****This article was featured on Lonely Planet Kids Best Family Travel Blogs: February 2019.
Recently, we spent 4 days at Lake Atitlan Guatemala. Our family of 5 (3 teenagers aged 14, 15 and 17 years old) explored remote Mayan villages, hiked, kayaked, learned to weave, and ate some remarkable food. Lake Atitlan is stunningly beautiful. While there, we always felt safe and met many wonderful locals who were keen to share their culture and their villages. What should you do on your visit to Lake Atitlan Guatemala? A lot! Our time was filled every day with Lake Atitlan activities that kept everyone in my family interested and excited. Most were free or very reasonably priced. In addition, they would be easy to organize once you are there.
Lake Atitlan Guatemala
Lake Atitlan Guatemala is considered one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. It is enormous in size – the largest in Central America – and is totally surrounded by dormant volcanos. Everywhere you look, you see lush green mountains plunging dramatically into the lake. Tucked in between mountains are tiny Mayan villages cut off from one another by the sheer mass of the mountains between them. The main form of transportation around Lake Atitlan is by boat. There are limited roads and many are unsafe to travel on at night or during the rainy season.
For general information about Lake Atitlan Guatemala like where to stay, how to travel to or around Lake Atitlan, or which are the best villages to explore, please refer to my earlier blog Lake Atitlan Guatemala: Unravelling Its Mysteries.
Lake Atitlan Activities
Here are ten of my favourite Lake Atitlan activities.
1. Take a Boat Ride
You can enjoy spectacular views of Lake Atitlan Guatemala on your drive to Panajachel, the main tourist town and commercial hub for locals around Lake Atitlan. There is a dramatic descent on a narrow windy road from the highway to the town. Moreover, you can experience jaw dropping views of surrounding mountains and the lake from the shores of Panajachel. However, without question, the best way to appreciate the beauty of Lake Atitlan and the isolation of its Mayan villages is by boat.
From Panajachel, you can easily find transportation to a village on the lake. You can take a regularly scheduled speed boat for a few dollars a trip or book a private one. Villages are anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes away.
Lake Atitlan is a relatively calm lake in the morning and early afternoon. However, it can become quite rough in the late afternoon. Either way, be prepared for a bouncy ride. During our stay, we took 5 boat trips at different times of the day. Each time, our boat smashed into waves and splashed us with lots of cold water. My kids loved it. My husband – not so much. More often than not, he found the boat trips tough on his back. If you suffer from lower back problems, these boat trips might be challenging but the views are totally worth it.
2. Watch a Sunset
Every night we watched the sunset from the balcony of our Airbnb, located on the shores of Lake Atitlan near the village of San Antonio Palopo. They were all magnificent as the sky seemed to fill each night with oranges, pinks and purples. So however you choose to fill your day while at Lake Atitlan, make sure at the end of each day you are some place where you can watch these beautiful sunsets.
3. Explore San Pedro La Laguna
San Pedro La Laguna is a remote Mayan village approximately 30 minutes by boat from Panajachel. We explored this village one afternoon and had a wonderful time.
Like all of the Mayan villages around Lake Atitlan, San Pedro is small. However, we found lots of cute little restaurants and looked around at some lovely Artisan shops that offered beautifully crafted items. A highlight was when we stopped with our guide at Las Cristalinas for lunch, a short walk up the hill from the dock. The food had American staples such as hamburgers but we ordered and devoured the traditional dishes that they offered. My kids ordered milkshakes and were blown away by the size and decadence of them.
We walked on foot up to the main plaza where we found a beautiful church. The plaza was also exquisite with lovely plants and flowers throughout, a charming place to relax and get out of the sun.
Next door was El Mercado, a daily market offering supplies to the locals. It was next to here that we came across a pretty stadium with hand painted walls, seating and a basketball court. My kids joined a basketball game already in progress with the local kids. They said it was one of the best Lake Atitlan activities that we did while there.
4. Ride on the Back of an Open Truck
When you are in Guatemala, you can’t help but notice that most people who travel by car end up at the back of a pick up truck. Some sit packed together to keep warm, while others stand and hang on for dear life! Coming from North America and being a mother, I always look and think that this has got to be super unsafe. So, it came as quite a shock when I found ourselves on the back of one of these trucks. However, I got to say, it was a ton of fun.
We missed the bus in San Pedro which would have taken us to the neighbouring village of San Juan La Laguna. Our guide told us to hop onto the back of a pick up truck he found. I naively thought this was a photo-op and happily agreed. Next thing I know, we started to move.
The drive was really short – about 10 minutes. The roads were dusty but pretty safe without any mind numbing drops over the side into the lake. There wasn’t really any traffic. My kids loved it. I kind of loved it in a “we shouldn’t be doing this but when in Rome” kind of way. One of the Lake Atitlan activities that pushed me outside my comfort zone, for sure!
5. Attend a Women’s Cooperative and Learn How to Weave
Once in San Juan, we went to a women’s cooperative to learn about weaving. We watched the women spin yarn from cotton seeds, then dye them into a myriad of colours from natural seeds and plants. They tried to teach us too, but it was, of course, much more difficult than it looked. Finally, we learned how to weave and watched them as they crafted their exquisite textiles. At the end, we couldn’t help ourselves and bought a few gorgeous items in their store. If you are keen to support local women and to purchase indigenous crafts directly from Mayan people, then I would highly recommend that you add this to your Lake Atitlan activities.
