Lake Atitlan is the sort of place you plan to spend a couple of days in on your Central America trip.
Then you wake up 2 weeks later, and you’re still there.
It’s just that kinda place.
This alpine lake is nestled 1,562m above sea level in a gigantic old volcanic crater. In it’s deepest parts, the lake plummets down to 340m deep, making it the deepest lake in Central America!
Each of the little towns around its shores has its own character, and each is completely different to the next. You can spend weeks (trust me) hopping town to town, getting a taste of life on the lake in each place as you go. It’s easy to fall for the place and end up getting stuck there for a lot longer than you expected.
There’s San Pedro the party town, San Antonio the historic town, San Marco the hippy vegan yoga town and Santa Cruz the chill town.
It’s a great place to spend a few days or even a few weeks, and it really does have a bit of something for everyone. So here’s everything you need to know about Lake Atitlan…
There’s two main access points to the lake. San Pedro and Panajachel (or “Pana” if that’s too much of a mouthful).
If you’re coming in from the East side – likely from Antigua – you can pretty much choose to start your lake time at either of those places. Shuttles run every day from Antigua or Guatemala City and it’s only a matter of a couple hours or so. Alternatively, if you’re feeling adventurous and have semi-ok Spanish skills, you can try your luck on the chicken busses for a fraction of the price.
Transport From Antigua To Lake Atitlan
A shuttle from Antigua will take about 2 and a half hours to Pana and cost you around 75Q/10USD, or around the same to San Pedro with a slightly longer journey time of around 3 hours. Ask around at a few different tour agencies and hostels, as prices vary quite a lot depending on who you book with.
Alternatively, if you have some time and a decent grasp of Spanish under your belt, you can get to Pana via chicken busses for 23Q/3USD. This option is going to involve a bit more work though, and you’ll be catching 3 different busses in total. I’ve only travelled this route by shuttle personally, but plenty of people have told me that the chicken bus option sounds a lot more complicated than it is. If you’re keen to give it a try, here’s what you’ll need to do:
- Antigua – Chimaltenango (5Q)
- Chimaltenango – Los Encuentros (15Q)
- Los Encuentros – Pana (3Q)
Transportation From Quetzaltenango/The West
If you’re coming to the lake from the other direction, you’re likely coming from, or at least passing through, Quetzaltenango (Xela).
Coming from this way, you’ll most likely be arriving in San Pedro first off, since there are no chicken busses and very few shuttles operating between Xela and Pana.
The easiest and cheapest way to make this short 2 hour journey is with the Pulman bus or by catching a regular chicken bus. Either way, you’re going to be running at 40Q/5.5USD if you just turn up and pay on the bus, which is your cheapest option. If you’re concerned about space and want to make sure you get a seat (if you arrive last min there’s a good chance you’ll be standing) then you can book with any of the tour agencies in town and they will reserve you a seat. But be prepared to pay more for the peace of mind. Booking the Pulman bus through a tour agency will likely cost you more along the lines of 80Q/11USD.
Getting Around The Lake
Travel between each of the towns on the lake is easy and super straightforward.
Boat is the preferred mode of transport between the many towns dotted around the water’s edge, and you’ll never be waiting long for one.
Every town has it’s own little dock. Just head down there and one of the boat workers will ask you where you want to go to. Tell them where you want to be and they’ll point to a boat. Jump on it, sit back, relax and enjoy he view. The driver of the boat will shout out the name of each stop as you come to it. When you hear the one you want, get out of the boat and pay the driver on the way out.
PRO TIP: Always make sure you have the right amount of money on you. Prices seem to vary depending on how gullable the tourist looks and how little Spanish they can argue back with. Getting change out of them can sometimes be a struggle. Don’t ask how much, just hand them the money.
Here’s a rough guide for how much you should expect to pay for some of the popular trips around the lake:
- Pana – Santa Cruz 10Q
- Santa Cruz – San Pedro 20Q
- San Marco – Santa Cruz 15Q
The first boat is usually around 6:30am and the last one of the day will vary depending on where you are. Be sure to check with the guys at the dock to avoid getting stranded. As a rough guide, the last boat out of Pana is usually around 7pm, San Pedro is earlier at about 5pm. But this can change depending on the season, so check with someone when you’re there.
Where To Stay In Lake Atitlan
We didn’t stay in Pana when we were here, preferring instead to catch a boat straight over to Santa Cruz when we arrived in Panajachel on our bus from Antigua.
If you’re planning to stay the night here, you’ll be spoilt for choice for hotels and hostels.
Here’s a couple of goodies to look into to get you started:
- Hospedaje El Viajero – Central, $30USD per night private room, private bathroom and wifi
- Larry’s Place – Central, CHEAP, $20USD per night private rooms
- Hotel Posada Don Margarito – Lakefront location, volcano views, 250Q/34USD twin room
San Pedro seems like a bit more of a ‘party’ town and there are heaps of accommodation options here. It’s one of the more developed, touristy towns on lake Atitlan.
We stayed a night at Zula Hostel when we first arrived in town as it had been recommended by a few people we met along the way. However we were pretty unimpressed with the place and moved to a quieter and cheaper hotel a few mins down the road first thing the next morning. It’s not necessarily a bad place to stay, but our room was right next to the bar, which seemed to insist on playing inappropriately load reggae music from lunch time onwards, for the audience of the 3 stoned backpackers who took up residence in the corner. Not really what we had in mind. Still, it was only 130Q/$17.7USD for a private room with 2 double beds, so if you’re in a group and want something cheap, it’s an option.
If you’re looking for something quieter, walk up the road from the dock and take your first left. Keep walking until the road takes a 90 degree right. The last hotel on the left is awesome. Quiet, right on the lake, private rooms and reasonable prices. We were paying 120Q/$16.35USD per night for a great room with ensuite right on the water.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for something a bit more social, check out Mr Mullets or Hostel Fe for cheap dorm beds.
The small little township at Santa Cruz is fairly unexciting in itself, and you’re probably not going to want to go here unless you’re actually staying here. That being said though, it’s definitely worth stopping off here for a night or two as it’s a great place to relax and have some quiet, down time.
If you’re staying there, you really only have 2 main accommodation options. La Iguana Perdida and a newer hostel called Free Cerveza where, you guessed it, they give you a free beer on arrival. The Free Cerveza place is pretty popular despite being quite a recent addition to the lake. However we’ve heard mixed reports from people who have stayed there and even heard a couple of stories of people getting sick there. I don’t know how true those reports are though, and the hostel seemed to be pretty busy when we were there, so I’m sure it’s probably fine. They also have kayaks you can borrow for free and, I think, some stand up paddle boards too. Accommodation is glamping style and beds start at around $6USD for a ‘dorm’ bed or $25USD for a private.
We opted to stay at La Iguana for the family atmosphere and the big family style evening meals (which were awesome, by the way). The people there were a good bunch and the nightly sit down group meals are a great way to get chatting to some interesting people.
Dorm beds are around $7USD per night and privates start at $24USD.
We liked San Marcos more than we really expected to.
The whole ‘hippy, yoga, vegan’ vibe isn’t really my scene at all and I find people who enjoy that stuff to usually be quite fake and pretentious (no offence if that’s you’re thing, I’m sure you’re cool). So I went into San Marcos trying to keep an open mind, but deep down expecting to find it pretty irritating at best.
I’m glad to say that wasn’t the case, and I actually enjoyed our afternoon there. This was despite the lecture we overheard a Canadian girl receiving while buying our vegan cookie snack about how all Westeners are overly materialistic. A story which would have had much more credibility were it not being told by a guy even whiter and more gringo than me. But hey, everyone’s entitled to their opinion.
Accommodation options in San Marcos are plentiful.
If you’re OK with no-frills, Case Horus always seems to get pretty well spoken about. Alternatively Hostal Del Lago is one of the most popular hostels in town, with options to camp, dorm or private room. Either option gives you a free breakfast included in the price.
And there’s even a yoga retreat up in the forest and hills away from the town if you really want to embrace the true San Marcos vibe.
If you’re staying the night at Atitlan, I’ve heard very good things about Ratzon. They don’t seem to have a website though, so I can’t help you there, but if you head straight up from the dock you should see the place on your right not too far along.
Things To Do In Lake Atitlan
Santa Cruz to San Marco Hike (highly recommended)
This ‘hike’ is really more of a short walk, and it’s a great way to check out some of the more remote areas on the waterfront.
All in all it’ll take you around 3 hours one way. That’s allowing a little time for photo stops (which you’ll be doing plenty of) and a couple of wrong turns (which we did more than enough of).
The path is pretty straightforward. Just try to stick close to the water. At times you’ll go up higher and along a cliff front, but you’ll always be walking alongside the water. If you’re not, you’ve gone wrong.
If you do manage to find yourself a bit off track, don’t worry. The locals along here and around the lake in general are friendly and really helpful. We don’t speak much Spanish – surprisingly our 1 week of Spanish school in Xela didn’t really stretch that far – but we found that saying ‘San Marcos?’ and looking a bit confused usually returns a few arm movements and mimes back towards the path.
You’ll pass through a couple of the more remote villages along the way that are, as yet, virtually untouched by tourism. Although you can see them gearing up towards it in the coming years. The water’s edge is also really cool around here and at times it definitely seems to have an almost Mediterranean kind of feel.
We hiked on way and then got the boat back to our accommodation at Santa Cruz for a great morning out.
Play In The Water
The water in the lake is a consistently pleasant 22C, all year round.
That makes it perfect for a mid day cool off swim.
A lot of the hostels and hotels dotted around the edge offer kayak rentals if you prefer to stay on top of the wet stuff, and there’s a PADI dive school in Santa Cruz for those who want to be under it. If you’re interested in getting into diving, these guys are worth checking out as they are the cheapest place in the world to get certified, and the only authorised dive school on the lake, Ati Divers. I’ve also heard that there are a few old hotels and buildings from back when water levels in the lake were lower, which are now submerged and begging to be explored by keen divers.
Personally we didn’t go in the water since a few local people had told us how polluted it is. Later on, when we were in Xela, our Spanish teacher told us that lots of her students get sick after swimming in there. As well as having waste pumped into it, the lake is also where most of the local women do their laundry. We’ve even been told not to eat the fish from there and a lot of the local restaurants wont serve fish from the lake, which isn’t a good sign.
Search For Maximon In Santiago Atitlan
Some think of him as a god or saint, others consider him the devil.
The man himself is a kind of hybrid between a Mayan deity and a Catholic saint.
Many of the locals visit him to present him offerings in return for solving all their problems. And apparently this particular saint is especially partial to alcohol and cigarettes!
For the right bottle or enough smokes, he’ll help you with your job search, miraculously cure your nagging illness or just bring you general joy and prosperity. If he actually remembers the next day to pass your message on to the man upstairs, that is.
Nevertheless, finding him and seeing this real life living saint/deity for yourself is a fun way to spend an afternoon and a great way to explore the historic town of Santiago.
He likes to move house every year, just to keep everyone on their toes, so be prepared for a bit of a treasure hunt starting from when you step off the dock.
In the busy times of the year, you’ll have people shouting out his name around the dock and in town and offering to take you to him. You can pay them a few Q’s if you like, or just wander round and try to work it out for yourself.
Either way, it’s not a bad way to spend an afternoon. And who knows…he may even make all your dreams come true.
Climb San Pedro Volcano
If you go and see Maximon, make sure to ask him for good weather when you climb the San Pedro Volcano. You’re going to want that.
At just a pinch over 3,000m, the now dormant volcano is mainly used for farming by the locals, who take advantage of its highly nutrient dense soil to grow their corn and the cooler soils to grow their world renowned coffee beans.
This is a short-ish hike starting in the town of, you guessed it, San Pedro. You can be up and down it in half a day, and then spend the other half of the day telling your friends you just climbed to the top of a volcano!
Overall I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Lake Atitlan, and the diversity of the landscapes and the towns that surround it offered more than enough to keep me entertained during my stay.
Personal highlights for me were the towns of Santa Cruz and San Juan (a short 20 min walk along from San Pedro).
Have you been to Lake Atitlan? What did you think? Let me know what you got up to in the comments below.
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