There are a total of 11 towns around Lake Atitlan and each is unique in its own way! Here are a few tips from experienced traveler bloggers on a few of their favorite spots in this region.
Guatemala was the only country I visited during the first half of 2019. After spending some time across a few cities, I quickly fell in love with Lake Atitlan and its surrounding towns. Unfortunately, I had a mere 3 days to explore the region. But I knew that it required much more time to truly appreciate the varying landscape and activities offered by the 11 villages. Below are a couple of other useful experiences and recommendations to help you better plan your trip around Lake Atitlan!
1. Santa Cruz la Laguna
James from Travel Collecting
Santa Cruz la Laguna is a beautiful town on Lago Atitlan that is accessible only by boat or on foot. There are frequent boats between Panajachel and San Pedro and other lakeside villages.
There are two towns to Santa Cruz – a resort town on the water’s edge and a Kaqchiquel village about 600 meters uphill. Tuk-tuks hang out by the dock to take people up the hill if they don’t want to walk. Hotels and restaurants are strewn along the edge of the lake. A wall and boardwalk have been built in response to the rising water levels. The views of the lake and surrounding volcanoes from Santa Cruz are some of the most stunning in Guatemala.
Hotels are simple but lovely and cost between $20 and $30/ night. I spent four nights at La Casa Rosada and it was a perfect amount of time to enjoy the town. The hotel, like most others, has lush gardens and patios to relax on, as well as a bed on a pier jutting into the lake. There is a dive shop at La Iguana Perdida. I caught a ferry to neighboring towns throughout the days, including two days learning to weave using a backstrap loom in San Pedro that I arranged beforehand. The owner of my hotel arranged transfers and other tours.
This resort town by the lakeshore is really beautiful. Without the bars and shops, it has a much more relaxed vibe than San Pedro and Panajachel. There isn’t much up in the town above, but there are paths to the neighboring village if you like to hike. If you want to chill and be away from the hustle and the bustle of the main backpacker towns, Santa Cruz is for you.
I know I loved it.
2. San Pedro
Erika from Erika’s Travelventures
One town that shouldn’t be missed on your Guatemala itinerary is San Pedro La Laguna. San Pedro is a chilled out town, popular with tourists, on the edge of beautiful Lake Atitlan. The lake is surrounded by cone-shaped mountains, which are mostly dormant (and some active) volcanoes. Volcan San Pedro is one of these dormant volcanoes that can easily be reached from San Pedro La Laguna.
After relaxing or going out for drinks in San Pedro, climbing Volcan San Pedro is a great way to detox and work up a sweat. The jungles that you climb through are home to tropical monkeys and birds, and it’s easy to forget that you’re anywhere near civilization.
To go on the hike, many travelers will book a tour through an agency in San Pedro La Laguna. It is recommended to go with a guide. Although my friend and I hired a guide, he was much slower than us at climbing so we ended up hiking alone for the most part. We did not experience any safety issues or meet many other people along the hike.
At the trailhead, every visitor has to pay an entrance fee of 100 Quetzales, or USD 13. It takes about 3 hours to hike to the Volcan San Pedro summit, so it’s best to leave from San Pedro around 5-6am to catch the best sights. In the afternoon, it’s common for clouds to cover the summit of the volcano, blocking any views of the lake and surrounding mountains.
The trail is easy to follow and cuts through the surrounding jungle. If you’re lucky, you’ll see some monkeys swinging above you in the trees! The summit is full of rocks, so you need to watch your step when trying to get a good picture.
The round-trip hike takes 5-6 hours for the average hiker. It’s a great way to connect with nature, get some exercise, and reach a beautiful viewpoint. Hiking Volcan San Pedro is a rewarding experience and one of the best things to do in Guatemala!
Mitchell from Project Untethered
One of my favorite experiences in Guatemala was taking Spanish classes in San Pedro La Laguna, a small Maya town located around the beautiful Lake Atitlan.
With stunning landscapes, a quiet, distraction-free town, and cheap prices, there is no better place to learn Spanish.
There are several schools to choose from in San Pedro, and I ended up going with La Cooperativa Spanish School.
I took one-on-one private classes for 5 hours/day for $200 per week. This price included a private room in the house of a local family with home-cooked meals. My room even had decent wifi, so if you have a digital nomad job, you’ll be able to get your work done.
I doubt there are many other places in the world where you’d find this kind of value as this was the most expensive option. They also offer cheaper rates for language-learners who only want to do four hours per day, those willing to partner up with another student, or those who don’t want to do a homestay. (Although if you don’t do a homestay, you’ll probably pay just as much, if not more, staying in a hostel and paying for all your meals).
San Pedro is split into a touristic area and a local area. I mostly stayed in the local area because I wanted complete immersion. That said, if you get lonely or want to grab a burger, the option is there.
To get to San Pedro, you can take a three-hour bus from Antigua for around $7.
