Lake Atitlán is one of the most beautiful lakes I have ever seen. Blue water, volcanoes, and indigenous Maya villages dotted around the lake make for a peaceful and fascinating stay! Just two and a half hours from Antigua, Lake Atitlán is a highlight of any trip to Guatemala, alongside Antigua, Tikal, and Semuc Champey.
About Lake Atitlán
Lake Atitlán was formed inside an enormous volcano, which erupted 84,000 years ago. The lake is now overlooked by three smaller volcanoes – Volcán Atitlán lies on the southern rim of the caldera, while Volcán San Pedro and Volcán Tolimán watch over Santiago. The lake is one of Guatemala’s top tourist destinations, and it is easy to see why. Despite tourism having some negative effects, there are still unspoiled areas of the lake to enjoy.
How to Get to Lake Atitlán
The easiest (and quickest) way to get to Lake Atitlán is by tourist shuttle. I usually prefer to us public transport, however there have been reports of robberies and hold-ups on Guatemalan chicken buses, so most tourists go by shuttle. Any hostel or hotel in Antigua can arrange a shuttle to Panajachel (the main town on the lake) for around 75 quetzales.
There are also shuttles available from Semuc Champey (Lanquín) that leave at 6am & go via Guatemala City & Antigua before going to Panajachel. However, this will arrive at Pana, as it is more commonly known, after the last boat, so I advise spending a night in Antigua before coming to the lake, or a night in Pana before exploring the rest of the villages around the lake.
From Panajachel, you can get a boat or tuk tuk to the other towns on the lake. When the shuttle arrives in Pana, the first stop is for boats to Santa Cruz & San Pedro. Alternatively, you can get off in Panajachel town, or ask to be taken to the dock where the boats for Santiago leave. Public boats cost between 10 – 25 quetzales depending on your destination, and how much the boat captains want to charge you. Locals pay less of course! The last public boat for Santa Cruz, San Marcos & San Pedro leaves Pana at approximately 7.30pm. If you arrive after that you could spend the night in Pana, or arrange a private boat for around 200 Quetzales.
Public Boats from Panajachel
These are the approximate costs for a public boat from Panajachel to the villages around Lake Atitlán, correct in July 2017. Try to have the exact change, and don’t ask the price of the boats, just pass the cash to the driver when you get off. At the Pana dock for Santiago, and at Santiago for San Pedro, the boat drivers asked for the money first, and every other stop you pay as you get off
If you want to go to the smaller villages, like San Juan, make sure you tell the boat driver you want to get off there, as they don’t always stop.
Panajachel – Santa Cruz 10Q
Panajachel – Jabalito 15Q
Panajachel – San Marcos 20Q
Panajachel – San Pedro 25Q
Panajachel – Santiago 25Q
Where to Stay in Lake Atitlán
You could be forgiven for thinking Lake Atitlán is small, with just one town – however there are several villages all around the lake, each with their own personality, and indigenous dress.
Take note, not all the towns have cash machines, so it is best to take cash out in Antigua before you set off, or in Pana. Some hostels & restaurants will take card payments via Tab, an online payment tool which requires your credit card number, email & a selfie each time to make a payment, to help prevent fraud.
Certainly not a pretty town, ‘Pana’ as it is known, is crammed with cheap market stalls, language schools, and plenty of tourists. I didn’t spend too long here, just a couple of hours and that was enough for me. If you are looking for cheap souvenirs then this is definitely the place for that – although the quality might not be the best! There are several banks & money changers here, as well as internet cafes, so if you need to get cash out, here is a good place.
Santiago is a bustling town, with a great market on Tuesday, Friday & Sunday. Although Santiago has its fair share of tourism, it still retains a local charm, especially in the market around the Parque Central. The main drag from the boat dock though is a bit of a gauntlet, and I was ready to punch a guide to asked me 4 different times if I wanted to take a tour with him to see Maximon. I didn’t.
Maximon is a bizarre mixture of Mayan God & Spanish conquistador & biblical figure. A statue of San Simon, as he is also called, resides in a different house each year, and you can pay a small fee to visit him. Locals leave offerings of cigarettes, liquor & candles so take a similar gift if you do visit him.
What struck me about Santiago, was on the boat journey from Pana to Santa Cruz, we passed by some spectacular homes on the edge of the lake, truly beautiful, and big too. However, when we rounded the corner it was clear how most people live here – in small, concrete homes, piled haphazardly on top of each other. Poverty is a huge issue around the lake, and all across Guatemala.
