengo. It is definitely off the main tourist trail and is a great place to get somewhat off the grid and experience a more traditional and tourist free Guatemala as well as go on some hikes in the surrounding area. before returning for more lake fun and festive parties.
Well, its not strictly up to date as we left at the beginning of March and, from what I’ve heard, things have been a little restricted since, oh, the middle of March or so. And in the fall the airport has opened and some of the restrictions eased. But this a pretty good overview of how things went down before that:
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