When I was researching our trip to Guatemala, I had the hardest time trying to figure out Lake Atitlan Guatemala. I knew Lake Atitlan was an enormous lake nestled between dormant volcanos. Scattered around the lake were small villages tucked in between huge mountains and accessible mainly by boat. I also knew that Panajachel was a popular town and the main base from which tourists accessed most of the lake. However, that was basically it.
I struggled to understand where we should stay – one of the remote villages or near Panajachel. I wasn’t exactly sure how the boat system worked. Could we travel at night or would we have to remain in one of the small villages after dark. Would there be restaurants suitable for tourists in these isolated towns? Could we walk from our accommodation to the village for dinner or would it be too dark or unsafe? Could we get a taxi? During the day, which towns on Lake Atitlan Guatemala would be the “the best” to visit and explore? We didn’t have time to visit all of them.
The purpose of this blog is to answer these general questions. We only had four days in Lake Atitlan. I wanted to make the most of our time and explore as much as possible. Hopefully, with this information, you can arrive a little better prepared than us and be able to make informed decisions about where you should stay and where you should explore while at Lake Atitlan Guatemala.
Lake Atitlan Guatemala
Lake Atitlan was a breathtakingly beautiful spot in Guatemala. Many consider it one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. I would have to agree.
Lake Atitlan Guatemala is enormous and totally surrounded by volcanos that are covered in plants, flowers and trees. At the moment, all of the volcanos are dormant. With over 3000 earthquakes a year in Guatemala (most of which are never felt above the earth’s surface), the status of these volcanos are always in question.
Lake Atitlan is a caldera which means that the lake was formed after a volcanic implosion. This happened thousands and thousands of years ago. Lake Atitlan is extraordinarily large at 130 km2 (32,000 acres) in total surface size. It is approximately 300 metres (1000 feet) deep, the deepest lake in Central America.
We never once had a bad view at Lake Atitlan. Everywhere we looked, enormous mountains plunged dramatically into the lake. Occasionally, a small Mayan village emerged in between two of them, isolated from other towns by the sheer mass of the mountains surrounding them. Even these towns were usually built on severe slopes along the bottom of these volcanos.
Travel from Antigua to Lake Atitlan Guatemala
My family of five (three teenagers aged 14, 15 and 17 years old) travelled from Antigua to Panajachel Lake Atitlan by private van with a driver and a guide. It was 81 km and took approximately 2 1/2 hours (with a quick coffee break). It cost $176 USD and we booked it through Sin Fronteras.
I loved the drive. It was very scenic and allowed us to see a lot of the countryside. 60% of Guatemala is mountainous with over 330 volcanos. Accordingly, we spent most of our drive climbing up and driving down large hills which overlooked magnificent green valleys.
Further, I felt completely relaxed and safe during most of the drive. The roads were wide and well maintained on the highway. In addition, there was very little traffic once we left Antigua. However, that was not the case the last few kilometres into Panajachel. We ultimately had to descend a very long, narrow and windy road from the main road into Panajachel that was jammed pack with traffic. In a number of places, there was nothing between the road and a perilous drop off of it. In addition, driving in Panajachel itself was a little crazy. The town was filled with narrow one way roads built for horses and carriages, not for vehicles. Thankfully, we didn’t have to drive ourselves.
For more information about our time in Antigua, please refer to the following articles:
Panajachel is the main tourist hub and commercial centre for locals around Lake Atitlan Guatemala. For tourists. we found grocery stores, banks and bank machines, lots of restaurants, a daily market selling traditional handicrafts, and stores. Panajachel is also the place where you can easily arrange boat transportation to one of the remote villages around Lake Atitlan. There are regularly scheduled ones that can carry up to 30-40 people for a few dollars or private ones for which you can negotiate a separate price and schedule.
I really liked the vibe of this town. We spent four days on Lake Atitlan Guatemala, staying in accommodation that was a 40 minute drive from Panajachel along Lake Atitlan. Accordingly, we were in and out of the town every day. The lakeshore was pretty and bustling with activity. It was easy to walk around the stalls and shops, find banks and buy groceries. We always felt safe and found the locals to be very friendly and helpful. Another plus, Panajachel is flat. After exploring other villages around Lake Atitlan, we realized this was unusual and a welcome gift at the end of a busy day.
Accessing The Villages Around Lake Atitlan
Without question, the villages around Lake Atitlan Guatemala are remote and isolated. Most are only accessible by boat, although there are a couple of exceptions. When you are choosing where to stay around Lake Atitlan, you should appreciate that after dark, you may be confined to the village in which you are staying. In addition, it is also a real possibility that you could be stranded in your accommodation after dark for various reasons. We were.
For example, we stayed in an Airbnb about a 40 minute drive from Panajachel along the coast of Lake Atitlan. En route, we passed a couple of villages, the last one being San Antonio Palopo. These villages were not tourist towns. They had a shop or two that either provided staples for the locals or maybe sold a local craft. However, these villages did not have any restaurants. In addition, the road was narrow, windy, unfinished and dangerous in parts. In many places, we drove along cliffs that led to a sheer drop into the lake without a guardrail in sight.
