A Complete Guide to Lake Atitlan

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. 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 Atitlán will give you all the information you need to plan your visit.

Sunset with a rainbow from the palapa at Pasajcap Rentals – our favourite place to stay on Lake Atitlan

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.

View of Lake Atitlan from our apartment window

Quick Answers to Some Common Lake Atitlan Questions

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?

Lake Atitlan is definitely worth visiting. 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.

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.

Is Lake Atitlan safe to swim in?

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

We regularly swim in Lake Atitlan. 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. But we recommend finding a swimming spot away from one of the villages where it is usually cleaner. We swim off the private dock at Pasajcap Rentals every day.
 
 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.

Is Lake Atitlan freshwater?

Yes, Lake Atitlan is Guatemala’s third-largest freshwater lake. So while it’s not the biggest is definitely the most well known lake in Guatemala.

How deep is Lago de Atitlan?

Lake Atitlan is the deepest lake in Central America at 340 m. This is still just an estimate as it is too deep to have been properly sounded. It also gets deep quickly around most of the lake. The deepest lake in the world is Lake Baikal in Russia at 1,620 m (5,315 feet).

Why is Lake Atitlan so deep?

Lake Atitlan is so deep because it used to be a volcano. It is now a volcanic caldera after the Los Chocoyos volcano eruption took place a mere 84,000 years ago. The hole left behind after the massive explosion eventually filled with water. 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. That’s the gossip around the lake anyway.

What is at the bottom of Lake Atitlan?

No one has been to or surveyed the actual bottom of Lake Atitlan as it is too deep but a submerged Mayan city was discovered in 1996 by Roberto Samayoa. The city of Samabaj had been located on a small island on the lake and became submerged for an unknown reason.  

Are there fish in Lake Atitlan?

People waiting on a dock at sunrise with a local fisherman fishing nearby

If you get up early, starting at sunrise the local fishermen are out on the lake in their traditional boats. Laynni is up every morning (in the picture we were catching the first boat for an early morning sunrise hike and the fishermen were already out) and although she has yet to see one of them catch anything we have seen plenty of them jumping. However, most people do not recommend eating lake fish.

What is the altitude of Lake Atitlan?

Lake Atitlan altitude is about 1,500 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.

Is Lake Atitlan Guatemala 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 groups.
·       Never carry obvious valuables. Some people carry a ‘throw away wallet’ 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’s so secure there 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.

Can you drink the water at Lake Atitlan

The tap water at Lake Atitlan is not safe to drink. You will need to drink bottled water, boil it, use a steripen or treat the water with tablets. Also be careful eating fresh fruits and vegetables that you didn’t wash yourself unless you are at a tourist restaurant.

When was the last time one of the 3 volcanoes at Lake Atitlan erupted?

There are three volcanoes around Lake Atitlan. Volcán Atitlán is a few miles south of Volcán Tolimán which means that when viewing them from the other side of the lake they often look like one volcano with two peaks.
 
Volcán San Pedro looms over the village of San Pedro northwest of Volcán Atitlán. From most parts of the lake Volcan San Pedro looks the biggest even though Volcan Atitlan is actually higher. 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.
 
Volcan Atitlan was active most recently of the 3 volcanoes at Lake Atitlan and had a dozen eruptions between 1469 and 1853 with the most recent eruption being in May 1853.

Lake Atitlan Map

When to Go to Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Besides the phenomenal volcanic scenery, the weather 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 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.

A spectacular rainy season sunset

The rainy season is probably our favourite time to visit Lake Atitlan but there really is no bad time to go.

Lake Atitlan Towns and Villages

There are 13 villages/towns around the lake ranging from tiny (Jaibalito) to quite large (Santiago Atitlán – 50,000), each with their own unique personality and specialties. Most travellers base themselves in either the Lake Atitlan town of 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.

The street leading from the dock at San Pedro

For a complete description of each town and village including the type of tourist they cater to, Lake Atitlan hotels and restaurants options, nightlife or lack there of, and transportation go to our post about the Lake Atitlan Villages. But here is a quick overview of our favourite places to stay and eat.

Where to Stay at Lake Atitlan

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.

Yoga Forest in San Marcos has a spectacular spot up at the top of the village and is very popular for yoga vacations.

In San Pedro Sababa Resort is an excellent high end option, Papaya’s Hostel for a cheaper choice, and Santa Maria del Lago for something in the middle located right on the lake.

For choices in Pana Hotel Atitlan is a good high end option and Hotel El Sol is on the other end of the spectrum. 

We recommend La Iguana Perdida in Santa Cruz.

