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Lake Atitlan is simply gorgeous and is undoubtedly one of our favourite places in the world. And even though we spend a few months there every year, there are so many things to do in Lake Atitlan that we never get bored.
If you are looking for active pursuits, there is hiking, kayaking, swimming and paddleboarding, just to name a few. Or if you’re looking for something a little more relaxing, Lake Atitlan offers great shopping, excellent restaurants and loads of amazing viewpoints that can be reached by boat or tuk-tuk.
Whatever you have in mind, chances are you’ll be able to give it a go in one of the many different villages. So here is our list of all the best things to do in Lake Atitlan:
20 Amazing Things to Do in Lake Atitlan
1. Hike a Trail
We think hiking is the best thing to do on Lake Atitlan (of course, we tend to think hiking is the best thing to do in most places). There are numerous hiking options around the lake, although not all of them can be done on your own without a guide, or at least someone that has done them before.
Hiking to the top of Volcan San Pedro is easily the most popular hike on the lake, although it is certainly no walk in the park. Sunrise at Indian Nose (more appropriately called Nariz del Indio) is also excellent and can be done from a variety of different trails. And the Mayan Trail between Tzununa and Santa Cruz is our personal favourite and the best moderate hike on Lake Atitlan.
For a complete list and all the details, check out our complete Guide to Hiking on Lake Atitlán where you’ll find descriptions, maps and GPX files (handy because trails in Guatemala generally do not have waymarkings or signposts).
If you don’t want to mess around with GPS and unmarked trails, you can always sign up for a scenic 4-hr hike ridge hike along the crater rim above Santa Cruz la Laguna. The tour starts in Panajachel and the hike will take you past a sacred Mayan site before finishing in the traditional town of Sololá with lunch at a local comedor.
2. Head out for a Kayak or Paddleboard
Most of the time mornings are calm, with the wind and waves only kicking up around noon, which makes it a great lake for kayaking. Just be sure you’re on the correct side of the lake before things take a turn for the rough. Kayaks can be rented in a variety of places in San Pedro, as well as San Marcos and Santa Cruz. The inevitable sunburn is generally not included in price.
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.
If you are an early riser you rent a paddleboard the night before and head out for a sunrise paddle on the lake. It’s a memorable, peaceful thing to do on Lake Atitlan and if you are lucky you will be able to see the active volcano Volcan Fuego puffing in the distance against the rising sun.
3. Go for a Swim, Maybe Combined with Cliff Jumping
There are many different schools of thought on this, varying from “Amazing! We do it every day!” to “I wouldn’t touch that water with one of your lesser appendages.” Much of the difference, however, can be attributed to location. Septic and sewage treatments rules and regulations are a somewhat nebulous entity around Lake Atitlan, and a topic that most people steer clear of in hopes of maintaining a positive outlook on lake life.
So, while willfully knowing very little about the details, I do still have eyes, and based on what I’ve seen I have no interest in swimming off any of the waterfront decks in San Pedro or Pana, but feel very comfortable swimming off our Pasaj-Cap dock nearly every day. The same would go for any of the houses or hotels located away from the villages.
The best place to jump into the lake is at Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve in San Marcos which has platforms for suntanning and watching people jumping off the ‘cliffs’ or rocks.
For a complete overview of the best swimming options around the lake, check out:
4. Atitlan Bike and Kayak Trip
You can combine several of these activities, plus biking, by signing up for the Atitlán Bike and Kayak Adventure Tour which gives you a chance to experience the wilder side of the lake away from the tourist shops and restaurants. Starting in Jaibalito, this 2-day tour includes meals and hotel (plus transportation from Panajachel or Antigua if needed) and involves mountain biking down from the crater rim, hiking between villages, kayaking on the lake and even cliff jumping.
5. Go Handicraft Shopping
Speaking of shopping, I’ve heard rumours that tourists, from time to time, like to buy things. Sometimes even things they really don’t need, and maybe barely even want. If that happens to apply to you, well, fear not, as there are many places to part with a goodly chunk of your grimy but colourful quetzals.
This is many visitor’s favorite thing to do while visiting Lake Atitlan and we have watched many people go from village to village to make sure they have seen all the options.
Tourist paraphernalia in Pana, art, textiles and Women’s Cooperatives in San Juan, crafts in San Marcos, pottery in San Antonio Palopo and a little bit of everything (including “ganja, amigo?”) in San Pedro.
