Lake Atitlan, also known as Lago de 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. Either way, this gorgeous crater lake surrounded by stunning volcanoes, rolling hills and photogenic Mayan villages is one of our favourite places in the world.
We have been spending 2-3 months at Lake Atitlan almost every year since 2010 (you can probably guess which year we missed) and each time we are amazed to discover more terrific viewpoints, excellent hikes and fun activities. No visit to Guatemala is complete without a stop at this incredible Central American destination.
Lake Atitlan Quick Links
Lake Atitlan Info
Lake Atitlan is Guatemala’s third-largest freshwater lake. So while it’s not the biggest it is definitely the most well-known lake in Guatemala. Lake Atitlan is also the deepest lake in Central America at 340m and it gets deep quickly around most of the lake.
Lake Atitlan sits at an altitude of about 1,400 m. This means you may notice shortness of breath until you have been there long enough to acclimatize. The altitude is what keeps the weather so amazing all year round.
The reason the lake is so deep is because it used to be a volcano. Following the eruption of Los Chocoyos volcano a mere 84,000 years ago, the crater left behind filled with water and Lake Atitlan was born. There are no rivers leading out of the lake so it is presumed that there are fissures at the bottom of the lake that allow water out. The water level changes from time to time, sometimes significantly, and one theory is that the regular earthquakes that occur in Central America affect these fissures, allowing more or less water to escape.
The current water level is roughly the same as it was during our first long stay in 2010, which is still quite a bit higher than our first time in Guatemala in 2004. However, in between then and now the water went WAY up (from 5-10 metres!), leading to the loss of some properties and plenty of dock renovations.
Also, a submerged Mayan city was discovered in 1996 in the southeast corner of the lake by Roberto Samayoa. The sunken city of Samabaj had been located on a small island on the lake and became submerged for an unknown reason. Unfortunately, it is still being excavated and is not open to the public. Someday, though, it is going to be one kick-ass scuba diving site.
For now, we generally settle for swimming off the dock at Pasajcap Rentals a few times per week. We have found that Lake Atitlan is safe to swim in so long as there are no algae blooms. And trust me, you’ll know if there is a algae bloom (and they only happen once per decade or so). But we recommend finding a swimming spot away from one of the villages where it is usually cleaner.
The platforms and rock outcroppings at Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve by San Marcos is another great place to swim. Just make sure to check the area before jumping off the rocks. And if you go swimming, always watch for boats. The drivers are often not able to see swimmers so it is up to you to stay out of their way.
For a detailed breakdown, check out The Best Places to Swim in Lake Atitlan
So, here is pretty much everything we’ve learned about the lake over the years. Hopefully this complete guide to Lake Atitlán will provide all the information you need to plan your visit to the best destination in Central America.
Lake Atitlan FAQ
Why is Lake Atitlan famous?
Lake Atitlan is famous for its truly amazing natural scenery. The clear, deep water of the lake with the three volcanos standing sentinel on one side is an awe-inspiring sight.
As we mentioned, Aldous Huxley, the author of Brave New World, called it “the most beautiful lake in the world” and then took it one step further by comparing it to Lake Como in Italy by saying Como “touches the limit of the permissibly picturesque” but Lake Atitlan “is Como with the additional embellishment of several immense volcanoes. It is really too much of a good thing.”
Is Lake Atitlan worth visiting?
Definitely. The scenery with the beautiful lake and looming volcanoes, the long list of things to do, traditional culture and intriguing villages all make it a very unique place to visit. It is a must-see when travelling through Central America and well worth visiting on a specific trip as many do.
If you don’t have a lot of time to spend at the lake but still want to enjoy the best bits, the most efficient way is to sign up for a full-day Lake Atitlan boat tour out of Panajachel. Along with enjoying the fabulous scenery all the way around the lake, this 6-hour tour includes stops in traditional Santiago Atitlán, gorgeous San Juan la Laguna and local coffee plantations and textile shops.
Is Lake Atitlan safe?
In general, Lake Atitlan is safe for tourists. But it is important to take precautions. The biggest danger for most tourists is robbery. We have been going there for over 10 years and haven’t had any issues but we always do the following:
Never walk at night – we always take tuk tuks if we are out after dark.
Hike in groups – we hike 3-5 times a week but always make sure we are in group.
