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Santiago Atitlan: Guide to an Authentic Mayan Town

With a population of close to 50,000, Santiago Atitlan is by far the biggest town on Lake Atitlan. It doesn’t necessarily feel that way, though. Compared with many of the other more compact villages, Santiago is fairly spread out. That, combined with far less reliance on tourism, gives it a very “real Guatemala” atmosphere that can sometimes be hard to find in the other villages.

Tucked into a valley between all three Lake Atitlan volcanoes – San Pedro, Tolimán and Atitlán – Santiago was originally known as Chuitinamit as the capital of the Tz’utujil Mayan people. And even today, 95% of the population of Santiago is indigenous Mayan.

Santiago Atitlan has had some brutal periods throughout its history, in particular during the Guatemalan civil war when many civilians were killed. The town still places great importance on their Tz’utujil identity, strongly protecting their culture and traditions. Yet, at the same time, it is among the most modern and progressive areas on the lake, creating a fascinating blend between the two styles.

Many “atitecos”, as the locals are known, still wear traditional clothing. For women, this historically means huipiles (blouses) embroidered with flowers and birds paired with a purple-striped skirts. However, the specific styles are surprisingly trendy, with new patterns and designs emerging from time to time.

Women at market

Younger men have largely abandoned the old clothing except for festivals and events but a good portion of the older men still wear the traditional tops and striped, embroidered pants.

Nonetheless, despite its size, Santiago Atitlan still sees far fewer tourists than the main travel destinations on Lake Atitlán such as Panajachel, San Marcos la Laguna and San Pedro la Laguna. Which is one of the main reasons it is such a fascinating place where you can experience another side (somewhat literally) of this beautiful Guatemalan lake.

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 Santiago Atitlan – Lake Atitlán, Guatemala

While it isn’t geared toward tourism the way some of the other villages on the lake are, there are still enough things to do in Santiago Atitlan to fill a busy day trip or a leisurely few days. It is also the jumping-off point for ascents of Volcán Atitlán.

Visit the Santiago Atitlán Maximón

Without doubt, Maximón is the most unusual and unique thing about Santiago. This life-sized effigy of a Mayan/Catholic deity hangs out in dark rooms, wears a big hat, colourful suit and weirdly plain tie. He smokes a cigar and changes houses each year right after Easter (Semana Santa). He also has broken legs for some reason.

Maximon statue in Santiago Atitlan

Also known as San Simón, he is truly a mystery wrapped in a riddle wrapped in an old blazer.

Yes, Maximón (pronounced mah-shee-mohn) is a Mayan god, of sorts, who answers prayers and protects virtuous couples.

But he is also loosely associated with Judas Iscariot, which obviously isn’t great, is considered a trickster and a bit of a womanizer, and the prayers he answers are mostly those considered a bit offside by traditional saints, such as promising miracles, good health and vigorous lovemaking.

Nonetheless, he is held in the highest esteem by local atitecos, and it is considered a great honour for a member of his cofradía (brotherhood) to host him for the year. Of course, they probably also don’t mind the job of performing ceremonies that mostly involve smoking with/near him and accepting offerings from visitors.

To visit Maximón, you’ll probably need to enlist the help of a local guide/tuk-tuk driver. And know that meeting him comes at a cost – typically some glass candles, a pack of cigarettes or maybe a bottle of booze. It’s best to ask your guide what they recommend as Maximón’s tastes sometimes mysteriously change depending on where he’s living.

Shop For Local Handicrafts

Okay, now you’ve seen Maximón, you’ve made your offering and you’ve been part of a confusing ceremony, maybe it’s time to step back and try something a little more mainstream. Some shopping, perhaps?

Handicrafts from sale in Santiago Atitlan

The street leading up the hill from the dock is lined with a bevy of local shops selling everything from handicrafts to clothing to paintings to leather goods.

Handicrafts for sale in Santiago Atitlan

Colourful traditional textiles are everywhere and all the items are produced by local artisans. The quality is excellent, the selection vast and the prices extremely reasonable.

