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

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Year after year, San Juan la Laguna gets chosen as the best village on Lake Atitlan among our group of friends. Ever since 2010 we’ve been spending several months every year on this gorgeous lake surrounded by volcanoes and although we stay in an apartment near San Marcos, we always end up in cute, clean San Juan a couple times per week.

For one thing, San Juan is either the start or end (or middle) of several of our favourite Lake Atitlan hikes. And, besides that, it is just a very clean, pleasant place with a great atmosphere that is very easy to enjoy. Not to mention, it boasts 4 (!) of our Best Lake Atitlan Photo Spots.

Street with umbrellas

While San Juan la Laguna is popular as a day trip destination, very few tourists base themselves there which makes it particularly quiet in mornings and evenings. And, in general, it has a more authentic feel with indigenous art collectives and Mayan craft shops greatly outnumbering tourist cafés and pubs.

And even though it has gotten much busier in recent years, it still has a calmer atmosphere than busy tourist centres like spiritual San Marcos or backpacker central San Pedro. And, of course, with terrific lake views, steep hills all around and the looming volcanoes towering over it all, San Juan is plenty scenic as well.

View of San Juan La Laguna, Lake Atitlan, and Volcan San Pedro from above

One characteristic of San Juan that we have always found particularly interesting is how popular female sports are. In most Mayan communities, girls are still very limited as to what they can play, and to what age.

In San Juan la Laguna, however, there are almost always a couple dozen girls battling on the basketball court or a small group jogging on the roads around town. I’m not exactly sure why this is but it certainly seems like a promising development that hopefully continues to spread to other communities around the lake.

Group of hikers walking out on a wooden dock on Lake Atitlan
Street art of an indigenous woman and a sea turtle

Where is San Juan la Laguna?

San Juan la Laguna is located on the western shore of Lake Atitlan in the Guatemalan Highlands. It is tucked away in a small bay at the end of the lake but is easily reached by public lanchas (boats) or by a rather rough road down from Santa Clara.

If you don’t have a lot of time to spend exploring Lake Atitlán but still want to enjoy the best bits, 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.

The 16 Best Things to Do in San Juan la Laguna

Even though we mostly rave about the vibe and scenery around San Juan la Laguna, there are plenty of activities to keep you busy as well. Plus, it is the art and textile centre of Lake Atitlan, giving shoppers endless possibilities to spend time (and money, if they have it).

1. Find Your Favourite Painting

San Juan has many outstanding local art galleries with wonderful Mayan prints illustrating local culture, traditions and history. Bird’s eye view paintings are a common style in San Juan, especially among the works of Antonio Vasquez Yojcom, a local “juanero” who studied with Pedro Rafael González Chavajay in San Pedro before opening the first studio in San Juan.

Paintings of local life available in San Juan la Laguna Atitlan

2. Browse the Many San Juan La Laguna Textiles Shops

One of the most iconic images around Lake Atitlan is of the Mayan women in their intricately woven long skirts and huipile tops, each of which is unique to the woman’s village. San Juan is the best place on Lake Atitlan to buy these outfits, but there are endless other items to shop for, as well.

View down the road from the dock filled with San Juan la Laguna textiles shops
San Juan la Laguna textiles shops line the road up from the dock

From blankets, tablecloths and hammocks to scarves, purses and shoes, you should have no trouble finding something that catches your eye. We certainly have enough friends who can no longer trust their self control to even enter the shops in San Juan. Unless they have a specific plan, or a gift in mind, or could probably use a new scarf, or any of a dozen other perfectly acceptable reasons…

The women of San Juan take great pride in using only natural dyes and traditional methods. It is also possible to sign up for demonstrations or classes if you are more interested in the details of how these items are produced.

3. See the View from El Cerro del La Cruz

This fantastic viewpoint is also known as Mirador Kiaq’Aiswaan and is located on the path up to Indian Nose (Rostro Maya). However, the hike to reach El Cerro de la Cruz is far less strenuous (and the view not quite as expansive).

Person looking at view at San Juan la Laguna Mirador Kiaq’Aiswaan
View from the Mirador

It only takes about 15 minutes to walk up from the north edge of town. The trailhead is next to the gas station on the road to Santa Clara and there is a 30Q admission fee to reach the lookout. The trail up has many painted stairs which will help entertain you as you climb higher.

