There are so many Lake Atitlan villages to choose from that deciding where to stay on Lake Atitlan is the first big decision that has to be made when planning your visit. So, here is a brief breakdown of the various different Lake Atitlan towns and villages. Whenever someone we know decides to pay a visit to glorious Lake Atitlán, usually knowing only about the Mayan culture and impressive volcanic scenery, the first piece of advice they want is where to stay. The answer is never clear-cut as there are many good choices, but luckily they all have their own unique identities, advantages and disadvantages, so everyone will be able to pick the Lake Atitlan village that will be the best for them to base their visit to the lake from.
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Lake Atitlan Villages Map
Lake Atitlan – Where to Stay
San Marcos la Laguna
I’ll start with San Marcos la Laguna because that is more or less where we live. In actuality, we stay at Pasaj-Cap, a loose grouping of apartments and cottages about a 15-minute walk out of town. San Marcos is renowned, or reviled, for its hippie culture, depending on your stance on bare feet and woefully dated dreadlocks,. It simply teems with options for those earth-loving types who love yoga, holistic medicine, massage, spiritual gatherings, meditation, enlightenment training, and group bongo sessions. It might also be the only place in Guatemala where you can find people with a shared interest in the harmonium, and if you’ve always dreamed of living out of a dilapidated 1960’s school bus permanently parked on the side of the road, well, San Marcos has several to choose from.
Despite this tongue-in-cheek hostility on my part, however, the overall vibe of San Marcos remains very friendly and welcoming, with people of all spiritual and hygienic persuasions co-existing comfortably. There are a bevy of impossibly friendly vegetable vendors, coffee shops and even a few all-purpose little grocery shops where you can pick up most of the main staples. The views from this side of the lake are excellent, you can rent kayaks and paddle boards, there is a plethora of yoga studios (people like La Paz and Yoga Forest up the hill) and there is even a designated swimming area with some jumping platforms for once you tire of kale salads and group hair-braiding.
If you are looking to relax with a massage or another therapy there are a lot of options. People are always pleased with massages from Nadia from Therapy Centre Flower House and the East West Center is always a good choice. Don’t come here for the night life, however, as restaurants won’t even serve you after 9:30 pm, and outside of the occasional special event (i.e. live music, midnight seance) , your late night options are basically non-existent. Depending on your interests this Lake Atitlan village may be a good choice for you to stay at.
Where to Eat in San Marcos
There are a number of good restaurants in San Marcos. Our favourites are Fe for a wide variety of options including curries, sandwiches, and pasta. Tul e Sol is another good choice that has been around for a long time. It’s location on the waters edge means its deck has amazing views and the surprisingly impressive ham and cheese sandwich is always a crowd pleaser. El Gardin is a good vegetarian option and it is located in a picturesque garden.
Where to Stay in San Marcos
We always recommend people should stay at Pasajcap Rentals – 15 minutes walk from San Marcos. Its is obviously our favourite as we have been coming back to it for over 10 years. But if you want to stay in the village, there are a number of good options:
Lush Atitlan probably has the most comfortable suites in town.
El Dragon has a terrific spot right on the waterfront with good swimming.
La Paz Eco-Hotel is an excellent budget choice.
Jinava Bay is just outside of town on the way to San Pablo and has good views of the lake.
Yoga Forest has a spectacular spot up at the top of the village and is very popular for yoga vacations.
San Pedro la Laguna
This is the most popular Lake Atitlan village, and is justifiably considered backpacker central. There are many restaurants and most also double as bars, plus there are numerous more places that may serve food under duress but are mainly dedicated to catering to all the day-time alcoholics wandering the streets. I recommend Alegre Pub for combining sports watching with your drinking. Both the hotels and restaurants tend to be cheaper here thanks to all the competition as well as a reasonable understanding of their main clientele, and it is also the place to be if you like to socialize and stay busy. Movies, sports, poker tourneys, weekly BBQs, trivia nights, the fascinating deterioration of elderly expats, there is no reason to be bored in San Pedro.
Also, while you can easily procure a Spanish tutor in any of the villages, San Pedro is definitely the most popular place on the lake to work on becoming a more interesting linguistic member of Latin America. On the other hand, you can’t see the volcanoes because they are behind (and above) you, it can be rather hectic and noisy, you probably want to find a room away from the busiest of the bars, and although many do it I personally wouldn’t be too interested in swimming in a place with so much questionable sewage treatment, not to mention erratic boat traffic and so many scantily-clad gringos who have spent the past few months living on a strict diet of oversized lunch specials and dark beer. San Pedro also has the best tourist focused grocery store (Johanna’s) on this side of the lake and a health food store, both on the main stretch from the dock and several ATMs – I recommend the one up the hill by the market, not the one by the dock as bank cards have been copied there.
Where to Eat in San Pedro
It has countless excellent restaurants of all types, from Italian to Mexican to Israeli to Scottish to even, gasp, Guatemalan. Our favourites are Idea Connection for Italian and excellent bakery products, Fifth Dimension for a vegetarian option, El Barrio’s weekend brunch that is an incredibly good value and the Sunday Smoking Joe’s BBQ.
Where to Stay in San Pedro
The original tourist destination on Lake Atitlán, Panajachel has been a favourite of erstwhile foreign expats for decades now, and with the population pushing 15,000 is the second-largest Lake Atitlan town. “Pana” offers by far the most recognizable version of city life to be had in the area, with a large variety of hotels, restaurants and long-term rentals similar to San Pedro, but also a much larger local market, several actual grocery stores and more banking options.
