Lake Atitlan is definitely 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 each year we return to Pasaj-Cap, which is just a short walk outside San Marcos la Laguna.
The views across the lake to the trio of looming volcanoes – San Pedro, Atitlan and Toliman – are simply unbeatable. We also like being away from the most hectic tourist areas on the lake (although “hectic” may be a strong word to describe anything in this wonderfully relaxed place).
San Marcos attracts a very unique crowd of tourists and backpackers, drawn by its reputation as an “energy vortex”. It is filled with yoga retreats, holistic healing centres and new age workshops. A hippie village, if you will. But it also boasts a lot of fantastic restaurants, good value hotels and beautiful lakefront areas.
Most of the tourist action takes place close to the lake. Following the narrow little path leading up from the dock you will pass most of the hotels, restaurants, shops and tour agencies. There are several even smaller paths leading off from there that are well worth exploring but if you continue uphill you eventually reach the main road of San Marcos la Laguna.
There is a basketball court, church, tuk tuks and several handy little tiendas here, and if you head up on the side streets you’ll reach the main “barrios”, which is where the vast majority of locals live, work and go to school.
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 Marcos La Laguna Guatemala known for?
Known as Lake Atitlan’s “hippie village”, San Marcos la Laguna is famous for its crowd of holistic, spiritual and natural visitors who come for alternative lifestyles and new experiences.
Where is San Marcos La Laguna?
Located on the northwestern shore of Lake Atitlan in the Guatemalan Highlands.
How do I get to San Marcos La Laguna?
Your main choices are tourist shuttle or “chicken bus”. Shuttles from Guatemala City to San Marcos la Laguna usually take 4-5 hours and cost around 250-300 quetzales ($US30-40). Shuttles from Antigua to San Marcos 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.
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 don’t go as far as San Marcos but you can take a tuk tuk (10Q) to/from San Pablo where the San Pedro bus passes through.
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 Marcos.
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 5 – 10Q ($1.50) between neighbouring villages to 50Q ($7) to go all the way across the lake. 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 Marcos la Laguna (and vice versa) usually takes about half an hour and should cost 20-30Q. 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. From San Marcos to San Pedro or San Juan costs 10-15Q and usually only takes about 15 minutes. Going the other direction you usually pay about 5Q per village (Tzununa – Jaibalito – Santa Cruz).
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. From San Marcos to the neighbouring villages of Tzununa or San Pablo should be 10Q/person, 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.
17 Things to Do in San Marcos – Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
If you are looking for ideas of what to do in San Marcos La Laguna this list will keep you busy for days.
Lake Atitlan is one of cheapest and most popular places in Central America to take Spanish classes. San Pedro has the most schools and homestays but San Marcos also has some excellent options. San Marcos Spanish School is very good (they were my first Guatemalan teachers) and is affiliated with San Pedro Spanish School. Some people mix up their classes between the two locations.
We would also highly recommend Spanish Classes with Rebeca, an excellent teacher who has provided private lessons to us and several others at Pasaj-Cap over the last few years. She offers classes at Blind Lemon or you can arrange for her to come to you instead.
Hostel Del Lago also offers private and group Spanish classes with local teachers at very reasonable rates. You can pay per class or get a reduced rate for a package of lessons.
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, with incredible views over 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.
Conquer Volcan San Pedro
Hiking to the summit of magnificent San Pedro volcano is a rite of passage for energetic visitors to Lake Atitlan, and one of the best hikes on Lake Atitlan. It is a fair bit of work but the payoff is more than worth it (on a clear day, anyway). The San Pedro climb is around 10 kilometres (return) with 1,200 metres of elevation gain (which is a lot). Hiking times will vary considerably based on your fitness and determination but a rough average would be 3 hours to reach the top and about 1.5 hours to get back down.
The volcano is part of a protected park above San Pedro la Laguna and all visitors must pay a 100Q entrance fee ($13), but that amount includes a guide. You don’t have to go with a guide (we usually don’t now that we’ve done it a few times) but if it is your first time we would recommend it. It is also important to check the latest situation as there have been reports of robberies on the trail, a problem that seems to come and go throughout the year.
Get Out on the Lake on a Paddleboard or Kayak
The lake is the big star of the show 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.
If you don’t mind getting up early you should definitely join a sunrise paddeboarding tour with Venga Atitlan in San Marcos. Being out on the glassy, serene water as the sun slowly comes up over the volcanoes is something you won’t soon forget. There is also a very good chance you’ll see restless Volcan Fuego puffing in the distance. Venga Atitlan also has a climbing wall if that’s something you’re into.
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, very little. 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 San Marcos.
Take a Yoga Class or Attend a Yoga Retreat
San Marcos is definitely the place for yoga on Lake Atitlan. There a plenty of places where you can join a single class, sign up for a package or settle in for a full yoga retreat. Most drop-in yoga classes are around 40Q and they usually provide mats if you don’t have your own.