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.

For Santiago good hotel choices are Los Olivos (higher end) or Hostal Santiaguito (lower). 

Where to Eat at Lake Atitlan

Here are 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 vegan options: Cinco Dimension in San Pedro
  • Best for pizza: Tuscani in Pana
  • 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
  • Best for vegetarian: Bambu in Tzununia
  • Best for wine and cheese splurge: El Artesano in San Juan

13 Amazing Things to Do in Lake Atitlan

We can – and have – stayed busy for months with all that Lake Atitlan has to offer. So once you have made it to Lake Atitlan 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 the best thing to do on Lake Atitlan is hiking. There are numerous hiking options around the lake, although only a couple that work well to do on your own without a guide, or at least someone that has done them before.

For more details you should check out our Guide to Hiking on Lake Atitlán that provides descriptions, maps and GPX files for 16 different trails as the hikes in Guatemals generally do not have waymarkings or signposts. However, there are three that stand above the rest in popularity.

  1. 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.

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.

2. San Marcos to Santa Cruz (or vice versa)

Hikers on trail around Lake Atitlan walking toward a volcano
Our group hiking from Santa Cruz to San Marcos

By far the most popular Atitlán hike that doesn’t involve climbing straight up something only to turn around and walk back down. This one can easily be done without a guide (just be sure to take the small path to the left when you reach Lomas de Tzununá at the top of the hill above the village of Tzununá), although there is an unfortunate history of armed robberies along this trail.

You can either opt to hire a guide, or simply travel in a group and avoid carrying any valuables. Having said that, we have done this hike 30 times or more and never had any problems. Usually we go in a group of 4-6 people, but we have also done it with just the two of us many times without incident.

I think it helps to look extremely not worth robbing, something our well-stained hiking t-shirts and my ill-fitting hat apparently accomplish in spades.

Most of the trail is across the face of the hill high above the water with great views across to the volcanoes. Expect it to take anywhere from 1 to 2 hours to reach the village of Jaibalito (where you can stop for a drink or a cheap, tasty German meal at Posada Jaibalito, better known as Hans’ Place), then another half to one hour up and over to Santa Cruz.

You can easily catch a public boat (lancha) back from either end, as it can also be done in reverse, or in sections, or some people even hike all the way back the way they came (you know, those embroiled in intense Fitbit step-counter competitions and such).

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 racist (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 here don’t cost much and are usually helpful, you don’t really need one, although there are a few spots along the way where entrepreneurial farmers now charge access fees to cross their land. It seems to fluctuate, but no matter what you can count on an official minimum of 20Q per person just to get in the park.

Other hikes

There are a variety of other options from the easy 1-hour jaunt to the waterfall above Tzununa, to the 2-hour gentle stroll down from Parque Chuiraxamolo to Santa Clara (with the option of continuing down past Indian Nose to San Juan), to full day excursions up Volcanes Toliman or Atitlán.

For most of these you will probably need a guide, or at least a knowledgeable British friend willing to show you the way in exchange for slowing him down and bombarding him with stupid questions. And Corona.

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.

Two paddleboarders on Lake Atitlan

If you are an early riser you can join a sunrise paddleboarding tour with Venga Atitlan Outdoor Adventures out of San Marcos. 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 before venturing in near San Marcos, Jaibalito or Santa Cruz, but feel fairly comfortable swimming off our Pasaj-Cap dock nearly every day.

The same would go for any of the houses or hotels located away from the villages.

person swimming in Lake Atitlan in front of San Pedro Volcano
Floating in Lake Atitlan – the water is chilly but refreshing

The best place to swim on Lake Atitlan is 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. 

Dock on Lake Atitlan with a view of the volcanoes
Warming up before jumping into the chilly Lake Atitlan water

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.

woman shopping for pottery in a village on Lake Atitlan

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 learned in Guatemala.

Check out the Nightlife

Since most of the villages practically shut down by 10pm San Pedro has the best choices of things to do at night. It 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.

Slightly depressing expats determined to speed up the aging process via a strict regimen of drinking alone in the morning tend to prefer the sports bars of San Pedro and Pana. These are also the best places to find “night life”, which on Atitlán is more or less defined as any bartender that will serve you until 11:30 pm.

San Marcos has some nice restaurants and decent lounges, but be prepared to turn into a pumpkin by 9:30 at the latest (be careful, though, because even as a lonely pumpkin on the dark road by yourself it is still very easy to end up with dog shit on your shoe).

San Juan, Santa Cruz, Tzununá and Jaibalito all have places that serve alcohol but most drinks tend to disappear with the setting sun. Our favorite post hike stop for a refreshing beer is the upstairs terrace at Qaas Utz in San Juan.