Known as the backpacking party town of the lake, I visited San Pedro during the day and swiftly left. Walking between the two docks along a narrow alleyway surrounded by bars & restaurants was not my idea of a picturesque lakeside village. The water is most polluted here too. However, many travellers make a bee-line for San Pedro to party, so if that is what you’re in to, you won’t be disappointed
San Marcos is a nice town; less built up than Pana, Santiago & San Pedro. Some say it has a special energy, and it has become the hippy centre of the lake with massage, reiki, meditation & alternative therapies, as well as plenty of vegetarian & organic restaurants. Yoga retreats are popular here too.
On the waterfront at Santa Cruz you’ll find several hostels & hotels, as well as ATI Dive shop – the only dive instructors on the lake. Up the hill is the indigenous village, with a small town square which doubles as a basketball court and football pitch. Santa Cruz is worth a visit for the CECAP centre alone, which has a great restaurant & shop selling crafts and textiles, the skills for which are taught in classes here. CECAP also has beautiful views from the restaurant terrace.
A pretty little town, San Juan la Laguna gives hope for other villages that have lost their way. Wide streets, with some stalls selling weavings and craft goods, San Juan still retains a true local feel. There are a couple of very good restaurants here, both of which were unfortunately closed when I was there! Tours of the surrounding area are available , such as a toffee tour for $10 USD pp, & cultural attractions, such as the women’s weaving cooperative using all natural dyes.
Quite a large village set back in a wide bay, relatively untouched by tourism. An hour & a half walk from Santa Cruz or 10Q boat ride.
A sleepy little village and interesting local features. Good restaurants and friendly people.
Hostels & Hotels in Lake Atitlán
There is accommodation around the lake to suit every budget, and taste – from Lake Atitlán hotels to glamping & rustic cabins. I stayed at La Iguana Perdida, and loved it! There aren’t too many hostels on Hostelworld, if you don’t fancy any of these then check the Lonely Planet guide for recommendations.
Best Hostel in Santa Cruz, Lake Atitlán
I highly recommend La Iguana Perdida, I loved it here! Friendly, family-run place for travellers of all ages. The dorms are rustic, but clean and the evening dinners are great for meeting people. The food is delicious, the bar has cheap drinks & a happy hour before dinner so make the most of it! Sociable but not a party place, La Iguana also has the best views of the lake, across from the two volcanoes. There is no wifi but there are computers available for your use, so just sit back, relax & read a book or two! La Iguana Perdida has the only dive shop on the lake, so if you fancy a high altitude dive to see volcanic rock formations, this is definitely the place for you!
For young, beer drinkers, you could try Free Cerveza. I didn’t like the 18-40 age limit here, and apparently the guy who runs it is a ‘bit of a dick’ (quote from a friend who stayed there), but if you want a place with free beer during dinner and glamping style tents then it is a good option, a 50 metres along the lake front from La Iguana Perdida.
Best Hostels in San Pedro, Lake Atitlán
San Pedro is the party town on the lake, and the hostels there match the town’s reputation. If you want to party then San Pedro is the place for you, but don’t expect much sleep. You could spend a couple of nights here then switch to a quieter location to get the best of both worlds!
Casa Felipe gets one of the best ratings for San Pedro, slightly less party style and slightly more stoner style, this place is more chill out than drink till you pass out. It has plenty of outdoor space, and looks like a good option for San Pedro.
Mr Mullet’s is another good choice for San Pedro. It’s great for shy singles too as they offer speed dating and secret message boards to help solo travellers get to know each other. There’s a bar on site, with special drinks offers, and a free breakfast in the morning.
Hostel Fe is unashamedly party party party! They include breakfast to help you get over your hangover, and have a masseuse on-site in case you got too carried away the night before. Don’t expect to actually sleep here, but do expect plenty of beer pong, social events and drinking!
Things to do at Lake Atitlán
Relax! The lake is a perfect place to find a quiet spot to chill out with a book. Santa Cruz has the best views of the lake, so hop on a boat here, grab a beer at La Iguana and hang out in their hammocks. However, if you feel like getting out and about, there are more than enough activities around the lake to keep you occupied!
