Lake Atitlán is one of those special places in the world where reality wows you a million times more than the already “wow” photos. It’s a place famous for hippies, backpackers, expats, and those that can never satisfy their wanderlust. I came here at the end of my two week Guatemala trip for far too few days and didn’t want to leave.
Lago de Atitlán as it’s known in Spanish, is the deepest lake in all of Central America and is surrounded by three massive volcanoes – Tolimán, San Pedro and Atitlán. There are many Mayan villages around the lakes but only a few that you’ll likely visit.
I visited Lake Atitlan as part of my two week Guatemala trip. Read about my itinerary in detail to help plan your own trip!
Why is Lake Atitlan so amazing?
When I first arrived in Lake Atitlan, I couldn’t help but notice its surreal scenery. It’s one of the largest and deepest lakes in Latin America but what makes it unique is the numerous volcanoes that surround it. Volcan San Pedro and Volcan de Atitlan are two enormous dormant volcanoes on the south side of the lake. If you want to wake up to these views every day, stay in the towns on the north side of the lake.
It took me awhile to really figure out why this place was just so amazing and unique, but I attribute it to the fact that there just are not many boats in the lake. In fact, the only boats I saw during my 5 days here were the “taxi boats”. This helped give the lake that endlessly tranquil and untouched aura that a similar setting such as Lake Como, Italy is not.
In short, Lake Atitlan is perhaps the ultimate destination to satisfy your Eat, Pray, Love disorder. I only stayed for five days but it’s easy to see why backpackers and expats stay here for months on end.
Getting to Lake Atitlan
Lake Atitlan is located roughly 150km west of Guatemala City. It is Guatemala’s second most visited destination behind Tikal so you can expect there to be numerous options of getting there.
Perhaps the easiest and most popular to get to Lake Atitlan is by bus (not to be confused by the local chicken buses). There are buses that leave regularly from Guatemala City, including direct from the airport, as well as Antigua. It is about 3.5 hours from Guatemala City and 3 hours from Antigua, traffic depending of course. I paid 80Q each way from Antigua which seemed to be the going rate.
These tickets can be purchased at just about any tour operator store in Antigua and Guatemala City. The buses will pick you up from your hotel/guesthouse in Antigua, and they will almost surely arrive later than their quoted time.
For the more adventurous and those that have more time, the Chicken bus is a cheaper alternative to the above at about 30Q. These are actual school buses that shuttle locals for a cheaper fare all across Guatemala. Many of the buses have been tricked out depending on their owners with colorful paints and neon lights, like the tuk tuk drivers you’d see in Thailand with their pimped out rides.
Like most developing nation transportation services, these buses are packed and seating is tight. I didn’t ride on a chicken bus but from all the local buses I took in Africa, I’ll go ahead and assume that these are the least comfortable, and least safe options available. The drivers will drive like maniacs on narrow windy roads at high elevations. Recipe for success!
Head to the Chicken bus station in North west part of Antigua and ask around for buses going to Panajachel (you’ll likely need to transfer once or twice to get there). I would budget at least twice the amount of hours on a chicken bus.
A private car might be best for those that are traveling with more than two people. It’s not necessarily that much faster than the charter bus, but it will be more comfortable and leave when you want. The going rate for a private transfer is 700-800Q from Antigua.
Arriving in Panajachel and Getting Around
Lake Atitlan is made up of numerous little towns. Some are small with only locals, and others are clearly more geared to accommodate tourists and expats. The largest town here is Panajachel. This is where all buses drop people off. There are many restaurants and hotels in this town so many people choose to stay here. I was looking for something more laid back and chilled so like many others, I took the boat to another area of the lake.
Taking the Taxi Boats In Lake Atitlan
Unless you’re planning on spending your entire time in Panajachel, you’re likely going to ride the taxi boats at some point. This is the main mode of transportation within the lake and the main method to get to the other towns. These motorboats are fast, surprisingly reliable, and a cheap mode of transportation. Depending on your distance, expect to be 15Q to 40Q per ride.
Locals and tourists alike both share the boats and they can get very full, especially at the end of the day. The boats essentially circle the lake and make numerous stops along the way. They always stop at the small towns but also stop at the numerous hotels that have their own private docks. Just tell them beforehand where you’re going and they will stop accordingly.
The boats run from 6am to 5:30pm and run in both directions. Do NOT miss the last boat otherwise you will have to charter a private boat which will be very expensive.
Tuk tuks are readily available in the towns. They are great to go to neighboring towns like San Juan to San Pedro. They are not equipped for long distances like San Pedro to Panajachel. They are also great if you’re staying somewhere outside of the main towns (like me).
They have a tendency to rip you off so make sure to negotiate the rate beforehand. 10-15Q should be the max you pay here.
Where we stayed – Anzan Atitlan
I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a specific accommodation so much as the one I stayed at in Lake Atitlan. After endless hours spent on Airbnb and Booking.com, I settled on Anzan Atitlan (Casa Rosada). This modern, minimalist, pink house was one of the most amazing places I’ve ever stayed in. The house itself belongs to a woman that moved to the area years back and fell in love with it (can’t blame her). The house is modern with fantastic furnishings and finishes.
The best part? The views. She knew what she was doing and made sure every room is made with floor to ceiling windows so the views of Volcan de Atitlan and San Pedro are visible 24/7. Waking up every morning to the sunrise over the volcanoes was a treat, made even better by the delicious breakfasts on the docks.
Exploring the surrounding cities
After you get over the ridiculous views of the volcanoes and lake (which won’t actually ever happen), the next coolest thing about the area are the small towns. Each town has its own vibe and attracts its own crowds. The towns are mostly inhabited by locals but some towns are home to larger expat communities.
The accommodation options in the towns are mostly budget backpacker hangouts with a sprinkle of nicer hotels.
The really nice houses and resorts are located outside of the cities on the hills. It is perfectly feasible to walk between towns. There is a dirt trail that connects them all and makes for a great hike with views.
The quickest way to explore the towns is by taking the taxi boats. They run quite frequently during the day and make regular stops at all the towns. It’s feasible to visit 3-4 towns in a day but it’s more likely you’ll find something to do once you get there so more realistically 1-2 towns.
Let’s start with the most popular backpacker village on the lake. Panajachel (Pana for short) is the main port of entry to the lake, and likely the first place you’ll arrive in if coming from Antigua, Guatemala City, Mexico, or Honduras.
I didn’t spend any time in Panajachel except take the ferry towards my Airbnb but it is still a place of interest for many. There is a large grocery store here, a plethora of tour agencies, ATMs (make sure to get cash out here), hotels, restaurants, bars and affordable Guatemalan handicrafts. Even though it’s the largest town in Lake Atitlan, it is still small and quaint compared to Antigua. I think it’s a great place to stay for those that are short on time. I would argue the best sunsets are from Panajachel as it faces west onto the lake and volcanoes.
San Marcos La Laguna
San Marcos is known as the hippie town, ripe for those into meditation, yoga, massage, and other spiritual stuff. Where we stayed was up the hill from San Marcos so we frequented the restaurants and bars in this little town. It’s also one of the most beautiful towns on the lake with impeccable views of the volcanoes. The tiny alleyway is the main strip of the town and goes all the way to the docks.
We had some delicious food here. There is an abundance of solid restaurants here. Prices are not cheap however with mains being 70-100Q. For cheap food, there are locals restaurants in the center of town that serve food for a fraction of that price.
Great French restaurant in town serving many different types of foods. The steak and pizzas here are great.
Tul y Sol
Another great French restaurant on the water with great views of the lake and volcanoes. Perfect place to grab a sunset drink as well as lunch. Their steak is absolutely fantastic.
Love Bistro and Cafe
This restaurant has only been around since the end of 2017. It is a bit hard to find but it is also on the water with impeccable views. The food and wine here is also great.
San Juan La Laguna
This small village is often overlooked by tourists, which is too bad. Sure, it’s not as busy as the likes of San Pedro, San Marcos or Pana, but there’s something special about San Juan. The people living here are very friendly, it’s a safe village and the views are lovely as well. This village is serene and peaceful. There are only a couple of places to eat and to stay here. Make sure to visit the chocolate shops to sample their delicious cacao.
Although not many travellers stay here, this village deserves a special mention as well. Jaibalito is located just a few minutes west of Santa Cruz. We actually walked here from our accommodation via the high mountain trail. It was about 1hr in total and was relatively easy. There are hardly any people living here or tourists staying here from what I saw, but there are a few expats and friendly locals that make this place a great stop on any visit to nearby towns.
There are also a couple of hotels to stay in. For the best falafels, make sure to eat at Posada Jaibalito, a German run restaurant/hostel. The place is pretty cool inside and the food is on point.
Casa Ven Aca
No stop in Jaibailito is complte without visiting Casa Ven Aca. This is one of the nicer hotels in the area and is situated on the water with an infinity pool. Nothing beats having a drink here while relaxing in their infinity pool and soaking in those amazing views.
The drinks and food are more expensive than other places as you’d expect but it is all still quite reasonable with a cold Gallo running 35Q
San Pedro La Laguna
This is the ultimate backpacker town in Lake Atitlan. It is the furthest town from Panajachel but many of the people that come here don’t leave for awhile. This town is equipped with many restaurants and bars along the lakefront, tour agencies, hostels, and other backpacker necessities.
There are lots of things to do here in San Pedro, whether you’re interested in chilling out in hammocks, going to bars, learning about coffee, buying incredible artisan goods, learning Spanish or trekking up volcanoes, this is the village to visit
Hiking Volcan San Pedro
Hiking up the San Pedro Volcano is a popular day activity. The views from the top allow you to see all of Lake Atitlan, and the surrounding landscapes including all the volcanoes. The entrance to the volcano is a 10 minute tuk tuk or 30 minute walk up the hill from the town. I highly recommend a tuk tuk because the hike is not easy. I was grossly under prepared for this hike. Having just hiked Pacaya in Antigua, I figured this couldn’t be that difficult.
While it’s not the most difficult thing I’ve done, I was just extremely under prepared. The hike starts at 1600m and ends at around 3000m. It’s a 1.5km climb with windy, steep trails.
We had two small bottles of water between the two of us and some paltry snacks. We were half up way when we seriously considered turning back. Thankfully, we met a group of Canadians that were struggling equally as much and took pity on us by giving us more water.
All in all, the hike took me six hours for the ascent and descent. With the right supplies, I probably could have done it in 5 hours but sometimes you just make rookie mistakes.
The view at the top is totally worth it however. I would certainly recommend it to everyone. Half way up there is a big tire swing that offers some fantastic views of the surrounding and a little bit of an adrenaline rush as well.
It is best to go early in the morning as clouds begin to cover the peak in the early afternoon. Also, remember the last ferry leaves at 5:30 so do not go too late in the day unless you want to pay the big bucks to get home!
Santa Cruz La Laguna
Just a quick, 10 minute boat ride from Pana and you’ll arrive here. This is the closest town to Panajachel. With no road access, Santa Cruz manages to retain its secluded, tranquil charm. Rickety, bamboo platforms are raised out of the water on stilts creating a funky kilometre-long walkway along the shoreline.
Stop by Casa La Rosa and take some photos on their white beds overlooking the water.
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