I have been living around the lake on and off for a little over a year and I am very excited to share about this magical land that feels so close to my heart.
I’ll share separate sections for different villages around the lake but first I’ll tell you a little bout the lake itself.
Lake Atitlan is the deepest lake in central America and has been called the most beautiful Lake in the World by many, including British author Aldous Huxley.
The lake is surrounded by 3 volcanoes: Atitlan, Toliman and San Pedro, which make for incredible yet very different views, depending on where you are looking out from.
There are 12 towns on the shores of the lake: Panajachel, Jaibalito, Santa Cruz, Tzununa, San Marcos, San Pablo, San Juan, San Pedro, Santiago, San Lucas Toliman, San Antonio and Santa Catarina (my current home). I am yet to visit 4 of them, but the 8 I have been to are unique and worth visiting.
In terms of transport, the public lanchas (boats) tend to be the best option and cost between 15 and 25 Quetzales depending on where you are coming from and going to. However, if you are exploring a neighbouring town, a Tuc tuc ride may be another good option.
Panajachel, referred to as ‘Pana’, is considered to be ‘the main town’. If you are arriving to the lake from Antigua or the City by chicken bus, shuttle or taxi this is most probably where you will arrive.
Panajachel feels a little like a small harbor town at times with the boat captains yelling the name of the towns they will be stopping at. From the main embarcadero you can get a boat to all the other villages around the Lake. The public boat services run from 7am to 5.30pm but you can get private boats at pretty much any time if you are willing to pay considerably more.
Pana is often tourists’ least favourite but I’ve really grown to like it. If you make time to spend a day here I recommend having breakfast at Jasmin – a restaurant with a beautiful garden and a great menu with good veggie options.
If you want to buy local artesania, stroll through the Santander, the main shopping street, and you’ll most certainly find special souvenirs to take home from clothes and jewellery to cacao, wooden toys and even stones and crystals. I recommend buying from the street vendors as much as possible as they tend to be the most in need.
Tzununa is the next town I’ve been to on the way to San Pedro, the last stop on one of the boat circuits.
Tzununa is relatively quiet but has a few good spots that make it worth visiting in my opinion.
Granja Tz’ikin is a farm, a restaurant and a hostel and they offer permaculture courses a few times a year. I haven’t eaten there but I know they mostly use products from their land and the smoothies are delicious!
Gaia Dance Temple is a beautiful space that hosts Ecstatic Dance on Sundays and other events throughout the year.
Fungi Academy is also worth a visit if you are interested in Fungi and want to learn more about them.
I haven’t been to Cafe Nuna myself but I have heard of it so much that it feels essential to mention it here 🙂
San Marcos is known as ‘the hippie town’ – The Spiritual Mecca for many travellers.
If you are planning on staying in San Marcos I recommend Casa Jaguar – an Air B&B run by a young spirited British man, or Venga – another Air B&B run by a lovely expat couple or Hostel La Paz – a cute hostel in the middle of town. To find these you can search on Air B&B and if you can’t find anything, which does happen during high season (December to April) walking around town and asking for vacancies is an option although there is no guarantee so it is best to book ahead.
While in San Marcos I highly recommend visiting Lava Love, a locally owned cacao shop where you can take part in traditional Mayan Fire Ceremonies with Shaman Isaias and his wife Isabel. To find out about times go to the shop and inquire and def try their brownie it’s divine.
While visiting San Marcos I also recommend checking out the iconic Eagle’s Nest, even if just for the view. They offer numerous weekly events (yoga, ecstatic dance, cacao ceremonies and even festivals). Eagle’s nest is also a hotel and restaurant and it seems to be open to the public any time (the kitchen is closes on Sundays). The views and the food are equally wonderful.
For a more local experience, I recommend eating at Konojel. Konojel is a lovely little restaurant with great local food, vegan and vegetarian options and good prices. And just in case you need some more convincing they work closely with the local community to fight malnutrition.
If you are looking for a place to sip a good cacao and relax, Emporium is a great option And they have a market every Saturday + their breakfast sandwich is great!
For another good cacao with a view, Vida is on the shore of the lake and has many other things to drink and eat. The Guacamol is authentic and comes with blue corn chips.
My favourite lunch spot is Il Giardino, the food is outstanding and the restaurant is set in a luscious garden which makes it very pleasant. I recommend the fresh lemongrass tea and the scrambled tofu. They also have ridiculous vegan deserts.
If you are interested in Kirtan, there are a few every week but I am not sure of when and where but you can join the San Marcos Facebook group to find out about all the offerings available when you are visiting. The community is very friendly and helpful.
You can also find posters of the many offerings available from family constellations to reiki and massages on the walls of Emporium, Il Giardino and Floresta shop.
San Juan is probably the most photogenic town around the lake. It is also the hub for hand woven products and you can even attend mini workshops where they explain how they dye the whool and cotton with natural products like turmeric and beetroot.
San Juan also hosts the only museum I’ve visited around the lake: The Museo de trajes tipicos which exhibits copies of many Traditional Guatemalan attires which vary depending on the region and even the town. It’s small but free and definitely worth a visit.
San Juan is also decorated with beautiful murals especially near the basket ball court. You can walk around or ask a tuctuc to take you to La cancha de basquebol.
Last but not least San Juan has a great cacao and coffee store near the dock on the right when you are looking away from the lake – this shop also sells ceramics so it’s easy to recognise.
When I first came to the lake 4 years ago, I stayed in San Pedro and it was known as ‘the party town’ and I think it still is.
San Pedro is also where you’ll want to stay if you’d like to do the hike Rostro Maya, often though not very politically correctly referred to as Indian Nose. I recommend going to a travel agency to organise the hike with a guide.
The main street is full of artisans selling varied jewellery and there are many restaurants to pick from but I haven’t eaten there in a while so I can’t recommend a particular place.
Santiago is probably one of the towns least visited by foreign tourists and most visited by Guatemalan tourists.
To go to Santiago you can also get a boat from the same dock as where you can go to the other towns but it is important to specify that you are going to Santiago otherwise you could end up in another town.
Santiago is a great town to visit if you’re looking for a local experience. I’d recommend visiting for a day rather than spending the night though.
San Antonio Palopo is hardly visited by foreign tourists despite being very charming.
I’m not sure how to access it by boat but you can get a collective pick up from the bridge in Panajachel for 5Q. Ask a tuc tuc to take you to El puente de Jucanya and just before going on the bridge you’ll see pick ups parked that leave when they are full.
San Antonio’s main attraction is the ceramic factory which you can visit for free and buy anything you think you’ll be able to bring back in one piece.
This is where I have been living since October and I am in Love with this little village.
Santa Catarina is also a pick up ride away from Panajachel and its main attribute is that the town is painted in turquoise.
The town has thermal waters on the edge but this is where some locals bathe so I won’t reveal their exact location as I wouldn’t want to spoil it for them. If you discover the secret thermal water spot I recommend going back for sunrise before the boats start making waves and please don’t take you bikini off as this is very uncommon for Guatemalan culture.
My favourite restaurant in Santa Catarina is at the very entrance of the town and is called El Mirador. The pupusas are delicious and the view is one of my favourite around the Lake but I’m biased.
Bonus – El Castillo & Lavender Fields
El Castillo is a spot located at the top of the mountain overlooking the lake where a small community lives. They offer hostel services and you can even sleep in a glamping tent right on the edge of the mountain. If you are interested in visiting feel free to reach out and I’ll share the owner’s contact details.
While being up there you can visit the Lavender Fields that are not so far from El Castillo. To visit you must book in advance. This is not such a local experience but if you like lavender you’ll most probably love the experience from walking through the fields to drinking fresh lavender tea on the porch.
While you are around there I also recommend checking out the mirador which offers one of the highest views around the lake.
I am sure there is A Lot more to see and do around the Lake but this is a good start 🙂
I hope you find this article useful and if you discover any spots and/or activities worth mentioning here please feel free to write to me and I will happily include them and tag you.