Check Out the Santiago Atitlan Church

Saint James the Apostle Church, or as it is also known, the Iglesia Parroquial SantiagoApóstolis the most important and oldest building in Santiago Atitlán built between 1572 and 1581.  

Church in Santiago Atitlan

Impressive and respected, it is one of the best places to witness the complex amalgamation of Mayan and Christian religions. Wooden statues of Christian saints line the walls dressed in local Mayan clothes that Santiago women change annually.

Religious statues

People pray to their Catholic god in the Tz’utujil language, often perform Mayan ceremonies inside the church and intertwine both religions in every aspect of their traditions and culture.

Church gardens
Church gardens

Visit a Woman’s Weaving Cooperative

Backstrap-loom weaving is an important skill in these parts, used to make the women’s huipiles and the men’s pants, among other things. If you want more info or to see the women in action you can stop in at one of the local cooperatives.

Clothes for sale

The Cojolya Weaving Centre and Museum is supported by an efficient NGO and offers a varied experience for visitors interested in learning more. In the museum, you can see the history of backstrap-loom weaving, how it ties in with the history of the indigenous Mayans of Santiago, as well as the background and origins of the traditional clothing.

If you opt to take the 2-hour tour you can learn more about how the women produce their own cotton and dyes, what sets backstrap-loom weaving apart from other types of weaving and get a closer look at the materials, the dyeing process, the foot loom. At the end you can even purchase the finished products.

There are many art galleries in Santiago showcasing the skills of Lake Atitlan artists. Stroll around until you find your favourite artist.

Painting shop in Santiago Atitlan

You can look through bios on the local artists beforehand to get an idea of what might be available.

Wander the Santiago Atitlan Market

The market takes place every day, although the big days are Friday and Sunday, when things can get very crowded and even raucous in sections. Just making your way slowly through the crush of people and seeing the huge variety of items for sale can be an experience in itself.

Market in Santiago Atitlan

From fruits and vegetables to flowers and baskets to batteries and cell phone cases, they truly do cover all the bases. The women are also usually dressed in their finest traditional attire for the occasion.

Have a Coffee and Watch the World Go By

We have two favourite coffee shops on the main street up from the dock.

Café Dorado Atitlan has comfy seats in the front where you can watch the local activity or, if you want a quieter spot, you can head to the second floor.

People having coffee in Santiago Atitlan

You can also get your caffeine to go if you want to wander the town with your coffee, latte or chai tea latte.

We also like Eiffel Café, which boasts some of the best latte art.

Decorate latte

Relax at the Parque Central

As always, the Parque Central is the focal point for activity in the town. It is generally full of people (often just hanging out, enjoying the shade and people watching) but gets especially busy on the main market days.

Colorful main square in Santiago Atitlan

It is a colourful place with some nice murals and an impressive stone monument dedicated to Concepción Ramírez, the woman immortalized on the 25-centavo coin. There is also a very cool relief map of the lake that allows you to get an entirely different perspective on just how steep and hilly its surroundings are.

See the Local Cemetery

Way up the hill just out the south end of town you’ll find the jumbled, colourful, decorative Santiago Atitlan cemetery. Strolling up and down the narrow aisles among the beautiful monuments and abundant trees and flowers can be oddly peaceful. There are also nice views of the forested hills in behind and the lake down the hill.

Colorful cemetary in Santiago Atitlan

On the way up, just at the sharp curve, is another excellent mirador with good views down over the town and San Pedro volcano.

Viewpoint of Santiago Atitlan

Then, a little bit further down the hill, you can get a similar view that includes the clothes washing area (from a respectful distance).

Women doing laundry

Indulge in a Yoga Retreat

Mystical Yoga Farm is a peaceful yoga school located on a secluded hill just across the bay from Santiago Atitlan. Serene, secluded and private, it can only be reached by private lancha.

