Il Lago Atitlan it is the deepest lake in all of Central America and is crowned by three volcanoes around: the Vulcano San Pedro, Toliman e Atitlan.
During my trip to Guatemala in my plans I should have stayed only a couple of days. I actually couldn't leave anymore and ended up staying there much longer.
That's why Lake Atitlan is one of my favorite places in Guatemala
Long a popular haunt for hippies, backpackers and travelers in general, Lake Atitlan is my favorite spot along with Semuc Champey of all the Guatemala.
- Lake Atitlan
- Geology and Origin
- What to see and do: the 7 Villages
- Panajachel: the gateway to Lake Atitlan
- Santa Cruz la Laguna: the vertical village
- San Marcos la Laguna: the hippie village
- Jaibalito: the village that doesn't exist
- San Pedro la Laguna: the backpackers' den
- Santiago: the house of the Maximon
- Santa Catarina Palopo
- How to get to Lake Atitlan
- Safety and Advice
- A responsible look
The guides do not do justice to Lake Atitlan when they recommend spending at least a couple of days, in my opinion the time to stay here is never enough: located 1.500 meters above sea level and surrounded by volcanic mountains, Lake Atitlan is a place magical with a relaxed atmosphere.
Lake Atitlan is a large blue spot that sparkles in the sun, surrounded by its volcanoes dotted with wildflowers and coffee plantations.
There is something about this place that gets under your skin and makes it very difficult to walk away.
THU the weather is perfect all year round: temperatures are more or less constant throughout the 365 days and range from 20/27 ° during the day and 10/20 ° at night.
The period with least rain is what it goes from December to February. The dry season begins in November and lasts until April.
The lake is home to more than a dozen different cities around it. Small villages, big cities, indigenous villages. Each place is so different from each other that it's nice to be able to explore them all.
Lake Atitlan is also the seat of a mainly indigenous community, but each village has its own personal style that distinguishes it from the others: just think that around the lake they speak well 15 different Mayan dialects!
Geology and Origin of Lake Atitlan
Lake Atitlan is of volcanic origin and is due to one of the largest eruptions of all time
Well, as a geologist I can't help but say a few words about the origin of Lake Atitlan.
Seven miles long, three miles wide and with an average depth of 200 meters, Lake Atitlan was formed 84.000 years ago following a massive volcanic eruption.
Lake Atitlan today fills the Atitlan caldera, a huge hole in the ground caused by the massive volcanic eruption. Each volcano has a magma chamber, an underground area where lava collects before erupting from the volcano.
The magma chamber below Atitlan was so large that when the lava was ejected, the earth above the magma chamber collapsed into the empty space below. The eruption and subsequent collapse formed the Atitlan caldera.
Today, if you look at the lake from a geological point of view, it is immediately clear that the rock peaks that surround it mark the edges of this caldera, showing at the same time both where the earth collapsed and the size of the magma chamber, about 18 -20 kilometers in diameter.
The rash was called The Chocoyos.
If volcanic eruptions fascinate you then you can't miss my post on camping on an active volcano in Guatemala!
Maybe you might also like my post on what to see in Guatemala
To get an idea of the importance and size of Los Chocoyos, just compare it with the eruption of some modern-day volcanoes. When Mount St. Helens in the United States exploded in 1980, a cubic kilometer of rock, lava and ash erupted from the volcano.
The eruption of St. Helens seems very little if you look at the volumes of Los Chocoyos instead: A total of 273 cubic kilometers (273 times as much)
of volcanic debris was ejected from the caldera, covering much of Guatemala with ash and rock.
What to see and do: the 7 villages
There are actually 12 villages on the lake, but these you find here are the 7 most important
Relax! The lake is a perfect place to find a quiet place to relax just by reading a book. Hop on a boat and explore its villages, or grab a beer and relax in the hammocks under the shade of the trees.
If, on the other hand, you like adventure, here you are spoiled for choice!
Since each village around the lake has its own personality, you can spend just one day taking the boat and moving from village to village.
Keep an eye on the weather though, the last boats leave San Pedro for the rest of the villages around 17pm and from Pana around 00pm (although they are not always on time) so be careful not to be forced to take a private boat which costs you a lot more.
