Lake Atitlan Guatemala – All you need to know
Lake Atitlan is a volcanic crater lake in the Guatemalan Highlands and it’s one of the reasons people visit Guatemala. The area is drenched in a hippie and backpacker vibe. Those who come here and have time to spare will probably stay a long time. The speed of living isn’t very high and this is the perfect place to escape the rat race. Surrounded by dozens of rural villages and guesthouses, Lake Atitlan has something for every budget. If you don’t feel like traveling by yourself, you can always join a tour to visit the Lake. On my first visit to Guatemala, I joined this awesome tour that has an authentic homestay in one of the villages of Atitlan. Don’t forget to read this post with things you should know before traveling to Guatemala and these reasons to visit the beautiful country!
Transportation and accommodation
How to get there
Lake Atitlan main hub is Panajachel, which can be reached in a few hours from Antigua or Quetzaltenango. Most people use chicken buses and collectivos to get to Panajachel. Even though it is the biggest town by the lake, most people don’t stay in Panajachel. The other villages surrounding the lake vary in size and vibe. A trip to Lake Atitlan can easily be combined with a trip to Semuc Champey and Rio Dulce.
From Panajachel, you can take a ferry or lancha to the other side of Lake Atitlan, where the popular San Pedro La Laguna is located. The easiest way to hop between villages is by boat. You can find docks just about everywhere and there will always be other people waiting to catch a boat ride. We never had to ask anything. Locals where very inclined to help us get in the right boat. Prices can be another story though. Since we were living on the lake for a few months, we knew what the price should be and experiences a few tricks where prices suddenly went up. Ask in your hostel what the price for your trip should be and agree on this price with the boatman before you take off!
You can also get around with a tuk tuk or just hop into the back of a pickup truck and pay the driver a few Quetzales. To use pickup trucks, you can just join the people who are waiting by the road and ask where they are going. They will gladly help you get aboard one of the vehicles. Prices are very low for this type of transportation, as they are just people who own a car and try to make a few extra Quetzales. A third option to get around is to walk. It is recommended to check with your hostel staff about security. Let them know where you’re going and see how they respond.
Where to sleep
Accommodation options in the Lake Atitlan region are abundant. Airbnb has many listings in Panajachel, San Pedro, San Marcos and Santa Cruz La Laguna. Prices can vary greatly depending on the accommodation. If you register to Airbnb through our special link, you’ll get a discount on your first booking and we’ll get a discount too!
The towns of Lake Atitlan
Lake Atitlan has the power to leave people speechless. The lake, surrounded by volcanoes, has a magical feeling. And yes, it’s very Instagrammable. I heard that’s an interesting word these days. The banks of this crater lake are awesome for stunning sunsets and the area invites to stay forever.
Panajachel is the place where you probably arrive in the area. It’s the biggest town with more shops, restaurants, and bars. Cafe’s on the waterfront offer amazing sunset views, so they’re perfect for a few drinks in the evening. Panajachel has a lively city center and it has the biggest market on the lake. We also visited Panajachel when we needed a supermarket. They basically sell the same stuff as the shops in the villages, but prices are more reasonable in the Dispensar Familiar in Panajachel. The town is especially busy on weekends when Guatemalans visit the region.
San Pedro la Laguna
San Pedro is a backpacker town that attracts the most visitors of all. You’ll find a lot of hostels, bars, and restaurants here. San Pedro is slightly cheaper than the other villages, so most budget backpackers reside here. The tourist part of town is by the waterside. Further up the hill is the real San Pedro, which is quieter and more rural. A lot of backpackers never leave the lakeside roads. From San Pedro, you can hike up the San Pedro volcano for amazing views of the town and the lake.
In San Pedro, you will find 2 ATM’s and a local market with fresh vegetables. The town is also home to many Spanish Schools. We studied at the Community Spanish School and definitely recommend studying in this school.
San Juan la Laguna
Just a 15 minute walk away from San Pedro or a 5-minute boat ride, you will find San Juan La Laguna. It’s also a good place to see, try and buy local craftsmanship. A lot of the fabrics that are sold on the markets are produced here and you can learn how to do it in San Juan. The small village has seen a tourism boost in recent years and salesmen are awaiting you at the docks now. You can choose to let one of the sellers accompany you to their store, or you can just say no. They won’t keep bothering you. San Juan has no ATM.
