about the area
Over and over again, I kept hearing from friends who returned from Lake Atitlan that they thought of me the whole time and how much I would love it. To be honest, I found it pretty random, as Guatemala in general was never much on my mind, but you should always listen to your friends. They know you best, and in this case, they were certainly right!
Its hard to explain this part of the world, but it seems that everyone who has been agrees that "magical" is the most fitting word. Waking up in the mornings to the grand volcanoes reflecting off the soft ripples of the lake is nothing short of heavenly, especially paired with the pink and yellow flowers that adorn the hills.
After a weak Guatemalan coffee (strong, strong coffee lovers, Guatemala isn't for you), hop on board a little blue and white boat and squeeze in between the tiny Guatemalan women decked out in their most beautiful embroidered outfits. But make sure to look down, for you might find dozens of chickens packed tightly into a basket on the floor.
After thanking God that your jam-packed boat didn't drown, explore the various towns that dot the circumference of the lake, all with their own unique identities. From Israeli and Japanese street food to unbelievably gorgeous textiles to hippie communes, Lake Atitlan will surprise you at every turn.
Before you go
The predominant local culture here is of indigenous Mayan communities, so while you can still use your Spanish to get around (and even English at this point with all the expat influence), you may hear some languages you don't recognize. Mayans are kind and communal. Smile, say "Buonos días/tardes/noches" when you pass, and don't worry about them ripping you off. They are sincere, genuine people who are very welcoming. Really make sure to get to know their culture because it can be easy to just stick to the expat communities that are slowly taking over the lake towns. I've included several ways to do so below!
where to stay
One of the things to decide is which town you want to stay in. The boats between towns stop running around 6pm, meaning you'll need to be in your town at night. Adventurous Kate has a great breakdown of the towns that I dare not recreate since she did it so perfectly, so go ahead and check that out. Here are some of my specific suggestions:
Santa Cruz- This is where I stayed. There's not much to do in Santa Cruz, but I enjoyed the quiet nights and peaceful sleeps. The town is almost entirely locals, which means that there are not many activities for tourists (although, this is the hub for diving if you're into that!), and almost everything shuts down at sundown. If you're wanting restaurants and cafés and nightlife, skip this. If you're looking for something more relaxing that's well situated to hop to different towns, it's a good option.
La Iguana Perdida- The main reason to stay in Santa Cruz is this hostel. It's social with family dinners & an activity every night (that you'll want to do because there are almost no other places to eat or things to do). There's yoga in the mornings and right in front of all the boats for a stunning view in the mornings and very easy to get to other towns. Nights are quiet, but the beds aren't very comfy, so be weary of that. However, I met so many people at dinner & trivia night events that it made it a great spot to stay.
Casa del Mundo- Oh what a magical, magical place! This is one of the best hotels I have ever seen, with wading pools down below that are filled by the natural lake water to the little hammock nooks that are sprinkled all up through the hills. If you are looking to relax and not do much, this is it, as it's located halfway between Santa Cruz and Jaibalito, both already sleepy towns. You can walk to either, but it will be harder late at night, so expect to spend your nights, including dinner, at the hotel. You will have to ask the boats to make a special stop to drop you off here, which they're more than happy to do.
San Pedro- I would probably stay in this town next time. Known as the backpacker island, there are lots of expats who have settled here, bringing with them delicious international foods and a unique melting pot culture. However, the local culture is still very much alive and present, making this town a great place to settle for awhile with so much to do and experience.
Mikaso- With a nice large patio, this place is ideal for getting some sun. There are warm and cold jacuzzis that you can take a tip in (you'll want it after lying in the intense sun!). The rooms are beautiful, and the location is within walking distance to everything but set back just enough to be quiet.
San Marcos- My word, this is hippie town! I've been to a lot of hippie enclaves in my life, but this might have just moved to first place. You'll find people playing ukuleles, chilled out on plant-based drugs, and talking about peace and happiness at every corner. It was a little much for me, so I might just choose to visit and not stay here, but all of the yoga, vegan & gluten free food, and outdoors activities might win me over.
Lush Atitlan- A nicer place that looks like pure paradise, I would love to come back and stay in this oasis! In my opinion, this is located in the perfect location away, very close to the center of town while being just removed enough to feel like you're in the jungle. You're also right next to the Nature Reserve, one of my favorite places on the island!
