Gorgeous Lake Atitlan, surround by volcanoes, is one of the best destinations in Central America, seeing a steady stream of travellers as they make their way through this wonderfully varied part of the world. And, while there are 13 different villages on the lake, lively San Pedro La Laguna is definitely backpacker central. Backed by the looming presence of Volcan San Pedro and filled with great value hotels, restaurants, bars and Spanish schools, it is the most popular base for budget travellers, although there are certainly some opportunities for luxury as well.
We have been returning to Lake Atitlan every year for over a decade and although we usually base ourselves at Pasaj-Cap Rentals near San Marcos, we spend a lot of time in San Pedro, visiting weekly to shop, eat and play soccer, showing visitors around or maybe just drink beer and watch soccer.
For more detailed information on all there is to see and do around the lake, check out our Complete Guide to Lake Atitlan.
Where is San Pedro La Laguna?
Located on the southwestern shore of Lake Atitlan, in the Guatemalan Highlands.
How do I get to San Pedro La Laguna?
Your main choices are tourist shuttle or “chicken bus”. Shuttles from Guatemala City to San Pedro la Laguna usually take 4-5 hours and cost around 250-300 quetzales ($US30-40). Shuttles from Antigua to San Pedro 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).
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 Pedro.
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 40-50Q ($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.
From Panajachel to San Pedro la Laguna you can take the scenic route all the way around along the north shore (about an hour in total) or wait for one of the direct lanchas that go straight across to San Pedro (less than half an hour). 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. It is best to know the price and have the exact change to pay the driver or helper at the end of the trip as overcharging is common.
Keep in mind, there are two docks in San Pedro La Laguna, the Panajachel dock where most lanchas come and go, then the Santiago Atitlan dock on the far eastern side of town, which is where the boats run to and from, you guessed it, Santiago Atitlan. They are usually just referred to as the “Pana” or “Santiago” docks.
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 per person to go anywhere within a village, then anywhere from 10-40Q between villages depending on distance.
Another possibility is pickup truck. Small trucks with railings in the back to hold on to transport surprisingly large groups of people in the box, usually for 5Q per person. Just flag them down and squeeze in, then pay when you get off.
In a couple spots you can also catch an occasional chicken bus from town to town: San Pedro – San Juan – San Pablo – San Marcos.
21 Things to Do in San Pedro, Atitlan
One of the reasons San Pedro is so popular with backpackers is the long list of things to do there. It is the village on Lake Atitlan where you will have the most options to keep you busy, regardless of whether you are interested in local culture or just looking for a friendly bar to unwind in.
San Pedro la Laguna is one of the best places in Central America to take Spanish classes. There are dozens of choices, from organized, highly recommended schools like Lake Atitlan Spanish School to private homestays where you take classes but also immerse yourself speaking Spanish with a local family. These homestays are usually excellent value, or you have the option of staying at a hotel on your own and simply taking as many (or few) classes as you want. Prices vary but many are as low $5/hr for private lessons.
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 within 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.
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. Café Las Cristalinas does tours and is also a popular digital nomad hangout.
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.
Shop at the Local Market
San Pedro has one of the best, most vibrant local markets on Lake Atitlan. It is an entirely local market, where the Pedranos do their weekly grocery and supply shopping. So don’t expect a lot of souvenirs or Gallo beer t-shirts, but if you find narrow streets crowded with stalls selling everything from fruit and vegetables to fish to woven baskets to drinkable coconuts, well, this is your kind of market.
Even though we usually stay near San Marcos we do all our weekly fruit and vegetable shopping in San Pedro. The market exists every day to some extent but is at its busiest and best on the weekend. Try to get there in the morning as many of the stalls start packing up around 1 pm. Also, keep in mind that San Pedro la Laguna is now plastic-free so you will need to bring your own reusable bags.
Live With a Local Family
This ties in with some of the options for learning Spanish but can be a great and memorable cultural experience in itself. You get to experience local life and customs firsthand and usually get included in their day-to-day activities (such as cooking or shopping) to whatever extent you wish.