Explore the Villages around Lake Atitlán
As each village around the lake has its own personality, you can spend a day hiking or hopping on a boat between several villages to compare them all. Keep an eye on the time though, the last boats leave San Pedro for the rest of the villages around 5pm, and from Pana around 7pm, although this schedule is flexible so be careful not to get caught out & forced to get a private boat. From Santa Cruz, a popular route is hiking to San Marcos (around 3 hours), have lunch there then take a tuk tuk to San Juan to explore there, and another tuk tuk to San Pedro to then take a boat home. A friend and I started from Santa Cruz & went the opposite direction, to start in Pana, took a boat to Santiago for the market there, then San Pedro, a tuk tuk to San Juan, then back to Sant Cruz by boat, however we ran out of time in San Juan, so either spread the exploring over 2 days or start at the other side & work back.
Shop till you Drop (And People-Watch!)
Almost every day around the lake at least one of the villages has a market. Although you can shop anywhere every day, the markets have a more local flavour, and you can pick up bargains here too along with fresh produce and any other essentials. Women’s Cooperatives are great places to buy handmade textiles and gifts, safe in the knowledge you are supporting the local people. A lot of cooperatives include labels on their items so you can see who made it, adding an extra personal touch.
Markets around Lake Atitlán
Pana – Sunday. Open every day but on Sunday has a more traditional element. Pana is also a bargain shoppers’ paradise, great for picking up souvenirs – although not necessarily of the best quality, and you do get what you pay for.
Santiago – Tuesday (big day) Friday & Sunday. Catch a boat to Pana (10Q) or San Pedro (20Q) then from there another boat to Santiago (25Q)
San Pedro – Sunday & Thursday – Take a boat to San Pedro (20Q) to check out this small, very local market.
Sololá – Tuesday & Friday. Take a boat to Pana (10Q) and a bus to Sololá for 2.5Q, or 3.5 hours hike from Santa Cruz.
San Lucas – Sunday & Tuesday. Take a bus from Pana, takes about an hour.
Chichicastenango – Thursday & Sunday. Take a chicken bus from Pana to Chichi, to visit the most famous market in Guatemala. Direct buses on market days, otherwise may involve a couple of changes – 1.5 hours / 10Q. Or we can organize shuttles for $6 one way/$12 return leaving Pana at 8am & returning from Chichi at 1.30pm.
Things to do in Lake Atitlán: Cultural Activities
Visit a Women’s Cooperative
A huge problem for indigenous people in the highlands of Guatemala from Lake Atitlán to Xela, was the disastrous civil war. 36 years of fighting left an estimated 200,000 Guatemalans dead, a million homeless, and countless thousands ‘disappeared’. In 1982, an estimated 15,000 indigenous people, mainly men from this area, were tortured and killed. The women who were left behind had no way of earning a living without their husbands and fathers, so turned to traditional methods of weaving as a way to earn money to be able to survive. Forming cooperatives, groups of women all over the area have come together to support each other, weaving intricate designs and beautiful clothes, bags and gifts. Purchasing something from their cooperatives instead of the markets ensures the money is going to the people who really need it.
There are opportunities everywhere to learn Spanish, from official Spanish schools in Pana, San Pedro & San Marcos, and many hostels offer classes from independent tutors as well. Why not spend a couple of weeks at the lake and brush up on your skills?
If I hadn’t done a cooking class in Antigua, I would have done one here. La Iguana Perdida arranged a class with one of their Mayan chefs, or Ixiim Cooking School in Pana gets excellent reviews on Tripadvisor. The menu is largely the same as my class in Antigua (which is why I didn’t repeat it), including Pepian, a rich chicken stew, served with rice & tortillas and chocolate-filled fried plantain balls called rellenitos.
There are several options for this around the lake, with any one of the women’s cooperatives. I took a class arranged through my hostel in Santa Cruz, La Iguana Perdida, with Tomasa, whose sister works in the kitchen at their hostel. We went to their home in the town of Santa Cruz (about 15 mins walk up the hill from the hostel), so it was interesting (and humbling) to see where they lived, and she showed us the method of backstrap weaving, and how to make our own belt to take home. This was one of my favourite activities in Guatemala, I loved it!
In Santa Cruz this is a vocational centre which offers classes in carpentry, cooking, metal-work, weaving and English for local people to learn skills they need to earn a living. They also offer weaving and beading classes, and have a great restaurant open 11am-4pm.
This museum in Pana is in the hotel Don Rodrigo at the end of Calle Santander. They have a good display of artefacts found in the lake, and a new section on the exciting underwater site Sambaj, a Maya archaeological site 50 feet beneath the surface of the lake.