Never carry obvious valuables. Some people carry a “throw away wallet” when hiking with a small amount of money in it.
Lock away or hide valuables in your accommodation; we don’t have to do this where we stay at Pasajcap Rentals as it is very secure but we have heard of break-ins in other places.
Be aware that Guatemala has strong drug laws and have made examples of tourists in the past.
When swimming, watch for boats and don’t dive into the lake without checking for rocks first.
How many days do you need at Lake Atitlan?
You need at least 3 days to explore the best bits of Lake Atitlan, take in the views from different vantage points, see a couple villages and experience local life. Although a week would be even better to give you the chance to stay in more than one village and try a few of the many activities on offer.
We have had many people visit over the years and manage to usually fit in the highlights during a very busy week trip. Or you could follow our example and stay for 1-3 months to truly soak it all in.
Lake Atitlan Volcanoes
The main reason Lake Atitlan is so photogenic are its volcanoes. There are three volcanoes starting with Volcán Atitlán, which is a few kilometres south of Volcán Tolimán so that when viewing them from the other side of the lake they often look like one volcano with two peaks. A long narrow bay, with the village of Santiago is located at the end of it, separates Atitlán volcano and Toliman volcano from San Pedro volcano.
Volcán San Pedro, on the other hand, looms over the village of San Pedro at the western end of Lake Atitlán. From most parts of the lake Volcan San Pedro looks the biggest even though Volcan Atitlan is actually higher.
Volcan Atitlan was active most recently of the 3 volcanoes and had a dozen eruptions between 1469 and 1853 with the most recent eruption being in May 1853. So, in other words, no need to be concerned about one of them suddenly blowing its top.
When to Go to Lake Atitlan
Besides the phenomenal volcanic scenery, the weather is probably the biggest draw of the area. Often referred to as “Land of Eternal Spring”, with an elevation of around 1,600 metres above sea level it is much cooler than other parts of Central America.
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 to go to Lake Atitlan. 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.
The rainy season is probably our favourite time to visit but there really isn’t a bad time to go.
Lake Atitlan Towns and Villages
There are 13 villages/towns around the lake, 11 of which have facilities for tourists, and we have also written individual guides to each of those with much more information. Meanwhile, here is a brief overview of the different towns and villages.
San Pedro is known as the place to go for backpackers. It has most of the cheaper accommodation and the best nightlife. It has a great fruit and vegetable market twice a week and lots of excellent restaurants.
San Pedro la Laguna: Guide to Lake Atitlan’s Most Popular Village
San Juan is all about the art. It is the place to go to shop for local handicrafts, see Instagram-worthy umbrella street, a fantastic mirador, many cafes and great street art. All things considered, this is our favourite village on Lake Atitlan and the one place every visitor should check out.
San Juan la Laguna: A Guide to Lake Atitlan’s Artistic Village
San Marcos is known as the spiritual village. It is the place to go for yoga, reiki, crystal healing, meditation, past life readings, shamanic readings, ecstatic dance, cacao ceremonies, massage, lucid dreaming and fire and drum circles. Just to name a few. It also has some outstanding viewpoints and one of the best swimming areas on the lake.
San Marcos la Laguna: A Guide to Lake Atitlan’s Spiritual Village
Tzununa has become the place to go to study permaculture, organic farming and growing mushrooms. Learn how to build a functioning permaculture farm, take up herbal medicine or sign up for a yoga training or retreat. It has also seen a huge jump in popularity in recent years, with new hotels and restaurants springing up all over. It is definitely the next big thing on Lake Atitlan.
Tzununa: A Guide to Lake Atitlan’s Holistic Village
Tiny Jaibalito is the only village that is not accessible by road, only by boat or on foot. Most people pass through on the popular hike from Santa Cruz to San Marcos and those looking for peace and quiet often stay longer. A lot longer. It is certainly one of the most authentic indigenous villages on the lake.
Jaibalito: A Guide to Lake Atitlan’s Quietest Village
Santa Cruz might just have the best views you’ll find anywhere on the lake (which is definitely saying something). There is an impressive collection of accommodation along the waterfront and it is also home to the oldest scuba diving shop on the lake.
Santa Cruz la Laguna: A Guide to Lake Atitlan’s Village with the Best Views
Panajachel, or “Pana” as it is normally known, is many people’s first stop on Lake Atitlan before they head out to the other towns and villages. It has been hosting tourists longer than any other village on the lake, has a long shopping street, a pretty lakeshore and even some adrenaline options like ziplines and paragliding.
