With Guatemala still being one of the under the radar touristic destinations, Lake Atitlan is one of its best-kept secrets. The story which goes around traveler’s circles is the one of an area being like a vortex: once you enter it, it’s extremely tough to leave. The mysterious lake, nestled among volcanoes, is home to several villages, each with different local traditions and atmosphere. Visitors come for a variety of reasons, from unique nature, Guatemalan culture, Mayan rituals to spiritual transformation, hiking or vibrant nightlife.

The place was severely destroyed during 2005 when hurricane Stan damaged the area, causing deadly landslides, one of which absorbed the whole village of Pankaj. Most of the foreigners left, the tourist activities were abandoned, leaving the consequences to Guatemalan Government, which has a little concern for the indigenous people. Natural havoc blocked most of the roads while the area was mostly inaccessible. The situation improved substantially, one of the latest acquisitions is a brand new road leading to San Pedro La Laguna.

One of the Lake Atitlan highlights is the local communities living around the lake. Each village has its traditions, tracing back to the history when different Mayan tribes fought for the land and their right to stay. The easiest way to recognize the differences is in their traditional clothing, mostly worn by females. Every pattern of conventional huipili tells a story of its tribe, same goes with the language. So different one from the other, people have trouble understanding their neighbors. The lives of the locals don’t combine well with the foreigners, and there are two different parallel universes evolving at once. There is a prevailing idea of affluent foreigners who can be useful for acquiring money, but there is another, the subtler feeling of reluctant fascination with the others, so different and unusual. Life has a different pace here, mostly due to the circumstances, which don’t give the locals any other choice, than to continue with their accustomed lives. The apparent contrast to excited tourists is somehow painful, realizing that the visitors are here to enjoy, while the locals are battling severe problems, as is awful pollution of the lake, the lack of education and healthcare.

LAKE ATITLAN’S MAIN ATTRACTIONS

Panajachel

The most prominent city of the lake is also the tourist mecca in the area, bustling with hotels, souvenirs shops, and trendy cafes. But one shouldn’t be deceived at first glance; the city has a long history and a vibrant cultural life. Casa Cakchiquel, one of the first hotels of the lake, is restored as the Cultural Centre, including a museum of historical photography, one of a kind in the country. The guests can spend the night there in the company of Ingrid Bergman, Ernesto “Che” Guevara and other icons, who visited the establishment in the past. With a Choco Museum and the Bird Art Museum just across the street, one could almost call it a museum quarter! Art lovers will love La Galería, the gallery where Guatemalan painters can be studied.

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The town market is a whirlpool of colors, smells, and impressions, offering any artisan products imagined. Beautiful textiles will be hard to forget, almost as the imposing shouts of the locals, trying to sell their thing.

Reserva Natural Atitlán, the former coffee plantation is an excellent observation point for spotting out the animals, such as monkeys and birds or a little shot of adrenaline in the form of a zip line ride across the valley. A short trip away lie the Iximche Mayan ruins, one of the traces of the land’s impressive ancient times. Nearby villages present a whole new world again, with San Antonio Polopo leading its way with a unique pottery, distinctive for the area.

San Marcos La Laguna

The village of San Marcos La Laguna is widely known amongst all otherworldly seekers, looking for redemption, salvation, and transcendence. It’s a place to relax and meet yourself, with its endless offer of workshops, yoga and meditation classes as well as retreats. No one is safe here from the synchronicities of the Universe, many came but never left.

Comfortably nestled on the shores of Lake Atitlan, it offers a wide variety of health stores, vegan restaurants, and other wellbeing divinities. One can find plenty of accommodations surrounded by nature, tropical plants and birds of paradise. With its local pride, natural reserve Cerro Tzankujil, where one can jump of the cliff, there is enough quiet spots to escape the spinning wheel of a spiritual caravan, including the real Mayan places of worship.