If you’re in Guatemala and want to learn Spanish (and cultural immersion), this is the way to do it!
As one of the 11 towns surrounding Lake Atitlan, San Juan is the favorite of many locals. Nonetheless, each town is unique in its own right. They are inhabited by various Mayan communities and exhibit a vibrancy unlike the other.
The Tz’utujil people, one of the 23 Mayan groups residing in Guatemala, comprises 95% of the population in San Juan. Situated across the waters from Panajachel, the town is known for its rich colors and beautiful graphics. More particularly, its unique methods of farming coffee and corn, talented indigenous artisans, and colorful Naïve art are what draw people towards land.
Since I was in a time crunch, I spent a single morning wandering its narrow streets and colorful alleyways seeking out stunning art pieces.
It wasn’t difficult.
At 7:30 am, I boarded a small boat from Tzanjuyú dock Panajachel towards San Juan (Q 25 & approximately 20 minutes). The minute I stepped onto the wooden docks of this small town, I was captivated by its gorgeous surroundings.
The walk uphill into the town space likened a tour through an interactive exhibition. Each turn of a corner brought me face to face with life-size images. Each entrance into a side street was accompanied by walls of various shades and hues.
Shimona from Sidecar Photo
When I stayed in Jaibalito a few years ago, the only establishment there was the hotel Casa Del Mundo, an insanely lovely place set into the side of the cliff. There was so little else in the town that the taxi boats wouldn’t stop at Jaibalito unless you told them you were headed to Casa Del Mundo.
I’ve heard there are more options available now but if I head back, I’d definitely stay at Casa Del Mundo again. The hotel has several rooms with little balconies set into the cliffs. The balconies look out onto the gorgeous Lake Atitlan, surrounded by volcanoes. There are a lot of stairs so you do need to be moderately fit to stay there.
If you bore of your balcony (although how could you with the views?), you can always try one of the various little shared terraces scattered around the hotel.
Since there aren’t a lot of establishments at Jaibalito, and the boats stop running in the evening, the hotel offered a communal dinner for an extra charge. This was a great way to meet other travelers who were staying there.
At night, you can get the staff to fill the hot tub for a soak. There’s an extra charge for this, so team up with some other guests at dinner, to split the cost. We spent a great evening sharing stories around the hot tub.
While it’s not the cheapest option around, it is well worth the cost for the rooms and views. When we stayed there a few years back, we booked 4 nights for about $68 a night. Four nights was perfect because this is more of a spot for relaxation. We were at the end of a 3 week trip, tired from exploring Tikal and Yaxha, and it was a perfect and peaceful finale to our vacation.
San Marcos is the hippy capital of Lake Atitlan. It’s a really small town, with not a huge amount to do other than kick back with a cold cerveza and watch the lake go by – and that’s exactly why so many people love it.
That being said, there are a few more active things to do in San Marcos. Popular spots include the nature reserve which backs onto the lake and is a perfect place for a swim. There are also a few hikes in the forest that San Marcos backs onto.
On the other side of the forest is The Yoga Forest, which is the perfect place to spend a few days, a week, or months. It’s an all-inclusive yoga retreat that includes yoga classes, meditation lessons, vegetarian food and a lovely community atmosphere. There’s no WiFi and it’s a great place to connect with other travellers and enjoy breathtaking views of the lake. I spent a week here and loved it. Prices start at $210 for a week.
Back in San Marcos, there are a few great cafes and restaurants – many serving mainly vegan and vegetarian options. Konojel, an eatery/ NGO aims to combat malnutrition in the country and La Paz is a restaurant in a hotel that offers yoga and massage.
That being said, even if you don’t head to the yoga forest, there are plenty of places to practice yoga, reiki and all things spiritual in San Marcos. It’s the main reason why a lot of people add this town to their Guatemala itinerary!
Panajachel is the first town you will visit in Lake Atitlan. This is the central hub for tourists and remains one of the most visited areas within Guatemala.
After completing a few days in Semuc, I headed towards Panajachel for some downtime by the lake. The town was small but cozy. Since it is the gateway to the rest of the villages spread around Lake Atitlan, Panajachel is often crowded with people. During the day, its most popular street is staffed with merchants selling clothes, jewelry, and other souvenirs. At night, there are food stalls and street eats that call for a quick tasting. (I don’t recommend buying things in Panajachel since the prices are often higher than other cities in Guatemala).
I stayed for three days Casa Colonial Panasurf and hopped onto a boat towards nearby villages whenever my mood called for it. Spend some time relaxing by the lake, or take one of the many boats toward the other 10 villages for a visit. In Panajachel, you can find paddleboard sessions, yoga classes, plenty of restaurants, and many other activities. There is a bit of something for everyone!
Looking for a tour group around Guatemala?
Other than the Acatenango Volcano, I didn’t use any tours. However, for those that’d like a smoother trip, below are a few tour options that may help ease your travels.