A lovely place for reflection and rejuvenation, they offer a variety of yoga shalas, yoga retreats and teacher trainings as well as a teahouse, vegan food and an “ohm dome”.

Yoga classes at Santiago Atitlan Yoga
Photo provided by Mystical Yoga Farm

It isn’t the place to go if you need to be in the heart of the action but if you’re looking to relax and reset, Mystical Yoga Farm is one of the most highly recommended options on the lake.

Yoga retreat in Santiago Atitlan
Photo provided by Mystical Yoga Farm

Check out our complete list of the Best Yoga Retreats on Lake Atitlan

See a Quetzal

The national bird of Guatemala, the quetzal even has an entire currency named after it. Normally difficult to spot in the wild, the trained guides of Birding Atlas Expeditions lead birdwatching tours just outside Santiago Atitlan where you stand a very good chance of seeing multiple quetzales.

Quetzal bird
Take a camera with a better zoom lens to get a better pic but you get the idea

You are also very likely to see emerald toucanets, yellow-naped parrots, a variety of hummingbirds and plenty more. The hiking tours last from 2-3 hours through lush forest. Take good shoes and plenty of water as it tends to be humid and you’ll work up a sweat.

Person on trail

You can also hire a private guide. Our friends used Pitre Ixbalan (you can find him on Facebook) who is a very experienced guide and knowledgeable about plants/wildlife and history.

Climb Volcan Atitlan

The tallest of the three Lake Atitlan volcanoes at just over 3,500 metres, Volcan Atitlan is a rewarding challenge for avid hikers. The climb is long and difficult (you gain 1,600 metres over just 6 kilometres) but the views at the top are well worth it.

Person at the top of Volcan Atitlan
Dean at the top of Volcan Atitlan

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.

Less common but still possible is to summit Volcán Tolimán. It is not quite as high as Atitlan and the views aren’t quite as impressive (although still terrific) but if you’re looking to complete the three-volcano set, the same local guides mentioned in our Volcan Atitlan post can also arrange this for you.

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.

Explore Lake Atitlan’s Villages

Every town and village on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala has its own character and at least a few 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.

Panajachel is the oldest tourist centre on the lake and has the most facilities geared towards foreigners. Between Pana and Santiago you’ll find the quiet village of San Lucas Tolimán, plus San Antonio Palopó, known for ceramics and weaving, and Santa Catarina Palopó, possibly the prettiest village on the lake (and definitely the most colourful).

Woman walking to Santa Catarina Polopo cultural centre
The colourful streets of Santa Catarina Polopo

On the other side of the lake, San Marcos and Tzununá are somewhat similar, both known for their holistic and spiritual pursuits.

Tzununa yoga studio
Doron Yoga in 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.

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.

View of Santa Cruz La Laguna from above
Santa Cruz

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 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 Santiago Atitlan Hotels

Most people visit Santiago Atitlan on a day trip from Panajachel or San Pedro but if you want a more in-depth experience you should consider staying for a night (or more). Santiago Atitlan is busy and bustling, but in a different, non-touristy way. Many people find its down-to-earth simplicity very refreshing after the occasionally hyperactive scenes in some of the other villages.

Hotel Los Olivos Santiago Atitlan

Though a bit outside of Santiago Atitlan, Hotel Los Olivos Santiago Atitlan is one of the best places to stay. This is where you go when you want peace and quiet that is only a short tuk-tuk ride to all the best things to do and see. You can enjoy the lake views from the pool and garden and there is a good restaurant on site for those times you don’t want to head to town.

Click here for Hotel Los Olivos Santiago Atitlan prices

Hotel Tiosh Abaj

Hotel Tiosh Abaj Atitlan is within Santiago Atitlan but enough to the side to be relatively quiet and peaceful. The large gardens and pool with views of the volcanoes are perfect for relaxing and recharging.

Pool at a Santiago Atitlan hotel

Try out the temescal (traditional sauna) and jump right into the lake to cool off.

