Lake Atitlán Travel Guide
[This is a brief excerpt from pages 148 – 174 of Eric Larson’s travel guide to Guatemala, published by Other Places Travel Guides.]
Famous English writer and explorer Aldous Huxley once compared Lake Atitlán to Italy’s Lake Como, describing it as “Como with the additional embellishment of three immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing.” Atitlán is arguably the most beautiful place in Guatemala, and it is without a doubt the most visited spot in the Western Highlands. Atitlán’s near-perfect weather is complemented by paradisiacal blue-green waters and the triumphant Atitlán, Tolimán, and San Pedro volcanoes directly across the horizon. The angle changes as you travel around the lake, but the view remains impressive. An occasional fog rolls in after noon and sits heavy over the water, but unbelievable sunsets are just about routine.
Getting Here and Away
The main jumping off point for exploring the villages around the lake is the town of Panajachel. This is also your best bet on the lake to book private shuttles to just about anywhere in Guatemala, including Antigua, Chichicastenango, Xela, Flores, and even San Cristobal de las Casas (Mexico). Any of the many travel agencies can book a shuttle for you.
Taking a lancha across the lake is the best way to access a number of interesting villages. There is no road around the lake, and the dirt trails connecting some towns are notoriously dangerous – check out the YouTube video “Robbed in Guatemala” for proof. Private or public boats leave from one of two docks in Panajachel. The Muelle Tzanjuyú dock serves Santa Cruz la Laguna, Jaibalito, Tzununá, and San Marcos la Laguna. Some boats continue to San Pedro la Laguna, but it is faster to wait for a direct boat. The dock, Muelle Santiago, at the end of Calle Rancho Grande in Panajachel serves Santiago Atitlán. Tuk-tuks charge Q5 to get to either dock.
Boat operators tend to take advantage of foreigners. Locals do pay less than visitors, but there is no reason for you to be charged a ridiculous amount. Bring sencillo (exact change or small bills) to avoid haggling, and pay when you get off. (Our travel guide lists local boat fares.)
See the Sights
Surrounding the 130-square-kilometer lake are 12 small villages, ranging from tourist hubs like Panajachel and San Pedro la Laguna to quiet villages like Santa Catarina Palopó and Santa Cruz la Laguna. Many of the towns have biblical names, so they are sometimes referred to as the 12 apostles. The majority of the lake’s inhabitants are indigenous peoples of Tz’utujil or Kaqchikel descent, famous for the production of the colorful textiles that line artisan markets throughout the country.
Each village has unique characteristics, as described below, and most have various sights, eateries, accommodations, and activities to offer. Eric Larson’s travel guide goes into much greater detail for each village, but this should give you an overview of what they have to offer.
Panajachel (known as Pana for short, pronounced PAH-nah) is the most accessible of Atitlan’s towns and the most common starting point for trips to the lake. Pana was the location of the final battle between the conquistadors and Tz’utujil people. Other than a Franciscan convent, however, Spanish influence in town was limited. Not long ago, it was nothing more than a small indigenous town with dirt roads and a gorgeous view. All this changed in the 1960s, when the first wave of foreigners arrived. The armed conflict scared many away in the two following decades, but they have since returned in force.
Pana is now inundated with visitors, so much so that locals jokingly refer to it as Gringotenango. Tourism is a large chunk of the local economy, so Pana possesses a vibrant nightlife, extensive artisan markets, and plenty of good places to eat. Sunset views from the shore are mind-blowing, but the town has lost a little of its charm due to the heavy foot traffic. Most visitors will take an instant liking to Panajachel, but the infatuation fades quickly. If you are looking for something a little less intense, it is easy to board a lancha and head across the lake to one of the smaller towns. Alternately, a lap around the market and Catholic church in the old part of town can be a much-needed escape from all the gringos.
Santa Catarina Palopó & San Antonio Palopó
The women of Santa Catarina Palopó are known for their beautiful bright blue huipiles. These and other textiles are sold near the town’s church and along the path to the lake. Five kilometers further is San Antonio Palopó, an interesting place but a quick stroll around town is enough to appreciate its simple Catholic church, adobe homes, and rural charm. In addition to textiles, locals make and sell interesting ceramics along the lakeshore.
The five-kilometer stretch between Santa Catarina and San Antonio is where wealthy locals and foreigners have constructed breathtaking homes on the cliffs above the lake. This is also where most of the area’s high-end hotels (all of which are located in our travel guide) are located.