Things to do in Lake Atitlán: Action & Adventure
Lake Atitlán is an awesome spot for hiking. Ask your hostel for the latest safety recommendations for hiking between the villages, as some routes have been subject to robberies, so are best attempted in a group, or some maybe best to avoid altogether. Either way, don’t take any valuables with you if you can avoid it. From San Pedro you can hike up Volcano San Pedro (with a guide), or the Indian Nose (when you see the shape of the mountain you’ll understand the name), which is especially good for sunrise.
Lake temperature is apparently 22 degrees Celsius (72 Farenheit). The water is cleaner around the less populated towns, so San Pedro, Santiago and Pana are not the cleanest. At the other villages, just walk a little way past the docks for a dip, and don’t swim too far out as the boat drivers won’t see you. Swimming (and other water-based activities) are best enjoyed in the morning before the wind gets up.
Kayaking / Paddle Boarding
In San Pedro, & Santa Cruz (from Los Elementos Spa) you can hire single or double kayaks. In Santa Cruz the cost is 40Q for the first hour, and 25Q for each additional hour, but there are better deals to be had in San Pedro. Stand Up Paddle Boards are also available to rent at various spots around the lake too, just ask your hostel for details.
La Iguana Perdida could arrange a water-skiing session for 70Q for 15 minutes if the lake was calm enough. This doesn’t seem like a long time, but 15 minutes holding on is quite long!
Ziplining &/or Nature Reserve
The nature reserve in Pana is a 10Q tuk tuk ride from the dock. The Zipline costs 220Q including the entrance to the reserve, where you can explore to find monkeys, coatis, hanging bridges & waterfalls, together with information about the environmental challenges and history of the lake.
Real World Paragliding offer tandem flights for $90 USD per session. Depending on the weather each session lasts between 20-45 minutes.
La Iguana Perdida is home to the only dive shop on the lake, ATI Divers. This is one of the cheapest places in the world to take your PADI certificate, and a unique experience diving at high altitude amid volcanic rock formations. If you take your PADI, accommodation at La Iguana is provided free of charge.
Where to Eat at Lake Atitlán
Crossroads Café, run by an American who clearly drinks a LOT of coffee, is a cute little coffee shop has its own roaster in the back & arguably the best coffee on the lake. They also serve a mean blueberry pie, and other sweet delights like cinnamon rolls, cheesecake and brownies. You can also buy coffee by the bag here, in beans or grounds, which make excellent gifts too. La Palapa has the best burgers on the lake, according to my hostel owner.
If you need a drink & a wifi fix though, the large restaurant El Gran Sol on the corner of the first crossroads has a good signal, and the lady was really friendly! Posada Santiago is a beautiful stone restaurant and great stop for lunch.
You can find cheap comedores (local cafes) up the hill in the main part of town, whereas the tourist strip between the two docks is filled with restaurants catering to international tastes. Café la Puerta is a good option for breakfast or lunch, set on the lakefront, which has a Mexican style menu. Try Ventana Blue for Thai curries, Hummus-Ya for Israeli specialities, or D’Noz for anything else you might fancy!
As you would expect from a ‘hippy’ town, San Marcos is a mecca for vegetarian and restaurants, with plenty to choose from.
La Iguana Perdida is open for breakfast & lunch from an a la carte menu, available until 3pm. If you’re not staying here you can also order the set dinner, served at 7pm, but you have to confirm before 3pm to book your place. The food is international, tasty & good value.
CECAP in Santa Cruz town is a development centre that teaches local people skills from cooking to carpentry, weaving and metalwork. Their restaurant is open for breakfast & lunch, and is delicious! You can try local dishes such as pepian or tamales, as well as international basics. Everything is beautifully presented and very tasty.
There is also a little family run eatery on the way up the hill into town, on the right-hand side a few metres up. I didn’t try it but my friend went & said the people who owned it were lovely.
I was told the cheese plate at El Artesano was to die for (although it is closed on weekends). We also tried to go to Alma de Colores, a social inclusion project for people with disabilities that also happens to have awesome food. We eventually ate at Xe kuku’Aab’aj which has killer views of the lake. The food was good too, standard fare for Guatemala.
Ven Aca in Jaibalito is a private club & restaurant, open Wednesday – Sunday 11am-5.30pm. It is pricey, but the combination of mojitos, hot tub & infinity pool with an amazing view make it worth it for a special treat. They also offer brunch on Sundays.
There is so much to do around the lake that it can be easy to have a full-on stay, or just take some time to enjoy the views. No matter what you decide to do at Lake Atitlán, I am sure you will enjoy it!
Have you been to Lake Atitlán? Have I missed anything that should be added to the guide? What else do you want to know about the lake? Let me know in the comments below.
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