Panajachel: Gateway to Stunning Lake Atitlan
Santa Catarina Palopo
Santa Catarina is possibly the most beautiful village on Lake Atitlan. It is a great place to wander among the hundreds of brightly painted buildings featuring traditional patterns and symbols and has become a very popular day trip destination (second only to San Juan).
Santa Catarina Palopo: A Guide to Lake Atitlan’s Most Colourful Village
San Antonio Palopo
San Antonio is a small village that is known for its weaving and distinctive blue, green and white pottery. It is a great place to take a tour and learn how each piece is made by hand.
San Antonio Palopo: A Guide to Lake Atitlan’s Pottery Village
San Lucas Toliman
San Lucas Toliman is probably the least known town on the lake but it has the oldest church, the only tile mosaics and almost no other tourists.
San Lucas Toliman: A Guide to Lake Atitlan’s Secret Village
Santiago is the largest town on Lake Atitlan and may be the most intriguing, as well, if for no other reason than the opportunity to visit Maximon. This odd little Mayan/Catholic diety will happily greet you in exchange for donations of booze and cigarettes.
Santiago Atitlan: A Guide to an Authentic Mayan Town
Where to Stay at Lake Atitlan
We go into much greater detail on places to stay and specific hotels in our Best Lake Atitlan Hotels: Where to Stay in Each Village. We book the majority of our hotels on Booking.com. With frequent stay discounts, thousands of reviews and free cancellation, it is very rare for us to have a bad hotel experience these days.
Wherever you find them, though, here are a few starting points for your next Atitlan visit:
We always recommend people should stay at Pasajcap Rentals near San Marcos. Its is obviously our favourite as we have been coming back to it for over a decade. Meanwhile, Lush Atitlan is a beautiful, comfortable choice if you would rather stay in the village.
In San Pedro Sababa Resort is an excellent high end option, check out Hospedaje Lolita for a cheaper choice and Mikaso Hotel for a mid-range option located right on the lake.
For choices in Panajachel, Hotel Atitlan is a good high end option as is Porta Hotel del Lago. Hotel Utz Jay is a great value choice.
In Santa Cruz, we recommend Atitlan Sunset Lodge (mid-range) and La Iguana Perdida (budget).
Casa del Mundo is a nice mid-range hotel about a 15-minute walk out of Jaibalito.
In San Juan a couple of the better hotel options are Cabins Xocomil and Eco-Hotel Mayachik, just up the hill from the main dock.
In Santiago, good hotel choices are Los Olivos or Hotel Tiosh Abaj Atitlan (higher end) or Casa Josefa Hotel (lower).
Where to Eat at Lake Atitlan
Here are just a few of our favourite choices for places to eat in Lake Atitlan and what each specializes in:
- Best for wide menu options: Fe in San Marco
- Best for Italian (and bakery): Idea Connection in San Pedro
- Best for vegetarian option: Fifth Dimension in San Pedro
- Best for pizza: Tuscani in Panajachel
- Best for BBQ: Sunday Smoking Joe’s BBQ in San Pedro
- Best for Japanese: Restaurant Hana in Pana
- Best for curry: El Indigo in Jaibalito
- Best pineapple and avocado smoothie: La Iguana Perdida in Santa Cruz
- Best for German: Posada Jaibalito in Jaibalito
20 Amazing Things to Do on Lake Atitlan
Now, for some advice on how to spend your time. We can – and have – stayed busy for months with all that Lake Atitlan has to offer. So once you have made it to the lake we can help answer the question “hey, you’re here, now what?”.
You’ve got yourself a 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.
So read through your amazing options of things to do in Lake Atitlan and pick the one that suits you best or slowly work through them all!
Hike a Trail
We think hiking is the best thing to do on Lake Atitlan (of course, we tend to think hiking is the best thing to do in most places). There are numerous hiking options around the lake, although not all of them can be done on your own without a guide, or at least someone that has done them before.
For more details you should check out our complete Guide to Hiking on Lake Atitlán where you’ll find descriptions, maps and GPX files (handy because trails in Guatemals generally do not have waymarkings or signposts). However, there are three specific hikes 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.
