Lake Atitlan has been frequently quoted as one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, rivalling others like Lake Como in Italy. So, when people asked us, “Why Guatemala?”, this was one of our many reasons for visiting.
Lake Atitlan really does live up to its hype, surrounded by 3 grand volcanoes and a lake full of clear blue waters. There are multiple villages surrounding the lake, the majority of which are built into the lake’s mountainside, giving it an extra dramatic view. I felt like we could have spent weeks here.
When visiting the lake, you have these multiple villages to choose from in terms of where you want to stay. Most of the villages are composed mainly of indigenous Maya people, who speak their own dialects of Spanish and wear traditional colorful clothing which denotes which part of the lake they are from. While some villages are quite isolated and remain very traditional, others are home to expats and travellers from around the world.
There is no road that circumnavigates the lake, and many of the villages can only be reached by boat. Water taxis frequent the docks every 20 minutes, picking up tourists and locals alike, and dropping them off at their next destination. You simply stand on a dock and flag one down (much like a taxi) and then try to jump aboard without falling off as the boat sways from side to side. As the boat captains are looking to make a buck, the boats are often packed with the passengers and you have to be careful about not getting upcharged on your way out.
As we wanted to experience a few of the different villages during our stay on the lake, we split our 5 days on the lake between a few different towns.
Our first stop was on the north side of the lake, about 15 minutes away from a town called “San Marcos la Laguna”. We rented a small cottage from a French designer, who made Lake Atitlan his home after falling in love with it on a trip long ago. His property was stunning and perfectly located on the lake to enjoy views of the grand volcanoes that border the lake.
We spent our mornings relaxing in the hammock watching the sun rise, and the evenings drinking wine on our deck enjoying the same view. No matter where you are on the lake, sunrise and sunset are some of the most beautiful times!
The Hippie Town: San Marcos
The nearby town, San Marcos, is a town filled with hippies, yoga, and meditation. Never before have I seen so many dreadlocks, bare feet, and temple pants in one place. Vegan restaurants and health food stores are aplenty, and hippies selling roadside crafts are a frequent finding. Signs have to deter the visitors from walking around nude, as you know that would be a thing otherwise.
The narrow streets are filled with hand painted murals, and here and there you can hear a loud collective “Ohmmm” from a field nearby full of mediating yogis.
As our luggage was delayed by almost 2 days from LAX (we hate that airport), we actually felt quite hippie-like ourselves within those first few days. This somehow made our visit to San Marcos seem appropriate. We wore the same clothes every day, our hair unwashed, with our feet so dusty that we basically could have been barefooted. We fit right in.
The Vertical Town: Santa Cruz
Not a far jaunt from our apartment was Santa Cruz, a town with no road access that can only be reached via boat. The town is completely vertically-oriented in the steep lakeside cliffs, making it a bit of a workout to reach the top.
Unlike San Marcos which is home to locals, tourists and expats, Santa Cruz is a town full of only locals. Once we reached the top, we felt like the only visitors there.
Trying Not to Get Robbed
Since we already mentioned many of the towns are quite isolated, a few of the villages have tiny adjoining walking paths carved in the mountains for the locals to get between them. One of the nicest is said to be the route from Santa Cruz to Jaibalito, so we decided to hike this path one afternoon. The path rises up into the hills, giving nice views of the surrounding lake and volcanoes:
Unfortunately, there are numerous stories of tourists getting robbed during these treks, so we were a little hesitant going into it. I find it nearly impossible to part with my camera, which made us a little more nervous.
Thankfully, we enjoyed the hike unscathed, though with fewer pictures than normal so we could keep the camera hidden.
After this, we head over to San Pedro for a few days to hike one of these grand volcanoes we keep talking about…
Practical Information: A GUIDE TO LAKE ATITLAN VILLAGES
San Marcos: A hippie town to meditate, do yoga, and get in tune with your spiritual side. Though this hippie side of San Marcos is hard not to notice, we visited this town several times and enjoyed many of its delicious restaurants and beautiful scenery. The water here is some of cleanest on the lake for swimming. Il Giardin was one of our favorite lunch stops. We would also highly recommend our nearby accommodations: Pasajcap.
San Pedro: This is the backpacker mecca of Lake Atitlan, full of cafes, restaurants, and lakefront establishments where you can spend plenty of time eating and drinking. Hiking the San Pedro volcano just outside of town is worth the views! We recommend enjoying some lakeside views at La Terraza.
Panajachel: This is a very well developed town, often known as the tourist hub of Lake Atitlan. This is where you’ll find the main bus routes in and out of the lake, as well as the only large supermarket and banks on the lake. As a fairly large town, there is no shortage of accomodations or restaurants
Santa Cruz: This town is almost completely vertically oriented in the cliffside, and once you climb up out of the main dock area, you are entirely immersed in the local culture. Unless you stay at one of the three lakeside hotels, this village can be seen in a day trip or less.
Jaibalito: This is often a favorite among visitors, a tiny town accessible only by hike or water. A few small establishments run by expats are worth visiting.