Fabulous Lake Atitlan is full of amazing views – volcano views, lake views, village views, etc. So it’s hard to go wrong wherever you choose to visit, stay or live. But even though every village has great views, logic dictates that one of them has to have the best views. And, in our opinion, that village is Santa Cruz la Laguna.
Of course, you’d get arguments from, well, all of the others, probably. Jaibalito certainly has a claim, Tzununa has its moments from certain angles and Volcan San Pedro practically looms over San Marcos from just across the narrowest part of the lake. But Santa Cruz has probably the best angle to see both Volcan San Pedro and Volcan Atitlan in the same frame (plus a hint of Volcan Toliman from certain spots).
You may also want to check out our list of the 16 Best Lake Atitlan Photo Spots
You also get unimpeded views of the relentlessly erupting Volcan Fuego near Antigua. Looking to the west you get a good peak at the dramatic Indian Nose – which is the most common name, although to be politically correct you may want to stick with Rostro Maya (Mayan Face).
Besides the scenery (although it’s a pretty important feature), Santa Cruz also has a really pleasant lakeshore with a nice path that can be walked the entire way, something that isn’t possible in most of the other villages.
With hotels, restaurants, craft shops and sporting activities, many tourists find they can spend their entire visit along the lake without ever venturing up to the main part of the mayan village.
That would be a shame, though, as it offers a fascinating contrast to the relatively recent lakefront development. Up top, local life continues as it has for decades, and with far fewer tourists around. In general, Santa Cruz is quieter and offers a much slower pace of life than busier tourist centres like spiritual San Marcos or backpacker central San Pedro.
In the end, 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, if it isn’t available or you are looking for something a little closer to restaurants and Spanish schools, Santa Cruz la Laguna is a terrific choice.
For more detailed information on all there is to see and do around the lake, check out our Complete Guide to Lake Atitlan.
13 Things to Do in Santa Cruz – Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
Paddle the Lake
Getting out on a paddleboard or in a kayak is one of the most popular things to do in Santa Cruz, thanks to its partially sheltered bay and fantastic views. It is almost always calmer in the morning so we suggest getting started as early as you can.
Los Elementos Adventure Center rents kayaks and paddleboards for $8 per hour. They also have guided kayak tours (2 hrs / $30) and 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.
Iguana Perdida also has paddleboards and kayaks for rent.
Watch the Sunrise and Sunset
As I rambled on about earlier, Santa Cruz la Laguna might have the best views of any village on the lake. It is perfectly situated to enjoy both the sunrise over spewing Volcan Fuego and sunset behind Volcan San Pedro and Rostro Maya (Indian Nose).
We do a monthly sunrise hike from Santa Cruz to Pasajcap, catching the first boat in the morning. The walk along the Santa Cruz lakeshore in the early morning light is always special.
In some places you will have a view from your room or balcony but if not, it is always easy to find a dock or spot along the lake shore.
Relax with a Drink
Every restaurant in Santa Cruz can be an enjoyable place for a drink but Free Cerveza is a particularly good place to down an alcoholic beverage or two. The name certainly suggests that, although I wouldn’t take the free part too literally.
It caters specifically to younger backpackers and is easily the most “social” place in Santa Cruz. It is a short walk to the left (west) when you get off the boat at the dock. They also have a private swimming dock, lots of water sports equipment, board games and even a beer pong table and cornhole board (which is not necessarily as unpleasant as it sounds).
If you’re feeling even more energetic, they also offer guided hikes and paddleboard tours.
Take a Yoga Class or Join a Yoga Retreat
Isla Verde is well known for its yoga retreats. They have two yoga shalas that hold up to 35 people and, as you would expect, you will have amazing views of the lake and volcanoes. And your retreat includes the use of their wood-fired hot tub and sauna as well as all meals, tea and coffee.
Have a look at our full guide to the Best Yoga Retreats on Lake Atitlan
Go for a Hike
The beautiful ridge hike between Santa Cruz and San Marcos is one of our two or three favourite hikes on the lake. This pleasant walk takes 2-3 hours and offers a superb combination of spectacular views, mild inclines and rural life. It is also possible to shorten it a bit by stopping at Tzununa and taking a boat from there as the last half-hour to San Marcos mainly follows a dusty road out of sight of the water.