From Santa Cruz most tourists visit San Marcos (about 3 hours), have lunch there then take a tuk tuk to San Juan. From San Juan, you can then take another tuk tuk and return to San Pedro.
Massi and I, who stayed on the lake for 10 days, had time to explore the villages very calmly. Getting around between boats and tuk tuks is easy, so take it easy and enjoy it!
The pier of Panajachel where the lancha leaves for the various villages. Pana is the gateway to Lake Atitlan
1 – Panajachel
Panajachel (aka: Corduroy) is undoubtedly the most famous village, especially for backpackers: it is in fact the first village you meet if you arrive on Lake Atitlan from Mexico, from Antigua and Guatemala City.
It is a lively and dusty village, with a main road, Santander Street, very busy since Panajachel is the only village connected to the road to the "outside world".
Whether you are a traveler or someone looking to spend a shorter or longer period of time on the Atitlan, Pana is definitely a place to stop, at least for a short time.
Here is the largest grocery store and Sandy's supermarket.
Tourist agencies, transfers to Antigua and beyond, a wide range of hotels, many Western restaurants, bars, nightlife venues and affordable Guatemalan crafts, this is the place to find everything you are looking for.
In Pana there is also one of the few TMJ where to withdraw money: stock up here.
If you get here here are the best things to see and do in Panajachel!
Shopping! Pana has the best selection of souvenirs and the best prices in all of Guatemala. Jewelery, fabrics, leather goods, works of art, here they really have everything! However, I advise you not to buy jade if you find it, better get it in Antigua.
Take a sunset cruise: Of all the cities on Lake Atitlan, Panajachel offers the best views at sunset. There are regular cruises (ask when you arrive in town); if you speak a little Spanish, bargain the price when you are on the dock with the captain of the ship.
Visit the Church of Saint Francis.
There are many other activities which you can do here such as kayaking or bar hopping (so called a tour of the bars and clubs), take Spanish lessons, visit the market.
Panajachel market: the main market (the more traditional one) is held on Sundays, but the market is open every day.
THEHotel Playa Linda it's a find for those who want to sleep on a budget: super cheap, adorable and very maya. You may be the only non-Guatemalan staying in the neighborhood! Double room from around 40 euros.
Look at Hotels, Rates and Availability in Panajachel.
Crossroads Coffee: one of the coolest coffees.
At Alex: the most elegant and expensive place in the city, but with Guatemalan prices it is absolutely worth going there.
Hana restaurant: if you really can't do without sushi, you can find it here.
Circus bar: Offers great pizza and live music on weekends.
Street tacos and gatemaltec fried chicken are plentiful on Calle Santander and elsewhere.
And if you are looking for a place to spend the after dinner and drink an alcoholic the Crazy Gringos it's a backpackers hangout and it's cute and colorful.
Among the activities to do on the lake, a boat ride is truly unmissable
2 - Santa Cruz la Laguna
Only a short 10 minute boat ride separates Pana from Santa Cruz la Laguna, on the northern shore of the lake.
With no road access, Santa Cruz manages to retain its secluded and tranquil charm.
Santa Cruz is a traditional Mayan city and although there are many "espat"
who live here, there is almost no "gringa" flu.
Most of the activities are located right at the edge of the lake; once you get into town, everything is purely local and traditional (and that's its charm).
Let's be honest then: for travelers or foreigners there isn't much to do here in terms of sightseeing, but something can be found all the same.
For example, if the weather is mild and allows it, it is wonderful to swim in the waves of the lake or take a kayak trip.
Or take a tuk tuk and drive to the hilltop village for a truly breathtaking view.
Having said that, I think Santa Cruz is a perfect destination for a day trip.
Spending too much time on it would be excessive.
1 - What to do in Santa Cruz la Laguna:
Go scuba diving (the only diving agency, ATI Divers, on the lake is located here). The lake may not seem like a great destination for divers
actually given the fact that the level of the lake is rising year after year you can see the buildings that have been submerged by the water.
Happy Hour e Barbecue at the La Iguana Perdida hotel.
Visit the market on Saturday morning.