One of the most popular centres for San Marcos la Laguna yoga is the Yoga Forest, with its spectacular location way up the hill (a 25-minute walk or 10Q tuk tuk). You can choose any level from drop-in classes to immersive yoga teacher training.
Meanwhile, Eagle’s Nest somehow boasts even more impressive views with their amazing yoga platform overlooking the lake in all its glory. They have daily drop-in classes, plus some unique options like Acro yoga and handstand workshops.
The most popular drop-in option among friends at Pasaj-Cap are the classes at Hotel La Paz, featuring a nice yoga palapa in a lush garden.
Finally, Hostal Del Lago also offers daily hatha and vinyasa classes on a scenic platform right on the lake. There is a schedule near the entrance that gives details on the classes and teachers available each week.
If you want to try your hand at a very unique energy transfer and healing exercise look into joining one of the immersive, 5-hour cacao ceremonies provided by Keith the Cacao Shaman. He charges 200Q for your first visit and 100Q each time after that, and they take place Wednesdays and Sundays starting at 12:30 pm. The ceremony starts with some standard meditation and gradually increases in intensity.
Hike from Santa Cruz to San Marcos
This is our favourite hike on Lake Atitlan because of its perfect combination of effort, time and views. The entire hike usually takes around 2-3 hours, features plenty of small ups and downs (roughly 300 metres elevation gain) and passes through many small farms and through the villages of Tzununa and Jaibalito. The lake and volcano views are sublime.
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).
Shop for Local Handicrafts
There are loads of little shops selling both local and tourist made crafts, jewelry and art. Plus, the main path up from the dock is lined with people set up on the ground and along practically every alley you’ll find even more choices. Wander and shop to your heart’s content.
Get a Massage
After a big day of climbing volcanoes or paddleboarding you can treat yourself to any of a wide selection of different types of massage in San Marcos. There are plenty of private massage therapists with ads posted on boards around town or you can check out the many choices at San Marcos Holistic Cottage, including foot reflexology, Indian head massage and full body Swedish massage.
The diverse group of therapists at the East West Center can do therapeutic, deep tissue, Swedish, Chi Nei Tsan, couples and facial massage along with reflexology and Chinese cupping, as well as many other variations.
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 Juan is known for its art and traditional clothing shops, while San Pedro is the busy backpacker hangout with the best nightlife and both are very close to San Marcos.
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.
Take a Class or Workshop or Indulge in a Full Retreat
The boards lining the alleys in San Marcos offer a vast array of different services, classes, workshops and retreats. Two of the best places to find the latest info are on the boards across from Circles bakery or on the fence at Hostal Del Lago. Along with the activities we’ve already talked about you are likely to see info on any and all of the following:
- Crystal healing
- Past life readings
- Shamanic readings
- Ecstatic dance
- Lucid dreaming
While many other places have come and gone, Los Piramides has been in San Marcos since we first started visiting Guatemala. They offer Sun and Moon courses that include yoga, meditation, and metaphysics (i.e. lucid dreaming and astral traveling, astrology, tarot, and numerology) trainings that can be anywhere from a single day to a whole month long.
San Marcos Holistic Cottage offers courses in massage, reiki, energy harmonics, foot reflexology, connectivity masterminds and kinesiology.
In nearby Tzununa you can learn about permaculture and natural building at Atitlan Organics. Take a tour of the fully-functional, profitable, organic permaculture farm or settle in to take the Permaculture Design Certification and/or Natural Building courses. We know a couple who took the permaculture course and now have their own farm in southern France based on the concepts they learned in Tzununa.
The East West Center Atitlan not only administers massages, but also offer classes teaching you how to do it yourself.
In addition to yoga, Eagle’s Nest has a variety of workshops and events including Mayan Fire Ceremonies, hula hoop workshops, alchemy breathwork and sound healing and Kriya art and meditation.
The Yoga Forest holds various retreats including meditation, yoga, reiki, healing arts, Thai Massage, creative writing, Song and Sound Ceremony and Sacred Plant medicine.
Love Probiotics is a small business based in San Marcos that produces kombucha, apple cider vinegar, organic kefir yogurt and more (including Laynni’s favourites – ginger beer and super food bliss balls). They offer regular group fermentation and food production workshops or you can organize a private workshop if you have at least 5 people.
Meanwhile, Hostal Del Lago hosts a weekly fire and drum circle (with drums provided if you don’t have your own for some reason).
Volunteer with Konojel
This terrific non-profit organization has been working to reduce chronic malnutrition and poverty in San Marcos since 2011. Their programs are all run by indigenous managers and cover a wide range of topics including nutrition, clean water, education, female entrepreneurship and computer development. They have a nutrition centre to feed malnourished residents, a free computer centre available to all and a women’s cooperative that produces food products and uses recycled materials to make handicrafts.
Even if you don’t have time to volunteer on one of their projects you can support this great organization by eating at their delicious vegetarian restaurant, Comedor Konojel, located across from Circles café and staffed by women who have completed the Konojel job training program. It is very affordable and they have everything from pupusas to pizza (not to mention good wifi).
Wander the “Streets”
Mazey and confusing, San Marcos is a fun place to simply wander. Whether you find yourself in the narrow alleys near the lake with people selling fruits and necklaces or in the high barrios up the hill among the local tiendas and homes, it is a fascinating place to explore.
Go Swimming or “Cliff” Jumping in Reserva Natural del Cerro Tzankujil
When it comes to Lake Atitlan San Marcos has the best swimming area. Just west of the dock past Hotel Aaculaax you’ll find the great the Tzankujil nature reserve featuring easy hiking trails, nice swimming areas and several platforms to jump into the lake that are referred to as La Trampolina (the highest is 7 metres above the water). It costs 15Q to enter and they also rent out kayaks.
Try a Coffee or Peruse the Bakery at Circles
Circles Café and Bakery is the centre of activity in San Marcos and the best place to get all the latest info. However, don’t get sidetracked and forget to enjoy their great coffee and terrific baked goods. In our opinion, they have the best bread anywhere on the lake (we go through 2 heavy loaves of “pan integral” every week and also swear by the baguettes). The coffee shop enjoys a beautiful and comfortable garden location along with good wifi.
Watch the Sunrise or Sunset
Lake Atitlán 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 nice deck at Restaurante Tul y Sol or from basically any dock along the lake.
There are the public boat docks and many hotels have a private dock to enjoy the views from. Or, as we mentioned earlier, sunrise from a paddleboard in the middle of the lake can be a pretty special experience as well.
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 Marcos 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.
Helpful Details and Tips for San Marcos La Laguna, 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 just one ATM in San Marcos inside “Super Tienda San Jose 2” just left up the hill from the church. The maximum withdrawal is 2,000 quetzales and it often runs out of money so don’t wait until you’re completely out of cash to try for a withdrawal. There is also a very reliable ATM at the main bank in San Juan.
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 Marcos la Laguna
In comparison to other villages on the lake, San Marcos la Laguna is approximately mid-range. It has a handful of few 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 are several fruit and vegetable vendors set up around the tourist area where we top up our groceries from time to time. However, we buy the bulk of our produce at the weekend market in San Pedro as they have better selection and prices.
There are also lots of good little tiendas in San Marcos (the best are on the small plaza next to the basketball court) but 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 Marcos la Laguna, Lake 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 Marcos speak Kaqchiquel, while those in San Pedro 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 uses a confusing blend of the two. In addition to all the Spanish classes available in San Marcos it is also possible to learn Kaqchiquel if you’re up for the 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 Marcos 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. I’ve already mentioned taking precautions on the hike between San Marcos and Santa Cruz and there have also 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: San Marcos La Laguna Restaurants
There are plenty of good restaurants in San Marcos. These are our favourites:
Restaurant Fe for a wide variety of options including curries, sandwiches, and pasta.
Tul y Sol has been an expat favourite for a long time and its location right on the lake means their deck has amazing views. The surprisingly impressive ham and cheese sandwich is always a crowd pleaser.
El Jardin has good vegetarian options as well as pizza and pastas and is located in a picturesque garden.
Another vegetarian option is La Paz, and we have friends who go every week for the vegetarian burrito. Most of the menu can also be made vegan on request.
Eating at Comedor Konojel supports a great local cause, with consistently good food and friendly workers.
Try Vaya La Papaya for fresh juices and smoothies.
Blind Lemon is a short walk outside the main area, has terrific food and owner Carlos puts on jazz nights. It is also the go-to spot in San Marcos to watch the Superbowl. The food can sometimes be a bit slow but, hey, what’s the rush?
One of our favourite takeaway spots is the fried chicken and fries stall that sets up in front of the basketball court around 5 pm every day.
Finally, Maya Moon Lodge isn’t technically in San Marcos as it is about 2/3 of the way down the road to Tzununa. But it has a fantastic waterfront location and a good selection of meals (I am particularly enamoured with their French toast).
Where to Stay: Marcos La Laguna Hotels
Lush Atitlan probably has the most comfortable suites in town.
El Dragon has a terrific spot right on the waterfront with good swimming.
La Paz Eco-Hotel is an excellent budget choice.
Jinava Bay is just outside of town on the way to San Pablo and has good views of the lake.
Yoga Forest has a spectacular spot up at the top of the village and is very popular for yoga vacations.
For more ideas on where to stay around the lake, check out Lake Atitlan Villages – Where to Stay.
San Marcos la Laguna is probably the most unique village on Lake Atitlan. Yoga, massage and meditation are standard everywhere in town, plus there are endless options for holistic learning, spiritual introspection and personal growth. Or maybe you just want to get high and bang on a drum. Either way, San Marcos is the ultimate destination for those looking for a hippie vibe in Guatemala. And even if none of that strikes your fancy, it is a pleasant little village with amazing views of the volcanoes, a convenient location and friendly locals.
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