Experiencing Guatemala’s natural gem of Lake Atitlán is an absolute must when visiting the country. Home to Central America’s deepest lake, massive volcanos rise from the lake’s edges making for some stunning natural views. This juxtaposition and the rich Mayan culture of its surrounding communities make Lake Atitlán a popular spot for both domestic and international tourists alike.
However, there is no one destination to visit when it comes to Lake Atitlán. There are numerous small villages that dot the lake’s shores, each more stunning than the last. Everytown in fact has more or less a typical demographic of traveler that attracts them to their town. In this article, we will cover the main towns, their draws, and some fun things to do in each of them.
Before getting into all the great places to visit at Lake Atitlán, let me tell you a little history and some useful logistical information. Lake Atitlán is deep in the heart of Mayan country with more than 95 percent of the lake’s population belonging to one of the more than 20 Mayan ethnic groups recognized in Guatemala. Residents mainly come from the Tz’utujil and Kaqchikelpeople groups and as such several cultural aspects are still quite prevalent. This includes traditional dress, art, language, and religion.
Also prevalent is the love of cacao and chocolate products in general with several artisanal shops located around the lake. Traditional dress is still worn by a large majority of residents and you will often hear Mayan languages being spoken amongst the locals. Some useful things to know in Tz’utujil for example are saqari which means shello and tio’x (pronounced tee-o-sh) which means thank you.
To see Lake Atitlán is to experience and appreciate the ancient culture that has been ingrained in the region since long before the Spanish arrived. As for transportation, here is a helpful guide on how you will get around while in the area. Much like the rest of Guatemala, tuk-tuks (or auto rickshaws) can be found everywhere. These are very convenient services if you wish to travel to the next town over and do not want to walk along the main highway. Each tuk-tuk can typically hold 2 to 3 people and will cost you around 10 Quetzals (~1 USD) per ride.
However, in most cases, it is actually faster to head downtown to your local dock and travel by boat taxis if you are trying to reach other towns. These boats serve as the main form of transportation for both locals and visitors and are one of the most unique transport systems on the planet. Short distances will once again cost you about 10 Quetzals though a ride from one end of the lake to the other may come with a higher price.
Consult a local prior to paying your driver as they will almost certainly try to charge you more than what the ride is worth so just be aware.PanajachelPanajachel, known affectionately as Pana by the locals, is the main town and the hub of trade around the lake with its many markets and artisanal workshops. The town hosts the greatest number of hostels and boutique hotels (even hosting Che Guevara at one point) and is famous for its massive market days.
On its main street, Calle Santander, tourists can be seen perusing through the many colorful shops or taking a break at the numerous bars and restaurants that line the street. Panajachel is also home to one of the oldest art galleries in Central America, known as La Galeria which covers themes such as the search for love and the complexity of life.
Most intercity buses to Lake Atitlán end their journey here on the lake’s north end meaning
that in most cases you will pass through Panajachel on the way to the lake’s other communities.
Though with so much to be found here, you may never end up leaving.
San Pedro La Laguna, Santiago Atitlán and San Lucas Tolimán.
For those most interested in exploring the natural beauty of Lake Atitlán, look no further than
the towns of San Pedro La Laguna, Santiago Atitlán, and San Lucas Tolimán. These three towns are
directly at the base of some of the lake’s most striking features, San Pedro, Tolimán, and Atitlán
San Lucas Tolimán is best if you wish to hike the latter two and San Pedro La Laguna
for San Pedro Volcano (obviously) while all three are easily accessible from Santiago Atitlán. San
Pedro La Laguna is the main destination for adventure travel around the lake. A hub for
backpackers, companies in San Pedro offer several excursions to nearby nature spots. The town
is also home to many hostels and offers a wide range of bar and restaurant options for its
The town truly comes alive at night given its reputation as the lake’s party district.
If you are looking to have a more traditional and quaint experience, then San Lucas Tolimán or
Santiago Atitlán is your preferred option as fewer tourists frequent these areas. Weaved art
underlining the region’s strong Mayan influence and a humble cultural museum in Santiago are
the local highlights of these towns.
San Juan La Laguna
Speaking of art, if you love the vibrant colors and complex designs of Mayan art then you are
due for a trip to San Juan La Laguna. Located just east of San Pedro La Laguna, the town is
famous for its dedication to the arts. Much of San Juan is ornately decorated with parasols and
other items hanging above its busiest streets.
Alongside these public displays, you can find dozens of pieces of accompanying street art that dive deep into the symbolism held dear by the various Mayan groups that inhabit Lake Atitlán. Here you can also find several local shops that sell all kinds of crafts from clothing to paintings and more. There are also only a few areas
around Lake Atitlán that sport an actual sand beach though one of these is located just a 15-
minute walk east from the town’s dock.
San Marcos La Laguna
If you are in search of a more tranquil experience full of spiritual healing and awakening, there
is a community here for you as well. San Marcos La Laguna is a destination spot for hippies and
nature lovers and is where backpackers go to participate in spiritual ceremonies and rituals.
There are tons of options as well! Visitors can find themselves doing guided meditations, tribal
dancing, yoga, drum circles, lucid dreaming exercises, various healing techniques and readings,
and cacao ceremonies. Whatever you can think of in the way of spirituality, San Marcos will
have you covered. Also located next to San Marcos is the Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve.
It offers stunning views as you hike along a trail that overlooks the lake. A highly underrated
activity that can be found inside the nature reserve is cliff jumping in, an area known as El
Trampolín. The largest of the platforms stands at 35 feet (10 meters) though several smaller
spots exist if you want to work your way up to the big leagues.
With a better understanding of the culture and the dynamics of life in the towns surrounding
Lake Atitlán, you are now more equipped as you continue in search of the right community for
Enjoy and safe travels!