Glistening with personality, Lake Atitlan is a must visit for anyone heading to Guatemala. Set in the Sierra Highlands there’s a multitude of towns dotted around the expansive lake, each with it’s own distinctive style and character. From backpacker havens, rough and ready market towns to yoga and meditation retreats, it has something for everyone. Here’s a few of the best locations and what to expect when backpacking Lake Atitlan.
The largest and busiest town of Lake Atitlan, Panajachel (or Pana as it’s known locally) is where you’ll invariably arrive and depart from. Crowded and a little rough around the edges, it’s often solely used as a jumping off point. However Pana has a few cool things worth checking out if you have the time to stick around.
Markets – If you’re looking to stock up on presents this is probably the cheapest place to do so in the country. Bargain hard on the bustling Calle Santander and you’ll come away with well crafted traditional artisan goods for a fraction of the price you’ll pay elsewhere.
Get Hot n Sweaty in a Temescal – A traditional Mayan version of a sauna which will have you hotter than a plate of picante in no time. Used for thousands of years this treatment will help draw out all the toxins you’ve been putting in your body while away from home. The best and cheapest in town is Hotel Utz Jay where you can stay all day and drink complimentary tea for 40 Quetzales (approx $5US).
2. San Pedro
Known as the backpacker haven, here’s where you’ll find cheap accommodation, lively bars and plenty of other travellers to swap stories with.
Learn Spanish: We spent a week at the awesome Orbita Spanish School. Classrooms look down over the lake. Some have no walls so you are literally out in the open with the most amazing views.
We home-stayed with the Cortez family who treated us as if we were their own and invited us to several family gatherings giving us a great glimpse into real Mayan culture and tradition.
Party Time: Check out Hostel Zoola, Hostel Fe and Sublime Bar where you’ll find most of the San Pedro action alternating on various nights. Good live music, DJ’s and karaoke to be found. Hostel Fe also run an infamous midweek pirate boat party where things invariably get messy.
Conquer a Volcano: Volcan San Pedro proudly overlooks the lake at 3020 meters high. Take a guided hike up to the top and marvel at the view across the whole region. It’s a tough 4hrs up and 2 hours back but the views are totally worth it.
The Sunsets: Find a rooftop bar, order a 5Q Cuba Libre, sit back and relax while the sky puts on an awesome show as the sun slowly falls behind the huge volcanic mountains.
3. San Marcos
Yoga & Meditation: San Marcos is the bohemian hippy cousin of the lake. You’ll find silent retreats, meditation pyramids and schools for all sorts of alternative therapies. Get your zen on and book into one of the many courses ranging from hula hoop mediation (seriously) to primal screaming. If that’s not quite your scene you can skip all that and…
Find the Water ‘Trampoline’: Find the park reserve and follow the signs to the trampoline – actually a high wooden jetty situated 25 meters above a rocky outcrop. It looks a bit dodgy and it’s pretty scary to make the first jump, but after you do you’ll be going back for more.
Stay at Lush: This higher end eco resort with sweet gardens would usually set you back an arm and a leg. However they keep back a handful of rooms only available to book in person on the day at the hotel. We had a fantastic 3 night stay and paid no more than $15US per night – others that booked in advance paid a whole heap more. The room was a welcome upgrade from our usual budget hostels with luxury cotton sheets, stained glass windows and amazing power shower.
This is the most chilled and laid back of all the towns. Head here if you want total peace and quiet for a day or two.
Stay at Casa Del Mundo: Perfectly set on the water’s edge, they have a few little rooms with great verandas where you can while away the day with a good book. The food here is excellent and the location cannot be beat.
The unofficial southern capital of the lake, here’s where you’ll find big shops, banks and markets for all the essentials you need. If you want to stay the night Posada de Santiago has great rooms on the water, excellent food and free kayaks. Make sure you go out early as it can get pretty choppy in the afternoons – you might inadvertently be dragged into the middle of the lake. Being rescued by a lancha full of locals is not a good look, so I hear..
Where to Stay
Generally $20 US max daily budget for double room and private bathroom.
Panajachel – Hotel El Sol – Japanese run hostel with immaculately clean rooms and facilities. Bit out the way but they offer free bikes to guests.
San Marcos – Lush Eco Resort – as described above – grab the cheap rooms for the ultimate backpacker bargain.
San Pedro La Laguna – Pinocchio – decent rooms with hammocks on the balconies plus an awesome roof terrace for the best sunsets on the lake.
Jaibalito – Casa Del Mundo – for the ultimate chill.
Santiago – Posada De Santiago – best of the bunch in town.
How to Get There
International flights arrive into Guatemala City.
Bus from Guatemala City to Antigua – 3 hours.
Bus from Antigua to Panajachel – 3 hours.
Small narrow boats (called lanchas) ferry passengers around the lake. Times, routes and prices vary and are very reasonable. Ask at the dock for local info. Just be careful to find out what time the last boat is if you’re taking day trips around the lake. If you have to charter one privately after hours, they’ll charge you a small fortune.
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