6. Buy Art
An unexpected surprise was finding and purchasing a remarkable painting while in San Juan. A few doors down from the Women’s Cooperative, our guide took us to Galeria De Art “Chiya”. There we met a local family who has been painting and selling their work for well over a decade. They are all self taught and absolutely lovely to deal with. Their store was huge, with lots of different styles, sizes of canvas and prices. I think there was something for everyone’s price point. They rolled and wrapped our painting in plastic and then, inserted it into a plastic cylinder. It was very well protected from the water on our return boat ride to Panajachel.
7. Take a Hike
One of my absolutely favourite Lake Atitlan activities that we did was a 2 hour hike from Santa Cruz La Laguna through the mountains to the village of Tzununa. The views were absolutely STUNNING. It is not the safest trail. There were plenty of times that I had to pretend there wasn’t a death defying drop hundreds of feet into the lake without a fence in sight. In other places, we had to scramble up rocks using our hands. Accordingly, I wouldn’t recommend this hike for young children or anyone that fears heights. But, I loved it and would definitely recommend it.
We had our guide which really helped. The trail was pretty well marked, but there were a couple of times that it wasn’t always clear which way to go. We were able to purchase more water in a small town called Jaibalito about 45 minutes into our hike, which was absolutely needed. It was hot – unlike our hike on Pacaya Volcano – as we were mostly hiking in the sun. You should wear closed toe shoes with a tread. We saw one woman wearing flip flops and thought she was absolutely crazy.
The best and most unexpected thing that we found was this amazing restaurant along the mountain trail almost at the end of our hike. It was called Comas De Tzununa Hotel and Restaurant. We had lunch, cooled off and enjoyed the killer views. It was an incredible way to finish our hike.
8. Rent a Kayak
This was not one of my favourite Lake Atitlan activities that we did. However, objectively, I think that it could have been.
After our hike, we took a short boat ride from Tzununa to San Marcos La Laguna. On the shore, we rented two double kayaks and one single for a few dollars each. We also booked a Spanish speaking guide.
We had a few problems. The kayaks did not have back support, so my husband (who is 6’4″ or 193 cm with some back problems) struggled sitting in the kayaks comfortably. I don’t have any issues with my back, but I also found that it was hard to constantly paddle without any back support. The guide pretty much took off on us. After the first 10 minutes, he was no where to be found! My 15 year old son was in a single kayak and it tipped over. The water was only waist deep for him (at 6’6″ or 198 cm tall), but it was cold and filled with algae. He wasn’t wearing a bathing suit, so not the most pleasant experience for him.
However, beyond all that, I can see that it would be a lovely way to explore some of the small coves that you can only see from afar when you are crossing the lake on one of the shuttle boats. If you like to paddle, have a normal back, and know how to kayak without tipping over, then this would be wonderful way to explore Lake Atitlan.
9. Shopping in Panajachel
We came across outdoor stalls with local crafts and beautiful shops with more sophisticated items while in Panajachel. Our guide told us that we would be paying more here than the small villages or at Chichicastenango Market, the largest market in Central America, and a 1 1/2 hour drive away. However, if you don’t have the time to shop in the small villages or to go to Chichicastenango Market, then shopping in Panajachel would be a really good option.
10. Eating Churros and Ceviche in Panajachel
This is a bit random but when I think about our time in Lake Atitlan, and all of the Lake Atitlan activities we did, eating churros and ceviche in Panajachel are very fond memories! We found a churros stall along the waterfront not too far from where we picked up our boats. For $1 USD, we got five warm churros and the choice of chocolate or caramel dipping sauce. This became a daily ritual and one that my kids (ok, me too) looked forward to at the end of each day.
One day, we had lunch at Los Pumpos, a restaurant across from the waterfront in Panajachel. Our guide recommended the ceviche. Ceviche is a seafood dish typically made from fresh raw fish cured in citrus juices, and spiced with chili peppers or other seasonings like chopped onions, salt, and cilantro. It is served raw and must be made fresh to order.
I wasn’t super hungry so I figure this would be small and a light lunch for me to enjoy. Yah, no! I have never seen a bigger bowl of ceviche in my life. Think of the largest bowl of pasta that you have ever gotten in a restaurant and then, replace it with ceviche. My whole family could have shared it and it would have been enough. Beyond the size, it was extraordinarily good. It was filled with shrimp and fish from Lake Atitlan, and topped with fresh avocado. It was amazing.
We only spent a few days around Lake Atitlan, but experienced many unbelievable Lake Atitlan activities. The area was stunningly beautiful and filled with many authentic experiences offered by the locals, their culture and the natural surroundings. If you are looking for a place in Guatemala where you can have it all, then look no further. Lake Atitlan is waiting for you.
If you are interested in reading more about our time in Guatemala, please refer to the articles below:
- Antigua Guatemala: 8 Reasons Why It Is Worth The Fuss;
- Pacaya Volcano in Guatemala: Hiking Up an Active Volcano;
- Lake Atitlan Guatemala: Unravelling Its Mysteries;
- Lake Atitlan Activities in Guatemala: 10 Of My Favourites; and
- Tikal Guatemala Day Trip: The Best or Worst Idea.
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