Lake Atitlan many not be the most well known of destinations. In fact may people would be hard pressed to pin even it’s country on a map let alone where exactly you can find it. It may not have the allure of Lake Titikaka which straddles the Peru/Bolivia border or North America’s Great Lakes, but Lake Atitlan in Guatemala has a laid back charm that draws peopke from all over the world thanks to its lake shore villages and idyllic setting. Famous explorer Aldous Huxley suggested it was prettier than Lake Como in his 1934 book, ‘Beyond The Mexique Bay’. But why should you make the trip to a lake you’ve never heard of buried hours from anywhere?
Getting To Lake Atitlan
Mist people arrive via a stop at the colonial town of Antigua a couple hours east. If you’re arriving on an international flight you will be heading from Guatemala City once you can negotiate the crippling traffic through Guatemala’s capital city.
If you don’t want to drive, a shuttle runs twice daily from Antigua to Panajachel, the main hub for tourism on Lake Atitlán. There are also many tourist agencies in town willing to offer tourist buses with prices ranging from around US 12 up to US 25 depending the numbers. World famous chicken buses run hourly during the day from Guatemala City. At just a few dollars they offer the best value if you don’t mind the notorious crowding.
The Towns Of Lake Atitlán
Panajachel is the most visited of the towns that are accessible by road. Popular, like many if the lakes villages, with backpackers, you will find plenty of tour agencies offering any number of things to do while you stay in the area. Because this is the main town you may find that booking a tour here will come at a small premium compared to some of the smaller towns.
While being the most visited Panajachel is still compact and easily walkable although you can get any number of tuk tuk to cut out the up to 20 minute walk.
Panajachel and San Pedro are the backpacker favourites and offer a good choice of accomodation and local infrastructure. San Juan on the far shore is an up and coming destination partly thanks to families opening their homes to tourists who use the spare rooms as home stays while exploring the area. Language can be a barrier seeing as the families speak almost zero English and very little Spanish. They favour quechua, the language of the Maya of which they are descendents. If you want to get away from it all and immerse yourself in local life, San Juan is an excellent choice.
As well as San Juan and San Pedro, San Marcos focuses more on meditation than partying and drinking. Santa Cruz is still close enough to busier towns using the boats that traverse the lake if you prefer to stay away from what classes as hustle and bustle around here. San Antonio Palopo and Santa Catarina Palopo meanwhile are far more traditional if you want to sample traditional Mayan life.
Getting Around Lake Atitlan
There isn’t a road that encircles the lake. Instead most transport between the towns that sit the shoreline are by boats called Lanchas. If you arrive in Panajachel by car you would be best advised to park the car up in a long term parking lot on town and head to the Embarcardero at the bottom of the main street. While there are roads serving the towns of San Antonio Palopo, Santiago Atitlan, San Pedro and San Marco, the road into Panajachel is better maintained. Shuttle services from Antigua and Guatemala City usually arrive into Panajachel.
Smaller villages and some of the larger towns are only accessible by boat. The Embarcardero at the bottom of the main street Calle Principal serves most of the other towns on the lake.
You can hire a private Lancha by the hour or look out for one of the public services. Look for Captains wearing white polo shirts with orange stripes on the sleeves. They are part of an association if public service boat captains on the lake. A nonunion boat captain will also be safe to ride but pricing will be far less consistent. As will all travel in Central America, be clear with the pricing before you board.
Travel around the lake is rewarding, cheap and interesting giving visitors a unique view that you can’t get looking down from one if the many viewpoints on the roads into the area.
Activities On Lake Atitlan
Besides floating on the calm waters of the up to 360 meter deep lake, visitors have several options to pick from to fill your days.
Hiking isn’t just a pastime around the lake, it’s a way if life. For a lot of the communities walking is central to their way if life. Trails radiate out from all the towns and many offer spectacular views. Signage isnt the best though so it would be best to hire a local guide to keep bandits away and help you maximise your views.
Being in such a siesmically active zone, it may not surprise you to learn that there are thermal baths in San Pedro. Soaking in the thermal baths in San Pedro is a relaxing way to spend the afternoon after kayaking silently across the lake.
Learn A Language
The laid back charm, cheap cost of living and amazing scenery, Lake Atitlan is fast becoming a popular place for many backpackers to hang up their nomadic lifestyle, if only for a few months, and settle down into a local way of life. Cheap yet high quality language schools are filling the needs of this influx of tourists lhtting Lake Atitlan on the mal fro even more people.
Stay With The Locals
In San Juan la Laguna several families have taken the bold step of allowing tourists to stay in their spare rooms. While conditions are basic there is something magical about sitting round a table sharing a meal with a family then playing traditional games until long after the sun had set. If you want a slice of local life but don’t have the time for an extended stay, a honesty is an ideal way to give back to the community.
Visit San Marco
Just 10 minutes from Panajachel on a Lancha, spend a quiet day of meditation and relaxation at a holistic centre. San Marco is known for it’s laid back charm when compared to Panajachel. Hippie ex-pats inhabit this wonderfully laid back gem. Settle in and prepare to reconnect with yourself.
Watch The Sun Set
From the balconies of Cass del Mundo (House Of The World). Nestled in the north shore and only accessible by boat, this romantic getaway has several rooms as well as being open to day visitors. The food is a particular highlight. Access here is only by boat making a stay all that more exclusive. On warm days jump into the crystal clear blue waters of the lake from one of the sunken balconies before watching the sun set over San Pedro Volcano. You can also give your hiking boots a world out if you stay here. 3 trails lead away from the top of the hotel heading to Jaibalito, San Marcos and Santa Cruz.
Visit A Traditional Mayan Ceremony
The men and women of Lake Atitlan wear traditional costumes not to entertain tourists but because it is their custom. Likewise ritual ceremonies are still performed as they were centuries ago. In the towns of and you can witness these ceremonies first hand.
Climb A Volcano
San Pedro Volcano on the south western shore is a demanding yet rewarding climb. Atitlan Volcano is taller but the views from the top of 3,020 meter extinct volcano are every bit as satisfying. If you are staying in San Juan la Laguna you can hire a local mayan guide to climb to the peak of either Volcano San Pedro or neighbouring 2863 meter Indian Nose. Both mean an early start (typically around 3am), a challenging climb involving steep ascents, rickety stairs and mud, lots of mud but the views are quite simply stunning.
Lake Atitlan has so much more to offer than a day destination. Once you arrive you will find out why many people choose to stay for weeks or even months. Once you arrive you will see why Lonely Planet Guides have labelled it “Eden On Earth”.