Panajachel Guatemala is a bustling town on the shores of beautiful Lake Atitlan, located in the Guatemalan Highlands a few hours west of Guatemala City. It is the busiest and most touristy of all the villages on Lake Atitlan, and the most common place for visitors to get their introduction to “The Most Beautiful Lake in the World” (according to Aldous Huxley, several magazines and, occasionally, me).
Even though it is a relatively small place in the scheme of cities, it feels much larger because of the number of tourists. It is the second-largest town on Lake Atitlan, just ahead of San Pedro la Laguna and behind only Santiago Atitlan. Santiago may be larger but it is difficult to access and has very little tourist infrastructure, leaving “Pana” and San Pedro as the two main tourist centres.
Although the hectic, touristy atmosphere of Panajachel can be overwhelming at first, that is soon forgotten once you make it down to the lake and get your first glimpse of the incredible lake and volcanoes. It is quite a view.
Although, depending on which road you took to arrive in Pana you may already have experienced the fabulous views from the winding road down from Sololá. Either way, speaking as someone who has been returning to Lake Atitlan annually for over a decade, those views never get old.
Panajachel gained popularity in the swinging 60’s and 70’s as part of the growing “hippie trail” that also included Nepal, India and Morocco. It quickly became a haven for young dropouts from society – smoking pot, exploring counterculture and searching for alternate lifestyles that included meditation, energy vortices, healing crystals and full moon parties.
Over the years, however, that scene has slowly moved across the lake to San Marcos la Laguna and, to a lesser extent, San Pedro. Meanwhile, Pana is still the main tourist base, with the most infrastructure, restaurants, shopping and tours to facilitate exploration of magnificent Lake Atitlan.
For more detailed information on all there is to see and do around the lake, check out our Complete Guide to Lake Atitlan.
Where is Panajachel?
It is on the north shore of Lake Atitlán, about a 3-hour drive from Guatemala City. It is about 2 hours from both the lovely tourist town of Antigua and Quetzaltenango (known as “Xela”), Guatemala’s second city.
How do I get to Panajachel Guatemala?
Your main choices are tourist shuttle or “chicken bus”. Shuttles from Guatemala City to Panajachel usually take 3-4 hours and cost around 200-250 quetzales ($US25-35). Shuttles from Antigua or Xela to Panajachel will be a bit shorter (2-3 hours) and cost just 100-150Q ($15-20) because it is a much more common route.
Private shuttles are also possible, with prices varying widely from 300Q ($45) to 700Q ($100) from Guatemala City, and usually about 75% of those prices from Antigua.
Iconic chicken buses are extremely Guatemalan. You’ll see these highly customized former North American school buses and their garish paint jobs all over the country. They are everywhere, running all the time, and cost next to nothing. Of course, they are sometimes very crowded (standing room only), very bumpy and occasionally a bit reckless.
If you don’t mind the chance of a bit of discomfort (although at least half the time we end up on mostly empty buses) and are okay with the risk (Central America in a nutshell) they are often just as fast as the shuttles and much cheaper. In general, we recommend trying to get on where the bus originates to ensure you get a seat by the window, which means that at worst you’ll be squished in but won’t have to worry about standing or being stuck half on a seat (and half hovering in the aisle).
When we first arrive in Guatemala each year we usually stock up on some of the groceries that are easier to find in the city and take a private shuttle. For all other trips, though, when we only have small backpacks, we usually use chicken buses.
How do you get around Lake Atitlan?
Most of the time your best choice for getting around the lake is by “lancha”, the small boats that run every 20 minutes (approximately, very approximately) all around the lake. You pay when you get off and the price is based on how far you’ve gone, varying from 5Q ($0.75) between neighbouring villages to 50Q ($7) to go all the way across the lake.
The main dock is at the end of Calle Embarcadero and is the place to go for lanchas from Panajachel to San Pedro la Laguna. You can take the scenic route all the way around along the north shore (about an hour in total) or wait for one of the direct lanchas that go straight across to San Pedro (less than half an hour). The slow route stops off at every village along the north shore – Santa Cruz la Laguna, Jaibalito, Tzununá, San Marcos la Laguna and San Juan la Laguna.
The Santiago dock is located at the end of Calle Rancho Grande. This is where you will catch lanchas to Santa Catarina Palopo, San Antonio Palopo, San Lucas Toliman and Santiago Atitlan.
If you have a choice, the lake is usually much calmer in the mornings, making boat trips both faster and more comfortable. Afternoon rides can occasionally turn a bit adventurous.
While some of the villages are pretty much only reached by boat (Santa Cruz, Jaibalito), others are also connected by tuk tuk, the small 3-wheeled taxis that are also known as rickshaws in other parts of the world. These generally cost just 5Q to go anywhere within a village, then anywhere from 10-40Q between villages depending on distance.
Another possibility is pickup truck. Small trucks with railings in the back to hold on to transport surprisingly large groups of people in the box, usually for 5Q per person. Just flag them down and squeeze in, then pay when you get off.
Is Panajachel a big city?
Panajachel is only big by Lake Atitlan standards. With an estimated population of around 15,000 it is the second-largest town on the lake.
20 Things to Do in Panajachel, Guatemala
Lake Atitlan is one of the most popular places in Latin America to learn Spanish. Prices are very affordable (some might say cheap) and you can fully customize your schedule (from 2-6 hours per day, from 1-5 days per week) depending on your goals. The homestays, in particular, offer tremendous value by including your lodging, classes and food all together in one fee. Plus, the immersive Spanish experience of living with a Guatemalan family is an added bonus that can really accelerate your learning curve.
A great option in Pana is Jabel Tinamit Spanish School, run by a local Mayan couple for over 15 years. They are very flexible and employ friendly teachers who will tailor lessons to your level. They are also happy to discuss local Mayan history, culture and politics which helps you learn about Guatemala at the same time you are learning Spanish.
They have online classes as well if you want to get started before you arrive or continue with your classes after you’ve gone. Another rewarding option is to volunteer at the school in addition to your classes. Students routinely help locals practice their conversational English, as well as work on computer skills, math or general tutoring.
Go Shopping on Calle Santander
While other villages are known for specific things (i.e. San Juan is the “artistic” village), none of them can compete with Panajachel for sheer volume of shops and variety of products.
Vibrant Calle Santander is the place to go for everything from local fabrics, crafts and clothing to kitschy tourist trinkets, t-shirts and souvenirs.
Visit the Main Square and the San Francisco Church
This beautiful old church dating back to the 16th century is the hub of local activity for Pana, although it is not as popular with tourists as the shops and restaurants are. It features a pleasant, empty square in front of a wonderfully restored little church with a superb stone façade.
Shop at the Local Market
Every village on the lake has its own fruit and vegetable market, usually running once or twice a week. But Pana’s is the largest and is open every day, rain or shine. Along with the usual amazing selection of cheap, fresh produce, you can find virtually everything at the Pana market from meat and nuts to birthday hats and balloons (hey, we celebrate a lot of birthdays when we’re there).
Whether you buy something or not, a meander through the market is always entertaining.
Wander the Hotel Atitlan Gardens
Arguably the nicest place for lunch in Panajachel, Laynni and her friends frequently visit Hotel Atitlán on their monthly “Ladies Day”. The food and drink (cocktails especially) are higher priced than most of Lake Atitlan but the setting is unbeatable. There is usually a fee of 75Q to enter the grounds but if you spend at least that much at the restaurant it’s free.
There are hundreds of types of flowers from all over the world filling the garden as it follows the hills down to the lake, including one of the most varied rose gardens you’ll find anywhere. They employ 16 gardeners to keep it in immaculate condition. Along with the amazing scenery you will also see macaws, ducks, hummingbirds, a koi pond and many other birds and animals.
Hotel Atitlán is just a short walk outside Pana but also a quick, cheap tuk tuk ride (which is preferable if, like Ladies Day, your day includes some alcoholic beverages). They also have their own private dock so you can get there by private lancha. However you get there, it is the perfect place to go for a fantastic meal in a beautiful setting.
