Lake Atitlan was the first place I landed when I arrived in Guatemala back in 2017. I didn’t speak a word of Spanish, I’d never left Europe alone before, and I had no idea just how hard I was going to fall in love with Guatemala.
I planned to be in Guatemala for 3-4 weeks to learn Spanish… 9 months later I finally moved to Colombia, there were a lot of tears. I split my time in Guatemala between Lake Atitlan and Antigua. In this guide, I’m going to share everything I learned from my time there, including what to eat, where to stay, and of course, the best things to do in Lake Atitlan.
I did this back in 2016, and it is still an experience I remember fondly. It was and still is one of my all-time best sunrises. I wrote an entire blog post about the hike to Indian Nose that you can read here
There are different options if you want to take Spanish lessons in Guatemala. When I decided I wanted to live in Latin America some while ago, I immediately knew I needed to learn Spanish to survive, so I chose to take Spanish classes at San Pedro La Laguna. You can read the article I’ve written about Learning Spanish in San Pedro.
When I arrived in Guatemala, I wasn’t expecting to find such a thriving Yoga community, but I did, and it is great. I even joined a Yoga retreat in San Marcos and yes, I also wrote an article about The Best Yoga Retreats in Guatemala you can read here.
Take a few hours to walk around the streets of Santa Catarina Palopo. You will be filled with the energy there. It’s full of artists and has such a cool vibe. It’s also not a place many people get to explore.
Like I mentioned before, every town around Lake Atitlan is very unique and beautiful. San Juan is the town of fellowship and entrepreneurship. There are different cooperatives of artisans that include painters, and artisan weavers. The woman’s cooperatives weave their beautiful and colorful textiles into so many beautiful products you can take home. It’s only by walking around town that you can really experience just how much work goes into their art. You can also book a tour with one of the cooperatives. They will assign a tour guide that will show you the town. Or you can simply go to the workshop of one of the weavers and ask to learn the process of dying the threads or learn how to weave like a Maya. Most of them offer paid tours on an ad-hoc basis.
Cafe Loco is a well-known coffee shop at Panajachel. It was founded by a young Korean man/ coffee guru. He sources the best coffee beans in Guatemala to roast them and serve them at the cafe. It has a super fun atmosphere and it’s a great place to meet new friends.
Ok, so the Chichicastenango Market is not in Lake Atitlan but it is very close and it is an experience you just can’t miss out on if you are already so close. What is the fuss about this Market? Well, Chichicastenango was one of the main trade centers since before the colonial times. Today, it is still one of the biggest outdoor markets in all Latin America. It comes to life only on Thursdays and Sundays. Here is my Guide on How to Get From Lake Atitlan to Chichicastenango Market.
If you are an adventurer, Lake Atitlan will offer many exciting activities. One of my favorites is doing a Kayak Hike. On this tour, you paddle next to the shores of the beautiful lake in the early morning as a fisherman would do from Santa Cruz La Laguna to San Marcos La Laguna. After that, you will gear up to begin your hike back to Santa Cruz La Laguna. You can find more information with these guys from Kayak Guatemala.
Santiago Atitlan is full of Guatemalan history. You can choose if you want to hire a local guide to walk you through all the historical places, or you can choose to go on your own. Santiago is also well known for Maximon. Maximon translates as “the grandfather” as the legend goes that this figure is the protector of the ones who worship and respect him.
If you are staying at Lake Atitlan for a while and you want to have the full experience of getting to know Lake Life. So pick a town and stay there for a few weeks. My personal favorites are San Pedro, San Marcos, and Tzununa.
I’ll try to add places from different towns. If you are looking for local food, I don’t really have an option for that, especially after the major lockdown Guatemala had in 2020 many restaurants didn’t survive. If you are looking for local food you can always try street food, though it is under your complete discretion to choose a place where you feel it is safe in terms of not catching corona.
This is a great place if you are looking for some cheese, wine, and cured meats. At the moment, they are not accepting guests without a prior reservation, so make sure to give them a call to make your reservation.
This is a place chosen by locals and travelers if you want to watch a sports match and have a nice time with your friends with an incredible view of the lake.
This is not a fancy place at all, and even when the name has the word “taco” in it, I will encourage you to try the pizza.
A very nice place with nice food and wifi in case you are a digital nomad, you will enjoy this place very much.
This is a small spot at the end of Santander street with great pasta.
Like I mentioned, unfortunately, many places have shut down due to the lockdown so this list is pretty short:
Beautiful place with nice food and coffee
This is a hamburger place with options for meat-eaters, vegans, and vegetarians. They know how to spoil everybody!
This is a vegan and vegetarian-friendly place to hang out with friends. I should warn you though, these guys only accept cash!
Every town around the lake is unique, but one thing they all have in common is that you can easily walk around in every town. If you are staying for a few days in the same town, there is no need to hire any type of transportation unless you are carrying a very heavy suitcase. In that case, you can pay for a tuk-tuk. Always ask your accommodation place for advice on how much you should pay for a tuk-tuk and a public boat ride. Commonly, the tuk-tuk or boat drivers will want to give you “the gringo price.”
Also, please keep in mind that most of the towns are located on mountains, which means that you will be mostly walking uphill from the docks to everywhere else.
Another very important thing to mention is that it is not easy to find ATMs. I know for sure that there is one in Panajachel. If you Google ‘ATM at Panajachel’, Google can show you the way. This being said, take some cash with you, or if you are going through Panajachel, make sure to take your time to redraw some cash there.
At Lake Atitlan, during the dry season, you will be hot all day long and cold at night. This is because of the strong winds and the lake tides. Pack some comfortable shoes because you will be walking a lot, comfortable and fresh clothes for the day and maybe a nice dress if you are going out at night. I’ll be getting all momsy when I say DON’T FORGET YOUR JACKET!
The rainy season in Guatemala is from May to mid-September, so keep this in mind. Pack a raincoat if you have space in your suitcase.
At San Marcos la Laguna, you can swim in the lake, so pack one or a few swimsuits to enjoy the nice freshwaters.
In terms of shoes, you will need very basic things. A pair of sandals, sneakers to walk around, or in case you want to do a hike, bring some hiking boots. The sneakers are fine too if you are doing a hike.
Since the weather is relatively warm, bring some mosquito repellent. Also, don’t forget sunscreen, sunglasses and maybe a hat. For more advise, I have written an entire Guatemala Packing List.
There are seven towns at the shore of Lake Atitlan. Most of the people here are descendants of the Kak’chikel and Tz’utujil Mayan descendant groups. Some towns are more touristy than others so, in terms of accommodation, you are going to have to adapt to what is available in each town.
You don’t need to worry, though. Even if you don’t find a five-star all-inclusive resort, the people are very nice and welcoming.
I will try to add different options for each town on this part.
If you have a flight arriving at Guatemala City Airport, my best advice is to always book a transportation service in advance. The company I trust the most to do that is GuateGo. You can book a seat in a collective shuttle that will first stop at Antigua for a few hours or a private shuttle that will take you all the way to your destination.
If you are not in a hurry, the closest place to Guatemala City Airport that’s tourist-friendly is Antigua Guatemala. If you are planning to explore Guatemala, Antigua is the perfect place to start your adventure.
That said, if you have an early or late flight and are nervous about traveling in the night then it is often best to stay at a hotel close to the airport. Ask for transportation service since most of these places have free transportation service due to the closeness to the airport.
At Lake Atitlan, the best way to move from town to town is on a boat. The best way I can describe how they work is this: take a map of the lake, find Panajachel and San Pedro La Laguna. Panajachel is the starting point. Some boats go to the right until they reach San Pedro La Laguna stopping on each town, and others go to the left and do the same thing. When they reach San Pedro, they head back to Panajachel using the same route.
Some roads connect the towns, but most of them are in very bad conditions, so I don’t recommend them unless you are a badass motocross or have a 4×4 vehicle.
In each town, you can walk or use a tuk-tuk.
Now, this is a tricky one. There is only one coworking space around the lake, which is Selina Atitlan in Panajachel. If you are a DN like me, you will find this frustrating because there are so many nice towns around the lake you would like to visit. My advice is that you look for the most touristy places as a home base like San Marcos la Laguna, San Pedro la Laguna, and Panajachel where you can easily find cafes, restaurants, hotels, and hostels. If you have some free time, you can move around and explore other towns.
This is a big theme in the emails I receive, and I can understand why based on the news you see everywhere about Guatemala. I remember the first time I arrived, I didn’t know what to expect. The truth is that I ended up staying in Guatemala for nine months and felt really safe during the entire time. There was only the time I thought I was going to die from a scorpion sting, you can read all about that story here The Night I Thought I was Going to Die from a Scorpion Sting in Guatemala.
Other than that, nothing ever happened to me in terms of having my belongings stolen or being in a dangerous situation. Nonetheless, it doesn’t mean that you should not be precautious, here is my Safety Advice For Solo Female Travelers In Guatemala. You’re welcome!
Guatemala has only two seasons, rainy and dry.
That is why it is called the land of the eternal spring. The rainy season is from May to mid-September, so my best recommendation is to visit the lake during the dry season between September to April.
I couldn’t not include this Lonely Planet Guide to Guatemala in the reading list.
I’m not always a fan of these kind of travel guides as they are oftern out of date. I learned this more than once the hard way! But they do serve a purpose and it’s always nice to have one actual book that you can use to plan before your trip as well as having something to read when the battery dies on your kindle!
Although you can also get most of these Lonely Planet Guidebooks free as part of a kindle unlimited subscription.
Rigoberta Menchú is quite possibly the most internationally well known Guatemalan. She is a indigenous feminist and human rights activist who won a Nobel Peace Prize.
Her book I, Rigoberta Menchú is now a global bestseller and she has dedicated her life to fighting for the rights of the Indigenous people in Guatemala both during and after the civil war.
This book is a reflection on her personal experiences during the civil war in Guatemala when her mother, father, and brother were murdered by the Guatemalan military.
If you have an interest in the history of Guatemala then read this book. It’s both heartbreaking and inspiring in equal measures.
I was given this book to read while I was dog sitting in Lake Atitlan and I can’t even tell you how much I loved it. I knew the Lake well by then so reading this book really brought those places to life for me.
The book is based on the life of the author Martin Prechtel who somehow found himself on an incredible journey from New Mexico in the USA to a small Mayan Village in Guatemala where he became a shaman.
Read this book. You won’t regret it!
Ok so maybe A Short History of Guatemala isn’t the most riveting read. But it really is interesting, especially for all of you history buffs out there.
It’s easy to read and gives you a good overview on the good, the bad, and the ugly of Guatemalas history.
The book mostly focuses on the ninetieth and twentieth centuries. It is a little dates now, but it still does the job!