There have been occasional robberies on this trail so we recommend hiking in a group, not carrying any valuables with you and possibly hiring a guide from one of the hotels.
You can find GPS maps and full details in our Guide to Hiking on Lake Atitlan
You can also do the much shorter version of the hike and end in Jaibalito which will only take 30-45 minutes.
Or maybe you’re more interested in a nice easy, stroll along the waterfront. Heading east it is about 20 minutes to reach Atitlan Sunset Lodge, or it will take about 10 minutes walking west to reach Isla Verde.
There are also a few trails in the hills above the town that can be explored with a local guide.
Learn How to Make Traditional Guatemalan Arts and Food
CECAP (El Centro de Capacitación), located in the upper village, is a terrific local organization that offers local education, tourist classes and even has an excellent café.
Traditional Cooking Classes
$28 per person
You’ll learn how to make pepian, tortillas, tamalitos and rellenitos, then get to enjoy the 3-course meal and a drink with a fantastic view over the lake.
Artisan Beading Classes
$20 per person ($15 for groups of 3 or more)
You will learn traditional beading techniques and make a custom friendship bracelet under the tutelage of local artisans.
Artisan Weaving Classes
$20 per person
Same idea, but with weaving. Learn how the locals weave their traditional clothing and get a chance to make (and keep) your own custom woven scarf.
To reserve any of these, email: email@example.com or call 3020-7961
Another good option is Mujeres de la Lunas, a local organization that offers a wide range of activities including cooking, jewelry, weaving and nature walks that empowers local women through cultural pursuits and job creation.
Shop for Handicrafts
Amigos de Santa Cruz are a non-profit organization that run Tienda Mano Cruceñas, a small handicrafts shop inside the CECAP building. They sell beautiful products handmade by local women, including jewelry, bags, clothing and accessories.
There are also some small local craft shops along the waterfront (west from the dock) and along the road leading up into the main village.
Wander the Upper Village
Everything down along the lake is geared toward tourists but if you venture up the hill into the main village you’ll find a place that is still almost entirely local. Its a steep walk up but you can take a tuk tuk from the dock if you prefer to skip the walk.
Built well above the water line to protect against the extreme changes in water level that occur periodically, Santa Cruz features a basic main square with a fascinating 16th century church, one of the oldest in Guatemala.
There are also a school, local government offices, a library, medical clinic and a few imaginative street art and wall murals hidden away among the narrow streets.
Get a Massage
Los Elementos offers excellent massages in a room right next to the water where you can hear the sound of the waves while having all your tensions drain away.
There is also a community board at Iguana Perdida where private massage therapists often post their contact info.
Hotel Arca de Noe hosts a Spanish school that has been teaching gringos how to get by in Central America since 2006. Right next to the main dock, they offer a wide range of options and are very flexible about working around your schedule.
The most common package, though, costs $122 per week for 20 hours of individual lessons, 4 hours per day either from 8 am – 12 pm or 1 pm – 5 pm.
You can also arrange for group classes or a less intense schedule, depending on demand. They provide the materials, wifi and a pretty amazing location.
Go Scuba Diving
Yes, you can scuba dive in Lake Atitlán. Sure, it’s not exactly the Red Sea or the Caribbean but avid divers will still enjoy getting underwater for awhile. Or you can use your time in Santa Cruz la Laguna to learn how to dive or take more advanced classes to prepare you for the wonders (and challenges) of the ocean.
ATI Divers is based out of La Iguana Perdida and they offer fun dives plus Discover Diving, Open Water, Advanced Diver and Altitude Specialty courses. Since the lake is located 1,500 metres above sea level it is a particularly good place to learn about altitude diving.
As you might expect, there is no coral, and not that many fish, but you will get to see some old, flooded buildings and possibly head down to a volcanic fissure where you can actually cook an egg. Which is obviously pretty… different.
While we haven’t gone diving here ourselves, we have friends who have and they described it as “not so much to see but still pretty cool”. Pretty basic in the scheme of reviews but I think you get the picture.