One of the reasons we decided to stay at this Airbnb was so that we could go out for dinner each night in these villages or in Panajachel. However, that was totally out of the question. First and foremost, there weren’t any restaurants nearby. However, even if there were, there weren’t any street lights and the road conditions made it dangerous to drive in the dark. Had we wanted to take the chance, we did not have our own car and there weren’t any taxis. Further, there weren’t any sidewalks. In other words, even though we were not geographically cutoff from Panajachel, we were, for all purposes, not going anywhere after dark.
For the rest of Lake Attitlan Guatemala, scheduled boat transportation ends at dusk. You can negotiate and hire a private boat, but travel on Lake Atitlan after dark is not encouraged. The lake becomes rough in the late afternoon and it is very dark on the lake.
I had also trouble trying to figure out accommodation around Lake Atitlan Guatemala. We are not budget travellers. If available, we prefer nice comfortable accommodation. If that is not offered, we try to find the best alternative.
There weren’t any large hotels around Lake Atitlan. Most places were small, tucked in one of the villages, and secluded either from Panajachel or within the village themselves. When we explored several of the villages during our stay, I was struck by how many hotels were difficult to reach even within the village themselves. Like our Airbnb, they would be difficult to arrive to or depart from in the dark.
In addition, before we left, I found very little online information about hotels around Lake Atitlan. When I did find an interesting hotel, I sent emails asking questions about location, nearby restaurants, and whether they was accessible by road or boat. However, more times than not, my questions went unanswered. So be prepared while planning your trip – tourism is definitely still developing in this part of the world. Quite frankly, it is one of the reasons that I wanted to go. I love finding spots where there is some tourist infrastructure, but we are still early enough to have authentic experiences, connecting with nature, culture and the locals. Still, it makes trip planning a little challenging! Based upon our experiences, I would do what you can to really understand where your accommodation is in relation to restaurants and what you can expect at night.
What totally surprised me were the number of Airbnbs around Lake Atitlan, and gorgeous ones at that. In the end, I booked one of these. Unlike several of the hotels, the Airbnb website supplied information to allow us to comfortably choose and book one. Further, our Airbnb had an onsite caretaker. We hoped that he would be able to give us more information about the area, like recommending local restaurants or organizing taxis.
We could even book a private chef for dinner for an additional cost. After we realized that we would not be able to go out for dinner, we booked this service each night. This was a god send! We didn’t arrive with groceries our first night and thereafter, our days were jammed packed with tours and hikes. Thankfully, in the end, we had a beautiful place to stay and a solution to the lack of restaurants nearby or transportation to restaurants in Panajachel.
Which Villages to Explore?
Another issue that I couldn’t figure out before we arrived was which villages we should explore around Lake Atitlan Guatemala. From what I had read, it seemed like every village was unique, and filled with special must see cultural and artistic experiences that we would forever regret if we missed. That was not the case.
Over a couple of days, we explored three villages around Lake Atitlan (in addition to Panajachel). Those were San Pedro La Laguna, San Juan La Laguna and Santa Cruz La Laguna. All three were pretty little towns inaccessible except by boat with small restaurants, artisan shops and workshops, and central squares to explore. We also walked through small villages like Jaibalito and Tzununa on a hike through the mountains one day. These villages were like the villages we passed everyday when we drove from Panajachel to our Airbnb. They were interesting, but there wasn’t much to see or do other than to see how the locals lived without tourism in their village.
From all of these experiences, I can safely tell you that if you only have time to visit one of San Pedro, San Juan or Santa Cruz, and one of the other small villages where locals mainly live, you will have experienced what all of them have to offer in some way. That is not to say that each village doesn’t offer something unique – they all do, – only that the differences were subtle. For example, Santa Cruz seemed to be wealthier than other towns. The houses along the water looked very modern and expensive, and the restaurants we saw looked pretty hip. Whereas San Pedro and San Juan were less posh, but had more artisan shops and workshops to explore.
In my next blog, I will discuss our experiences and adventures in these villages. At this time, suffice it to say that I would absolutely recommend taking a boat and visiting a village or two around the lake, but that you shouldn’t stress if you can’t make it to all of them. Of course, if you do have time, it would be wonderful to visit all of them and learn as much as you can about this beautiful and interesting part of the world.
Before we arrived in Lake Atitlan Guatemala, I had more questions than answers about our visit. I did not know whether we had chosen the best place to stay or the best villages to explore. In addition, I wasn’t completely sure whether a “remote” village was completely isolated or simply a bit more difficult to access. Finally, I wasn’t sure whether we could book taxis or walk to restaurants from our accommodation. After visiting, I can now shed some light on all of these questions. Hopefully, this blog helps you better prepare for your time around Lake Atitlan, one of the most beautiful lakes that I have ever seen.
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
- Tikal Guatemala Day Trip: The Best or Worst Idea; and
- Lake Peten Guatemala: An Easy Going Three Day Itinerary.
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