Person climbing painted stairs at San Juan la Laguna Mirador Kiaq’Aiswaan

The lookout has been there as long as we can remember but while it used to be a simple cross on a hill, in recent years it has been expanded into a pretty impressive structure. The vibrantly painted multilevel Kiaq’Aiswaan Observation Deck now completely surrounds the original cross.

Painted decks and cross at San Juan la Laguna Mirador Kiaq’Aiswaan
Traditional painting on deck

There is a restaurant with a view over the town on the way up as well as plenty of stalls selling drinks and snacks at the top.

San Juan La Laguna restaurants on way up to mirador

Hiking up to this San Juan la Laguna Mirador is a great addition to your visit. It tends to get busy, though, so earlier is better.

Person walking on path to San Juan la Laguna Mirador Kiaq’Aiswaan
The path was pretty quiet when we went at 9:30 on a Saturday but the trail up was filled with people when we were leaving.

Your ticket is good for the whole day so if you happen to be staying in San Juan la Laguna, you could go up for sunset as well. It wouldn’t hurt to double-check when you buy your ticket but that’s what they told us. The ticket booth stays open until 8 pm and they also have someone checking tickets at the top so don’t try to find an alternate route up.

Person on rooster statue

And don’t forget to take a picture with the random rooster.

4. Sunrise Hike to Indian Nose/Rostro Maya

Also known as Rostro Maya (Mayan Face) in the local Mayan dialect, this is one of the best viewpoints on the entire lake. Located on a tall point in the northwest corner of the lake, it provides a stunning look out over the lake, all three nearby volcanoes (San Pedro, Atitlan, Toliman) and, on a clear day, 5 more toward Antigua. If you’re lucky you may even see Volcan Fuego puffing smoke near Antigua.

People on hill at sunrise

While Indian Nose is a worthwhile viewpoint at any time, it is truly special at sunrise when you can watch the sun slowly and colourfully make its way up over the impressive line of volcanoes. There are two ways to reach it:

1) Via a steep, 1-hour climb from San Juan.

2) By hiring a guide or tuk-tuk to drive you around past Santa Clara to a different trailhead, from where it is a shorter 30-45 minute walk to the viewpoint. For more details, check out:

The Nariz del Rostro Maya Sunrise Tour

You can also find GPS maps and full hike descriptions in our Guide to Hiking on Lake Atitlan

5. Experience Semana Santa (Holy Week)

Semana Santa is a major celebration all over Latin America and Guatemala is no exception. San Juan la Laguna is known for its amazing Good Friday procession. 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 street all the way along the processional route.

Making the colorful alhumbras in San Juan la Laguna Guatemala during Semana Santa

Each village has its procession at a different time and San Juan’s is early evening, which means it is possible to watch the locals making the alfombras throughout the day. In fact, tourists are even welcome to join in and help, making this one of the more unique places to enjoy the holiday on the lake.

Colorful sawdust carpets

We usually start the day watching the massive procession in San Pedro Friday morning, then move on to San Juan to enjoy the more peaceful afternoon of art and music.

Kids getting bowls of colored sawdust

6. Hike from Santa Clara to San Juan Along the Ridge

One of our two or three favourite hikes on the lake, this pleasant 3-hour walk offers a superb combination of spectacular views, mild inclines and rural life. After taking a tuk tuk, truck or bus up to Santa Clara on the ridge, you walk out of town on a small path, cross a farmer’s field, then follow the ridge for quite some time, with amazing lake and volcano views the whole way.

Group of people hiking through a field
View of San Juan la Laguna, Lake Atitlan from the ridge above

The hills are relatively gradual but eventually the trail turns down off the ridge and you spend about an hour picking your way downhill through forest and, eventually, coffee plantations until you reach the outskirts of San Juan. There are a couple of different trails in this area but most of the people we hike with agree this is the best combination of difficulty, length and scenery.

7. Have a Coffee with a View of the Lake

Several cafés offer nice decks with lake views where you can enjoy a local coffee (or something stronger). Café La Cabana is just to the left of the dock as you arrive by lancha and is a popular spot because of its scenic terraces, hammocks and Instagram photo ops (swings, hearts, nests).

Swin at San Juan La Laguna restaurant

They also have great limonadas if you need a sugar boost before hitting the shops.

