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San Lucas Toliman: Guide to Lake Atitlan’s Secret Village

San Lucas Toliman is a mystery. Not to the people who live there, they seem to have a pretty good handle on what’s going on. And it is named after one of the three huge Lake Atitlán volcanoes, so that always gave us a pretty good idea where to find it.

But beyond that, we really knew very little. Only that it is the village on the other side of the lake that isn’t the pottery one (San Antonio Palopo) or the one with the colourful buildings (Santa Catarina Palopo). And, of course, it is also the one lacking “palopo” (although from what I could tell, they hardly seem to miss it). Now that I’ve been there, however, I know that San Lucas Tolimán is a nice, walkable town with a picturesque, festive waterfront.

Town sign and lake
“I Love Toliman”

As much as we love Lake Atitlan (12 visits and counting), its beauty is no secret and certainly some of the villages can get a bit hectic and touristy. Well, let me assure you, that is not a problem in San Lucas Toliman. In fact, it is one of the few towns around the lake where foreigners are still more likely to get a surprised smile and friendly “buenas!” than a sales pitch.

Woman walking down street
Wide empty street in San Lucas

While San Lucas Toliman is surprisingly large (17,000 – larger than San Pedro), virtually none of it is geared to toward foreign tourists. The population is almost entirely Mayan and its main claim to fame (using that term very loosely) is being the home of the San Lucas Mission.

Founded in the 1960’s by Gregory Thomas Schaffer, a Roman Catholic from Minnesota, this proficient organization initiated numerous health, education and agriculture programs, including building medical clinics, starting a fair-price coffee system and even providing 3 acres of land to each of 4,000 families.

From a tourist perspective, however, San Lucas Toliman is all about finding one of the few places left on Lake Atitlan where you are very likely to be the only tourist in town.

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

Things to Do in San Lucas Toliman – Lake Atitlán, Guatemala

Even though many people are content to simply wander the clean streets of San Lucas Toliman, enjoying the atmosphere and interacting with the welcoming townsfolk, there are also many more interesting things to do. Many can be done on a day trip stop or, if you have extra time, spending a few nights in the fascinating village can be a memorable addition to your trip.

Enjoy the Waterfront

Most people arrive by lancha (public boat) so the dock and waterfront are the first things they see. And they’re pretty welcoming, what with the comically large San Lucas Toliman sign, photographic props (a pair of swings, fake hot air balloon) and a creatively painted observation terrace overlooking the water.

Painted deck

The day we were there a small concert was also taking place. When I asked a local guy if it was some special fiesta or if this was simply normal on a random Friday at noon he looked surprised, “Oh, no, es muy normal!”

Women in ballon basket

And, I don’t want to get your hopes up too much, but there may also be… just… a… hint… of sand. Not something Lake Atitlan is really known for, to say the least.

See the San Lucas Toliman Church

Every town on Lake Atitlan (and probably every town in Central America) has an old church right in the centre.

Old church in San Lucas Toliman

Well, San Lucas Toliman is no different. Its 16th century Catholic church is classically colonial and quite beautiful.

Old church
Maybe strangely, the view of the back of the church is our favourite

Find the Street Art and Mosaics

Keep your eyes peeled for the colourful street art hidden in some of the least likely places.

Street art in San Lucas Toliman

They also have an impressive collection of mosaics (the only village on the lake where you’ll find these).

street art in San Lucas Toliman
Street art in San Lucas Toliman

Go on a Tour with “Friends of San Lucas”

The Mission of San Lucas Toliman that we mentioned earlier runs a more specific local organization called Friends of San Lucas that supports education and development in the area. Over 100 locals work to offer opportunities for locals in 7 different programs.

Visitors are welcome to look around and ask questions, or you can partake of a variety of different tours and programs to get a deeper understanding of the organization.

You can join an informational tour of the Café Juan Ana coffee facility, founded by Father Greg Schaffer in 1992 to help reform the coffee industry by implementing a fair pay model that increased prices based on quality of the crop.