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 typical average time 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 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 which seems to come and go throughout the year.
Get Out on the Lake on a Paddleboard or Kayak
The lake is the big highlight of all Lake Atitlan villages so you should definitely take the chance to get out on the water. Cruising across the calm, morning waters in a kayak or on a paddleboard offers a completely different perspective. As we mentioned earlier, the waves tend to pick up in the afternoon so the earlier the better, and always keep a close watch for boats. San Pedro Paddle is a good place to rent paddleboards and several lakefront hotels and restaurants have kayaks.
Find the Street Art
Many of the buildings in San Pedro (and the other villages) sport some fascinating murals and art. The murals are spread out around the town, so just set aside some time to wander and keep your eyes peeled for the next great image.
Go Horseback Riding
Most San Pedro tour operators can organize horseback tours of the surrounding hills, coffee fields or to the nearby black sand beach and it usually works best to set it up in person rather than booking it online. We’ve never actually taken one of these horseback riding tours but we have certainly seen many people enjoying themselves (every tour insists on clip-clopping awkwardly right through town past all the restaurants).
Experience Semana Santa (Holy Week)
Semana Santa is a major celebration all over Latin America and Guatemala is no exception. San Pedro, in particular, is known for its massive 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.
While each village has its own procession, the one in San Pedro on Good Friday is the largest and perhaps the loudest. Starting around 9 am it goes for a full 3 hours before making its way into the Church of St. Peter (San Pedro in Spanish, of course), the main church in town. It is loud, colourful, crowded and absolutely worth seeing.
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 Marcos is a new age, hippie enclave, and both are very close to San Pedro. Santiago Atitlán is a bit further away and boats to it leave from its own dock but its an intriguing village.
There is also Tzununa, Jaibalito, Santa Cruz, Panajachel and a few rarely visited ones on the far side of Pana. 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, although any tour operator should be able to arrange a day of village hopping.
Check out our post on Lake Atitlan’s Villages for more details on each village and town.
Take a Cooking Class
Located right in the main tourist area near the Panajachel dock, Mayan Kitchen offers cooking classes Monday to Saturday where you can choose which recipes you want to learn. Most classes run from 9 am to 12 or 1 pm, can be in Spanish or English and include a trip to the local market to shop for ingredients. There are authentic Guatemalan dishes, plus dessert and vegetarian choices, all of which go home with you at the end of the day.
Venture on a Pub Crawl
Probably the most fun of our many annual Atitlan traditions, spending an afternoon (and occasionally longer) bar hopping from village to village is a less wholesome but still authentically Guatemalan undertaking. We usually start at Sublime because of its good lake views and excellent food, then make our way to Alegre Pub, my personal favourite sports pub on the lake.
I’ve spent many an ill-advised morning watching Arsenal lose while putting back a litro or two of Gallo. From there we usually mix it up, and there are far too many options to list them all, but El Barrio, Clover and Jakuu are good starting points.
Try a Freshly Squeezed Juice
D’Juice is run by a group of Tz’utujil women who make fresh-squeezed fruit smoothies just down the street to the east from the Panajachel dock. They also sell the best bananas in town (every week I pay the extra few Q for the good stuff).
An even cheaper, often more convenient option, is to get a freshly-squeezed orange juice from one of the young women selling from carts lining the main street up the hill from the dock.
Go for a Soak in Los Thermales
Los Thermales is a set of 5 small hot tubs/pools located in a small clearing behind Buddha bar. 50Q gets you access to the pools for a relaxing soak with a good view of the lake. You can even bring your own drinks. There is a basic outdoor shower and very basic toilet.
Have a Coffee and Watch the Action
Café Tz’utujil is located right on the main, bustling intersection coming up from the Panajachel dock. People who know about such things say their coffee is the best and it also happens to be a great place to while away an hour or two sipping your cup of joe and watching the chaos of the busiest street corner in town.
Visit the Main Square and the Church of St Peter
This large church is impressive on its own but it also happens to have the very pleasant, peaceful Parque Puerta Hermosa welcoming visitors just out front. There are some nice statues and a bit of green space to enjoy.
Tourists are welcome at the Spanish church services if you feel like further immersing yourself in the local culture.
Learn Weaving with a Women’s Collectivo
At the Atitlan Women Weavers Collectivo you can spend the day learning about traditional Guatemalan techniques for spinning cotton, dyeing string and weaving beautiful textiles. They provide all the materials and show you every step of the process from harvesting the cotton to the finished traje tipico (traditional dress) and traditional scarf.
Pub Quiz at Alegre Sports Bar
Test your trivia knowledge of history, sports and pop culture at Alegre’s wildly popular Sunday night Pub Quiz. Most are in it for the bragging rights but there are also some good prizes to go with food and drink specials.
See the View at Mirador Bella Vista
It is rare to find such a spectacular viewpoint right in town but Mirador Bella Vista is easy to reach and well worth a look. There is a café with drinks and snacks and you can easily take a tuk tuk up if you want to avoid the tiring uphill walk. You can find it with a quick search on Google Maps.
Relax and Slow Down
There is so much to do around Lake Atitlan that it can be tempting to fill your days without leaving anytime for the ultimate lake experience – slowing down and taking some time to do, well, not much. And whether that constitutes reading in hammock, having a 2-hour coffee or settling in on the point to watch the sunset, be sure to set aside some time relax during your visit to San Pedro.
When to Visit: San Pedro 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 Pedro, Guatemala
Money and ATMs
San Pedro is well-connected so you should be able to use cards at all hotels and most restaurants. However, it is still useful to have cash for the local market, tuk tuks and small shops. The best ATM is up at the top of the hill near the market and main church.
If you are stuck there is another one just up from the Panajachel dock but it has a long, sordid history of scams (illegal card readers, debiting your account but not giving cash, etc.). If you have to use it be sure to keep a close eye on your account for a few days after. There is also a very reliable ATM at the main bank in San Juan (10 minutes and 10-15Q by tuk tuk).
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 (if you don’t you will definitely end up paying more).
Costs in San Pedro la Laguna Lake Atitlan
In comparison to other villages on the lake, San Pedro la Laguna is very affordable. It has the most budget hotels, lots of good value restaurants and extremely cheap Spanish classes on offer. Of course, you can easily spend more if you aren’t on a tight budget but typically San Pedro is the best choice for backpackers.
Shoestring travellers can find a basic room for around 80Q ($10), have lunch for 40Q ($5) and take 4 hours of Spanish classes for 150Q ($20). The most expensive things are those geared only toward tourists rather than locals such as steak dinners or specifically North American groceries (i.e. butter, cheddar cheese).
However, while it is certainly much cheaper than travelling in North America or Europe, people are often surprised to find Guatemala quite a bit more expensive than Mexico. Not Cancun or Puerto Vallarta, necessarily, but away from the modern beach resort areas we find Mexico considerably cheaper, especially for eating out.
Good value taco shops/stalls are everywhere in Mexico and local market food is almost absurdly cheap, while both will cost a fair bit more in Guatemala. Full meals in tourist restaurants, in particular, can add up quickly. Although it is possible to eat for $5 or less, most of choices are more in the 60-80Q range ($8-10). So the point is, Guatemala is still very cheap, just maybe not as cheap as you expected if you just came from Mexico.
Grocery Stores and Markets
We generally get all our fruits and vegetables at the local market which runs every day but has a greater selection on weekends. Everything else we buy at Johanna’s, down near the Pana dock. They have the best selection of gringo favourites but are still a locally owned and run place.
Salud Para Viva is the local health food store, with an impressive selection of specialty choices, and there are dozens more small shops selling basic groceries and supplies.
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 Pedro la Laguna
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 Pedro speak Tz’Utujil. In Panajachel it is 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 goes with a confusing blend of the two. In addition to all the Spanish classes available in San Pedro it is also possible to learn Tz’utujil 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 Pedro Guatemala safe?
Overall, yes. Violent crimes are very rare and we never feel unsafe during our stays on Lake Atitlán. However, there are enough incidents that you need to be smart and take reasonable precautions. Occasionally tourists are robbed at machete point while hiking, in particular on the popular trail between Santa Cruz and San Marcos.
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).
There have been some serious issues with groups being robbed while hiking to the top of Volcan San Pedro to the point the park has been closed occasionally. But if guides are taking people up when you’re there it is because the situation is safe and you shouldn’t need to worry. Other than that, use general common sense like watching for pickpockets in the crowded market and not wandering back to your hotel drunk at 2 am and you should be fine.
Where to Eat: Best San Pedro La Laguna Restaurants
San Pedro is full of great restaurants catering to a huge variety of palates and budgets. With many international options, loads of vegetarian choices and terrific local Guatemalan places, you will have no problem finding just what you’re craving in San Pedro. Here are just a few of our personal favourites:
Idea Connection: Don’t let the odd name fool you (it was once the main internet café in town), this is hands down the best Italian place in San Pedro. Excellent pastas and other Italian specialties made by a pair of Italian expats that have been in Guatemala for decades. They also have a fantastic bakery.
The Fifth Dimension is the best vegetarian place in town. Started by a British friend years ago, he has since moved on and it is now owned and managed by the very local Guatemalan women who spent years there working as cooks and managers. The views from the top deck are outstanding.
Smokin’ Joe’s Sunday barbeque is also a weekly tradition for many Pasajcappers, offering excellent steaks, ribs and other carnivorous favourites, along with a great buffet of sides. It is a lot of food. There are also drinks, music and a pool to enjoy if you want to hang out and make a day of it.
The Alegre Pub is my favourite place to drink and/or watch sports. They also have a good selection of cheap, tasty bar food (I’m usually good for at least 4 or 5 Cajun chicken burgers per season). Thursday Pie day is particularly popular (British-style pies, with meat and stuff).
El Barrio is a good place to drink, watch sports or eat. Or all three at the same time. Their weekend brunch is huge, delicious and an insanely good deal. It has been a mainstay of our weekly routine for years (walk around the lake from San Marcos, load up on groceries at the market, then gorge ourselves on brunch).
Sublime has the best burgers in town, and they can be enjoyed on a nice deck overlooking the lake.
Hummus-Ya is a good Israeli restaurant with delicious falafel.
The Clover is an Irish place with a wide variety of meals and a particularly top notch breakfast.
Where to Stay: Best San Pedro La Laguna Hotels
Sababa Resort Atitlan is an excellent high-end option with a bar, pool and palapas with amazing views over the water. But be aware that you have to pay in cash so plan ahead. Check here for prices
Mikaso Hotel has a mix of private rooms and dorms with views over Lake Atitlan. It has its own restaurant on the top floor and is very close to a wide choice of other restaurants as well. It is known for its 40Q Saturday brunch and great pizza. Check here for prices
Hospedaje Lolita is an economical option with private bathrooms, a view from the roof and a shared kitchen and lounge. Relax in one of the hammocks when taking a break from seeing the town. Check here for prices
For more ideas on where to stay around the lake, check out Lake Atitlan Villages – Where to Stay.
San Pedro la Laguna is the best choice on Lake Atitlan for backpackers looking to be in the heart of the action. While we prefer the better volcano views from the north side of the lake, San Pedro has the best variety of affordable accommodation and food choices, plus is nice and close to some of the best hikes on Lake Atitlan. With a nice mix of local culture and tourist facilities, San Pedro is the ideal choice for those who are looking to stay busy and keep social during their visit to Lake Atitlan.
This website contains affiliate links. They do not affect prices but we earn a commission if they are used to book something or make a purchase.
Other useful articles you may want to check out: