When you’re in Guatemala, you will see 2 quotes plastered all over tourist brochures of Lake Atitlan. Alexander Humboldt famously called Lake Atitlan ‘the most beautiful lake in the world’. Aldoux Huxley, despite being ambiguous, too resorted to hyperbole while comparing Lake Atitlan to Italy’s Lake Como ‘Lake Como it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing.’
As we clutched onto our bags on the local ferry and snaked our way towards a little village on Lake Atitlan, we could see why the area has been accorded such prominence dozens of literary and geographical treatises. It truly is “too pretty”, if there be such a thing! A series of volcanic mountains frame a ring of azure water. Little villages, famous for colourful handicrafts and scrumptious food, are dotted around the entire perimeter. Traditional boats transport residents and tourists from one village to the other. Here historical cathedrals and Mayan temples loom large, bright handicrafts adorn walls, and hole-in-the-wall tortillerias beckon visitors.
No wonder we ended up spending the better part of 2 months working from our remote ‘office’ in Lake Atitlan. Here we are sharing our guide to Lake Atitlan, a place that is on most ‘Places to see before you die’ lists for a reason!
Getting to Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
Many shuttles ply from Guatemala City/Antigua to Panajachel, the gateway to Lake Atitlan. The journey costs £20 and takes 4 hours. Roads are in good shape throughout and most shuttles stop at public toilets and restaurants along the way.
Once you are at Panajachel, you can take a local ferry to any of the villages on Lake Atitlan. It costs 25 Quetzales (£2.5)
Exploring Lake Atitlan in limited time
If you’re at Lake Atitlan for 2-3 days, then we would suggest staying in the town of Panajachel. Absorb the atmosphere of this wee Guatemalan town and take one day to explore the little villages/towns around the lake. Crucero de Atitlan is an ideal way to do just that – the small boat starts in Panajachel and takes visitors around the lake. It stops at several villages during the course of the day, giving visitors the chance to acquaint themselves with the cultures and handicrafts of different villages. The last stop includes a delicious 3 course meal in the village of San Juan at Uxlabil Eco Hotel.
Choosing where to stay at Lake Atitlan
If you have a week or longer at Lake Atitlan (make sure you do – it’s worth it!), we would strongly recommend staying in one or two of the villages around the lake. Each village has a unique character – choose one that suits your personality and watch yourself fall in love with Lake Atitlan like hundreds of thousands of visitors before you. Here are some of our favourite villages around the lake:
If you truly love immersing yourself in new cultures and living like locals, then San Juan is the perfect village for you. The quiet village is perfect to get a feel of local life in Atitlan. There are tortillerias at every corner and lots of street art – spending a week in San Juan is sure to make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. Uxlabil Eco Hotel is the perfect place to stay if you’re visiting San Juan. The rustic hotel is as luxurious as it gets around here. The entire building is laden with vines and flowers. Colourful rooms boast of spacious balconies and hammocks overlooking Lake Atitlan. Kayaks are available for guests and it’s possible to go bird watching without ever leaving the hotel premises. If you’re up for trekking, they will arrange a guide for you to hike the Indian Nose (one of the mountains) or Volcan De San Pedro – comes highly recommended 🙂 It is easy to spend a week at Uxlabil Eco Hotel enjoying the charms of Lake Atitlan and admiring the low-lying clouds that cover the surrounding mountains. Bliss!
San Pedro is a lively village boasting of a cosmopolitan population. You’ll find travellers from all across the world here. There is a lively fruit and vegetable market in the village – make sure you visit the market. San Pedro even has a small super market called Johanna, a rarity in these parts. For a good night out go to one of the bars along the lake. We stayed in an AirB&B apartment at San Pedro for a few weeks and loved our time there. You can get $38 off when you book any AirBnB apartment here.
San Marco is (in)famous for being the hippie village that attracts yogis, expats, and hipsters by the dozen. It sure lives up to its reputation – expect organic eateries, spiritual workshops, and yoga studios at every corner. San Marco can sometimes get too ‘westernised’ which detracts from its local flavour, but its still a fun place to spend a couple of weeks.
San Antonio Palopó
San Antonio Palopó, located on the eastern side of Lake Atitlan, is very different from all other villages mentioned above. That’s because natives here have a completely different way of dressing and completely different cuisine. Even little things like hairstyles vary between villages on the western and eastern shores of the lake. Very few visitors actually make it to this part of Lake Atitlan but we would recommend visiting at least for a day. It will give you a rare opportunity to explore gorgeous churches and acquaint yourself with native handicrafts in this oft-neglected part of Lake Atitlan.
What to eat at Lake Atitlan
A large part of your visit to Guatemala will revolve around food. Guatemalan food is so sumptuous, it’s all sorts of sensual. Begin your day with huevos divorcada – fried eggs served with two kinds of salsa. Try velvety smooth avocados that taste unlike anything you’ve tasted before. Savour fresh guacamole with eyes half closed. Gorge on rustic tortillas made in front of your eyes at local tortillerias. Spice them up with different kinds of salsa, available in little bottles at every corner. Snack on crisp tostadas dipped in traditional black bean paste (frijoles negros). And don’t forget to inhale the scents of Guatemalan delicacies drifting out of the windows of dozens of hole-in-the-wall eateries populating the villages of Lake Atitlan.
Things to do at Lake Atitlan
At the risk of sounding like a granny, I will say this – it is easy to spend hours upon hours just contemplating the beauty of Lake Atitlan. In fact, I can’t think of hyperbolic phrases that actually to justice to the beauty of the lake – that’s how pretty it is! Here are some of our favourite things to do in the area
- Admiring Lake Atitlan’s iconic sunrises and sunsets
- Enrolling at a Spanish school and learning the local tongue
- Kayaking in the azure waters of Lake Atitlan
- Experiencing life in the villages surround Lake Atitlan
- Trekking up Indian Nose
- Trekking up the volcanoes surrounding Lake Atitlan
- Exploring the villages and towns dotted around Lake Atitlan
Have you been to Lake Atitlan? Which was your favourite village? 🙂