It has been occasionally closed over the last few years because of robberies. Local authorities are doing their best to stop these (so we are told, anyway) but you’ll definitely need to check the latest situation updates before heading out.
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.
If you like climbing Guatemalan volcanoes check out our guides to Climbing Volcan Acatenango and Volcan Atitlan. You can also book a guided Volcan Atitlan hike.
2. Mayan Trail from San Marcos to Santa Cruz (or vice versa)
Sometimes referred to as the Mayan Trail, it is 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 at least a hundred times 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 runs across the face of the hill high above the water with great views across to the volcanoes. Expect it to take around 2 hours to walk from San Marcos to 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).
3. La Nariz del Indio (Indian Nose) or Rostro Maya
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 racially insensitive (which is why many prefer Rostro Maya, but you’ll still hear the other regularly).
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 in Guatemala 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 30Q per person just to get in the park.
There are a variety of other options, from the easy 1-hour jaunt to a beach southeast of San Pedro, 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. And Corona.
A more reliable option would be to sign up for a scenic 4-hr hike ridge hike on the crater rim above Santa Cruz la Laguna. The tour starts in Panajachel and the hike will take you past a sacred Mayan site before finishing in the traditional town of Sololá with lunch at a local comedor.
Head out for a Kayak or Paddleboard
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.
Los Elementos in Santa Cruz also runs one of the best all-day adventure tours that includes kayaking, swimming, hiking, rock climbing, cliff jumping (optional, obviously), archery, trampolines and, if you behave, even some time to relax with a view. This trip is very popular with families.
If you are an early riser you rent a paddleboard the night before and head out for a sunrise paddle on the lake. It’s a memorable, peaceful thing to do on Lake Atitlan and if you are lucky you will be able to see the active volcano Volcan Fuego puffing in the distance against the rising sun.
Go for a Swim, Maybe Combined with Cliff Jumping
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 but eventually go in near San Marcos, Jaibalito or Santa Cruz, and 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.
The best place to jump into the lake is at Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve in San Marcos which has platforms for suntanning and watching people jumping off the ‘cliffs’ or rocks.
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.
Atitlan Bike and Kayak Trip
You can combine several of these activities by signing up for the Atitlán Bike and Kayak Adventure Tour which gives you a chance to experience the wilder side of the lake away from the tourist shops and restaurants. Starting in Jaibalito, this 2-day tour includes meals and hotel (plus transportation from Panajachel or Antigua if needed) and involves mountain biking down from the crater rim, hiking between villages, kayaking on the lake and even cliff jumping.
Go Handicraft Shopping
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.
This is many visitor’s favorite thing to do while visiting Lake Atitlan and we have watched many people go from village to village to make sure they have seen all the options.
Tourist paraphernalia in Pana, art, textiles and Women’s Cooperatives in San Juan, crafts in San Marcos, pottery in San Antonio Palopo 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).
Take a Class and Learn Something New
Classes on a variety of topics 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). Some examples of classes on offer are reiki, massage, meditation, probiotic fermentation with Love Probiotics whose products are for sale around the lake, or balancing your chakras.
In Tzununa, there is the unusual option of learning about permaculture and natural building at Atitlan Organics. You can take a tour of the fully-functional, profitable, organic, permaculture farm or take the Permaculture Design Certification and Natural Building courses.
We know a couple who took the permaculture course and now have their own farm in southern France based on the concepts they learned in Guatemala.
Check out the Nightlife
Since most of the villages practically shut down by 10pm, San Pedro and Panajachel have the best choices for things to do at night. San Pedro is the best place to find a little light-hearted competition in the form of poker tournaments, trivia contests, bars with rotating specials or seeing who can craft the most convincing lies to impress that group of encouragingly drunk German girls.
If you are looking for other location options fear not – having a couple drinks is one of the more popular activities in Lake Atitlan 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.
Slow-moving 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. Our favorite post hike stop for a refreshing beer is the upstairs terrace at Qaas Utz in San Juan.
Take a Yoga Class, Training or Stay for a Retreat
Lake Atitlan is also one of the world’s best yoga destinations and is considered to have good energy due to the ley lines. There are yoga classes and trainings around the lake
There are a lot of great choices but the ones that come up again and again as the best places for yoga retreats, classes or trainings are Doron Yoga in Tzununa, Yoga Forest and Eagle’s Nest in San Marcos, Villa Sumaya in Santa Cruz, and Mystical Yoga Farm in Santiago.