There was a time when almost all tourists spent time in Pana when visiting Atitlán, but now the increased options and infrastructure have spread the tourist trade out. However, it still seems to be the optimal choice for those who want to see the sights and enjoy the views but aren’t particularly interested in the rural, or optimistically-described “quaint”, simplicity of most of the other towns. It is not our favourite place, to say the least, but it certainly fits the bill for certain visitors and is by no means a bad place to spend a couple days.
Where to Eat in Pana
If you are looking for a view and amazing gardens (but not cheap prices) then Hotel Atitlan is a great place for a meal. Other favourites that we stop at on our Ladies Pana Shopping Trips are Restaurant Hana for Japanese and Tuscani for pizza. There are really good coffee shops along Santander – the main tourist shopping street.
Where to Stay in Pana
Santa Cruz la Laguna
This pretty little village half-way between Pana and San Marcos can only be accessed by boat (there is a small road that comes in from the top of the crater but it is inconvenient and rarely used). The views from its picturesque bay are among the best on the entire lake, with unobscured looks at all three volcanoes looming on the far side (San Pedro, Toliman and Atitlán). While the bulk of the town is farther up the hill, almost all the buildings along the lake are owned by long-term expats who went looking for someplace beautiful, quiet and secluded, and found it in spades in Santa Cruz.
The downsides: only a couple restaurants (recommend La Iguana Perdida which also is a hotel and has the only scuba diving option on the lake) and the need to take a boat to get anywhere or see anything. Choosing to stay at this Lake Atitlan village is a good choice for a tranquil, relaxed holiday, but not ideal if you plan to be an active participant in all the lake has to offer.
Where to Stay and Eat in Santa Cruz
We recommend La Iguana Perdida, which is a hotel and restaurant – try their avocado/pineapple smoothie – and has the only scuba diving option on the lake. A popular place to stay if you are on a tight budget is Free Cerveza. And if budget isn’t an issue try out Laguna Lodge Eco-Resort & Nature Reserve.
Has a lot of similarities to Santa Cruz, but is even smaller and has literally no road access. Its bay isn’t as charming as the one at Santa Cruz but is a good place to really feel away from the tourist crowds.
Where to Eat and Stay in Jaibalito
It has a couple good restaurants – we usually end our hike to Jaibalito with a stop at Posada Jaibalito for beers and good German food. It also has fairly cheap accommodation options. El Indigo has impressed everyone that we took there last year – it is relatively new. It has a varied menu and everything is made from scratch. Easily the best nachos on the lake. Venaca is good for midrange food or a drink by the pool with a view across the lake.
Casa del Mundo is a nice mid-range hotel about a 15-minute walk out of Jaibalito that has impressive views and a great swimming area, and is a place we often recommend for people more interested in relaxation than exploration, although everything on the lake is just a boat ride away.
This small village is actually just about as close to our apartment at Pasajcap Rentals as San Marcos. Only a few years ago there was almost no gringo presence outside of one terrific hill-top restaurant (Bambu) and one small hotel. Now it seems like a new project opens up every few months with new yoga centres and ecstatic dancing, although it is still light years away from being compared to any of the big stops. Cabanas de Tzununa is a good hotel choice. This is a place to really immerse yourself in the local culture, although at this point facilities are still pretty limited.
The largest town on the lake is tucked into the valley between the three volcanoes, limiting the scope of the views but providing a very unique perspective. For all its size and burgeoning crafts industry, there really aren’t that many choices catering to tourists and tends to be more popular with day-trippers or those on long-term volunteer projects. Worth a look, but is an inconveniently long boat ride from most of the more popular locations.
San Juan la Laguna
In my opinion, probably the nicest town on the lake. While increasingly popular with day-trippers and tour groups, not many tourists stay here. It stands out from the crowd in its neat and orderly cleanliness, and is the best place on the lake, other than maybe Santiago, to shop for arts and handicrafts. There are guides at the boat dock who will be happy to show you around. It has a dynamic atmosphere and a shockingly impressive soccer stadium (as if I don’t already question my presence on a pitch full of 20-year old Guatemalans, I need a paying crowd to bear witness as well). Strangely, it is also locally famous for its women’s basketball, as well as being the often unnamed village the Quebecois Lev Tahor ultra-orthodox Jewish group fled to in 2013 (and later from). There is also an ATM – which is the one that we always try to use.
Where to Eat in San Juan
It has a handful of excellent restaurants, including the outstanding El Artesano which specializes in wine and meat/cheese platters. We also often go to Kaas Utz near the market for a after hike lunch, beer and views.
The Rest of Lake Atitlan Villages
There are several other villages, but they are so low on the tourist radar that I don’t really know anyone who has stayed in them. San Pablo is only 10 minutes by tuk tuk from San Marcos but has little to no tourist facilities, just one gringo-owned pizza place and a penchant for throwing a festival of fireworks and public drunkenness every week or two. Santa Clara sits way up the hill from there, perching on the lip of the crater rim at close to 3,000 metres above sea level (twice as high as the surface of the lake) and is the starting/ending point for a number of scenic hikes.
Then there are San Lucas Toliman, San Antonio Palopo and Santa Catarina Palopo tucked away in the southeast corner of the lake, and catering to craft-seeking tourists in small numbers. San Antonio Palopo is known for its pottery while Santa Catarina Palopo has its main buildings painted in colorful traditional designs and has one nice hotel and a couple simple restaurants. One of the 10 best things to do in Lake Atitlan is to visit these three villages along with Santiago on a private boat tour.
Hope some of that makes you think a visit to wonderful Lake Atitlán could be just the thing to break up your routine and helps you answer the question of where to stay on Lake Atitlan. If you have more questions, feel free to drop me a message and I’ll share any meagre amount of additional info I may have. Plus, we’re always looking for people to bring us stuff from home…
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