Lake Atitlan was a place, where I could have stayed on for months, and let time pass by. It was one of those places where I instantly felt at home. Before I made Lake Atitlan one of my destinations through my Central America trip, I researched the heck out of it. All the obvious research was done – what to do, what to see, where to stay. After all that reading I was left more confused than before, and my head was spinning with where to start in this beautiful place. When I arrived, I knew why there was an information overload on every website and guide book I read. There is no particular place to start and this is not a place you come for 3 days hoping to see the whole lake. You could stay here for 2 weeks and not even touch the sides of what Lake Atitlan has to offer. Lake Atitlan still has a very tradtional Mayan culture, it is take your breath away gorgeous, healthy, hippie, it has a killer sunnrise and sunset and I know for sure you will not be able to put down your camera. There is a 360 degree view of all the volcanoes that tower over each Mayan village that call home along the lakeside.
This is a destination for the curious and alternative traveller, through and through. You will be in paradise. There is no shortage of vegan meals, alternative therapies, kombucha tea, taro card readings, yoga, meditation and everything in-between. There is no escaping your inner hippie here. If this scares you, don’t be deterred, there are plenty of ‘non-hippie’ options for those of you who just can’t understand WTF kombucha is and why would anyone ever drink something that is growing bacteria inside a bottle!
Each town is completely unique in its own way. I noticed in each town they had their own fashion and culture unique to that particular town. The buildings were different and the change in crowd from one village to another was the most noticeable. Even the street art was noticeably different.
Known to the locals as Pana, this is your main port of entry to the rest of the lake. The main dock is located here for the lanchas (boats) to take you to the other towns around Lake Atitlan. You can drive into San Pedro, but getting dropped in Pana is a much easier, quicker and a less bumpy option. This is one town around the lake I didn’t particularly like. I found the main town itself didn’t have anything going for it, and it made the otherwise beautiful place ugly. I steered more towards the waterfront. This was where the real action is. The footpath along the waterfront is busy with markets and food stalls. If you didn’t have the chance to get to The Chichi Markets, to get those gifts and souvenirs, you can find just about anything here. The food vendors along the waterfront saved this town for me, and the cheap food I got was worth trip to Panajachel.
If you really want to connect with your inner hippie, San Marcos is the town to be in. I loved San Marcos and it was definitely my favourite town around the the lake. I don’t have many regrets when I travel, I got no time for that! But I do regret not staying in San Marcos for a few nights. I would have loved to explore around the town more and eaten at a few more places. Perfect if you’re vegan or vegetarian, as most of the restaurants here offer these options, or only cook those options. With a few cute little boutique chops lining the small winding walkway, it makes for great shopping. There are so many options for such a small town. There are also 2 health food shops, a gorgeous yoga forest, cheap accommodation and the chilled out vibe was completely infectious. A great place to come to detox and get your health on.
The village is basically built on a steep cliff side with a small road, winding through a small traditional village, all the to the top. I stayed here at the famous La Iguana Perdida. It’s quiet, super relaxing and away from the bustle of the other towns around the lake. There is not much to do around here, except to completely let go and relax. If you’re wanting a bit more action, I would defiantly recommend to stay at another town.
*You must take the trek up to the top of the hill, and I mean all the way up! It’s a steep climb that would even have the fittest of us huffing and puffing by the time we got to the top. When you get up there, the view is insane! It is absolutely stunning. I didn’t get to many photos of this village. I felt it was such a beautiful, traditional place that I didn’t want to keep snapping away with my camera.
*If you’re up to a short easy hike, take the road to Jaibalito from Santa Cruz. It takes about 30 minutes there and back. There are a few shady rumours flying around that it’s unsafe. I walked there by myself and didn’t have any dramas. Although, I walked without any valuables on me and just a tiny amount of cash, enough to get me a drink at Club Ven Aca, when I arrived in Jaibalito.
My second favourite village around the lake. I liked that it was a mixture of modern and traditional. Is there such a thing? Well, I felt there was here! I could of definitely stayed in San Marcos, but I could happily live in San Pedro. One of the bigger villages around the town, it offers everything you need. There are bars overlooking the lake, offering a killer sunset over those volcanoes. There’s my favourite kind of food – street food! There are loads of options for accommodation, restaurants, health food stores, shopping options and if you take the 10 minute trek up the hill, you come to whole bustling town you could walk around and explore for hours. This is also one of the best towns for views of the lake.
San Juan has some serious cuteness factor! This little town is small but seriously cute as a button. When you arrive at the dock, there is one main street leading you up a steep hill, lined with sweet little shops. At the top of the hill is the main village. There isn’t a lot going on up there, but don’t write it off to soon. Take a walk around and explore. You probably won’t spend to much time here, but it so worth the look.
What You Must Do
Check out the street art. In every town around Lake Atitlan, there is some seriously awesome street art, beautiful painted murals and simple small paintings lining the streets. You don’t have to go searching down sketchy ally ways either, some of the best paintings are in the main streets.
No matter what town you are in, each town has an amazing view of the sunrise and sunset. Watching the sunset over the volcanoes is easy on the eye, especially with a cocktail or beer in hand. If your up to it, wake up early and catch the sunrise. If you’re lucky you might get a clear morning. Even if it’s a little misty the colours that bounce off the volcanoes this early are striking.
You Must Eat At
Shambala – This little cafe is located in San Marcos. I loved the super chilled out environment, and the small open seating area out the back. They do some wicked crepes here. If your not into the whole crepe faze, they do sandwiches that looked liked they would fill any sandwich lovers needs. Being in San Marcos, they of course offer vegan and vegetarian options.
D’Juice Girls – This small juice bar is on the main street of San Pedro and was one of my favourites. They offer every smoothie and juice you could think of. Wheat grass shots and kombucha is also offered. You absolutely have to come here for breakfast! They serve big hearty, healthy breakfast bowls filled with muesli, yogurt and fresh fruit. One of the best breakfasts I have ever had.
Sublime – You can’t go to Lake Atitlan without a visit to Sublime. If you want a little bit of peace and quiet before the party starts up, head there at around 4pm. It is the best place to catch the sunset and they do and awesome happy hour. The food is also cheap and delicious.
Where I Stayed
La Iguana Perdida
I loved staying here, although there is not much to do around town and if you want some action this may not be the place for you. It is nice if you want somewhere to really chill and escape. It is right in-front of the boat dock, so it isn’t hard to get to other towns. They do a 2 hour yoga session each morning and a family style dinner every night. It was a great way to meet people, but for what you get I found it a little out of my budget. There aren’t too many other places to eat if you choose to stay here. Isla Verde is a 10 minute walk across some sketchy bamboo bridge, but also a little pricey food wise. Thank goodness for the lovely lady that cooks the super cheap tacos just outside the entrance to La Iguana. She saved me every night, at dinner, a good 10 bucks! And her tacos were spot on!
The lanchas are the boats that take you from one town, to the next, around the lake. This is basically the only transport around the lake from town to town. There is a road from San Pedro to San Juan that connects, and that’s it for connecting roads. Each town has a main dock where you can get on and off. If you are staying at a particular hotel that has its own private dock make sure you tell the driver in advance. Lancha prices range from Q15 – Q25 ($3 – $5) one way and come around every 20 minutes. If the lancha isn’t full up leaving the main towns of Panajachel and San Pedro, expect to wait in the lancha for a good 20 minutes, rocking back and forth. I don’t know what it was with me and the lanchas, but I never enjoyed catching one. The only good part, for me, was the view you get from the water onto the shore. They run from around 6am – 7pm.