Of course, the real highlight would be the fascinating sunken village of Samabaj that sits about 15-20 metres below the surface off the south shore of the lake. However, this suspected pilgrimage island was only discovered in 1996 and archaeological excavation is still in the early stages so it is still not open to recreational divers.
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 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 artistic San Juan.
However, there are also Tzununá, Santa Cruz, Panajachel (Pana) and several others over on the other side of the lake, Santa Catarina Palopo, San Antonio Palopo, San Lucas Toliman and Santiago Atitlan. If you are on a tighter timeline, or just want to check off a bunch in one fell swoop, you can book a private boat tour through one of the hotels or restaurants.
For an overview of all the villages, check out Lake Atitlan Villages: Where to Stay
Where to Stay: The Best Santa Cruz la Laguna Hotels
Atitlan Sunset Lodge
The Atitlan Sunset Lodge is perfect for people who want to get away from it all and relax. There are stunning views from the rooms as well as the hot tub, outdoor lounge and restaurant. All of the common areas are very well done and have an Instagram-worthy feel. Overall, it is excellent value for money. There are free paddleboards and kayaks, as well as Saturday saunas. You can also reserve a private sauna.
The only downside is the 15-minute walk to the Santa Cruz la Laguna dock, although the walk is along the lakeshore and does have views every step of the way. Be sure you have some type of light if you’re doing the walk at night as it is uneven and poorly lit in places.
If you decide not to risk the dark walk, Atitlan Sunset Lodge has an excellent restaurant on site so you won’t mind eating dinner there as you watch the sun go down. There is also a private dock where you can get public boats to all the other villages as you explore the lake.
La Iguana Perdida
If you are looking for a Santa Cruz la Laguna hostel, La Iguana Perdida is the one to choose. It is one of the first things you see as you approach the village by boat due to its central location near the public dock. The accommodations range from dorms to private double rooms to suites with a balcony and lake view.
It also has a wonderful communal feel so if you are looking to meet new people this is a great choice. The restaurant and hang out areas are excellent and you can check out the bulletin board for information on what is happening in the village.
Hotel Arca de Noe
Arca de Noe is conveniently located right next to the main dock (across the road from Iguana Perdida). When staying at Hotel Arca de Noe, try to get the waterfront bungalows with a hammock to relax in and two reasonably comfy chairs to sit back and watch the boats go by.
There are also more economical rooms with shared bathroom and they run the local Spanish school.
Laguna Lodge Eco-Resort & Nature Reserve
The Laguna Lodge Eco-Resort & Nature Reserve is located on its own nature reserve right next to Atitlan Sunset Lodge. It is one of the most expensive hotels on Lake Atitlán with an outdoor pool, spa, hot tub, award-winning restaurant and even a gym. Each room has a private deck or terrace perfectly set up to enjoy the sunset with views of all three volcanoes.
Laguna Lodge is not necessarily the best value for money but if you want to splash out this is the place to do it.
When to Visit: San Juan la Laguna Weather
One of the reasons we keep coming back to Lake Atitlan is the near-perfect weather. Sometimes called “The Land of Eternal Spring”, its location at 1,400 metres above sea level keeps it from getting too hot, while its proximity to the equator means there is no winter to speak of (at least not in Canadian terms).
The temperature usually ranges between lows of 10-15C and highs of 20-25C. Dry season is the main tourist season and runs from late November to the end of April (give or take). Rainy season is from May to October but even then 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 the sunsets are truly spectacular that time of year.
How do I get to Santa Cruz la Laguna?
While there is now a road down to Santa Cruz from the top of the ridge, that will only work if you have your own vehicle. If you are relying on public transportation your main choices are tourist shuttle or “chicken bus” to Panajachel. From there you will take a local “lancha” (boat) to Santa Cruz Laguna – we will explain those details in the next section.
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.
Private shuttles are also possible, with prices varying widely from 300Q ($40) to 750Q ($100) from Guatemala City, and usually about 75% of those prices from Antigua.
The 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.
Barceló Guatemala City
Considering the long drive to the lake, you may end up spending a night in Guatemala City when you arrive or depart. If so, the Barceló is one of the nicest hotels in the city and offers tremendous value with 5-star luxury at mid-range prices.