People having coffee in San Marcos la Laguna

Café San Juan, just up from the dock, is another good choice that offers sit down service, takeout or even packages of coffee to take home with you.

Inside of best cafe in San Juan la Laguna

Our favourite spot to enjoy a cold beverage at the end of a hike is at Kaas Utz, just north of the market. Head all the way up to the top floor to enjoy the best views and comforting breeze. The owner and staff are very friendly, they have excellent ceviche and the beer is always cold.

8. Find all the Murals and Street Art

The art in San Juan La Laguna isn’t limited to the shops and galleries. Practically every empty space in town has been filled with beautiful murals depicting Tz’utujil life, history and stories.

Person posing by street art in San Juan La Laguna

Some of our favorites are on the street near the basketball court.

Street art in San Juan La Laguna

9. Tour a Coffee Plantation

Guatemala is famous for its outstanding coffee, which is grown all over the Highlands. There are several different harvests per year, often staggered even among adjacent fields, so it should always be possible to see some of the coffee plantations at its best. Coffee plantation tours are a popular outing, most of them taking place on the plateaus up behind San Pedro and San Juan.

All of the hikes around San Juan pass through the coffee fields so we can enjoy tracking their progress when we pass through on our weekly jaunts (one of our usual hiking group finds the start of the blooms the most exciting time of year, for some reason). There are many options if you want to join a tour, with Cooperativa La Voz coming highly recommended.

Coffee plants flowered
Coffee plants in full bloom

These tours will walk you through the production process, including planting, growing, harvesting, cleaning and drying, right on down to roasting the beans. And, of course, they almost always end with you enjoying a fabulous cup of local coffee on a terrace while enjoying spectacular views out over the lake.

10. Visit the Catholic Church

Religion is very important in Guatemala, especially in the Highlands, so the churches are always among the most important buildings in town. The Catholic church in San Juan la Laguna, located on the Plaza Principal, is particularly unique, however, due to its fascinating combination of old and new.

The church and main square at San Juan la Laguna Guatemala

With a multidimensional stone façade and classic wood-carved doors on the outside and phenomenal pulpit and impressive collection of statues within, this church is well worth a specific visit. The elaborate stained-glass windows alone are worth the trip.

11. Learn About Beekeeping

There are many beehives located in and around the San Juan coffee fields. Xunah Kaab offers educational and entertaining 45-minute bee tours that cover all the different types of bees, honey and combs produced locally. You will see the entire process from the hives themselves to the wide variety of end products including honey, face creams and lip balms.

12. Wander the Local Market

Like every village on the lake, San Juan has a daily fruit and vegetable market that expands to include just about anything you can imagine on weekends. It is one of the best places on the lake to buy freshly made tortillas.

Fruit and vegetable stands in San Juan la Laguna

13. Take a Village Tour

Many local Juaneros offer tours of San Juan, usually in a private tuk tuk. There is usually a guide or two waiting at the dock for tourists coming off the lancha or you can book it through any of the tour agencies in San Juan or other villages around the lake.

Row of red tuk-tuks

Most tours involve a combination of walking and riding to see the churches, cemetery, coffee fields, art galleries, weaving workshops and the best of the street art and wall murals. They may even stop off at San Juan’s impressive soccer (futbol) field, with its artificial turf, bleachers and ridge views, a place I have spent many an afternoon dragging myself around in the baking afternoon sun.

14. Explore Lake Atitlán’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. Panajachel is where most people access the lake, San Marcos is known for holistic and spiritual pursuits, while San Pedro is the busy backpacker hangout with the best nightlife and both are very close to San Juan.

Painted dock in Panajachel Guatemala
Mirador in Panajachel

However, there are also Tzununá, Santa Cruz, Panajachel (Pana) and several others over on the other side of the lake, Santa Catarina Palopo, San Antonio Palopo, San Lucas Toliman and Santiago Atitlan. 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 through one of the hotels or restaurants.

View over San Antonio Palopo and Lake Atitlan
On the Flower Route above San Antonio Palopo

Los Elementos in Santa Cruz also runs one of the best all-day adventure tours that includes kayaking, swimming, hiking, rock climbing, cliff jumping (optional, obviously), archery, trampolines and, if you behave, even some time to relax with a view. This trip is very popular with families.

15. Watch the Sunrise or Sunset

Lake Atitlan is famous for its unbelievable sunrises and sunsets. There are many great vantage points but a few of our favourites are Punta Tzuncuil (near Pasaj-Cap on the road to Tzununa), from the top floor at Kaas Utz or from basically any dock along the lake. Or rent a paddleboard in San Marcos or Santa Cruz to watch the sunrise from the middle of the lake.

Sunrise from Indian Nose above San Juan La Laguna

The best sunsets take place during the rainy season but at any time of year you can suddenly be surprised by a spectacular light and colour show.

16. Visit Playa las Cristalinas Near San Juan la Laguna

Now that the water has gone back down in Lake Atitlan after a few years of flooding, there is a real beach near San Juan. Just walk about 20 minutes out of town along the road towards San Pablo until you see the beach below with signs for Playa las Cristalinas (or you could take a private boat there).

It’s a decent choice as a place to go for a swim as there are rarely any boats in the area and you can walk in. There are little to no services there right now but is fairly popular on the weekend, especially with local tourists. It even earned a spot on our list of Best Places to Swim in Lake Atitlan.

Beach at Lake Atitlan

And you’ll get some beautiful views along the way.

Lake and volcanoes
View on the walk to the beach

Where to Stay: Best San Juan La Laguna Hotels

Hotels are somewhat limited in San Juan la Laguna but there are still some good choices if you know where to look:

Eco-Hotel Mayachik

Eco-Hotel Mayachik has nice, clean rooms with wifi and spectacular lake views.

Room at a Lake Atitlan Hotels

It is just up the hill from the main dock and there is a good restaurant on-site.

Restuarant at a Lake Atitlan Hotels

We really like the hang out areas, the temascal and small pool.

Hot tub at a Lake Atitlan hotels

Click here for Eco-Hotel Mayachik prices

Cabin Xocomil is another good choice with a fully equipped suite with a bedroom, bathroom, wifi, satellite TV and a patio.

Where to Eat: Best San Juan La Laguna Restaurants

Three people looking at view at San Juan la Laguna restaurants

Because not as many tourists stay in San Juan as in San Pedro or San Marcos, there aren’t nearly as many restaurants.

Qaas Utz is our usual lunch stop on our weekly hike through town. We always grab a table on the top deck for a view and a breeze. There are always locals around enjoying the best ceviche in town.

Street in San Marcos la Laguna
Qaas Utz restaurant with top deck and amazing ceviche on the right

Cafe Las Marias is a bit hidden (the location is on their Facebook page) and only has a few tables but if you can get a spot you will have a view of the lake while enjoying their freshly roasted coffee and simple food.

Alma de Colores is a social inclusion program for locals with disabilities. Enjoy a wide array of dishes (that change every day) and fresh juices served by members of the community with, of course, a view over the lake.

Yellow building

Lake Atitlan Map

Click the star to save this map to your Google Maps – then find it under Saved/Maps (mobile) or Your Places/Maps (desktop)

A final interesting tidbit about San Juan is that it achieved a brief bit of international fame back in 2014 when it became the temporary home of around 230 members of the infamous Lev Tahor sect of Judaism. Members were fleeing child abuse charges in Canada and made it just a few months among the conservative Mayans of San Juan before things came to a head and the village council voted to evict them.

Last I heard they were scattered between Mexico and Guatemala, with plenty of controversy continuing to follow wherever they went. Anyway, it is no longer relevant to a San Juan visit but remains a fairly fascinating chapter in San Juan’s recent history.

Summary

We love Lake Atitlan and almost every one of its 13 villages has something to recommend. However, if we were forced to pick just one, well, lovely San Juan la Laguna would still be our favourite. Yes, it gets busier each year and the number of day trip boats scattered around the dock can be almost overwhelming, but no village on the lake works as hard to welcome tourists and improve their experience as San Juan. Clean, friendly and cultured, it is a terrific place to come for a day trip or longer stay.

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

Pasajcap Rentals: Our Favourite Place to Stay on the Lake

Tzununa: A Guide to Lake Atitlan’s Holistic Village

Jaibalito: A Guide to Lake Atitlan’s Quietest Village

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

Panajachel: Gateway to Stunning Lake Atitlan

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

Santiago Atitlan: Guide to an Authentic Mayan Town

Semana Santa on Lake Atitlan

A Volcan Acatanengo Hike Guide

Volcan Santiaguito

Xela to Lake Atitlan Hike and Volcan Zunil Summit