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Lake Atitlan Guatemala: Unravelling Its Mysteries

The harbour at San Juan.

The What, Where and How of Lake Atitlan

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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.

 

Lake Atitlan Guatemala
Lake Atitlan from our hike.

 

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 Guatemala
A view from our hike around Lake Atitlan.

 

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.

 

Lake Atitlan Guatemala
Santa Cruz, one of the small villages tucked between two mountains.

 

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.

 

Lake Atitlan Guatemala
Our road trip from Antigua to Panajachel.

 

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.

 

Lake Atitlan Guatemala
Descending down from the highway to Panajachel.

 

For more information about our time in Antigua, please refer to the following articles:

 Antigua Guatemala: 8 Reasons Why It is Worth The Fuss; and

Pacaya Volcano in Guatemala: Hiking Up An Active Volcano.

 

Panajachel

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.

 

Lake Atitlan Guatemala
Lakefront road in Panajachel with restaurants and shops.

 

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.

 

Roads

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.

Lake Atitlan Guatemala
Tzununa – one of the villages we came across on our hike that doesn’t have tourism.

 

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.

 

Boats

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.

 

Lake Atitlan Guatemala
The lakefront at Panajachel where we picked up our boat to explore Lake Attitlan.

 

Accommodation

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.

 

Airbnbs

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.

 

Lake Atitlan Guatemala
Sunset from the deck of our Airbnb.

 

Lake Atitlan Guatemala
Our outdoor living room at our Airbnb.

 

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.

 

Lake Atitlan Guatemala
The church in the main square of San Pedro.

 

Lake Atitlan Guatemala
The main square in San Pedro.

 

Lake Atitlan Guatemala
The view of San Pedro from the village of San Juan

 

Recommendation

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.

 

Lake Atitlan Guatemala
An artisan shop in San Pedro.

 

Lake Atitlan Guatemala
A women’s cooperative which hand spun and dyed cotton yarn for textiles in San Pedro.

 

Lake Atitlan Guatemala
Juliet trying to spin cotton yarn from cotton plants.

 

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.

 

Conclusion

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:

 

If you would like to save this article for future use, please click on the “Save” button below.

Lake Atitlan Guatemala is one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. It is surrounded by stunning volcanos which tower over small isolated Mayan villages beneath them. When you visit, where should you stay or eat? What should you do? And Is it safe? Before arriving, I wish I had known the answers to these questions. Now you do! #travel #familytravel #Guatemala #LakeAtitlan | caldera, Central America, Jaibalito, Mayan, Panajachel, San Juan, San Pedro, santa cruz, Sin Fronteras, Tzununa|

18 Comments

  • I’m sure many travelers to the area would have the same questions. You did a great job answering them! Good to know about the lack of restaurants and feasibility of accessing places after dark in the villages near Panajachel. I think challenges like this can add to the experience. As you said one of the reasons that you wanted to go was that tourism was still being developed. I think it would be fun to go somewhere like Guatemala that isn’t full of tourists like Paris or Rome!

    • It definitely is worth the aggravation not knowing what to do or where to go when you can safely explore a spot that has not been radically impacted by tourism. It was a wonderful place to spend some time and I would highly recommend visiting when you can.

  • Very informative post! It’s not easy to plan a trip to a country where tourism is still developing. I probably would have chosen to stay out of the main tourist hub too because I love the feeling of being in the middle of the nowhere and the Airbnb you stayed at sounds like a good compromise between staying in an isolated village with no restaurants around and daily service and private chef! Plus the view is amazing!

    • I am glad we chose the Airbnb away from Panajachel. However, if I had known, I probably would have organized our days differently. Like, a very early lunch and then, a 5:00 pm dinner or something so we could eat “out” and not rely on the chef. Next time!

  • I’ve been thinking about traveling to Guatemala for about 10 years (I procrastinate, obviously). You’ve now motivated me to go. And thanks for all the good information!

    • LOL! I think when travel is in your blood, procrastinating about travelling to every country in the world is a fact! Thanks for the nice compliment. Have a great day.

    • You are welcome. I think the small villages would have some cool places to stay. Hopefully, you will have more luck finding one than I did.

  • This is a very thorough overview of Lake Atitlan and area! I’ve never been to Guatemala, but your photos show how beautiful it is and I definitely need to add it to my list. I couldn’t imaging driving on those roads with the sheer drops and cliffs. I’d have to have my eyes closed the entire time!

    • Guatemala would be a wonderful place to visit. The drops were nerve racking but we had a good driver who drove slowly! I just didn’t want to try this at night.

  • This sure seems like the kind of place I would love to visit! I love how you asked all the questions you didn’t have the answers to and gradually answered all of them in the article. I like places where tourism is still being developed. Most of the time, I have a better time in such destinations compared to places that see thousands of tourists every day.

    • Thank you and I completely agree. I prefer these type of experiences as long as in the end, you can sort everything out as you go along. I only wish that we could have explored more villages and local restaurants but we ended up being too isolated.

  • The place looks amazing, my kind of a vacation place. Thank you for sharing your insights and knowledge about Lake Atitlan. Beautiful photos.

  • I think most of us travellers face similar questions before visiting an unknown place. Where to visit, where to stay, will there be proper transport – all these types of questions haunt even me before a trip. It is great that you have answered all these questions about Lake Atitlan. The place looks very beautiful and so peaceful. Thanks for such a detailed guide and your recommendations as well.

    • Thank you! I hope that I have better prepared people for some of the challenges they could face if they don’t have the answers to these questions.

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