Il CECAP is a development center that showcases the skills of the local people from cooking to carpentry, weaving and metalworking. Their restaurant is open for breakfast and lunch and is delicious! You can try local dishes such as pepian or tamales and the whole is well presented and tasty.
2 - Where to sleep in Santa Cruz La Laguna
As mentioned in my opinion the best way to visit Santa Cruz is with a day trip from another village.
But for those wishing to stop and sleep in addition to the aforementioned hotel La Iguana Perdida there are other options too:
Arca de Noè Hotel & Restaurant: a good economical choice. Excellent location near the lake where you can enjoy a beautiful view, the hotel offers rooms with both private and shared bathrooms, a lush garden and wi-fi connection in the common areas.
Atitlan Sunset Lodge: a less economical but top of the range choice these apartments are generally always sold out because they are a truly fantastic choice. So if you find availability on the dates of your stay, book it immediately. The windows overlooking the lake offer postcard views.
3 - Where to eat in Santa Cruz
Cafe Flavor Cruceno is a cooking school that creates Guatemalan and fusion dishes but also pizza. If you take a day trip like us come here for lunch.
It is located on the main square. The building also has the best views in the city.
Suggestion: There are no ATMs and no grocery stores in Santa Cruz. So stock up somewhere else.
The beautiful views over the volcanoes of the lake from the village of San Marcos la Laguna
3 - San Marcos La Laguna
Lake Atitlan is known for its somewhat mystical aura, and this side of it is stronger a San Marcos La Laguna, a village on the west coast of the lake.
San Marcos is the place to go if you love yoga, massage and all things spiritual and holistic.
But it is not only a place for spirituality and yoga, it is also one of the most beautiful villages on the lake: narrow concrete paths here wind through lush trees and flowering shrubs.
San Marcos is one of the most beautiful villages on the lake, but it is small. After all the articles praising the atmosphere I have to say that in my opinion, unless you look for the spiritual part as mentioned before, one day to see it is more than enough.
In short, a day is worth it: both for the atmosphere and for the scenery.
1 - What to do in San Marcos:
Show your hippie side! Do you want to balance your chakras? Do you want the family tree? San Marcos is where to do it.
Dive in! San Marcos is home to the Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve, a beautiful path that leads to a platform (called The Trampoline!) where you can jump straight into the lake! The reserve is located immediately after the Hotel Aaculaax, on the shore of the lake.
Take a spiritual retreat. The pyramids it hosts yoga and meditation retreats, as well as short-term classes.
You can walk from San Marcos to the village of Tzununa in about 15 minutes. A boat ride from here to San Pedro it's only 10 minutes.
2 - Where to eat in San Marcos
I restaurants in San Marcos they are plentiful and the food is usually plenty
to greet. The only drawback is that it is quite expensive compared to the others
villages around the lake. There are a couple of small shops here and there are local vendors selling produce.
Fe Restaurant: Indian soups are fabulous.
Cafe Shambhala is a nice place to relax and have a tea or kombucha.
3 - Where to sleep in San Marcos la Laguna:
Even though I haven't personally stayed overnight in San Marcos, the Hotel Paco Real is highly recommended for budget travelers.
Other hotel choices are:
Horus House: an economical choice, Casa Horus are comfortable cabanas all managed in a family way.
Hotel Villa Tzankujil: Located 1 minute from the beach, this property has excellent online reviews.
There is no ATM to withdraw money.
Don't walk between here and San Pedro as there is a high frequency of robberies along this route. It's not safe!
During the boat trips the views over the villages of the lake are beautiful
4 – Jaibalito
I have so much affection for this micro village, accessible only by water or by hiking! In fact, I spent my New Year here during my honeymoon in Mexico, Guatemala and Belize!
In Jaibalito the local community is very friendly and the views over the lake are exceptional.
Due to its location it is also an excellent base for visiting the other villages.
On the New Year's Eve spent there, the noise was unimaginable: the churches rang, as if competing with each other, the dogs barked, the colored fires tore the sky. For me it was a magical night!
There isn't much to do in Jaibalito, but I think that's what its charm lies in: unlike the other villages, you don't find many foreigners here, it seems almost nobody knows that it really exists.