Really, all those things can be found in any of those four, but don’t expect a whole lot to choose from in the other villages (although delightful Mayan atmosphere is mostly free).
6. Take a Class and Learn Something New
Classes on a variety of topics can be found in pretty much any village, although certainly San Marcos is the unquestioned capital of all things spiritual (be they tantric, holistic or simply hallucinogenic). Some examples of classes on offer are reiki, massage, meditation, probiotic fermentation with Love Probiotics whose products are for sale around the lake, or balancing your chakras.
In Tzununa, there is the unusual option of learning about permaculture and natural building at Atitlan Organics. You can take a tour of the fully-functional, profitable, organic, permaculture farm or take the Permaculture Design Certification and 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 Guatemala.
7. Check out the Nightlife
Since most of the villages practically shut down by 10pm, San Pedro and Panajachel have the best choices for things to do at night. San Pedro is the best place to find a little light-hearted competition in the form of poker tournaments, trivia contests, bars with rotating specials or seeing who can craft the most convincing lies to impress that group of encouragingly drunk German girls.
If you are looking for other location options, fear not – having a couple drinks is one of the more popular activities in Lake Atitlan among visitors and locals alike, there is a wide variety of methods making it possible to find just the perfect alcohol environment for your particular tastes.
Slow-moving expats determined to speed up the aging process via a strict regimen of drinking alone in the morning tend to prefer the sports bars of San Pedro and Pana. These are also the best places to find “night life”, which on Atitlán is more or less defined as any bartender that will serve you until 11:30 pm.
San Marcos has some nice restaurants and decent lounges, but be prepared to turn into a pumpkin by 9:30 at the latest (be careful, though, because even as a lonely pumpkin on the dark road by yourself it is still very easy to end up with dog shit on your shoe).
San Juan, Santa Cruz, Tzununá and Jaibalito all have places that serve alcohol but most drinks tend to disappear with the setting sun. Our favorite post hike stop for a refreshing beer is the upstairs terrace at Qaas Utz in San Juan.
8. Take a Yoga Class, Training or Stay for a Retreat
Lake Atitlan is also one of the world’s best yoga destinations and is considered to have good energy due to the ley lines. There are yoga classes and trainings around the lake
There are a lot of great choices but the ones that come up again and again as the best places for yoga retreats, classes or trainings are Doron Yoga in Tzununa, Yoga Forest and Eagle’s Nest in San Marcos, Villa Sumaya in Santa Cruz, and Mystical Yoga Farm in Santiago.
Check out our guide to the Best Yoga Retreats on Lake Atitlan for all the details.
And the best thing about Lake Atitlan is you can also find a spot to do some yoga by yourself with truly inspiring views.
9. Go for an Adrenaline Rush
Zipline near Panajachel
You can choose from two lines in Parque Chuiraxamolo near Santa Clara, or eight more in Atitlán Nature Reserve near Panajachel. Not surprisingly, the latter also has wildlife viewing but, although I haven’t been,
I believe it is mostly focused around some short hiking trails and a dome full of butterflies. Not exactly the Serengeti, but maybe better than watching tourists fawn over all the different colours of Gallo t-shirts for sale.
Paragliding for the Ultimate View of the Lake
If you have a good stomach for heights you should consider this epic Lake Atitlan adventure. RealWorld Paragliding has a good reputation and highly skilled pilots. The views from up there are unbelievable and they even take photos for you so you can just enjoy the experience.
10. Wander a Local Market
Spending some time wandering through the crowds and jumbles of blankets covered in sale items at one of the local Mayan markets is a great way to kill a morning or two, and offers a fascinating look at the local Mayan culture, not to mention an incredible opportunity to pick up a bargain-price machete or 20 pounds of fresh green beans for less than 20 minutes of parking back home.
Every village has its own market, but for my money (of which you won’t need much). San Pedro is probably the most interesting one right on the lake and is best on the weekend.
However, with a little extra time you can kill two birds with one stone, so to speak, by taking a 15-minute chicken bus ride up the hill from Pana to the Sololá market, also checking “dangerously erratic bus ride along a narrow mountain road” off your list of essential Guatemalan experiences.
Or, if you are interested the less touristy side of the Lake Atitlán highlands but aren’t so sure about the bus part, you can opt for the village and culture tour out of Panajachel. During this 6-hour tour you will explore the traditional village of Concepción, check out local farms, experience a sacred Mayan fire cleansing ritual and visit the famous Sololá market.
