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Lake Atitlan is one of the most beautiful lakes in the world and our undisputed home-away-from-home, the place we return to every year for a longer stay. With incredible scenery and a peaceful atmosphere, it is the perfect place to relax and recharge.
So if you are planning a trip to Lake Atitlan – and you absolutely should be! – here is a bunch of useful information about this amazing lake that will definitely come in handy during your visit.
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. KeepGo eSIMs usually have the best coverage and prices for most of our trips, although so far nobody offers a good value Guatemalan package. It is worth checking, though, as the options change often.
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.
We have dedicated posts to all the Lake Atitlan basics to help you plan your visit: