Why You Should Visit Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
Lake Atitlan Guatemala
Do not ever plan a trip to Guatemala without considering a visit of Lake Atitlan: (rightly) considered one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, it is a place of breathtaking beauty, incredible magnetism, where I felt close to nature and where I could spend weeks doing different activities, and most of all where I could relax as I had not done in years.
Lake Atitlan and the villages overlooking the lake are a winning combination of beautiful scenery, relaxing atmosphere, easily accessible maya culture and good tourist infrastructures. The lake is volcanic, settled at 1560 meters above sea level and surrounded by more volcanoes such as Tolimán, whose peak reaches 3158 meters.
The main port of entrance (and easiest to reach) to Atitlan lake is Panajachel Guatemala, the busiest settlement in the lake region, from which regular boats leave taking visitors to the many villages surrounding the lake. The village to pick for a stay depends on personal taste, but my advice is to visit all of them. San Pedro la Laguna is the less touristic one. San Marcos is the perfect place to practice yoga and meditation.
San Juan is the heart of many cultural activities such as weaving done using natural colours, traditional medicine and coffee production, and is a great place to buy souvenirs. San Antonio Palopo is a tranquil maya village famous for its ceramics. Santa Catarina Palopo is an authentic maya village that perfectly represents the Kaqchiquel culture. Last but not least, Santa Cruz la Laguna is a great starting point for sports and has a great view over the 3 volcanoes. It is the smallest village and can only be reached by boat or via a walk. There is a waterfront with an hotel and a hostel and the village, home of a Kaqchiquel community, is reached via a steep 600 meters walk. It is common to see villagers carrying heavy weights uo to the village.
Things to do in Atitlan Lake:
There are many activities that kept me busy while I was on the lake: hiking around lake Atitlan or on any of the surrounding volcanoes, biking, swimming in the lake, kayaking, boat tours of the lake, diving, yoga and Spanish courses are offered in any village on the lake and by practically all hostels. Trekking can be done independently as there are a number of free hiking trails to most places, but keep in mind that incidents have been reported on some of the hikes, with travellers attacked and robbed on the footpath that connects the villages. I always double check at my hostel to make sure it was safe to walk. Pueblos are interesting to visit, and in each one of them there is different artesania. Each has its own different weaving.
During the evening, it is very pleasant to sit outside and sip a glass of wine to admire the beautiful sky, the many shooting stars, or the show of lightning breaking behind the volcanoes.
How to get to Panajachel Guatemala and to the lake:
From Antigua Guatemala, there are regular bus and shuttle services to Panajachel Guatemala (about 2 and a half hours). These cost around $ 12, with Atitrans. Tickets can be purchased in the main offices which are located in 6a Avenida Sur 8. Any good hostel in La Antigua Guatemala will be able to arrange this. It is possible to travel cheaper on the chicken buses leaving from Antigua bus station, but ask in advance for there will be many changes.
From Chichicastenango, there are regular direct shuttles to and from Chichicastenango. Going to Chichicastenango, the shuttle costs around $6 on market days and $15 on other days. I suggest to spend a night in Chichicastenango to enjoy the market from the early morning, and for a cheaper and more adventurous trip, Chichicastenango and Panajachel are connected via the super-cheap chicken buses (camionetas): just change at Los Encuentros and ask around – it is actually impossible to get lost! Needless to say, the same goes for the reverse route.
Once in Panajachel, go to the embarcadero, from where it is possible to catch one of the frequent lanchas to the villages that surround the lake. Prices are higher for non-locals (even Guatemalan tourists) but do make sure to ask the price, as the drivers tend to higher them a bit too much for non-Spanish speaking tourists. Boats run from early morning (as soon as the sun is out) till around 7:30 pm. Make sure to withdraw cash before getting on the lancha: ATMs are hard to find in some of the villages and not all hostels accept payment by credit card.
Santa Cruz La Laguna:
I normally am looking forward to relax, so Santa Cruz la Laguna, the smallest one in the area and only reached by foot or by boat, suited me perfectly. Santa Cruz has waterfront resorts (where the main sleeping options are) while the main village is on the hills, about 600 meters uphill from the dock and inhabited by the Kaqchiquel. The village overlooks 3 of the volcanoes that surround the lake: picture waking up in the morning and seeing this natural marvels sitting on the calm waters of the lake.
Sleeping options in Santa Cruz include home stays and La Iguana Perdida, which caters to any budget. This is right next to the dock, and offers a spectacular view of the lake.
It is the perfect place to relax, practice yoga, read a book, play the guitar and just soak in the sun all day or lazily hang on one of the hammocks. The cheapest option to sleep is the open air dorm, with no electricity and costing less than $6; for a dollar difference there are dorms with shared bathroom, and for a few extra dollars private rooms with shared bathroom and private rooms with private bathrooms. There is a library and tv room with book crossing. Meals are extra, but there is a wide selection for breakfast and a home style dinner where all guests who have signed up for the dinner earlier on can eat together in the dining room. Vegetarian options are available.
The hostel can organise transportation to other places in Guatemala, diving lessons, spanish classes, treks and pretty much any other activity such as guided visits of the nearby village of San Juan La Laguna, where the coffee plantations (included in the tour is coffee tasting) can be visited, as well as the traditional medicine and wooving centres in order to experience local culture.
The price of the guide can be negotiated locally – one should cost no more than 40 or 50 Quetzales (around 5 to 7 US dollars). From San Juan there are tuk tuk to San Pedro, where it is possible to catch a boat back to Santa Cruz. There are a number of cheap comedores in San Juan.
The nearest place to reach via a quite easy walk is Jaibalito. It is possible to also hike independently to San Marcos (about 3 hours) and to Solola (about 5 hours).