San Lucas Tolimán
San Lucas Tolimán, a nondescript town nestled at the base of Volcán Tolimán (covered on page 164 in the book). San Lucas does not attract many visitors – the town in itself is not that interesting. However, its beautiful surroundings compete with anywhere else on the lake, and you are sure to be one of the only foreigners around. To get here, occasional buses and lanchas leave from Panajachel, but ground transportation is more consistent to and from Santiago Atitlán. The best place to stay here is Hotel Tolimán (6a Ave 1-26; 7722-0033; www.hoteltoliman.com; $50-95 double), an expansive ranch hotel with beautiful rooms and luxurious suites, a swimming pool, and a restaurant.
Santiago Atitlán is the lake’s largest settlement and the cultural center of the Tz’utujil Mayan people. Set in a secluded inlet across from San Pedro la Laguna, this traditional village…read the rest on this post.
San Pedro la Laguna
Laid-back San Pedro la Laguna has grown extensively in recent years and now rivals Panajachel as the most tourist-frequented town on the lake. Unlike the innocuous streets of Pana, however, San Pedro definitely has a seedier side. The obvious drug culture and pervasive, carefree mentality here have transformed this once tranquil Tz’utujil town into the international party center of Lake Atitlán, a reputation frowned upon by many of San Pedro’s indigenous locals.
Despite its issues, San Pedro manages to redeem itself with its beautiful lakeshore setting, in addition to being a very cheap place to stay with a decent selection of eating, drinking, and sleeping options (see map below). It also has several quality Spanish schools offering one-on-one language instruction and host family stays at rock-bottom prices. Looming above town is Volcán San Pedro, a moderately challenging volcano hike with out-of-this-world views from the top.
San Juan la Laguna
Foreign tourists have begun to trickle into this moderate-sized Tz’utujil town, but as of now it is still a serene alternative to its larger, wilder neighbors. Local guides have formed a tourism association (5964-0040; www.sanjuanlalaguna.org) to share San Juan’s beauty and culture with the outside world. The association offers a cultural tour of town that includes visits to handicraft centers, textile cooperatives, coffee plantations, and even ancient ruins. Guides can take you bird-watching, demonstrate local fishing techniques, or explain cultural practices like the use of medicinal plants. You can even make your own tortillas, all the way from grain to table.
Visitors are always impressed by San Juan’s well-swept streets, painted murals, and clear blue waters – locals take pollution seriously and strive to live in harmony with nature. One of the best places to swim on the lake is here at Playa Las Cristalinas. Near San Juan’s small dock are several galleries and cooperatives selling local handicrafts and incredibly detailed paintings. La Asociación Arte Maya Xocomeel gives painting classes, and the Asociación Lema offers workshops on weaving and the making of natural dyes. Artesanías de San Juan and Asociación de Mujeres de Color are also worth a look. San Juan also has a small shrine to Maximón, though his location changes each time a new caretaking brotherhood is chosen.
For food, San Juan’s crowning gem is Artesano (4555-4773), a small restaurant serving delicious wine and cheese plates in a beautiful private garden.
San Marcos la Laguna
This tranquil, bizarre town serves as the center of Guatemalan New Age life. San Marcos is not nearly as intense as San Pedro, as there is no nightlife to speak of. Some will enjoy it immensely, but many will be content with a brief visit. Yoga workshops, massages, holistic centers, and other spiritual experiences are the norm here, and you shouldn’t be surprised if indigenous women approach you selling “space cookies.” You can even be “rebirthed” if you’d like.
Santa Cruz la Laguna
A three-hour walk from San Marcos, this small, quaint village is perched high on a cliff above the lake’s edge. Cars are useless here, as all transportation in town comes and goes via a single dock. As a result, Santa Cruz is a slow-moving, undeveloped oasis, a relaxation-seeker’s paradise. What’s more, the fantastic hotels on this side of the lake compete with anything noisy Panajachel or San Pedro la Laguna can offer. Santa Cruz has become wildly popular with all types of visitors in recent years, but its tranquil atmosphere remains uncompromised. Most of the accommodations here are foreign-owned operations that try to give back to the community by creating employment and supporting local organizations.
Near Santa Cruz, several small indigenous villages — all listed in the guide — are home to some of the nicest, most tranquil places to stay on the lake. When heading this way, keep in mind that you’ll have to tell lancha drivers where you’re going ahead of time. Otherwise, they may blow right by.
Want more information and recommendations for Lake Atitlán and traveling in Guatemala? This page is a small sample from our 398-page comprehensive travel guide for Guatemala. Written and researched by a long-time resident and Peace Corps Volunteer, the book is quickly becoming the go-to resource for travelers looking to get off the “Gringo Trail” and experience the real Guatemala. Click here to learn more about the book and what others are saying about this unique travel guide.