, GuLake Atitlan is paradise on earth. It completely surprised me and if I had it my way I would never have left. Even as it was, we doubled the length of our stay because the thought of leaving this place was unimaginable. It should be #1 on anyone’s list who is visiting Guatemala, and just so that you’re prepared, two days is not enough.
Lake Atitlan is surrounded by villages, and each one has its own personality and feel to it. Some of them are a lot more touristy than others, and so it’s definitely worth doing some research to see which one is the best fit. That said, you can’t really go wrong. I visited most of the villages and would have been happy staying at any of them.
Panajachel, known more commonly as Pana, is the main point of entry for the lake. You can reach a few of the villages on land, but Pana is the most easily accessible and certainly where transfers will drop you and pick you up. We wanted to stay out in one of the villages so we didn’t have any time booked in Pana, but you still get to see a lot of it if you’re not staying there. Pana is where all the action happens. Restaurants, cafes, and markets are all in town – apparently it’s the best shopping in Guatemala. We didn’t carve out a whole day for Pana but with all the coming and going we ended up spending a lot of time there.
Santa Cruz & La Iguana Perdida
Moving counter-clockwise around the lake, the first stop is Santa Cruz, a small village perched up in the cliffs overlooking the lake. The boat ride to Santa Cruz costs about 15 quetzales, and to get up to the village you can either walk (it’s a bit of a hike!) or take a rickshaw up which will set you back another 15Q. Santa Cruz isn’t very touristy, although there is a women’s collective at the top that is worth stopping by.
We spent two nights in Santa Cruz at La Iguana Perdida, a hostel on the waterfront (it’s the yellow building pictured above). La Iguana Perdida is a fantastic hostel and dive center, complete with morning yoga, paddle boards and kayaks, and delicious family dinners. The only potential downside is the lack of internet, but it’s nice to disconnect. I should also note I had an enormous huntsman spider crawl out from under my pillow there, but that’s more of a reflection on Guatemala than La Iguana. In any case, the staff were incredibly helpful in getting it out!
Casa Del Mundo
Casa Del Mundo, while not a town, is paradise on earth and absolutely needs a mention. Located between Santa Cruz and Jaibalito, Casa Del Mundo has its own dock and upon request the boats will stop there. It’s a hotel, and I would 100% recommend staying there even though it might be steep on a backpacker’s budget. If you can’t stay the night, it’s still a great place to spend the day – you can get lunch, have a swim, rent kayaks, etc. The hotel rooms are actually little stand-alone cabins spread out all over the cliff, and they all have spectacular views of both volcanoes. It’s the perfect place to escape to – I can’t recommend it more.
San Marcos is one of the better known villages of Lake Atitlan. It is known as a bit of a hippy haven, and for good reason. You can’t walk five minutes without coming across a handful of yoga retreats, massage places, and healing shops. The village is known for its focus on healing arts, and you can absolutely see it when you wander around. Because of this the town is packed with Americans and other Westerners. There’s also all sorts of beautiful cafes and restaurants – it’s a really nice spot.
San Pedro is backpacker central. It’s the party town of Lake Atitlan, and where you’ll find the most hostels and bars. I visited in the day so I can’t speak to the nightlife, but based on some of the stories I heard from people at my hostel, it’s definitely the place to be to party. San Pedro was smaller than I expected, and in the day there’s not a lot to do. We wandered up the hill a bit – as you go up it becomes less and less touristy. There were lots of nice little shops along the way – it’s a really nice spot to visit and wander. It’s definitely somewhere I’ll need to come back to and see at night.
Santiago is the biggest town on Lake Atitlan and is considered to be the least touristy. It’s located right in between the two volcanoes on the lake, directly opposite Casa Del Mundo. It’s hidden a little between the volcanoes, so you come around the corner in the boat and suddenly this big village unfolds in front of you. Walking off the docks, there’s a pretty big market down by the water, but if you continue into the town the tourist-centric stuff falls off. There’s two banks in town, which is important to note because not all the towns have banks. Santiago also has a massive and beautiful church that is definitely worth visiting if you have time.