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

San Juan la Laguna, our favourite village on Lake Atitlan. Even though we think the best place to stay is at Pasaj-Cap Rentals on the north side of the lake between San Marcos and Tzununa, we spend quite a bit of time in cute, clean little San Juan. It doesn’t have any one feature that stands out for us, more just a combination of things that create a good feeling that helps us enjoy every visit.

One area where it stands out from the rest of the villages on Lake Atitlán (or anywhere in Guatemala for that matter) is how clean the streets are. They are diligent about eliminating litter and keeping the place spotless. It also has a more serene atmosphere than busy tourist centres like spiritual San Marcos or backpacker central San Pedro.

The clean streets of San Juan la Laguna, Guatemala

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, 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.

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, 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.

For more detailed information on all there is to see and do around the lake, check out our Complete Guide to Lake Atitlan.

What is San Juan Guatemala known for?

San Juan has done an excellent job of positioning themselves as the main centre for authentic Mayan art, weaving and crafts. A number of inclusive cooperatives help the women of San Juan make a living off these projects. The town is also surrounded by coffee plantations, making this one of the best places to come for coffee tours.

Where is San Juan la Laguna?

Located on the western shore of Lake Atitlan in the Guatemalan Highlands.

How do I get to San Juan la Laguna, Lake Atitlan?

Your main choices are tourist shuttle or “chicken bus”. Shuttles from Guatemala City to San Juan la Laguna usually take 4-5 hours and cost around 250-300 quetzales ($US30-40). Shuttles from Antigua to San Juan la Laguna it will be a bit shorter (3-4 hours) and cost just 150-200Q ($20-25) because it is a much more common route. The closest major city is Xela (Quetzaltenango), just 2 hours away for roughly the same price as from Antigua.

Private shuttles are also possible, with prices varying widely from 400Q ($55) to 800Q ($110) 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.

Woman with backpack getting on chicken bus in San Pedro Lake ATitlan
Chicken bus stop in front of the church in San Pedro

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). Buses to San Pedro pass right through San Juan.

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. Also, whether you are arriving by bus or shuttle, you can choose to go to Panajachel first and take the boat across but it is usually faster (and cheaper) to go direct to San Juan.

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 10Q ($1.50) between neighbouring villages to 50Q ($7) to go all the way across the lake.

The public boats (lanchas)

Be aware there is a multi-tiered pricing system – locals / expats / tourists – so don’t expect to pay exactly what everyone else is if it is your first visit.

The trip from Panajachel to San Juan la Laguna (and vice versa) usually takes about 45 minutes and should cost 30-40Q. 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.

Public dock at San Juan La Laguna Lake Atitlan with a boat coming in
Public dock at San Juan la Laguna

It is a short trip from San Juan to San Pedro that costs just 5Q. 15-minute trips to San Marcos cost 10-15Q. Past there you usually pay an extra 5Q per village (Tzununa – Jaibalito – Santa Cruz). It is also possible to take a much faster direct lancha from Panajachel to San Pedro (40-50Q) then switch to another lancha for the short jaunt to San Juan.

While some of the villages are pretty much only reached by boat (Santa Cruz, Jaibalito), most are also connected by tuk tuk, the small 3-wheeled taxis that are also known as rickshaws in other parts of the world.

TukTuk in San Pedro la Laguna Atitlan
A tuk tuk at the market in San Pedro – only a 10Q ride away

These generally cost just 5Q to go anywhere within a village, then anywhere from 10-40Q between villages depending on distance. From San Juan to the neighbouring villages of San Pedro or San Pablo should be 10Q/person (maybe less if you have 2 or 3 people), although the prices do go up at night.

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.

Loaded up for the ride to Santa Clara to hike back down to San Juan

15 Things to Do in San Juan – Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

This list will quickly answer the question of what to do in San Juan la Laguna.

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

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.

Sunrise Hike to Indian Nose

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.

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 and tuk tuk to drive you around past Santa Clara to a different trailhead, from where it is just a short 10-minute walk to the viewpoint.

You can find GPS maps and full details in our Guide to Hiking on Lake Atitlan

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. However, the hike to reach El Cerro de la Cruz is far less strenuous (and the view not quite as expansive). 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 20Q admission fee to reach the lookout.

