**Apologies for the cover picture. Lil’ John was in no way connected to our trip, endorsed this picture, nor did the beautiful people of Guatemala. No offense was intended by the cover picture and I hope it was taken with the humor it was intended**
Crowded cities, dusty clay soil, and foliage that seems dangerous at first glance hides a beauty that is hard to beat anywhere else in the world. An 85,000 year old lake made from the collapsing of a volcano is the heart of an area known as Lake Atitlan. The lake is surrounded by towering peaks, lush vegetation, and many towns that are as diverse as the people who flock to this tranquil but exciting lake.
Lake Atitlan lies just west of Guatemala City, Guatemala. This country was the seat of the Mayan empire and is known as the “Land of Many Trees.” To this day, the Mayan civilization is still thriving in Guatemala, while Spanish is the official language, you can still hear 21 distinct Mayan languages, with their own independent culture and artwork.
Stay tuned to the end for a bonus stop we had before arriving at Lake Atitlan. You dont want to miss this beautiful little side trip.
This beautiful lake is known as the deepest in all of Central America and is ringed by three volcanoes. Volcanoes also happen to be what Guatemala is known for, boasting over 30. Lake Atitlan is host to it’s volcano name-sake, Atitlan. Volcan Atitlan is the youngest and most active of the three surrounding the lake. The most recent eruption of Atitlan was in 1853.
Atitlan means “between the waters.” Its maximum depth is 340 meters. It is renowned as one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. It is also one of Guatemala’s most important nations and international tourist attractions. There are many beautiful towns that surround the lake, but during our visit we set out to explore towns that were less touristy or offered something specific such as, hand made textiles and pottery, local markets, and similar immersive experiences. We decided to visit Panajachel, Santa Cruz La Laguna, Jaibalito, San Marcos La Laguna, San Juan La Laguna, San Pedro La Laguna, Santiago Atitlan, Santa Catarina Palopo, and San Antonio Palopo. During our visit, our home base was in Santa Cruz La Laguna in a lovely AirBNB treehouse that overlooked the lake.
How to get around
There is no one road that takes you around the lake, and the ones that do go from town to town may be prone to robberies, if you are not careful. The preferred method of transportation from village to village is either by a lancha (boat) or walking the many trails that connect the various towns. Be careful on trails as there have been some issues with tourists being held up, if in doubt get a guide.
Lanchas leave the docks, roughly, every fifteen minutes. There is a distinction between public and private lanchas. What we found in our travels was that the private ones will come to you first asking where you are going and the rates can be higher. Public or collectivo lanchas usually pull up to the dock and locals tend to frequent them (obviously).
It is good practice to find out how much you have to pay upfront so you are ready to give them that amount at the end of the trip.
Inside the towns, your options of travel are pretty much limited to walking to tuk-tuks. Tuk-tuks are known the world over and are a unique way of seeing the villages around Lake Atitlan.
The other two modes of travel around the lake are chicken buses or the back of a pickup truck. Chicken buses are school buses that have been brought to the country, repainted, converted into a bus system for town to town travel. These buses will stop frequently and are not known for fast travel. You can also travel by way of a local pickup truck, this is how many locals will travel around to the various towns. Its low cost but fills up fast, as it is standing room only.
Pana, as it is called locally, is one of two touristy towns. Many travelers use this as their base for exploring the area. It is home to many economical hostels up to fancy hotels. Pana is also the most well-developed of the town around the lake, it offers the most infrastructure and is the only town around the lake to have banks or ATMs. So, make sure you stock up on the needed cash here or you will be hoofing it back for your next advance.
Pana has plenty of streetside vendors offering tourist souvenirs and many unique local items. It is also the major hub to the other towns around the lake.
Santa Cruz La Laguna
As I stated, Santa Cruz La Laguna was our base of operations. The village of Santa Cruz La Laguna lies at the top of a steep hill, you are guaranteed to get your leg workout for the day hiking it. If you would rather, you can take a tuk-tuck (local taxi cart transport) that can take you to the top. Santa Cruz is explained to be more of a traditional Mayan town and is a beautiful spot on the lake. There are two hostels near the dock, both offering nice economical food that touches a bit on local dishes.
If you are looking for something a bit more traditional, then head up the mountain to CECAP, a local nonprofit training center for women. They have an amazing gift shop filled with craft created by the women and a restaurant on the top floor. The view from the balcony is a beauty to behold in Santa Cruz. The money supports a good cause.
Looking for something a bit more unique? Santa Cruz also offers scuba diving. There are recent finds of cities that were swallowed by the lake that are being excavated, so you never know what you may find on your diving experience.
While we stayed in Santa Cruz, we frequented the restaurant in the hostel La Iguana Perdida. This beautiful restaurant was founded by a backpacker who fell in love with the town. It sits just off the dock and has an amazing view of the lake from its patio. For a relaxed atmosphere and great food, give it a try when you visit.
This tiny village is only accessible two ways, boat or hiking trails. We stopped in Jaibalito purely to hike back to our airBNB. There isn’t much in the way of tourist shops or many restaurants. The village hosts small town churches and traditional Guatemalan music. It is definitely worth a stop to see a quiet village and explore the beauty of a less visited town.
If you are in Jaibalito and looking for a more traditional style breakfast or salads, then make sure to check out Posada Jaibalito.
San Marcos La Laguna
Panajachel has the distinction of being the first hippie town that expats flocked to. Over time, the center for all that is spiritual and hippie moves to San Marcos. Ask the locals and they will tell you that San Marcos sets in a spiritual vortex and makes it a uniquely magical village. It has become one of the most well known Central American spots for yoga and meditation.
