This area is magical and mysterious!! The views are spectacular from which point or time you look at this lake surrounded with volcanoes. The sunrise views gave me goosebumps and I was thrilled while drinking a cocktail admiring the sunset. A highly must see when you are traveling through Guatemala. I visited Lago Atitlán for five nights and that was not a day too long; I could even stay longer have to admit! I stayed at different locations around the lake and visited more villages during my daily trips. I will give you my impression and inspirations on these lakeside villages below.
I arrived from Mexico, San Cristobal de Las Casas into Panajachel, Guatemala in a day with a shuttle tour; it was a long and exhausting trip. Pick-up was at 7:15AM and arrived at the border around 12:00AM. The shuttle which brought us to Guatemala was delayed and we left at 1:30PM; where we arrived 5 hours later in Panajachel just around sunset. It is a tough journey so be prepared!
Tip: Please be aware that at customs you perhaps have to pay 500MXN exit fee; but I already paid it when I entered the country by plane. Tax is included in the plane ticket, but when you arrive by bus, perhaps the entrance fee is not included. Check upfront so that you are not surprised by paying the exit fee at the border.
From Panajachel the lanchas (small motorboats) leave to many of the villages around the lake. Panajachel has two piers, departure depends on your destination at the lake. The boats to the villages below depart from the most right hand side pier (Embarcadero Tzanjuyú). You can take the public boat to San Pedro; this boat will make stops along the way in Santa Cruz, San Marcos (30 minutes) and stop at any pier on the route on your request. The boats work very easy, cheap (10-30Q depending on the stop) and they go every ±30 minutes till it gets dark.
Tip: Plan your trip in advance; at night or when it get dark the boats don’t run (at least the colectivo). Maybe you can get a very expensive private boat but not sure if they run at night. I booked a night in Panajachel to cross the lake the next day.
I booked a shuttle from Panajachel to Antigua (80Q) that lasted 3 hours, with drop of at hotel. Many tour operators offer this service and you can book it in every village at the lake. My trip was excluding the boat fee and the shuttle left at 12:00PM.
Villages around Lago Atitlán
In the five days that I booked at this lake Atitlán, I have visited four different villages. My base was in or close to San Marcos. Which I do recommend because of the nice view over the volcanos, chill vibe and easy access, but that is probably for all the towns but it really depends on your own preferences and budget of course. Make up your mind after reading my experiences on the villages below, because each town has its own vibe and energy.
Panajachel (or Pana how they shorten it) is the “Capital City” of Lago Atitlán; it is the gateway for travelers to Lago Atitlán. This is the busiest and most active town I have seen at the lakeside, but for me the less charming. I arrived in Panajachel just before sunset with my shuttle from San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Mexico. It was a very long and exhausting trip so I was glad I booked my room at Selina Hostel in advance. This chain of hostels in Central America is expanding fast and this one in Pana is brand new. I experienced some starting problems in my room and the vibe was not really there and relatively expensive. During my travels I heard more negative stories about this hostel chain then positive. One thing is clear the hostels look amazing!
I will recommend you to have breakfast at Deli Jasmín; this local place made me the perfect Tipico desayuno with juice and fruits (52Q). It was busy with customers in the green, tranquilo and colorful garden, which is a good thing. They even sell homemade jams and cookies. After breakfast check some shops and then take a boat/lancha to the next village at the lake. Remember you come back to Panajachel when you leave to any other destination in Guatemala or Mexico.
San Marcos La Laguna
San Marcos is my favorite town at the lake; at least of the ones I have visited. I feel like a modern hippie now and then so this vibe suited me well. Very chill, nice healthy food restaurants and cool places to stay. High density of dreads and spiritual people in this town where they practice meditation, yoga and massages. I have met a couple of travelers that did a yoga retreat in San Marcos; which is the perfect tranquilo spot for it! Here you have less standard souvenir shops but more boutique style vendors and accommodations.