San Lucas Mission cafe

There are also guided historical tours of San Lucas and “Day in the Life” tours of the Women’s Centre where you’ll learn about weaving, cooking and other daily activities. Or you can even join a construction crew to help build fuel-efficient stoves and housing, with projects as short as half a day (or as long as you are willing).

Shop for Handicrafts

While other villages are more well known for their shopping opportunities – looking at you Pana and San Juan – you will be able to find a few shops selling traditional handicrafts.

Shop with handicrafts

And there will be a few more shopping opportunities in the market.

Shop with handicrafts in San Lucas Toliman

Visit the Parque Central

Like most villages in Guatemala, San Lucas Toliman has a nice central square where most festivals and gatherings take place.

Central square in San Lucas Toliman

Unlike some, though, there are quite a few trees (i.e. shade), a basketball court and some neatly painted stairs. Look at just right angle and, voila, a Mayan woman appears. Possibly glaring at you, it’s hard to read her expression.

Street art in San Lucas Toliman

Wander the Local Market

In every Lake Atitlan village, the market is where the action is. Buying, selling, fixing, informing, arguing, etc. Well, the San Lucas Toliman market certainly won’t shortchange you in those areas.

Local market in San Lucas Toliman

Climb a Volcano

With the help of a local guide, it is possible to summit the town’s namesake, Volcán Tolimán, at 3,200 metres above sea level. Although not the tallest of Lake Atitlan’s three volcanoes (that honour goes to Volcán Atitlán at 3,500m) or most popular (that is definitely Volcán San Pedro), reaching the top of Toliman volcano still involves a hefty climb (1,600m) and provides some stellar views from the top (as long as you get there early before the clouds roll in).

It is also easy enough to climb Volcán Atitlán from San Lucas Toliman as well. Easy to reach the trailhead, I mean, definitely not easy to reach the top. It also involves a 1,600m climb (over just 6 kilometres, meaning steep) but the views are among the best on the entire lake, looking down on Toliman and San Pedro with the lake in the background.

Person at the top of Volcan Atitlan

Once again, you’ll need to take a guide and will want to get an early start as the skies tend to be much clearer in the morning. For a blow-by-blow account, check out our experience at Climbing Volcan Atitlan.

Hike Cerro de Oro

Another great hike near San Lucas Toliman is to the top of Cerro de Oro (Gold Hill). This sacred Mayan peak offers tremendous views of the lake and San Pedro volcano, plus there is a fascinating Mayan altar and “The Door”, one of the entrances to Xiballba (Underworld). Proceed with caution, I suppose.

Since the top is just over 300-metres-high you aren’t faced with anywhere near the amount of climbing necessary to reach the top of the volcanoes. It is steep, though, very steep. So even though it isn’t an all-day undertaking like the volcanoes, it is still fairly strenuous and can be a serious challenge for people who don’t do a lot of hiking.

Cerro de Oro

The trail can be tricky to follow at times and there have been occasional robberies reported on Cerro de Oro so it is best to go with a guide. Any of the hotels or restaurants in San Lucas should be able to put you in touch with someone, or you can sometimes even ask for a police escort.

If you like hiking, there are also many other good hiking trails around Lake Atitlán that can be explored with a local guide or by following the GPS tracks in our Guide to Hiking on Lake Atitlan.

Get Out on the Lake with a Kayak

If you’re more comfortable on the water than trudging up a dusty trail, Hotel Toliman offers free kayak use to all their guests. The protected bay in front of San Lucas Toliman stays calmer than the main part of the lake and is the perfect place for a paddle.

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.

Kayak on shore at San Lucas Toliman

Relax With a Coffee

Coffee is the main crop around San Lucas Toliman, so you should have no problem finding a place to enjoy a tasty cuppa or to buy some local coffee to go. One of the best, in our opinion, is Café Jade, tucked away in a quiet corner next to the main square.