Check out our guide to the Best Yoga Retreats on Lake Atitlan for all the details.
After visiting all the places with yoga retreats on the lake to research that guide Laynni’s favourite was Doron Yoga. If you decide to book a retreat at Doron Yoga use our discount code RouNomad for $50 off and let us know how it went! You can go through all the Doron Yoga retreats coming up and pick the one that fits you best.
And the best thing about Lake Atitlan is you can also find a spot to do some yoga by yourself with truly inspiring views.
Get an Adrenaline Rush
Zipline near Panajachel
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.
Paragliding for the Ultimate View of the Lake
If you have a good stomach for heights you should consider this epic Lake Atitlan adventure. RealWorld Paragliding has a good reputation and highly skilled pilots. The views from up there are unbelievable and they even take photos for you so you can just enjoy the experience.
Wander a Local Market
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 market, but for my money (of which you won’t need much). San Pedro is probably the most interesting one right on the lake and is best on the weekend.
However, 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.
Or, if you are interested the less touristy side of the Lake Atitlán highlands but aren’t so sure about the bus part, you can opt for the village and culture tour out of Panajachel. During this 6-hour tour you will explore the traditional village of Concepción, check out local farms, experience a sacred Mayan fire cleansing ritual and visit the famous Sololá market.
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. Try to get there in the morning as things tend to start packing up by lunch. We do all our fruit and veggie shopping at these markets but even if you aren’t buying anything they are a fascinating look at local life.
Learn Some Spanish
Lake Atitlan is one of the best places to learn Spanish in Central America. San Pedro has the most schools to choose from and they are all quite economical. Many people choose the homestay option so they are truly immersed in learning.
We have a friend who comes every year to do a homestay and learn more Spanish. Most sign up for a week at a time and take 3-4 hours of classes each weekday with group activities on the weekend.
We have opted for a more relaxed learning rate in the past by getting a private teacher or a teacher from Lake Atitlan Spanish School to give 1-hour classes a couple times a week.
We can highly recommend Spanish Classes with Rebeca, an excellent teacher who has provided private lessons to us and several others at Pasaj-Cap over the last few years. She offers classes at Blind Lemon, online or you can arrange for her to come to you instead.
Relax in a Hammock
This one might be first on many people’s list. 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.
Take a Village-to-Village Boat Tour
If you are short on time, the easiest way to see multiple villages quickly is to hire a private boat. Some of the villages that are less accessible by public transportation such as Santiago Atitlan, San Lucas Toliman, San Antonio Palopo and Santa Catarina Palopo are great to visit by private boat and are all surprisingly distinct from each other. You can hire a boat from any of the public docks or most accommodation will be able to arrange one.
Obviously the more people you have the more economical it is but you may need to haggle at bit. We paid 900Q for 4 people for a boat from 9:30 to 4pm to give an idea.
Or you can save yourself the haggling part and just sign up for a full-day Lake Atitlan boat tour out of Panajachel. Along with enjoying the fabulous scenery all the way around the lake, this 6-hour tour includes stops in traditional Santiago Atitlán, gorgeous San Juan la Laguna and local coffee plantations and textile shops.
Get Up to See the Sunrise
Its easy to see the sunset in Lake Atitlan but it is also well worth getting up early enough to see the sun come over the edge of the caldera and slowly light up the sky and volcanoes. And if you can see it all by swing all the better.
Learn How to Weave
If you want to try your hand at making one of the handicrafts for sale around the lake many of the Women’s Weaving Cooperatives in the different villages will teach you traditional techniques. Be aware, its not quick, a scarf will take 8 hours. But it will also give you an appreciation for the work that goes into it when you are haggling for your souvenirs. Check out Atitlan Women Weavers Cooperativa in San Pedro, Tienda Candelaria in San Antonio Palopo or Cojolya Weaving Centre and Museum in Santiago Atitlan.
Find the Street Art
Each of the towns and villages have great street art that occasionally verges on exceptional. Take a wander in any of the villages and find your favourites.
Climb for the View at Mirador Kiaq’Aiswaan
This fantastic viewpoint is also known as the San Juan Mirador and is located about a 15-minute walk from San Juan on the path up to Rostro Maya. The vibrantly painted multilevel Kiaq’Aiswaan Observation Deck now completely surrounds the original cross on the hill and provides stunning views over the lake, volcanoes and San Juan.