When San Marcos becomes just too much, there are neighboring villages of Tzununa, Jabalito, and San Pablo waiting for a visit. The trips are possible in a relatively short hike, but take care, since there could be a high rate of crime among these roads. Tiny Tzununa offers some more of the meditation centers and yoga retreats, while peaceful El Jabalito enjoys the luxury of the off the beaten track place. A few places to enjoy a refreshment, the local market store with a few items of each and a diverse bunch of expats, trying to live a life on this particular spot on earth. According to local knowledge, the real spiritual center, believed to be San Marcos la Laguna, is actually El Jabalito, but the original village of San Marcos was relocated due to the land wars and natural forces. Maybe this is the reason why the little town is so tranquil …

San Pedro La Laguna

Backpackers’ paradise has a reputation of late night parties and a variety of bars. All avid learners of Spanish, the language schools are common in the area, must find solace from their hard lectures, also the passing by travelers, stopping only for a night or two. The town is a labyrinth of cafes, restaurants, and street stalls, selling trendy gypsy clothes, jewelry and such. The narrow streets hide a selection of murals, local pride and a sign of a younger generation’s presence. For those who enjoy themselves while including a little bit of suffering, the most significant challenge is Volcano San Pedro, prominently rising above the city, waiting for its sacred heights to be conquered.

San Juan la Laguna

San Juan la Laguna

The neighboring village of San Juan preserves its local vibe, with only a few restaurants, but a small Textile museum, where the production of natural colors and weaving process are presented. Their store is eye candy worth visiting, mind that the whole profit goes to the weaving ladies, keeping the weaving traditions and their families alive.

A short boat ride away there is another authentic lake settlement, curled up amongst all the three volcanoes, the town Santiago. With its central street, covered with artisans’ stalls, being the only touristic area in the whole city, its secrets lie somewhere different. The main historical sight of the town, colonial Catholic Church dating back to 16th century, tops up the broad plaza, surrounded by children, attending school classes. Several Santos, wooden saints, fill the walls, there is a unique fusion between Mayan and Christian religion present. Another knit of cultures is encapsulated in the Mayan saint Maximón, formerly Mayan shaman, transformed into a Spanish saint San Simón. The deity is well known around the area, settling in a different house each year, waiting for the Easter celebrations to relocate. The wooden saint smokes and drinks, while silently gazing at the devotees, asking for rescue or abundance.

Volcano San Pedro, volcano Atitlan, and volcano Tolimán

One can not leave Central America without hiking at least one volcano. The most popular hike in the area is to the respective heights of San Pedro volcano, 3097 meters above sea level. Trail, leading through the natural reserve, takes approximately 3 hours but the dizzy view from the top is well worth the trouble. Only possible with a local guide, the entrance to the reserve and tour guide presence coasts 100 Q (10 dollars), with organized tours from most places in the area available. Visitors can access entrance of the park on their own, best points of departure are the western towns on the lake, San Pedro, San Juan, San Marcos, Santiago, Tzununa and El Jabalito.

Volcano San Pedro

Volcano San Pedro towers over Lake Atitlan

Volcano Tolimán is equally demanding but much pricier since it’s not as popular as the San Pedro one. It can be organized with a proper tour agency starting the trip in Santiago. The tallest of the big bunch, volcano Atitlan, is least accessible and most difficult, taking two days, a night stay and more than 18 kilometers to combat. Starting in San Lucas Toliman, with a transfer to and back to Panajachel.

The view from Volcano San Pedro

The view from Volcano San Pedro

LAKE ATITLAN’S BEST FOOD & DRINK OPTIONS

The choice of tasteful food and refreshing drinks depends solely on the destination since each town has several options, some more than others. One of the best options to find fresh and local food at economical prices is the town market. Offering a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, it’s a dreamland for raw food enthusiasts, accompanied with organic cocoa, coffee, coconut, nuts, and spices. Home cooking suddenly becomes a blast here!