Get Out on the Lake on a Paddleboard or Kayak
The lake is the big highlight of all Lake Atitlan villages so you should definitely take the chance to get out on the water. Cruising across the calm, morning waters in a kayak or on a paddleboard offers a completely different perspective. As we mentioned earlier, the waves tend to pick up in the afternoon so the earlier the better, and always keep a close watch for boats.
In Pana, GuatSUP offers paddle boarding, SUP yoga, SUP Acro yoga and SUP wakesurfing.
There are also a few different places to rent a kayak in Panajachel, including right on the public beach (Playa Publico). However, we would probably recommend heading over to Santa Cruz for kayaking and renting from Los Elementos.
We have rented there often in the past because they have better selection and starting from there you are closer to the volcanoes. They also offer guided tours, kayak-cliff jump tours and kayak-cliff jump-hike tours.
Visit the Lacustre Museum in Panajachel
For a fascinating and thorough look at Mayan history, culture and the geological story behind Lake Atitlan, be sure to check out the small but excellent Lacustre Museum located on the same property as Hotel Posada de Don Rodrigo.
There is even some great information about Samabaj, the sunken Mayan city that was only discovered by a scuba diver at the bottom of the lake in 1996. Estimates suggest it was submerged around 250 AD and it is still in the process of being excavated as the first underwater archaeological ruins in Guatemala.
Explore Lake Atitlan’s Villages
Every village on Lake Atitlan has its own character and at least one or two good reasons for a visit. If you are staying on the lake for a few weeks or more you should be able to explore them all one at a time.
San Pedro is the backpacker hangout, with plenty of bars, restaurants and activities. San Juan is known for its art and traditional clothing shops, while San Marcos is a new age, hippie enclave, and all three are quite close to each other.
Santiago Atitlán is a bit further away and boats to it leave from its own dock but its an intriguing village. There are also Tzununa, Jaibalito and Santa Cruz, plus those south of Panajachel.
As we discussed earlier, you can take lanchas to every village on the lake (except San Pablo) but it is also possible to travel by pickup from Pana to Santa Catarina known for its colourful buildings or San Antonio known for its pottery.
If you are on a tighter timeline, or just want to check off a bunch in one fell swoop, you can book a private boat tour. Any tour operator along Calle Santander or near one of the docks should be able to arrange a day of village hopping for a very reasonable price.
Hike from Santa Cruz to Tzununa
There are many terrific hiking trails around Lake Atitlan but the best one, in our opinion, is the ridge walk between Santa Cruz and Tzununa. While there are more epic hikes (care to climb a volcano, anyone?), easier ones and more convenient ones, this extraordinary lakeside trail boasts the best combination of views, exertion and village hopping.
The entire hike usually takes around 2-3 hours, depending on whether you stop at Tzununá or continue on to San Marcos – this last section follows a rather dusty road so unless you want to visit San Marcos anyway it makes sense to catch a lancha back to Pana from Tzununá. The hike features plenty of small ups and downs (roughly 300 metres elevation gain) and passes through many small farms and through the village of Jaibalito. Most importantly, the lake and volcano views are sublime.
Unfortunately, tourists have occasionally been robbed on this hike so it is recommended to always hike in a group or hire a guide, and don’t carry valuables. Having said that, while we usually do that hike in a group at least once a week, Laynni and I have probably done it a hundred times or more by ourselves and never had an issue.
But we never carry anything that looks tempting (no backpack or belt bags) and always do our best to look sweaty and impoverished (not a big stretch).
To read about all the hiking options around the lake, check out: A Guide to Hiking on Lake Atitlan
Take a Day Trip to Chichicastenango
“Chichi”, as it’s known, has one of the biggest, craziest and most famous markets in all of Central America. It takes place every Thursday and Sunday and draws huge crowds of locals, farmers, city folk and tourists. There is a huge variety of stalls selling fresh produce, livestock, local clothing, traditional art, regional flowers and amazing pottery.