Take a yoga class or training

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 though they tend to be centered in San Marcos.

There are a lot of great choices but the ones that come up again and again as the best are Yoga Forest and Eagle’s Nest in San Marcos, yoga retreats at Isla Verde in Santa Cruz, and Doron Yoga in Tzununa. And the best thing about Lake Atitlan is you can also find a spot to do some yoga by yourself with truly inspiring views.

Woman doing yoga on a rooftop with views of Lake Atitlan and the volcanoes

Get an Adrenaline Rush on a Zipline

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.

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.

Local market in San Pedro on Lake Atitlan
Seeing a local market is a great thing to do in Lake Atitlan

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 known as one of the best places to take Spanish classes 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 would also 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 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.

Relaxing in a hammock is definitely my favourite thing to do at the lake

Take a Day Long Village Boat Tour

You can hire a private boat for the day to visit the villages that are less accessible by public transportation. Santiago, San Lucas Toliman, San Antonio Palopo and Santa Catarina Palopo are great to visit by boat and are all surprisingly distinct from each other. You can hire a boat from any of the public docks (remember to bargain) or most accommodation will be able to arrange one.

San Antonio Palopo, Lake Atitlan from the boat

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.

How Do You Get 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 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 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. 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 the lake or our journey from the lake to San Christobal de la Casas, Mexico.

How Do You Get Around Lake Atitlan?

By Boat (lancha)

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 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 basic boat prices for publico (public) launchas (boats) are:

  • Panajachel to Santa Cruz La Laguna: Q5-10
  • Panajachel to Jaibalito: Q10
  • Panajachel to Tzununa: Q15
  • Panajachel to San Marcos La Laguna: Q20
  • Panajachel to San Pedro: Q25
  • Panajachel to Santiago Atitlan: Q25
  • San Marcos to Santa Cruz: Q15
  • San Pedro to Santiago Atitlan: Q10
  • San Pedro to Santa Cruz: Q20
  • San Pedro to San Marcos: Q10

It is best to hand over the exact amount to to the boat driver or helper as he stands on the dock as you exit the dock. The boats go every 20 minutes 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.

A public boat that is the most common way to get around on Lake Atitlan

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.

By Tuk Tuk

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 main drivable street of San Marcos with the tuk tuks lined up waiting for customers

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.

Traveling in the back of a pickup truck around Lake Atitlan
Crammed into the back of a pick up truck going from San Pablo to Santa Clara to go hiking

The 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.

The local market in San Pedro where we do our weekly fruit and veggie shopping

The local women tend to still wear their traditional intricately patterned skirts, blouses and belts. The patterns and colours are specific to the village they come from.

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 most hotels and restaurants but will still need cash for the tiendas, street vendors, tuk tuks, lanchas and local markets. There is a good, reliable ATM at the Banrural on the corner of the main road through town (SOL-4) and Calle 6.

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 bank in either San Pedro or Panajachel but they don’t make it easy. You usually need to have your passport with you and your bills have to be immaculate or they won’t accept them.

They don’t accept bills smaller than $20 and some banks require that you have an account with them. Even then they often set a monthly limit of around $500. Basically, you don’t want to count on it.

Keep in mind, change is like gold on Lake Atitlan, so try to break your 100Q bills every chance you get in restaurants and tiendas. Many small vendors won’t have any change and you need exact change to pay for the lanchas (or you will definitely end up paying more).

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 2GB of data.

There are often specials that bump that up to 4GB and at least twice a week both companies offer “triple saldo”, when you receive 3Q of calling credit for every 1Q you purchase.

Local 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 if you are able to time your trip around Easter.

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):

An Historical Pictorial

Nearby Excursions

Another great benefit of Lake Atitlan is how many other interesting destinations there are within easy driving distance.

Antigua

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.

Xela

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.

Me acting super-cool at Volcan Santiaguito

Chichi

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

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.

Conclusion

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 Marcos la Laguna: A Guide to Lake Atitlan’s Spiritual Village

San Juan la Laguna: A Guide to Lake Atitlan’s Artistic Village

Panajachel: Gateway to Stunning Lake Atitlan

Semana Santa on Lake Atitlan

Climbing Volcan Atitlan Guatemala

A Volcan Acatanengo Hike Guide

Volcan Santiaguito

Xela to Lake Atitlan Hike and Volcan Zunil Summit

Best Lake Quotes

Lake Captions for Instagram

Universal Packing List

Slow Travel – Settling in for the Long Haul