Circles Hostel- If you're on more of a budget, I stopped by here, and it was a fun vibe with lots of places to lay down and chill out with other friendly guests. Walkable to everything.
what to do
Explore all the towns! All the towns are so different from each other and don't take long to get between that you'll want to hop to a couple each day. You'll be charged more for the boat rides than locals, but they're not ripping you off. It's known that there's a difference in price between daily users and short-term'ers. Ask your hostel/hotel what you should pay, but it's usually between Q15 - Q20 depending on the distance. Cash only, and they don't accept USD like other parts of Mexico, so bring small change in quetzales! Here are a few specific activities you can do other than just generally exploring the towns:
Swim and/or cliff jump at Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve (San Marcos)- I saw people swimming in blue waters by stunning cliffs, and I immediately told the boat driver I wanted to get off at the very next stop so that I could find this magical place! Once you get to San Marcos, head straight into the center of town and then head left. You'll see signs and just ask around (but be careful- a little girl insisted on taking me there, and as soon as I told her I wouldn't pay, she stopped). There's a small entrance fee, and then head to the area they call a "trampoline"- it's really just a place to cliff jump. If that's not your thing, you can just continue walking around the perimeter, and there are various places to get in the water. This is the best place to swim on the lake!
Shop for artisan-made goods in San Juan- There are two main places to shop for stunning embroidered Guatemalan goods: Panajachel, which is the town you'll have to come in and out of to reach the rest of the lake, and San Juan. The reason why I suggest San Juan is because there is a women's artisan cooperative that supports women weavers and helps keep the art alive. There are many shops all along the main (very steep!) street where you can duck into and meet the weavers, hear their stories, and buy directly from them, ensuring the greatest profits for the women. You can book a weaving tour as well. Most hostels & hotels can organize this for you. There are men standing at the dock when you get off who will give you a tour of the town, and I've heard great things.
Walk from Jaibalito to Santa Cruz- You can also go the other way, but I think the view is better looking onto Santa Cruz. There are some pretty steep parts, and the sun is intense during mid-day (I definitely got burnt!), so wear some good shoes and bring sunscreen! There are some beautiful views along the well-marked path up in the hills, and you'll definitely want to stop at Casa del Mundo (see "Where to Stay" section) to cool off in the wading pools and see the beautiful grounds.
Kayak in San Pedro- Really, you can kayak in most of the towns, but San Pedro has a nice bay and beautiful view making it one of the better places to kayak. You can find the spot right by the dock. Just ask someone!
Club Ven Aca- For a chill day, this day club in Jaibalito has a pool (can be hard to come by!), good food, and great drinks at very reasonable prices. A perfect way to just relax and get some sun.
where to eat
As I mentioned in previous sections, but it's worth saying again, the boats between towns stop running around 6pm, so your dinners will have to be in the town where you stay! However, I went and got breakfasts and lunch in various places around the lake.
Cafe Sabor Cruceno (Santa Cruz)- Known to have the best traditional Guatemalan food in the area, you'll find all Mayan recipes at this spot with a gorgeous view! It is part of a non-profit called CECAP (Centro de Capacitación), a vocational training program for indigenous communities with classes in culinary arts, sewing, computers, carpentry, welding and foot loom weaving. You can also take a cooking class here! Ask your hostel or hotel.
Restaurant Fé (San Marcos)- Pretty much the top place to eat in San Marcos, they have great food on a lovely patio. You'll find Thai and Indian food amongst other things. Remember- Lake Atitlan is shockingly international!
Il Giardino (San Marcos)- Gorgeous outdoor patio and the best gluten free pizza I've ever had in my life! I would very easily eat that weekly if I could. All vegetarian food that is top quality. You won't miss the meat, I promise.
Café La Cabaña (San Juan)- Great spot with a view for a coffee or a drink before/after shopping for your artisan goods!
Yakitori de Cava (San Pedro)- A legit Japanese street food stand in the middle of Guatemala?! Yep, that's a thing in San Pedro. The owner is Japanese and will make your food on the spot as you sit on short stools and be very confused whether you're in Asia or Central America!
Sababa (San Pedro)- The diverse Asian food in Atitlan continues. There's a big Israeli community here, and Sababa will serve you up some delicious food in a stunning ambiance. Sit on a stool with vines hanging down around you looking out at the lake and try not to roll your eyes at how great your life is in that moment. The ambiance is 100/100!