I slept at two places; at Lush in San Marcos and at Anzan close to San Marcos. If you have the money and when you are lucky Anzan has availability; you should definitely should stay here!! This is the ultimate treat and relaxing spot at the lake. Dita the owner and host knows exactly what you want; and if you don’t know what you want, you will find out yourself!! The view is stunning and the morning swim at my private entrance was so refreshing; the perfect start of the day. After the swim the delicious breakfast was served at the lake shore; so romantic even by myself!
The place is called Anzan Kitchen for a reason; the place has the most perfect scenery to have dinner and the chef is amazing. They serve dinner only from Thursday till Sunday, but I was lucky to join the extra night at Tuesday. I felt so happy, the food and creativity of the courses were amazing; all fresh, original and a lot of vegetables. Dita and her chef travel a lot to get inspirations abroad to use that in their own restaurant here at the lake. A real recommendation to sleep and eat at Casa Rosada (the Pink House); this is the local name you have to tell the boat skipper to stop, just before the main town of San Marcos.
The other nights I slept at Lush in San Marcos itself, a bit on the side of town. I liked the look and feel of this place and the breakfast at the rooftop was a pleasure. It has a nice garden, is quiet and close to the lake (no lakeview unfortunately). From here it is a small walk to the main street with restaurants and other recreation.
Other tips for San Marcos La Laguna:
- Circles Café: I loved this café!! Great coffee, healthy and fresh food, nice people and good vibe.
- Tul y Sol: Perfect spot for a volcano sunset drink with live music in the back.
- Buy a Banana bread with the lady in the street across Circle Café.
- Test and buy some chocolate at this factory and store Xocolatl.
San Juan La Laguna
My basis was San Marcos and I suggest to do the same; except if you like to party then you should stay at San Pedro (see below). From San Marcos you can take the lancha to San Juan, this is a small village before San Pedro. This indigenous village is known for the female handmade textiles weavers and other art shops. The textiles are made via the cooperatives of women from the village of San Juan; you can do a “free tour” in the many shops. The women explain how the process works; from the raw cotton plant to making threads, dyeing the cotton threads with natural plants and minerals to weaving the colored threads into the final product like a plaid, tablecloth or poncho. It is very good to see what a work has been done by the women to create these souvenirs. I bought a nice bag as a token of my appreciation to the women (100Q).
By the time I climbed up the hill to the Iglesia Católica on the main plaza I was getting hungry and by coincidence I saw the Mercado Municipal where it was busy outside. That is always a good sign! I went over to see what the ladies were selling and the food looked really good. All very simple; plastic chairs, a wobbly table, different pots and pans, but the food was just amazing. It was fresh, cheap (20Q) healthy and very local; me gusta mucho!! So don’t hesitate and get some lunch at this spot just outside the market at the corner of Calle Chi Nima Ya’. At the main road I took a tuk-tuk (10Q) to the next town San Pedro.
San Pedro La Laguna
San Pedro is the most visited town at the lake. It is known as the backpackers place, due to the cheap accommodations and party vibe in this town. But beside that you can do a lot of other activities like; Spanish lessons, learn to drum, volcano hiking, kayaking, or just chilling and enjoying the scenery. This town has actually cars and busses driving around which I had only seen in Panajachel before. The other towns are so small only tuk-tuks drive around. I walked from the park with Iglesia Católica to the market and down to the main street with bars, restaurants and hostels. I had a coffee at Cafe Las Cristalinas which has its own coffee roaster in the back of the shop, the smell and carrot cake is amazing! At the lake front you have a lot of nice and trendy places with a spectacular view over the lake; loved Sababa and La Terraza next door. Time to catch the next boat back to San Marcos!!
Tip: Use your Maps.me app to navigate in the narrow and small streets!!
What I loved about this Lake Atitán experience; that every village around the lake has its own vibe. Chill, party, hippie or indigenous. I think every traveler can find a perfect spot for him or her and all have a great view over the lake with the volcanos in the background. A must go in Guatemala!!!!
Tip: Be careful with hiking on your own, I heard positive and negative stories during my stay. I always play it safe and did not go hiking, good excuse…..