Of course, dinning out can’t be disregarded since there is a cosmos of delicious, but also pocket-friendly, restaurants around. For a visitor, unused to the local traditions, humble local restaurant venues may look suspicious, but the food is often the best there. The menu could be limited to a few options, but those equal to a proper home-cooked meal. With paying a visit to these unique places one also supports the local economy which goes a long way. They are easily recognized by local textiles, modest furniture, and lovely Mayan ladies, waiting for the order. Just a reminder, most of the dishes are made from scratch, and the food can take a while. For best experience try Café Sabor Cruceño in Santa Cruz, a culinary school focused on Mayan cuisine with the best view in town.

Lake Atitlan morning view

A stunning morning view across Lake Atitlan

Vegans and vegetarians won’t be disappointed with a variety of plant-based restaurants, such as The Fifth Dimension in San Pedro, offering a menu of burritos, Indian cuisine, and superfoods. For all the meat lovers there is Smoking Joes BBQ, with proper grilled steaks and pool parties during the weekend. Posada Jabalito in El Jabalito will provide fresh bread daily and several dishes through the day, all from local products. Best organic coffee freshly roasted and grounded can be found in Moonfish Café in San Marcos La Laguna, but if you are looking for a hip place with a conscious selection, don’t miss out Shambala and their chocolate peanut cake. If you are looking for more high-end experience, head to Panajachel, to Hana Restaurant below Casa Cakchiquel specializing in sushi or to Chez Alex, where one can enjoy five-star European dining experience and one of the best restaurants in the country.

GETTING AROUND LAKE ATITLAN

The entrance points to Lake Atitlan are Panajachel and San Pedro La Laguna, with an array of tourist shuttles connecting Guatemala City, Antigua, Semuc Champey, and other favored spots. There is also an option of the famous chicken bus ride, extending along all the surrounding cities, but only for the courageous ones. The cost is extra price conscious, but the expedition possible adventure, depending on the driver, the number of passengers and luck with flexible timetables.

The most comfortable way of transportation around the lake are the boats, connecting main points of interest, Panajachel, San Pedro La Laguna, San Marcos La Laguna, Santiago and several smaller places on the way. A price for a ride varies from 10Q to 30Q (1 to 3 dollars), the orientation is simple, just head to the main dock.

An alternative to water transportation is the equally adventurous ride with tuk-tuks, red three-wheeled motorbikes that roam loudly around the lake. Price negotiation is a smart choice for the drivers always push their luck with a fare, and don’t forget the change; they usually run out of it.

PLACES TO STAY IN LAKE ATITLAN

If Mayan people of the past knew the value of time spent at the Lake Atitlan, no wonder the modern man followed. Touristic accommodation at the lake is plentiful, everything from budget to luxury options, eco hotels to contemporary design villas. The majority of choices are located in Panajachel, San Pedro La Laguna, and San Marcos La Laguna, with a few opportunities in San Antonio Polopo, Santiago and others. Considerable groups of many will be pleased to select a holiday house on their own, while solo travelers can find hostels or private rooms.

Santa Cruz la Laguna

There are plenty of alternative accommodations nestled in Santa Cruz la Laguna

A complete vacation package is possible in many of the retreats, as in The YOGA forest in San Marcos La Laguna or Tzampoc Resort in Santa Caterina Palopo, with all accompanying splendors. For a little eco opulence try Laguna Lodge Eco-Resort in its private nature reserve, Santa Cruz or a beautiful wooden hostel, Lakeside cabana on the outskirts of San Marcos la Laguna. For an attentive, colorful interior head to Casa Vivare in El Jabalito, with a domestic vibe including pets. If you are looking for a splurge, the answer is Lush Atitlan or an exquisite Anzan House, spacious and minimalistic villa with rooms right above the lake surface.

DON’T MISS OUT ON LAKE ATITLAN’S…

Weaving cooperatives

Women of Lake Atitlan still know how to use traditional weaving techniques, resulting in gorgeous colorful textiles, from clothes to home décor. One of the most empowering practices for females in the area is creating a diverse range of products, which are sold mostly to tourists. Since the majority of locals still live below the poverty line, the income is very welcome, and several shops of different weaving cooperatives can be found around the lake. One can also get familiar with the whole fabric production and weaving process in many villages, leading with Panajachel, San Juan la Laguna and Santiago.