Market days are different for each village so make sure to ask around. Try to get there in the morning as things tend to start packing up by lunch. We do all our fruit and veggie shopping at these markets but even if you aren’t buying anything they are a fascinating look at local life.
11. Learn Some Spanish
Lake Atitlan is one of the best places to learn Spanish in Central America. San Pedro has the most schools to choose from and they are all quite economical. Many people choose the homestay option so they are truly immersed in learning.
We have a friend who comes every year to do a homestay and learn more Spanish. Most sign up for a week at a time and take 3-4 hours of classes each weekday with group activities on the weekend.
We have opted for a more relaxed learning rate in the past by getting a private teacher or a teacher from Lake Atitlan Spanish School to give 1-hour classes a couple times a week.
We can 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, online or you can arrange for her to come to you instead.
12. Relax in a Hammock
This one might be first on many people’s list. Despite a bevy of active options, at heart the lake is all about relaxation. The beauty, the slower pace of life, the practically interminable service in restaurants – they all tie in with what most visitors love most about the place.
Whether you are perched out over the water with panoramic views or lying quietly in a secluded spot of shade under a large jacaranda tree, stretching out in a hammock with a good book is the essential lake experience. Or even a crappy book, because who are we kidding, you’re going to napping before the hour is out.
13. Take a Village-to-Village Boat Tour
If you are short on time, the easiest way to see multiple villages quickly is to hire a private boat. Some of the villages that are less accessible by public transportation such as Santiago Atitlan, San Lucas Toliman, San Antonio Palopo and Santa Catarina Palopo are great to visit by private boat and are all surprisingly distinct from each other. You can hire a boat from any of the public docks or most accommodation will be able to arrange one.
Obviously the more people you have the more economical it is but you may need to haggle at bit. We paid 900Q for 4 people for a boat from 9:30 to 4pm to give an idea.
Or you can save yourself the haggling part and just sign up for a full-day Lake Atitlan boat tour out of Panajachel. Along with enjoying the fabulous scenery all the way around the lake, this 6-hour tour includes stops in traditional Santiago Atitlán, gorgeous San Juan la Laguna and local coffee plantations and textile shops.
14. Get Up to See the Sunrise
Its easy to see the sunset in Lake Atitlan but it is also well worth getting up early enough to see the sun come over the edge of the caldera and slowly light up the sky and volcanoes. And if you can see it all by swing all the better.
15. Learn How to Weave
If you want to try your hand at making one of the handicrafts for sale around the lake many of the Women’s Weaving Cooperatives in the different villages will teach you traditional techniques. Be aware, its not quick, a scarf will take 8 hours. But it will also give you an appreciation for the work that goes into it when you are haggling for your souvenirs. Check out Atitlan Women Weavers Cooperativa in San Pedro, Tienda Candelaria in San Antonio Palopo or Cojolya Weaving Centre and Museum in Santiago Atitlan.
16. Find the Street Art
Each of the towns and villages have great street art that occasionally verges on exceptional. Take a wander in any of the villages and find your favourites.
17. Climb Up to Enjoy the View at Mirador Kiaq’Aiswaan
This fantastic viewpoint is also known as the San Juan Mirador and is located about a 15-minute walk from San Juan on the path up to Rostro Maya. The vibrantly painted multilevel Kiaq’Aiswaan Observation Deck now completely surrounds the original cross on the hill and provides stunning views over the lake, volcanoes and San Juan.
18. Stop for a Coffee
Lake Atitlan produces some pretty amazing coffee in the hills above the lake so it only seems fair that you should try it out. Each of the villages have great cafes but favuorites are Crossroads in Pana, Circles in San Marcos and Café La Cabana in San Juan (this one has the best views and a swing with wings).
19. Take a Coffee Tour
If you want to see what it takes to get that coffee in your cup check out a coffee tour that will take you through the whole process from picking, drying, and roasting. A good choice is Shangri-La Atitlan in San Marcos or Cooperativa La Voz in San Juan.
20. Experience Semana Santa
Semana Santa is a major celebration all over Latin America and Guatemala is no exception. San Pedro, in particular, is known for its massive and very loud 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. San Juan makes the best alfombras on the lake and because their procession is in the evening it is possible to watch (or help) them making the alfombras all afternoon.
As you can see, there are enough things to do in Lake Atitlan to keep you busy for months (or years, in our case). So whether you’re looking for some outdoor adventure, craving some of that famous Guatemalan coffee, hoping to learn a new skill or something in between, you should be able to find something to suit your needs.