With impressive, modern rooms, a beautiful pool area and excellent breakfast buffet, it is much nicer than most places we stay. Yet it still only costs about the same as the cheapest hotels in Canada or Europe so we usually manage to talk ourselves into it, especially when we need to relax and recharge after some long flights. Click here to check prices and availability
How do you get around Lake Atitlan?
Most of the time your best choice for getting around the lake is by public 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 5Q ($0.60) between neighbouring villages to 50Q ($7) to go all the way across the lake.
The main dock in Panajachel is at the end of Calle Embarcadero and is the place to go for lanchas from Panajachel to Santa Cruz la Laguna. There are also direct lanchas that go straight across the lake to San Pedro so you need to make sure you get the slow boat (not that any are fast) that takes the scenic route all the way along the north shore. That route takes about an hour to get to San Pedro but Santa Cruz is the first stop (10-15 minutes, depending on how rough the lake is). There are different prices for locals, expats and tourists but most people will pay 5-10Q from Panajachel to Santa Cruz.
Also, there are 2 docks in Panajachel so make sure you get the right one. At the end of Calle Rancho Grande is the Santiago dock where you catch lanchas to Santa Catarina Palopo, San Antonio Palopo, San Lucas Toliman and Santiago Atitlan.
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.
Several of the hotels and restaurants are located along the lakeshore and those are easily reached on foot from the dock. However, if you want/need to get up into the main village it is a steep 10-minute climb, or you can hire a tuk tuk (3-wheeled taxi) for 5q per person.
Helpful Details and Tips for Santa Cruz la Laguna, 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 are several ATMs in Panajachel but just one ATM in Santa Cruz in the upper village. 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 also several little tiendas in Santa Cruz with a variety of basic supplies but for a bigger shop you are best off going to one of the several larger grocery stores in Panajachel.
Pana also has the largest fruit and vegetable market on the lake and it is open every day, rain or shine. Along with the usual amazing selection of cheap, fresh produce, you can find virtually everything from meat and to avocados and mangos. Yet only occasionally strawberries.
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 Juan 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 Santa Cruz (and everywhere along the north side) speak Kakchiquel. Between San Juan and San Pedro they speak Tz’Utujil and up the hill in Santa Clara and surrounds most people speak Quiche.
Is Santa Cruz 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.
Where to Eat: The Best Santa Cruz la Laguna Restaurants
Café Sabor Cruceño
Kill two birds with one stone by having an outstanding meal and supporting a good cause at the same time. Amigos de Santa Cruz is a non-profit dedicated to improving the lives of the indigenous people in and around Santa Cruz la Laguna through education and economic empowerment.
In partnership with CECAP, they train more than 400 students per year in a variety of areas from beading and weaving to cooking and carpentry. Café Sabor Cruceño is run by culinary graduates, is open for breakfast and lunch and offers both delicious traditional Guatemalan dishes and western staples like salads, sandwiches and pizza. And the views are absurd.
La Iguana Perdida
We have eaten at Iguana many times over the years, usually at the end of a hike from San Marcos. They have good salads and sandwiches and Laynni is particularly enthralled with their pineapple and avocado smoothie. They also have nice, comfy areas to hang out with a drink while you wait for a boat.
Isla Verde makes everything from scratch, which is well worth the bit of extra time. Plus, the view from the restaurant terrace makes it easy to pass the time.
They also offer three-course dinners that you need to sign up for ahead of time. The sun deck is a little hot for us in the middle of the day, though plenty of others feel differently. Either way, it’s the perfect place for a drink earlier or later in the day.
Santa Cruz la Laguna Summary
Lake Atitlan is one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. With amazing views, traditional values and plenty of activities, it is no surprise it has become our second home over the years. There are 13 different villages on the lake, each with their own character and culture, but Santa Cruz stands out for its expansive views and beautiful lakefront trail.
Whether you are stopping for a short visit and want the best scenery possible or are looking for a place to settle in for awhile (and still want the best scenery), then Santa Cruz la Laguna is a great choice.
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