It is very popular and undeniably touristy but still worth seeing at least once. While most people visit the Chichicastenango market on a whirlwind day trip, we would recommend going the day before the market and spending the night.
This gives you the chance to watch them setting up the stalls the night before as well as get there before the crowds first thing in the morning. While in Chichi, be sure to check out the colourful cemetery and have a look at the fascinating church of Santo Tomas.
Most people come on a tour (common and good value) or you can make your own way via chicken bus to Los Encuentros, then a mini-bus from there to Chichi.
Experience a Local Festival
Semana Santa in Panajachel
Semana Santa (Holy Week) takes place at Easter and is a major celebration all over Latin America. Panajachel and San Pedro are both known for their massive Good Friday processions. 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 streets all the way along the processional route.
While there are processions in Pana every day during Semana Santa, the main Good Friday procession usually starts mid-afternoon and often continues until after midnight. It is loud, colourful, long, crowded and a must-see.
All the villages on the lake, and over 300 throughout Guatemala, have their own “fería”, or annual festival. They originated when towns and villages were renamed after a different saint and traditional Mayan religion was combined with Catholicism. The ferías are celebrations to honour each village’s patron saint. Panajachel was changed to “San Francisco de Panajachel, with Saint Francis of Assisi appointed the village’s patron saint.
The Panajachel fería is held at the beginning of October each year and includes a variety of festivities, processions, dances, concerts and ceremonies to honour Saint Francis. Along with the religious aspect, there is a whole carnival side to the fería, with rides, games, fireworks, parades, parties and football (soccer) games.
Not surprisingly, the fería also attracts shops, sellers and street vendors from all over Lake Atitlan. It is a fun time, just be ready to get really sick of the “bombas”, cheap fireworks that only make noise (without the visuals). These obnoxious and dangerous toys are firm favourites of every kid (and way too many adults) 24 hours a day throughout the celebrations.
Other ferías around lake include:
San Marcos – April 25 (San Marcos Evangelista)
Santa Cruz – May 10 (Santa Elena de La Cruz)
San Juan – June 24 (San Juan Bautista)
San Pedro – June 29 (San Pedro Apóstol)
Santiago Atitlán – July 25 (Santiago Apóstol)
Panajachel – October 4 (San Francisco de Asís)
There are also a variety of smaller festivals throughout the year, including the Day of the Dead, Dia del Diablo and Navidad (Christmas), which feature many more outstanding processions.
Get Close to Nature at the Atitlan Natural Reserve
The Atitlan Nature Reserve is the best place on Lake Atitlan to witness nature and wildlife in a protected environment. The magnificent Butterfly Geodome is a fan favourite, with thousands of swarming creatures, and throughout the reserve you are likely to see spider monkeys, coati and many species of birds.
There are hiking trails through coffee fields, lush forest, over hanging bridges, past superb waterfalls and down to the beach. There is also a collection of 8 ziplines if you want to add some big lake views and a touch of adrenalin to your nature experience.
The entrance fee for just the park 55Q ($7), or for 220Q ($27) your admission is included along with a short hike, the full zipline tour and a ride into the forest. There is also a shorter zipline option but you miss out on some of the best views.
The Atitlan Nature Reserve is just a couple kilometres north of the San Pedro dock but it is probably easier to take a tuk tuk.
Have a Coffee and Watch the Action
While we aren’t coffee drinkers ourselves, we have many coffee-loving friends and they assure us that Café Tz’utujil is the best place to enjoy a cup and watch the world go by. It is located on the main (and fascinatingly chaotic) intersection coming up from the San Pedro dock.
For something a little quieter, check out the Crossroads Café just off the main road. All their coffee comes from local beans and is roasted in-house. They sell coffee beans to go and even have a reputation for great tiramisu.
See the Lake from Above while Paragliding
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. It costs 700Q ($90) for a tandem flight that lasts anywhere from 20-45 minutes depending on wind and weather conditions. The views from up there are unbelievable and they even take photos for you so you can just enjoy the experience.
They shuttle you about half an hour from the office to the trailhead and from there it is a nice 20-minute hike to the departure site (which has awesome views in its own right).
Volunteer with an NGO
Guatemala is a very poor country and the Highlands are one of its poorest regions. As a result, there are a number of Non-Governmental Organizations on Lake Atitlan focused on helping improve the quality of local life.
Mayan Families provides food, medical and educational help to Indigenous and Ladino Guatemalans. Projects are always changing and evolving but volunteers often help teach children, translate documents, cook for the elderly or install stoves, just to name a few things.
Revive at a Spa
If a spa day sounds like just the ticket, Exhale Body & Mind Spa specializes in natural hair and skin treatments, massages, facials, manicures, pedicures and waxing.
Wander Casa Cakchiquel
Another classic Ladies Day stop, Casa Cakchiquel (or Casa Kakchiquel) is a classic old building from the 1950’s built by the Swedish ambassador to Guatemala. It was the very first hotel in Panajachel and has a nice, quiet location just off of Calle Santander. It has since been renovated and is home to the excellent Japanese Hana Sushi restaurant, lots of old paintings and photo exhibitions and, naturally, a radio station.
Learn Weaving at a Women’s Colectivo
At one of the traditional women’s weaving colectivos you can spend the day learning about traditional Guatemalan techniques for spinning cotton, dyeing string and weaving beautiful textiles. They provide all the materials and show you every step of the process from harvesting the cotton to the finished traje tipico (traditional dress) and traditional scarf.
Visit La Galeria
The cultural centre of Panajachel, La Galeria offers a wide variety of art and activities. Along with an extensive art and antique collection from throughout Guatemala and around the world you can watch films, enjoy concerts and take in informative lectures.
Throw in some art classes, yoga, a café and a garden full of classic old cars (rusted up for authenticity) and you have yourself one extremely interesting Pana stop.
Relax and Slow Down
There is so much to do around Lake Atitlan that it can be tempting to fill your days without leaving anytime for the ultimate lake experience – slowing down and taking some time to do, well, not much. And whether that constitutes reading in hammock, having a 2-hour coffee or settling in on the point to watch the sunset, be sure to set aside some time relax during your visit to Pana.
When to Visit: Panajachel Guatemala Weather
Another of the places we have eagerly tracked down around the world described as “Land of Eternal Spring”, Lake Atitlan has a near perfect climate all year-round (in our opinion). At an average of 1,400 metres above sea level, it does not get as hot as most of Central America, with the temperature only occasionally reaching 25 or 26 Celsius.
More commonly, the daily high is between 20-23C which, for us, is perfect. Not sweltering but plenty nice enough for a t-shirt and shorts. Nights get comfortably cool, usually in the 14-16C range, making it easy to sleep comfortably without the need for air conditioning.
Dry season runs from late November to the end of April (give or take) and during this time it will be surprising if you see more than a few brief sprinkles of rain. This is by far the most popular tourist season. May to October is the “rainy season” and it’s true, it does rain quite a lot during this time.
However, we have spent plenty of time on Lake Atitlan during the rainy season as well and, for the most part, the mornings are usually still clear and sunny. Then around 11 or 12 it starts to cloud over and you can expect some afternoon rains. But if you plan your activities for first thing in the morning and make sure you’re safely inside by late afternoon it really shouldn’t affect you too much.
And the heavy evening cloud cover makes for some of the most spectacular sunsets we’ve seen anywhere in the world.
Helpful Details and Tips for Panajachel, Guatemala
Money and ATMs
Pana is well-connected so you should be able to use cards at all hotels and most restaurants but will still need cash for the tiendas, street vendors, tuk tuks, lanchas and local markets. The best ATM is the BanRural across from the main church. The maximum withdrawal is 2,000 quetzales ($US260) and all Guatemalan ATMs occasionally run out of money so don’t wait until you’re completely out of cash to try making a withdrawal.
You can sometimes change $US at the bank 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). If you are coming down for a longer stay we would recommend ordering some Guatemalan quetzales through your home bank. Royal Bank of Canada allows us to specify small bills so we usually bring a stockpile down with us.