Throughout the town are boards offering the unique services that can be found here, in San Marcos. There are various styles of massages, Mayan or zodiac birth chart readings, traditional cacao ceremonies, and much more to experience. The wondrous offerings do not stop there. San Marcos is home of the Reserva Natural del Cerro Tzankujil. This beautiful reserve hosts many trails that lead to a wooden platform that juts out from the cliff offering the perfect spot to go jump in the lake. (Sorry for the bad pun)
If you are looking for a great spot for breakfast or sweet snacks, the check out Circles Cafe & Bakery. This amazing little spot is located up the street from the dock and just before you turn right to go to the main section of the village. The town center is active with kids playing ball, vendors hocking food and craft items, and information about the next cacao festival or yoga retreat. We found wandering the streets and taking in the amazing artwork around the town was the tranquil part of our visit to San Marcos.
San Pedro La Laguna
San Pedro is known as a backpacker or party town. There are many accommodations for long-term travelers. The nightlife scene in San Pedro is later than the rest of the villages around the lake. Around the docks and lake side is were you will see most travelers, but if you want a unique experience then head up the hill to more Mayan part of town.
The upper reaches of San Pedro is host to an amazing market that locals flock to for food, trade goods, and whatever else they may need. We wandered the market taking in all of the locally grown produce and seeing all of the various foodstuffs on sale. Once we had our fill of the market, we decided to wander around to the church yard or city center. Here we found a statue of the local saint. You will also find some of the most amazing hand made ice cream being sold there, as well.
While our goal with the market in San Pedro, we also used this as our jumping point to head to San Juan by way of tuk-tuk.
San Juan La Laguna
San Juan was the reason we went to San Pedro, for the most part. It allowed us the ability to experience two towns for the price of one, so to speak. San Juan can be called more touristy than many of the villages on the lake and for the amazing, colorful textiles they produce and sell, it is no wonder why.
San Juan is quite possibly the most chill of all of the towns around the lake, San Marcos being the exception. The streets are well kept for a city that’s always full of people. The villagers are also some of the most friendly around the lake. We found this out when we stopped at a local restaurant for a meal. Being vegetarians, we always pour over the menu before entering. Once we sat down, we muddled through explaining we were vegetarians and the woman talking to us smiled and swirled away to the kitchen. The locals that were also eating in the restaurant were super friendly and engaging to us. Though I think we may have missed the inside joke in translation somewhere. They constantly smiled and laughed at us. The hostess came back with two plates bringing with tostadas smothered in refried black beans, cream, slaw, and other vegetables. It was a simple and amazing meal.
San Juan is THE place if you are looking for anything woven by Mayan people. We wandered in and out of five separate textile shops. Each was friendly and engaging about their products. We found one that explained how the dyes are made, how the moon could affect their color (which I never knew could happen), and the types of fabrics used to make them. This was one of my HAVE TO VISIT places and I found a beautiful hand-woven dark purple scarf.
San Antonio Palopo
This was the last stop on our visit to Lake Atitlan. Karl wanted to visit a pottery town, while we were there and Atitlan boasts two. San Antonio and Santiago. San Antonio is the largest of the two. At the top of San Antonio is a beautiful historic Catholic Church with an equally amazing view of the lake. If you stop at the center of town, look for a walking path heading up and you cannot miss it.
We stopped at Ceramica Palopo Multicolor, this small shop is located just off the street. It is a stand sporting the wares of the local craftsman. As we were looking around, the shop tender offered to take us up to the workshop where the pots were created. This was an amazing site to behold. We walked through four unique workshops throwing terracotta pots and painting them in their own unique colors and styles.
The quality and uniqueness of the pottery in the village is beyond compare. And I cannot stress just how affordable the prices are, Karl purchased a handmade mug that roughly cost about $4 in American cash. In this town you can even take a class to learn how to make pottery.
Bonus Stop: Iximche
The absolute one thing that I wanted to see, if I ever went to Guatemala, would be Mayan ruins. Unfortunately, most of the larger complexes are further north from where we were going to be and further out of the way than would have been feasible to visit, or so I thought.
Karl did some scouting around on travel forums, found us a driver that would take us from our hotel in Guatemala City to Lake Atitlan. What he didn’t tell me until it was closer to time to leave is that this driver was also going to take us to see some actual Mayan ruins. I was beyond excited.
Iximche was our destination.
Iximche was the capital of the Late Postclassic Kaqchikel Mayan kingdom. This civilization lasted from 1470 to 1524. The site hosts a number of pyramid-temples, palaces, and two ball courts. Excavators uncovered painted murals that were not well preserved. Some say that there was evidence of human sacrifice being done here, but the guide we listened to said that only animals had been sacrificed by the Mayans, during this village time frame.
By the 1960s, Iximche was declared a Guatemalan National Monument. There is a quaint museum on the grounds that offers insight into the daily life of this Mayan capital.
History states that Iximche was founded due to the Kaqchikel Mayans having friction that caused them to split from the K’iche Mayans. The Kaqchikel fled the capital of the K’iche empire. The rulers of Iximche were four principal lords for the four main clans of the Kaqchikel, with the lords of the Sotz’il and Xahil clans holding the real seats of power.
While this is a newer village in the history of the Mayan people, it does offer a unique insight into their people. If you are in Guatemala City, then be sure to take this side trip and witness it for yourself.
This was my second country to visit in Central America and I have to say it is my favorite… so far. No matter where we went around Lake Atitlan, it truly felt as if time was standing still. A combination of ancient Mayan cultures with a cross section of modern influence, without the invasive touch of technology. It was a place to unplug and just bathe in the natural beauty of the towns and people around us.
Guatemala, Lake Atitlan specifically, should be a destination for anyone that is wanting to experience the slow pace of a beautiful country. To sample fruits fresh from the source, the simple but deep and rich food, and a people that truly appreciate life and to share it with those they encounter, Guatemala has it all. Take my advice, plan your trip today.