1 - What to do in Jaibalito:
Spend a day at the Aca Ven Club. Club Ven Aca is a day club with a hot tub and swimming pool overlooking Lake Atitlan. Relax with music and cocktails. Try the mojito, one of the best in my entire life!
Relax: if you come to Jabailito you don't come to do things. Relax with the dolce far niente for a couple of days.
2 - Where to sleep in Jaibalito
We had a great time at the Vulcano Lodge, the rooms are very nice, the food is delicious and the gardens are spectacular including the cactus garden. Thanks to the prices it is a luxury that can be afforded even on a limited budget. Double from € 45.
3 - Where to eat in Jaibalito
Jaibalito Inn. This hostel houses a restaurant with super-delicious and super-cheap food, including German dishes like schnitzel and goulash. This is also where the Jaibalito expat community gathers every night.
Il Vulcano Lodge It also serves excellent three-course meals for guests. Make sure you book at least the day before.
Il Come here club makes a great burger.
San Pedro la Laguna is a backpacker's den and the cheapest place to stay
5 - San Pedro La Laguna
San Pedro La Laguna, at the foot of the San Pedro Volcano on the west coast, is the favorite destination for backpackers who want to stay on the lake for as little money as possible.
This village has a main road running along the coast, which is where you will find all the needs for the backpacker: shops, tourist agencies, restaurants, bars and hostels.
From the road on the lake another very steep uphill road branches off and when you reach the top it is as if you were transported directly to another universe: this is where the locals live, where they do their markets, where there is what a traveler seeks. Authenticity.
There are many things to do in San Pedro, whether you are interested in relaxing in the hammocks, drinking a Gallo beer on the lake, learning about coffee, buying handicrafts, studying Spanish or hiking volcanoes, this is the village to visit.
If there was time to visit only one village, perhaps I would recommend San Padro as it offers a lot to travelers especially for the number of activities that the agencies offer: not only trekking, but also trips to other villages, transport to other places in Guatemala , the visit of Chichicastenango market: go there if you want to buy excellent quality craftsmanship.
Be careful though: expect many backpackers (not always for the best) and a village that seems "occupied by foreigners", many bars and clubs, a little excessive tourism for me.
1 - What to do in San Pedro La Laguna:
Day trip to San Marcos to swim, visit the church, visit the local produce market, visit the bridges overlooking the water, go to bars, meet other travelers, learn how local coffee is made.
excursion of one day to vulcano San Pedro.
Hiking sull’Indian’s Nose all’alba, to watch the sun rise over Lake Atitlan.
Do like many who come here a crash course in Spanish. By the way, read the my experience studying Spanish on Lake Atitlan.
Il market it is held on Sundays and Thursdays.
Sunrise from Indian's Nose on the Lake and the volcanoes around
2 - Where to sleep in San Pedro
You are spoiled for choice! Here there are so many opportunities to find accommodation, from hotels to simple lodgings to locals' homes.
A highly recommended choice is Hotel Cabaña del Arco, which boasts fantastic views of the lake to say the least.
Look at Hotel, prices and availability here on Booking
If you want to swim San Pedro is not the right place, as mentioned before go to San Marcos.
There are a couple of decent grocery stores here where you can buy your own food. There is an ATM and laundry rooms for clothes.
The colorful market of Santiago!
6 - Santiago
Santiago Atitlán it is the largest and most "native" of all the towns around the lake with most of the people belonging to the Maya Tz'utujil.
Located to the south, on a cove between the volcanoes of Tolimán and San Pedro, Santiago is a traditional and authentic village that every traveler should visit.
Fridays and Sundays are the days when the biggest markets are held, but it is worth a visit on the other days of the week as well.
Santiago is also known for being the home of Maximon, the popular saint of Guatemala.
I was told that as soon as you get off the boat the local children would approach me and propose to accompany me to the Maximon's house: if you want to see him you need an invitation, you can't go about your own business.
It did not happen to me, no one came to meet me proposing this thing: I hope you are luckier.
In case you manage to go don't forget to bring some gifts: rum, cigarettes or just money are Maximon's favorite offers.
In addition to the favorite saint, Santiago offers magnificent views of the San Pedro volcano, if you climb the hill to the church which is at the end of a large empty square.