Gardens

There are a restaurant and bar on-site near the pool. Most rooms have garden views though some on the fourth floor have lake views.

Click here for Hotel Tiosh Abaj prices

Casa Josefa Hotel

If you want to be in the midst of it all, economical Casa Josefa Hotel is a great choice. Only a couple blocks from the docks it is very centrally located. It has beautiful gardens, a small pool and a community kitchen. As it is in the centre of town there is some busy street noise but it tends to quiet down after 10pm (although you may still hear the occasional rooster or dog).

Click here for Casa Josefa Hotel prices

When to Visit: Santiago Atitlan 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.

Person posing beside sign
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 Santiago Atitlan

As with most of the annual “ferías” (festivals) on Lake Atitlan, the Santiago Atitlan fería is compelling chaos. Taking place on (and around) July 25, it is dedicated to the city’s patron saint, Santiago Apostle.

It is a busy and exciting time to be in Santiago, with most of the town (and the towns nearby) getting involved even though it is still a predominantly Catholic celebration. One of the most notable activities is the “Baile de la Conquista” (Dance of the Conquest) in which famous battles between the Spaniards and Mayans are re-enacted. Except in this version sometimes the locals actually win.

Historical inaccuracies and insensitivities aside, the dance is fascinating, the costumes impressive and there is always plenty of drama. Additional festivities include a horse parade, an allegorical parade, marimba concerts, mechanical games, canoeing and swimming contests, triathlon games and a unique local stick game.

And, through it all, of course, everybody does a lot of eating and drinking, all culminating in the Procession of Santiago Apostle.

How do I get to Santiago Atitlan on Lake Atitlan?

Santiago Atitlan is located on the southern shore of Lake Atitlán in the Guatemalan Highlands. Driving from Guatemala City will take 3-4 hours. There are also regular buses to Santiago from Guatemala City, Cocales and San Lucas Tolimán.

However, most people take a tourist shuttle or “chicken bus” to Panajachel, then a “lancha” (public boat) across the lake. 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.

Shuttle van
Tourist shuttle in Pana

The best way to get 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.

Santiago Atitlan from the water
Docks in Santiago

From Panajachel to Santiago Atitlan tourist will probably pay 30-40Q. It is also possible to arrive in San Pedro and take one of the frequent lanchas from there (20-30Q).

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.

Dock at Santiago Atitlan
One of our visits to Santiago was with a group in a private launcha

Once in town you can use tuk tuks to get around. They cost 5Q per person for anywhere within town.

Tuk tuk in Santiago Atitlan

Helpful Details and Tips for Santiago de Atitlan, 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 a couple ATMs in Santiago Atitlan. If you find yourself exploring other parts of the lake, there are a few ATMs in Pana and San Pedro 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.

Chicken and fries
You’ll need cash to get a quick and easy fried chicken takeaway meal

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.

Grocery Stores and Markets

There are many little tiendas in Santiago Atitlan with a variety of basic supplies and you should be able to find everything else you need on the main market days.

Colorful traditional clothes
Traditional huipiles for sale at the market

Language in Santiago 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 languages. There is a fair bit of overlap but, in general, the people on the north and east sides speak Kakchiquel. In Santiago, San Juan and San Pedro they speak Tz’utujil and up the hill in Santa Clara and surrounds most people speak Quiche.

Is Santiago Atitlan 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 to Santa Cruz. It is recommended to always hike in a group or hire a guide, and don’t carry valuables.

Santiago Atitlan Summary

As the largest town on Lake Atitlan, Santiago Atitlán feels a bit like the serious older brother to the bustling tourist towns of Panajachel, San Pedro and San Marcos. Santiago happily welcomes tourists and offers plenty of great things to see and do, but it’s always clear they have more important things to worry about. Overall, Santiago is one of the more authentic experiences available on Lake Atitlan.

Other useful articles you may want to check out:

16 Best Lake Atitlan Photo Spots

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

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