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Our Complete Guide to Lake Atitlan

We have spent several months at gorgeous Lake Atitlan every year since 2010 (except one – you can probably guess which) and in this post we will provide a complete overview and guide to Lake Atitlan, including everything you need to know before you visit.

To start with, 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 spectacular crater lake surrounded by stunning volcanoes, rolling hills and photogenic Mayan villages is one of our favourite places in the world.

Why Should You Visit Lake Atitlan?

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First of all, Lake Atitlan is stunningly gorgeous, with a friendly, fascinating Mayan population and culture. However, as well as enjoying the views and soaking up the atmosphere, there is an almost endless list of things to do to make your visit even more memorable.

It is quite large and is surrounded by steep hills and impressive volcanoes so if you’re looking for outdoor activities, you can try swimming, climbing a volcano, hiking along a ridge, kayaking across the lake or even cliff jumping.

Person jumping into water with volcano in the back at lake atitlan

Among the less strenuous pursuits on offer, in the many welcoming villages around the lake you can learn Spanish, shop for unique Guatemalan textiles, take a coffee tour and enjoy some famous local brew or even get spiritual in one of the many holistic centres in San Marcos or San Pedro.

Lake Atitlan is also one of the best places in Central America to do yoga, with world-class retreasts located all around the lake.

For a complete list and more details, check out our full post on the topic:

The Best Things to Do in Lake Atitlan

When to Go and Weather

One of the best things about Lake Atitlan is the weather. Honestly, it is one of the three main reasons we return every year (along with the scenery and the friends we’ve made). Because it sits at around 1,400 metres above sea level, it is cooler than many other places in Central America. The temperature doesn’t change much throughout the year, generally hovering between 15C at night at 25C during the day. Basically perfect, in our opinion, and exactly why it is sometimes called “Land of Eternal Spring”.

However, there are two distinct seasons to consider when planning your visit. The dry season runs from late November until the end of April, during which time you will see almost no rain at all. We have literally gone 3 months at a time without a drop. Not surprisingly, this is high season for tourism.

Rainy season starts in May and last into early November but even though it does rain almost every day, it is often still clear in the morning with the rain holding off until the afternoon. There are also the benefits of lush, green scenery and unbelievable cloudy sunsets.

For a full breakdown, check out:

Lake Atitlan: When to Go and Weather

Where to Stay

There are 13 villages/towns around the lake, 11 of which have facilities for tourists. San Pedro and Panajachel are the most popular tourist towns, followed closely by hippie enclave, San Marcos, its holistic understuday, Tzununa, and burgeoning San Juan, an artist’s haven.

We stay in the same apartment at Pasajcap Rentals every year, a spacious place with terrific views. It is located about a 15-minute walk outside of San Marcos and, while there are areas of the lake where swimming is not recommended, we typically swim off the Pasajcap dock every day.

View of Lake Atitlan from our apartment window

Outside of the most popular villages, Santiago Atitlan is the largest town on the lake and although it has some interesting sites for tourists, it feels much more local than the other 4. Meanwhile, each of the other villages have their own particular draws and drawbacks, which you can read all about here:

Lake Atitlan: Where to Stay and Best Hotels

Is Lake Atitlan safe?

Lake Atitlan is one of the safest places in Guatemala for tourists. But it is still important to take precautions. The biggest danger for most tourists is robbery. We have been going there for nearly 15 years and haven’t had any issues, personally. However, we always take the following precautions, just to be safe:

Never walk alone at night – we always take tuk tuks if we are out after dark.

Hike in groups.

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.

Hikers on trail around Lake Atitlan walking toward a volcano

How Many Days Do You Need at Lake Atitlan?

You need at least 3 days to explore the best places around Lake Atitlan, take in the views from some of the best photo spots, 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 more of the activities on offer.

We have had many people visit us over the years and we usually manage to show them all the main 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.

If you don’t have a lot of time to spend at the lake but still want to hit all the best spots, 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.

View over San Antonio Palopo and Lake Atitlan

Getting There and Away

The closest major airport is in Guatemala City, a 3-4-hour drive away. Most people get to Lake Atitlan by shuttle (private or collectivo) or “chicken bus”, the very basic (but cheap) local buses. We use all three at different times depending on where we’re going, how many people are with us and how much time we have.

Woman with backpack getting on chicken bus in San Pedro Lake ATitlan

Usually the easiest way to get around is by “lancha”, public boats that travel from village to village every 20 minutes or so. The rates vary by distance, your confidence level and the mood of the driver.

There are also tuk-tuks to get around within or between the villages, as well as the occasional pickup truck that will haul people in the back.

For more details, check out our complete guide to Lake Atitlan Transportation.

More Lake Atitlan Info

Lake Atitlan is the deepest lake in Central America at 340m and it gets deep quickly around most of the lake. It 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.

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 the lake. From most parts of the lake Volcan San Pedro looks the biggest even though Volcan Atitlan is actually higher.

San Pedro Volcano with small cloud on top

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.

Lake Atitlan also features a submerged Mayan city that 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.

Where to Eat

Selfie of a group of people sitting at a picnic table

There are at least a couple great restaurants in every village on the lake, and many to choose from in the most popular. Here are just a few of our favourite choices for places to eat 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 options: La Quinta 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

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 comparably 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:

The Most Beautiful Lakes in the World

Jaibalito: A Guide to Lake Atitlan’s Quietest Village

Santa Cruz la Laguna: A Guide to Lake Atitlan’s Village With the Best Views

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

The Nariz del Rostro Maya Sunrise Tour

Lake Atitlán FAQ Recap: All Your Burning Questions Answered

Best Lake Quotes

Lake Captions for Instagram

Slow Travel – Settling in for the Long Haul

4 thoughts on “Our Complete Guide to Lake Atitlan”

  1. Having been reading on Travel books and the Internet for dayss. This is indeed the ULTIMATE and best guide on Lake Atitlan. So well done!

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