Atitlan is quite simply the jewel of Guatemalan tourism. An azure alpine lake, nestled between several volcanoes, surrounded by picturesque villages, it wouldn’t look out of place in the Italian Lakes. As varied as it is beautiful, the Lake offers something for everyone; from shopping in the bustling markets of Panajachel, to hiking the volcano out of San Pedro, to a yoga retreat in San Marcos. As a result, there is no “right” way to do the Lake. The only crucial thing is to allow enough time to see everything that you want to. Here’s a quick guide.
Panajachel (or “Pana”) is the hub town for Lake Atitlan, principally (I am told) because it is closest to the main highway. Therefore you will pretty much always go through Pana, regardless of your final destination.
It goes without saying that Guatemalan public transport leaves a little to be desired. You can get to Pana on the chicken busses from all over the place, but this is not recommended – not least by the Guatemalan tourism authorities. Chicken buses are slow, overcrowded and not particularly welcoming to tourists with their enormous bags. They are however cheap and authentic, and if you speak decent Spanish you would probably get on one ok.
Your other option, as with so much of Central America, is tourist shuttles. We took one from Antigua for 80Q but they go from pretty much all the main tourist hubs in Guatemala. They are quick(er) and you are less likely to have your bag rifled through when you aren’t looking. Make sure you shop around, and know that “fixed” prices are not actually fixed.
Going from town to town on the lake is relatively easy due to the number of boats that run between them. The boats run fairly frequently – I think the longest we had to wait for one was about 20 minutes – and they are reasonably priced. I italicised that word because the pricing structure is somewhat opaque, and unfortunately unless you are Hispanic you pay the tourist rates. A few tips for the boats are:
- Agree your price in advance. No journey should cost more than 25Q – that is the tourist fare from Pana – San Pedro, about the longest trip possible on the lake. On the boats that hop from town to town along the coast, it is about 5Q per stop up to about 20Q maximum. San Pedro – San Marcos is 10Q.
- The lake might look serene but it can get rough, especially in the afternoon. If possible, take your boat early in the morning when the water will be calmer. If you do take one in the afternoon, try and get a seat at the back of the boat where you won’t get soaked by the spray. I can tell you this from bitter personal experience.
- The boats don’t run late. The last one from Pana is about 7pm and this is the latest public boat on the lake. The last boat leaving most villages is about 5pm. Getting between towns after dark without a boat is very tricky (see below) and I would not recommend it, especially if your Spanish isn’t great.
Most of the towns and villages are small enough just to walk around. However, a few are built on some seriously steep hills, and if you don’t fancy walking with your bags there are tuk-tuks buzzing around the larger towns. A journey within the town costs 5Q per person in the day and 10Q after 9pm.
The tuk-tuks however are not keen on driving between the towns, especially at night. The roads are not lit, full of enormous potholes, have very steep drops off them and have been known to be home to banditos keen on relieving tourists of their belongings. It takes some severe negotiating to convince a tuk-tuk driver to take you out of one town to the next after dark, and even then it will set you back a lot of money. Best to do your exploring in the day then get back to where your accommodation is on the last boat.
It would be utterly pointless to write a list of accommodation at the Lake. There are thousands upon thousands of options, obviously varying greatly from town to town. Pana probably has the most choice due to its size, followed closely by San Pedro. I would advise that it is worth checking AirBnb if you are travelling as a couple or in a group, especially if you book in advance, as you can often find private rooms or even entire homes for the same price as a hostel dorm. Remember if you are arriving late into Pana you won’t be able to leave that night so it might be worth booking a place just for the night.
Again, a list of “things to do” at the lake would be endless. That said, here are a few suggestions, prefaced by the town you can find them in:
- Panajachel – shopping. The market on Calle Santander in Pana is legendary. I’d guess the street is the best part of a kilometre long and lined the entire way, both sides, with stalls selling local crafts and food. You have to be prepared to haggle too, we found that for most things we aimed for about half the price the vendors initially proposed.
- Jaibalito – Club Ven Aca. Honestly, this is a pretty unnecessary indulgence but it’s a really nice way to spend half a day. The Club is a small hotel and restaurant with its own infinity pool overlooking the lake. There is no entry fee but you are expected to buy a drink and probably some food too, and the menu is about the most expensive you will find in Guatemala. Almost worth it for the photos though.
- San Pedro – hiking. San Pedro is a good base for hiking two of the region’s most famous peaks, Indian’s Nose and Volcan San Pedro. Neither is a particularly easy slog but the views over the lake, especially at sunrise, are breath-taking. Guides are recommended, especially for Indian’s Nose, as robberies are not unheard of on the mountain.
- San Marcos – Mirador de San Marcos. This was probably my favourite spot around the lake. Just off the boat in San Marcos, a small path to the left takes you to a secluded and protected bit of lakefront. It costs 15Q to get in but there are paths along the headland, rocks and platforms to jump off and the water is clean.
- Everywhere – the lake. This is stating the obvious, but the lake is the beating heart at te centre of everything that goes on around it. I never tired of looking at it. It’s worth getting up early to watch the sunrise over it, and swimming in the cleaner bits (especially around San Marcos) was amazing. You can rent kayaks, and spend a few hours just having a blast out on the water.
Food & Drink
Yes this is starting to look a bit of a cop-out now, but it is pretty pointless to do a food guide for the entire lake. A few recommendations though:
- Crossroads café in Panajachel. Legendary among backpackers for great coffee and great conversation.
- Panajachel street food. There is quite a bit of choice in the daytime but it’s at night the place comes alive. Try the deep fried plantain at the corner of Calle Santander, it’s a brilliant dessert for 5Q.
- San Pedro market. Starts early, closes up by lunchtime and is chaos for the entire morning. The best and only place in San Pedro to buy fresh fruit and veg, and dirt cheap to boot. Avocadoes were 1Q (10p!) each.
- Circles café in San Marcos. More expensive than most coffee shops around the Lake and with a bit of a hipster vibe, my 12Q Americano was one of the best I had in Central America.
- Vegetarian Tamales Cafe – San Marcos. I don’t actually believe this place has a name, it’s a small tamaleria under a corrugated iron roof opposite Circles. They serve vegetarian Tamales with fresh salad (and an insanely hot salsa on the side) for 10Q, a filthy cheap but wonderfully healthy and filling lunch.
- Street food BBQ in San Pedro. From the dock, turn left on the main road at the crossroads. In a few hundred metres there are two BBQ stalls on the left hand side. The second of these is amazing, they do chicken, rice, beans, avocado and their own salsa for 18Q and it’s bloody delicious. Bring your own beer to wash it down.