Weaving cooperative shop

Inside a weaving cooperative shop

Cacao & chocolate

Since Guatemala is the land of cacao, the visitor can’t avoid a little chocolate tasting. Cacao tours will reveal the secrets of the cacao beans growth and production, while several manufacturers will provide the delicious final result. Raw cacao and cacao powder are sold everywhere, if one is still indecisive, can look after the Mayan ancestors, who used the ingredient during sacred ceremonies and call it the connection between the earth and the divine.

Mayan ceremonies preparations

Mayan ceremonies preparations

Sports activities

Lake Atitlan is a real playground for all dynamic personalities. One can dive into the depths of the lake or hike to the heights of the hills or the volcanoes. Swimming, diving, kayaking to mountain biking, all kinds of trekking, zip lining and horseback riding, the outdoors is your oyster, if you only have enough energy for it.

Mayan sacred places

Mayan kosmology (spelled with a K) dates back to the prehistoric times, most of the sacred knowledge is still unknown to most, if not all. The whole area of Lake Atitlan carries a special meaning, with the claim that three volcanoes were the first original pyramids, after which Mayan people took the idea. The ultimate magical place is the sunken island of Sabaj, inaccessible to the public, but there is plenty of sacred sites, still used during ceremonies, around the lake. If one is at the right place at the right time, one can even see particular ritual or satisfy with the lecture in Mayan calendar and astrology. Don’t seek and you will find, the lake will answer to the quietest inner requests.

Mayan deity of Maximon

Mayan deity of Maximon

Flora & Fauna indulgences

You needn’t go far to see an incredible nature surrounding the lake. With its unique microclimate, the area is unusually hot which results in a diversity of tropical plants, flowers, and animals, including coffee, papayas, hummingbirds and all kinds of feathered creatures.

GUATEMALAN THINGS TO KNOW

Music

One can expect music in very random places, such as tuk-tuks, hidden portable speakers, street rappers and even churches. The latter provides an extremely intrusive regular evening practice with an open microphone time when anyone in the village can try their talent. And they don’t hold back for sure!

The developing country

The term of developing country can be taken quite literally here, with construction and building taking place just everywhere you go. Expect high levels of noise, loud banging in the morning and piercing sound of the circular saw in the evening, the progress in unavoidable, same as earplugs.

Greetings

Politeness goes a long way, and so does kindness. Guatemala is one of the few places in the world, where a little “Hola!” means a lot, especially to the locals living in tightly knit communities. Remember you are a foreigner here so a bit of recognition to the indigenous people won’t hurt, usually, it results in a heart-warming smile!

Stranger danger

The country has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, but the majority happens due to domestic and gang violence. With a wound of a thirty-year-long Civil war on its back and several government issues, one can quickly get into trouble while trying to find the unbeaten path. For that reason, many touristic activities take place in organized groups and services created purely for visitors, which can lead to high costs of travel and somewhat generic experiences. On the other hand, the locals can be extremely friendly and willing to help, if they only understand what you need, resulting in multiple pleasant encounters. Inform yourself in advance and trust your instincts also take into consideration the night falls early in this part of the world, around 6 o’clock. The solo female travel is possible in Guatemala just as anywhere else in Central America.

Petra Godeša

Petra Godeša

FTB Member

Petra is a journalist exploring the world one country at the time, looking for stories of the secluded and unspoken. Coming from a tiny Slovenia, the world seems like a marvelous place to inquire into, with its numerous narratives and fantastic landscapes. Most likely found at the seashore, where she feels the most herself, she is spending restless hours writing, dancing and trying to understand the path of life.

You can follow Petra on her blog Restless Heart, Pinterest, Facebook, and Instagram.

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