The church inside is lined with wooden saints dressed each year in new handmade clothing.
Most of Santiago's Maya, including men, still wear their traditional clothing.
7 – Santa Catarina Palopò
Santa Catarina it is located just four kilometers south of Panajachel and is a great destination for a day trip.
On the road that descends from the town square to the lake shore, there is a succession of souvenir sellers and all kinds of stuff. The town, however, is a great place to observe the life of the locals (tourists are few) and to experience the vibrant life of the lake.
From here, a must-do San Antonio Palopo, six kilometers south and famous for its traditional clothing (mostly men's) and hot springs.
The volcanoes of Atitlan are now extinct… they are only spitting coffee beans now!
How to get to Lake Atitlan
How to get there from Mexico
We arrived at Lake Atitlan from Boca del Cielo in Mexico by crossing the border near the town of Tapachula and then arriving in Xela (Quetzaltenango) where we slept one night. The journey between bus, border crossing on foot and chicken bus in Guatemala was endless and I advise against it.
The best is to take one private shuttle.
The gateway to Lake Atitlan if you are coming from Mexico is Panajachel and the buses leave you a short distance from where you take the motorboat which leads to the various villages. You negotiate the price directly with the captain, without intermediaries, who take their part and it costs you more.
The last boat ride is at 19pm. If you arrive later you will have to stay here.
Luckily we having slept in Xela arrived shortly after lunch time after one of the worst and most dangerous experiences of my life with a crazy driver on a chichen bus and we immediately took the boat to San Pedro.
The prices, however, are roughly the following (Attention that they may have changed compared to when I was there, however they give you an idea of how not to get fooled):
- Panajachel – Santa Cruz – 10Q (circa euro 1.30)
- Panajachel – San Marcos – 15Q (circa 2 euro)
- Panajachel – San Pedro – 25Q (circa 3 euro)
- San Pedro to San Marcos – 10Q (circa euro 1.50)
- San Pedro to Santa Cruz – 15Q (circa 2 euro)
How to get there from Antigua
From Antigua there are chicken buses (infinite journey) or private shuttles which are very easy to book at any agency in the city or directly from the hostel. They come to pick you up and cost around 8 euros. Book them at least the day before, because they fill up easily and at the last minute you risk not finding a seat.
How to get there from Semuc Champey
There are also shuttles available from Semuc Champey (Lanquín) which depart at 6am and pass through Guatemala City and Antigua before arriving in Panajachel. However, the journey is long and you arrive in Pana after the last boat, so my advice is to visit Antigua first for a few days and then move on to the lake.
Safety on Lake Atitlan
Although the villages are generally safe during the day, the paths and roads between them are infamous for the robberies perpetrated against tourists.
Some trails are safe and some are not, but the situation changes very quickly. Before taking one of these trails, ask a local person if they are taking any risks.
At night, packs of stray dogs can cause problems. Try not to walk alone but always in a group and do not try to approach or caress them.
Mayans don't always like to be photographed, always ask permission to avoid unpleasant situations.
A responsible look
A major problem for the indigenous people in the highlands of Guatemala, from Lake Atitlán to Xela, was the disastrous civil war: 36 years of fighting left some 200.000 Guatemalans, one million homeless and thousands of "missing" people dead.
In 1982, some 15.000 indigenous people, mainly men from this area, were tortured and killed.
Women who have not been able to make a living without their husbands and fathers have turned to traditional weaving methods as a way to earn money to survive.
Forming cooperatives, groups of women across the area have come together to support each other, weaving intricate designs and beautiful clothes, bags and gifts.
in markets of Lake Atitlan you will be approached by these women of indecipherable age full of fabrics and fabrics.
These fabrics are still hand-woven on the loom, at home and generally at night, after the day's activities are over. The prices they ask are low.
With 20 euros you can get beautiful fabrics with handmade embroidery according to the tradition that women have still passed from mother to daughter for hundreds of years.
To make these fabrics by hand it takes weeks of work.
Even if bargaining can bring down the price a lot, before proposing indecent prices, relying on their need to live, put a hand on your heart and think that to you 5 euros more does not make any difference, for them instead it does the difference between maintaining their family with dignity or not.