Stop for a Coffee
Lake Atitlan produces some pretty amazing coffee in the hills above the lake so it only seems fair that you should try it out. Each of the villages have great cafes but favuorites are Crossroads in Pana, Circles in San Marcos and Café La Cabana in San Juan (this one has the best views and a swing with wings).
Take a Coffee Tour
If you want to see what it takes to get that coffee in your cup check out a coffee tour that will take you through the whole process from picking, drying, and roasting. A good choice is Shangri-La Atitlan in San Marcos or Cooperativa La Voz in San Juan.
Experience Semana Santa
Semana Santa is a major celebration all over Latin America and Guatemala is no exception. San Pedro, in particular, is known for its massive and very loud Good Friday procession.
One of the most unique features of Semana Santa on Lake Atitlan is the intricate creation of “alfombras” – colourful carpets made of dyed sawdust, sand and/or flowers – that decorate the street all the way along the processional route. San Juan makes the best alfombras on the lake and because their procession is in the evening it is possible to watch (or help) them making the alfombras all afternoon.
Bonus Activity – Hiking Volcan Acatenango
One of the top experiences in Guatemala is the overnight Volcan Acatenango hike to watch the spectacular eruptions of Volcan Fuego. Even though this trip takes place out of Antigua, not the lake, almost everyone that visits Lake Atitlan ends up there either before or after.
This is about as close as you can get to an active volcano and the sight of lava shooting up into the sky every 15 minutes or so is incredible in itself, but just wait until it gets dark. Energetic folks even have the option of hiking across the saddle to get right next to Fuego. Then in the morning you can hike up to the summit of Acatenango for yet another angle of this extraordinary phenomenon.
If you have all the camping and cold weather gear you need it is possible to do this overnight hike on your own, although most people choose to go with a guided tour that provides the food, tents, etc. These trips tend to book up quickly in high season so it is a good idea to reserve a spot ahead of time.
Click here for prices and availability
For more details and photos from our experience you should check out our Acatenango trip report.
How to Get to Lake Atitlan
Just about everyone flies into Guatemala City, with decent connections from lots of places around the world, particularly Mexico, the USA, El Salvador and Bogota. We generally find SkyScanner to be the fastest and most accurate place to find flights.
To get to the lake itself, 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 or one of the many tour companies 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 on the lake in San Pedro. 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 give you a true 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. They have been unfailingly helpful every time we use one. We are rarely overcharged on these buses and they always eventually make change even if you only have big bills (quetzales only though).
If you are coming overland from Mexico you might want to read about our very long day from Huatulco, Mexico to Lake Atitlan or our journey from Lake Atitlan to San Cristobal de la Casas, Mexico.
Lake Atitlan Map
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How To Get Around Lake Atitlan
By Boat (Lancha)
The main form of transportation around Lake Atitlan are the public boats that go from village to village, known as lanchas. The most common boats start in Pana and end in San Pedro and 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.
Some estimated boat prices for publico (public) lanchas (boats) are as follows, although they do tend to change without warning and if they can tell you are newly arrived you may have to haggle a bit to get these prices. Once you are sure of the current rate, make sure you have exact change, then just hand it over when yu get off the boat and keep walking.
- Panajachel to Santa Cruz La Laguna: Q10
- Panajachel to Jaibalito: Q15
- Panajachel to Tzununa: Q20
- Panajachel to San Marcos: Q25
- Panajachel to San Pedro: Q30
- Panajachel to Santiago Atitlan: Q30
- San Marcos to San Juan: Q15
- San Marcos to San Pedro: Q15
- San Marcos to Tzununa: Q10
- San Marcos to Jaibalito: Q15
- San Marcos to Santa Cruz: Q20
- San Pedro to Santiago Atitlan: Q30
- San Pedro to Santa Cruz: Q30
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. It is best to hand over the exact amount to to the boat driver or helper when you arrive at your destination. If they ask you to pay in advance you are probably being overcharged.
The boats go every 20 minutes and the last one from San Pedro to Pana leaves at 5 pm. The last one in the other direction leaves later for some reason, usually around 8 pm.
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.
By Tuk Tuk
All the villages have tuk tuks. The base price to anywhere within a village is generally 5Q per person. However, to get 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.