Cafe sign

They roast all their own coffee and have comfortable seating in a pleasant back garden where you can relax and choose from their surprisingly large menu. Or you can get takeaway to enjoy as you wander the intriguing streets of the town.

Explore Lake Atitlan’s Villages

Every village on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala 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, or you can see a bunch on a whirlwind day trip.

Santiago Atitlán is the largest town on Lake Atitlán and is just 30 minutes to the west. The pottery village of San Antonio Palopó is about 15 km (but a 45-min drive) north along the lake, followed closely by colourful Santa Catarina Palopó and Panajachel, the oldest tourist centre on the lake.

Woman walking in front of painted building
Santa Catarina Palopo

Including Panajachel, the other side of the lake is where you’ll find the more popular tourist villages. San Marcos and Tzununá are somewhat similar, both known for their holistic and spiritual pursuits.

Tzununa and Lake Atitlan from Lomas de Tzununa
Tzununa

San Pedro, on the other hand, is the busy backpacker hangout with the best nightlife and pretty San Juan is the place to go for local art.

Umbrella street In San Juan La Laguna
Umbrella street in San Juan

Then you have serene Jaibalito and scenic Santa Cruz with fantastic locations along the north shore.

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. Another option is to stop in at the Pana dock to discuss tours directly with the lancha capitáns.

For an overview of all the villages, check out Lake Atitlan Villages: Where to Stay

Where to Stay: The Best San Lucas Toliman Hotel

Most people visit on a day trip from Panajachel but if you want to experience a different side of Lake Atitlan, consider staying overnight. San Lucas Toliman is much quieter and offers a much slower pace of life than busier tourist centres like Panajachel or San Pedro and if you’re looking for some peace and quiet in a lovely location, this placid village is an excellent choice.

Hotel San Lucas Toliman

Hotel San Lucas Toliman is the place to stay when visiting San Lucas. It has a variety of rooms that will fit most budgets and the grounds are where it really shines.

View from restaurant at San Lucas Toliman hotel

There are extensive gardens, a picturesque pool and views of the lake. They also offer a variety of services including massages, tours and kayaks.

Rooms at San Lucas Toliman hotel

Click here for Hotel San Lucas Toliman prices

When to Visit: San Lucas Tolimán Weather

Often called “The Land of Eternal Spring”, thanks to its position 1,500 metres above sea level, the weather on Lake Atitlán remains a comfortably moderate temperature all year round, ranging from lows of 10-15C to highs of 20-25C.

San Lucas Toliman from the water
A warm sunny day in January

It almost never rains during the dry season from November to April. Rainy season runs from May to October but even then mornings are usually calm and clear with the rain only showing up in late afternoon and into the evening. And the sunsets are truly spectacular that time of year.

Festivals in San Lucas Toliman

The fascinating feria patronal celebrating the town’s patron saint, Luke the Evangelist, takes place each year from October 15-20.

A hugely popular event, it involves a lot of costumes and processions, as well as all the usual feria (festival) activities (i.e. eating, drinking, singing, fireworks, more eating). The largest festivities take place October 18th, including the Procession of San Lucas Evangelista accompanied by much music and bell-ringing and smoke and chanting and, you know, procession stuff.

How do I get to and around San Lucas Toliman on Lake Atitlan?

San Lucas Toliman is located on the southeastern shore of Lake Atitlán in the Guatemalan Highlands. Driving from Guatemala City will take 3-4 hours.

However, most people take a tourist shuttle or “chicken bus” to Panajachel, then take a lancha (public boat) to San Lucas Toliman. 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.

The best way to travel between different villages around the lake is by public lancha, the small boats that run roughly every 20 minutes all around the lake. You pay when you get off and the price is based on how far you’ve gone, varying from 5Q ($0.60) between neighbouring villages to 50Q ($7) to go all the way across the lake.

Dock
Public docks

Another option is to negotiate a price with a private lancha. This will definitely cost more but will provide striking views of the lake and of the beautiful private houses that line the lakeshore.