View of the San Juan la Laguna mirador from below
The small hill with the San Juan la Laguna mirador is in the front

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. Vibrantly painted stairs lead up to the huge Kiaq’Aiswaan Observation Deck that now completely surrounds the original cross. Hiking up to this San Juan la Laguna Mirador is a great addition to your visit.

Experience Semana Santa (Holy Week)

Semana Santa is a major celebration all over Latin America and Guatemala is no exception. San Juan 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.

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.

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.

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

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

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.

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.

Find all the Murals

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.

A colorful mural on a building in San Juan la Laguna Guatemala

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 Cooperative La Voz coming highly recommended.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 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.

Man walking down street with tables selling handicraft on the main street in San Pedro La Laguna
Main tourist street in San Pedro

However, there are also Tzununa, Jaibalito, Santa Cruz, Panajachel and several smaller ones on the south side of the lake (plus massive 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. One of the best for this type of thing is Tornado Excursions out of San Pedro, although any tour operator should be able to arrange a day of village hopping.

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 join Venga Atitlan out of San Marcos to watch the sunrise from a paddleboard in 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.

When to Visit: San Juan la Laguna 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 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.

Orange clouds over volcanoes at sunset near San Marcos Lake Atitlan
A rainy season sunset

Helpful Details and Tips for San Juan, Guatemala

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. There is also a bank fee for everytime you make a withdrawal so its best to take out larger amounts or the fees really start adding up.

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).

Costs in San Juan la Laguna Guatemala

In comparison to other villages on the lake, San Juan la Laguna is approximately mid-range. It has some cheap hotels and restaurants but, on average, you end up paying more than you would in San Pedro. Most rooms start around 100-150Q/night and restaurant meals 50Q+.

Travellers coming from Mexico are often surprised that it costs them quite a bit more to be in Guatemala, although Lake Atitlan will still feel pretty cheap compared to North America or Europe.

Grocery Stores and Markets

There is a daily fruit and vegetable market at the top of the road coming up from the dock where we sometimes pick up a few things. However, we buy the bulk of our produce at the weekend market in San Pedro as they have better selection and prices.

Local women selling fruit and veggies at the local market in San Pedro La Laguna Atitlan
San Pedro weekend market

There are also several little tiendas in San Juan and one big shop, the Super Quic (but most tourists jokingly refer to it as Walmart). For anything “western” like cheese, butter or Pace salsa (my guilty pleasure) we usually go to Johanna’s in San Pedro.

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.

Language in San Juan la Laguna Atitlan

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 San Juan and San Pedro speak Tz’Utujil, those between San Marcos and Pana speak Kakchiquel 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 uses a confusing blend of the two. There are many excellent Spanish schools in both San Pedro and San Marcos, and it is also possible to learn Tzu’tujil if you’re looking for a challenge.

Quite a few of the younger people speak some English and it is quite common in the bigger restaurants (many of which are expat owned and run).

Is San Juan Guatemala safe?

Overall, yes. Violent crimes are very rare and we never feel unsafe during our stays on Lake Atitlan. 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.

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 just the two of us and never had an issue. But we never carry anything that even looks tempting (no backpack or fanny packs) and always do our best to look sweaty and impoverished (not a big stretch).

Hikers on trail from Santa Cruz to San Marcos La Laguna Guatemala with Lake Atitlan and volcan San Pedro behind
Hiking in a group from Santa Cruz to 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.

San Juan, Lake Atitlan in the News

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.

Where to Eat: Best 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.

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.

Where to Stay: Best San Juan La Laguna Hotels

Hotels are somewhat limited in San Juan but there are a couple that have been recommended by friends:

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

Eco-Hotel Mayachik has nice, clean rooms with wifi and spectacular lake views. It is just up the hill from the main dock and there is a good restaurant on-site.

Conclusion

Lake Atitlan is one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. A collapsed volcano surrounded by more volcanoes, steep hills and terrific villages, it has become our favourite place to settle down for a few months each winter. There are 13 different villages on the lake, each with their own character and culture but, all things considered, I think San Juan is probably our favourite. Clean, friendly and cultured, it is a terrific place to come for a day trip or longer stay.

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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

Semana Santa on Lake Atitlan

A Volcan Acatanengo Hike Guide

Volcan Santiaguito

Xela to Lake Atitlan Hike and Volcan Zunil Summit

Universal Packing List

Roam: The 9 Greatest Trips on Earth

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