Santiago Atitlan is the biggest, though less popular town at Lake Atitlan. Most visitors are drawn by the cultural and religious background of the town. The main reason for visiting Santiago Atitlan is Maximon. This religious icon moves to a new home each year. People can visit Maximon and bring him gifts like food or cigarettes. The local family that hosts Maximon, will see their living room transformed into a semi church. Foreigners can visit Maximon too. You are expected to bring money and/or gifts. Taking pictures will cost a little more. To find out where Maximon is residing, just ask the local kids. They will be happy to walk with you in exchange for a Quetzal or a pen. We usually carry a lot of pens or other useful stuff to hand out to kids instead of money. Another cool activity in Santiago is a trip to the viewpoint over Lake Atitlan. We got the chance to drive a tuc tuc by ourselves on our way to the viewpoint! It was a wonderful day trip! In Santiago Atitlan, men, as well as women, wear traditional Guatemalan clothing. In most other cities and towns, only the women wear traditional dress.
In Santiago, you can find ATM’s and grocery stores. There is also a market and a church. We wouldn’t recommend staying overnight in Santiago. The easiest way to reach Santiago is directly from Panajachel. If you’re traveling from San Pedro La Laguna, you’ll first have to find the second San Pedro dock on the other side of town. People will be happy to help you find it!
San Marcos la Laguna
San Marcos is a laid-back town by the water where a lot of hippies reside. This town is known for yoga classes, vegan restaurants and again… hippies. It has a very relaxed vibe and most of the backpackers who never seem to leave the area can be found in San Marcos La Laguna. We stayed at a marvelous guesthouse in the San Marcos area with the option to walk or take a lancha to San Marcos. I think San Marcos has the best views over the lake and it’s one of the best places to stay at Lake Atitlan.
San Marcos has 1 ATM, which is located in a grocery store. So there are grocery stores as well! Prices are a little higher than in Panajachel.
Santa Cruz la Laguna
Santa Cruz has a very rural feel and most visitors are day-trippers. There are a few shops by the waterfront, but the rest of this village is very peaceful and quiet. Most visitors are discouraged by the steep climb into town and they stay by the docks. There’s a dive shop in Santa Cruz and the lake is an interesting location to go diving. The water rises each year and the lake devoured a lot of houses already.
San Antonio Palopo
Particularly know for traditional pottery, this town offers scenic views of the lake and the volcanoes. This town at Lake Atitlan is easily accessible but usually skipped by tourists.
Nearby things to do
Slow travelers seem to have trouble leaving the lake behind and a lot of people spend weeks or even months in the Atitlan region. They are right! Lake Atitlan is a place to find peace and connect with nature.
Boat tour to the town on the lake
From San Pedro or Panajachel it’s very easy to book a seat for a day trip on the lake. Depending on the tour, you visit some of the towns in the area. Most of the villages are easily accessible by boat and the tour companies have their docking place on the piers. This is a good way to discover the villages in a short amount of time.
When in Guatemala, it’s not allowed to miss this market. Every Thursday and Sunday this huge market is the place to be in the area. There are a lot of tourists trying to get a good price for the beautiful fabrics, bracelets and other products. Still, this market had a very local feel. We visited in a day trip from our hostel in San Pedro. The ride from Lake Atitlan to Chichicastenango took about two hours. Right before reaching Chichi, Guatemala police inspected our bus on fruits and vegetables. Not sure why, but everyone who had an apple or a banana lost it that day!
We went zip lining close to Panajachel. It was a great experience because zip lining is a lot of fun. But even more, flying through the air with an amazing view over the perfectly still water of the lake, surrounded by the volcanoes is just superb. If you have a day to spare in Guatemala, just go zip lining!
Lago Atitlan is surrounded by volcanoes. The lake itself is magical as it is, but the views from the top of one of the volcanoes are even better. San Pedro Volcano can be climbed from San Pedro la Laguna. We heard the climb is heavy and difficult to do. That’s probably why it has the most scenic views. But there are a lot of other options and summits in the area.
Ruinas de Iximche Tecpan isn’t far from the lake. We didn’t visit them yet. But if you’re into Mayan temples and don’t want to miss any. Iximche ruins have been inhabited until the sixteenth century and count over 160 structures.
The most important activities at the lake are relaxing and absorbing the laid back atmosphere in the tiny rural villages. You should take into consideration that not all the towns have ATM’s. If you plan on shopping during a boat tour or visiting smaller villages, you should take enough cash. Panajachel and San Pedro have operational ATM’s for sure. Probably the other ones will follow soon!
Have you been to Lago Atitlan or do you plan on going there? Let us know or tell us what you know that we didn’t mention yet. We’re looking forward to your stories and adventures!