By Pickup Truck
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.
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 (San Marcos and east), Tzutujil (San Juan, San Pedro and Santiago) or Kiche (some of the villages in the hills above the lake).
Children learn Spanish in school but 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.
The people around Lake Atitlan still stick to most of their Mayan traditions and culture. Local women tend to still wear their traditional intricately patterned skirts, blouses and belts with patterns and colours specific to the village they come from. The men, unsurprisingly, seem less concerned, most wearing jeans and t-shirts (sometimes button-up shirts). In some villages, though, the older men still wear traditional garb.
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.
Money and ATMs
You should be able to use cards at some of the hotels and restaurants but will still need cash for the tiendas, street vendors, tuk-tuks, lanchas and local markets. Most of the villages have a single ATM and, if not, there are several in Panajachel, Santiago and San Pedro.
The maximum withdrawal is 2,000 quetzales and all Guatemalan ATMs occasionally run out of money so don’t wait until you’re completely out of cash to try for a withdrawal.
You can sometimes change $US at the banks in Panajachel but don’t count on it. And try to break your large Guatemalan bills whenever you can since a lot of places have limited change.
Wise is by far the best international multicurrency bank account we’ve found, although so far they do not offer Guatemalan quetzal accounts. We still find it useful for money transfers to Pasajcap, however, and we can now send and receive money in half a dozen different currencies, convert to dozens more with no exchange premium and pay or withdraw local currencies. Highly recommended.
Guatemala Internet & Mobile Data Plans
You can find wifi in most hotels and restaurants but never really know what the speed or reliability will be like. Plus, there tends to be lots of power outages. If your phone is unlocked we would recommend picking up a local SIM card with data so that you always have access on your phone and can use it as a hotspot if necessary. Or you can buy a USB stick with data that plugs directly into your laptop.
Tigo and Claro have the best coverage on the lake and a typical SIM package costs 150Q ($20) for limited calling and texting and 10GB of data, recharged for 99Q per month after that. At least twice a week both companies offer “triple saldo”, when you receive 3Q of calling credit for every 1Q you purchase.
The recent development of eSIMs has also changed the travel SIM card landscape. Anyone with a relatively new smartphone can buy them online, download them by scanning a QR code and buy a data package specific to anywhere in the world. After extensive research I have decided that KeepGo eSIMs have the best coverage and prices for most of our trips.
Lake Atitlan Festivals
As is the case in most of Latin America, in Guatemala the next party or fiesta is always just around the corner. From minor religious days to sprawling annual village “ferias” (fairs) that can last several weeks, Guatemalans 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 if you are able to time your trip around Easter.
Lake Atitlan History
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). But I do enjoy speculating (i.e. making things up):
Excursions from Lake Atitlan
Another great benefit 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 Volcan Fuego 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. We’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 Atitlan) 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.
It is possible to get there by shuttle or chicken bus although a much easier option is to sign up for a Chichicastenango Market day tour that stops in Panajachel.
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.
Lake Atitlan Summary
Bottom line: Lake Atitlan is an amazing place, maybe our favourite long-term stay location anywhere in the world. Sure, there are places with (slightly) more dramatic scenery (i.e. Nepal, Antarctica) or more impressive sites (i.e. Pyramids of Giza, Taj Mahal, Bagan) but we have yet to find a place with such an appealing combination of beauty, activities, value and friendliness. You should definitely check it out to decide for yourself.
Other useful articles you may want to check out:
San Pedro la Laguna: A Guide to Lake Atitlan’s Most Popular Village
San Juan la Laguna: A Guide to Lake Atitlan’s Artistic Village
San Marcos la Laguna: A Guide to Lake Atitlan’s Spiritual Village
Tzununa: A Guide to Lake Atitlan’s Holistic Village
Jaibalito: A Guide to Lake Atitlan’s Quietest Village
Santa Cruz la Laguna: A Guide to Lake Atitlan’s Village With the Best Views
Panajachel: Gateway to Stunning Lake Atitlan
Santa Catarina Palopo: A Guide to Lake Atitlan’s Most Colourful Village
San Antonio Palopo: A Guide to Lake Atitlan’s Pottery Village
San Lucas Toliman: Guide to Lake Atitlan’s Secret Village
Santiago Atitlan: Guide to an Authentic Mayan Town
Best Yoga Retreats on Lake Atitlan