Person on front of boat
Arriving by private launcha

There are also buses (30 min) between San Lucas Toliman and Santiago Atitlan. Santiago is the largest town on the lake but does not have as many tourist shuttles as Panajachel.

Once you are there tuk tuks will take you anywhere in town for 5Q per person.

Yellow tuk tuk in San Lucas Toliman

Helpful Details and Tips for San Lucas Toliman, Guatemala

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. There is a 5B ATM on the main square in San Lucas Toliman and a couple more in Santiago Atitlan. If you find yourself exploring other parts of the lake, there are a few ATMs in San Pedro and Panajachel and one each in San Juan, San Marcos and Santa Cruz.

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.

Grocery Stores and Markets

There are several little tiendas in San Lucas Toliman with a variety of basic supplies but for a bigger shopping trip you are best off going to Santiago or Panajachel.

Chicken store

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 tend to be lots of power outages. If your phone is unlocked we would recommend picking up a local SIM card with data (Tigo or Claro) so that you always have access on your phone and can use it as a hotspot if necessary.

Language in San Lucas Toliman

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.

Street art

There is a fair bit of overlap but, in general, the people from San Lucas Toliman to Panajachel and everywhere along the north side speak Kakchiquel. In San Juan, San Pedro and Santiago Atitlan they speak Tz’Utujil and up the hill in Santa Clara and surrounds most people speak Quiche.

Is San Lucas Toliman 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 hike up Cerro de Oro. It is recommended to always hike in a group or hire a guide, and don’t carry valuables.

Fountain

Where to Eat: San Lucas Toliman Restaurants

A good place to start is anywhere on the Parque Central early in the evening, where you’ll find a tasty collection of food stalls covering a surprising variety of genres from tacos and gringas to barbequed, well, everything, and even pizza.

Hotel San Lucas Toliman Restaurant

For a more serene experience, however, be sure to make time for a meal at Hotel San Lucas Toliman. The views are outstanding, the food terrific, the prices quite reasonable and the beer is ice cold.

People in a San Lucas Toliman restaurants
Plate of food and beer

And while there will probably be a bunch of hummingbirds feeding in the trees and flowers nearby, they probably won’t bother you much at all…

There is also a lovely pool and a basic gym. Do what you will with that information.

Café Jade

In addition to their superb coffee, Café Jade also serves a pretty great breakfast. A perfect match for the ambience of their lovely back garden.

San Lucas Toliman Summary

Yes, San Lucas Toliman is very scenic. And friendly. And there are lots of things to do if you put your mind to it. But the real draw of this off-the-beaten path Lake Atitlan village is the fact that hardly any tourists know about it.

Most expats “maybe visited once, way back”, day trippers often pass right by on their way to pretty Santa Catarina Palopo and serious hikers base themselves in Santiago Atitlan before summiting its namesake volcano. But if you want to dig a bit deeper and experience a Lake Atitlan village that doesn’t focus on foreign tourism, San Lucas Toliman should be at the top of your list.

Other useful articles you may want to check out:

16 Best Lake Atitlan Photo Spots

Santiago Atitlán: Guide to an Authentic Mayan Town

San Antonio Palopó: A Guide to Lake Atitlan’s Pottery Village

Santa Catarina Palopó: A Guide to Lake Atitlan’s Most Colourful Village

Panajachel Guatemala: Gateway to Stunning Lake Atitlan

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

Jaibalito: A Guide to Lake Atitlan’s Quietest Village

Tzununá: A Guide to Lake Atitlan’s Holistic Village

Pasajcap Rentals: The Best Place to Stay on Lake Atitlan

San Marcos la Laguna: A Guide to Lake Atitlan’s Spiritual Village

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

San Pedro la Laguna: A Guide to Lake Atitlan’s Most Popular VillageSemana Santa on Lake Atitlan

Best Yoga Retreats on Lake Atitlan

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