Costs in Panajachel Lake Atitlan
While it is certainly much cheaper than travelling in North America or Europe, people are often surprised to find Guatemala quite a bit more expensive than Mexico. Not Cancun or Puerto Vallarta, necessarily, but away from the modern beach resort areas we find Mexico considerably cheaper, especially for eating out.
Good value taco shops/stalls are everywhere in Mexico and local market food is almost absurdly cheap, while both will cost a fair bit more in Guatemala. Full meals in tourist restaurants, in particular, can add up quickly.
Although it is possible to eat for $5 or less, most of choices are more in the 60-80Q range ($8-10). So the point is, Guatemala is still very cheap, just maybe not as cheap as you expected if you just came from Mexico.
Grocery Stores and Markets
We generally get all our fruits and vegetables at the local market which runs every day but has a greater selection on weekends. But Pana also has several grocery stores and specialty shops of varying sizes where you can find everything else you could possibly need.
Language in Panajachel
Everyone in Guatemala speaks Spanish (except for maybe a few old timers in very rural locations). However, in the Highlands, Spanish tends to be the second language behind one of the indigenous Mayan dialects. There is a fair bit of overlap but, in general, the people around. Panajachel speak Kakchiquel, in San Pedro they speak Tz’Utujil and up the hill in Santa Clara and surrounds most people speak Quiche.
Typically, locals speak Spanish to tourists (for obvious reasons). However, the older generation usually speaks Mayan amongst themselves, while the younger generation often goes with a confusing blend of the two. There is also some English spoken within the tourist industry.
Then, in addition to all the Spanish classes available in Panajachel, it is also possible to learn Kakchiquel if you’re up for the challenge.
Is Panajachel Guatemala safe?
Overall, yes. Violent crimes are very rare and we never feel unsafe during our stays on Lake Atitlán. However, there are enough incidents that you need to be smart and take reasonable precautions. Occasionally tourists are robbed at machete point while hiking, in particular on the popular trail between Santa Cruz and San Marcos.
There have been some serious issues with groups being robbed while hiking to the top of Volcan San Pedro to the point the park has been closed occasionally. But if guides are taking people up when you’re there it is because the situation is safe and you shouldn’t need to worry. Other than that, use general common sense like watching for pickpockets in the crowded market and not wandering back to your hotel drunk at 2 am and you should be fine.
Where to Eat: Best Panajachel Restaurants
For Japanese, Hana Restaurant is the best choice. Among our group the tempura is particularly popular. There are also lots of vegetarian options and we enjoy the quiet garden setting.
For pizza, Tuscani is our favourite pizza place in Pana and one of the best on the lake. It’s a small restaurant towards the end of Santander.
For the view, Hotel Atitlan not only has amazing gardens (read more in Things to Do above) but also has a truly amazing view from the restaurant or tables by the pool. The food is good, if slightly overpriced. But it’s worth it for the setting.
For traditional food, José Pingüinos is a great choice to try some Guatemalan food. They also occasionally have live music.
Where to Stay: Best Panajachel Hotels
Hotel Utz Jay
It has a pretty garden with fruit trees and, perhaps more importantly, a hot tub and a Mayan-style sauna. It is only half a block from Calle Santander and a couple blocks to the lakeshore.
Villas Jucanya Super Higienizadas
If you are travelling as a family or in a group one of these three-bedroom villas would be perfect with a full kitchen, beautiful views and well-kept gardens. Close to the main parts of Pana but still quiet.
Hotel Villas Balam Ya
If you want to stay a little out of town, Balam Ya is a great choice. It’s a short tuk tuk ride from Pana towards Santa Catarina Palopo. Each villa has views of the lake from the balcony. It also has a private dock, free kayaks, a hot tub and included breakfast.
For more ideas on where to stay around the lake, check out Lake Atitlan Villages – Where to Stay.
Panajachel is the gateway to Lake Atitlan and the place to be for the best selection of hotels, restaurants and shops. But even though Pana is large, busy and functional, it still has plenty of history, some beautiful art and culture and, of course, those incredible volcano views that make Lake Atitlan one of the top destinations in Central America.
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