Lake Atitlan is known to be the deepest lake in central America. It is surrounded by 3 volcanos and it is actually a caldera formed by an eruption thousands of years ago. This place is one of Guatemala’s top attractions and Lake Atitlan is said to be one of the most beautiful lakes in the world.
There are many villages along the lake to visit. I found it easiest to base myself in Panajachel, and then visit the other villages by boat.
This area is a short drive from Antigua. It is possible to do it as a day trip if you’re pressed for time. Easiest way is to hire a tourist shuttle or if you’re braver, take public transport…the chicken bus!
Currency and costs:
Guatemala uses the Quetzal. You may use US dollars, but I always recommend using local currency. There’s not as much of a chance of being ripped off, plus you can easily withdraw money from the ATM’s. I found pricing in Guatemala to be totally reasonable.
I did a tour with Intrepid, one of my favorite tour companies. I chose Maya Encounter, which was 17 days total.
There is also a tour called Guatemala Experience, that visits this area plus a few in Eastern Guatemala. This one is a little pricier though, and lasts for 9 days. The maximum group size is 16 but the tour will still run with 1 person! The tours use local transport which can be quite the adventure, and sometimes they use private vehicles. The tour leaders will organize activities for the group, or you can go off on your own. Plenty of free time is offered. I think it’s a great way to explore, but also to meet new people. Plus, your transport and hotels are already booked so it’s a very hassle free and safe way to travel. Especially if you’re a woman or if it’s your first time traveling.
Where to Stay:
Kaqchiquel Hotel – in Panajachel, this hotel is in a great location and the rooms are nice and spacious, however, the water stunk and the floors were dirty. Overall cleanliness of the room was poor. The restaurant is decent, but service was slow. It was ok for one night, but I think you could do better!
Posada de los Volcanes – reasonably priced, cute rooms that are clean and comfortable. There are decks on each floor for relaxing, and a resident parrot to keep you company.Located on the main road in Panajachel.
You can also stay in any of the villages along the lake…San Marcos or Santa Cruz if you want something more laid back, San Pedro if you want to party!
What to see and do:
Chichicastenango – a small town located in the highlands of Guatemala. It is famous for its open-air market that is open on Thursdays and Sundays only, so you need to time your visit here.
A great place to pick up any souvenirs…and be prepared to have girls follow you around trying to sell you stuff! There are lots of stalls if you need to have a bite to eat, and don’t forget to check out the 400-year-old Santo Tomas church.
Also, make sure you have time to visit the cemetery. This place is unreal! This is one of the world’s most colorful cemeteries.
The rainbow of colors celebrates the afterlife; it might seem a little odd but the Mayans believe if you honor the dead it allows you to make peace with the inevitability of death.
Rows upon rows of crosses and mausoleums. So much beauty! Chichi is around a 2-hour drive from Lake Atitlan.
Hike San Pedro volcano- this one has not been active in over 40,000 years, so it’s pretty safe to climb. It’s best to hire a guide to get you up and down safely. It will take around 3 hours, and you need to have a decent level of fitness to do it.
Get on a boat and explore the villages: there are 4 popular ones: San Pedro, San Marcos. Santa Cruz and San Juan. Just make sure you get back on that last boat back to where you’re staying or you are stuck!
Visit a textile shop – you can buy stuff here and watch a demonstration on how Guatemalan fabrics are made. It’s super interesting and you may get to try it for yourself! We went to the one in San Juan.
Visit a chocolate factory – learn how chocolate is made and sample some of Guatemala’s finest chocolate. There is a fun one in San Juan.
Take a Spanish lesson – the best place to do this is in San Pedro, where there are many language schools.
Watch the sun set over the lake – can be viewed from restaurants or hotels, or just walk down to the beach area and settle in.
Where to Eat and Drink:
Crossroads café – need a great place to try some amazing Guatemalan coffee in Pana? All of their coffee beans come from local farms and are roasted daily.
Circus bar – located in Pana, they serve awesome pizza and pasta, and live music in the evenings, cabaret style. Try to get a seat on the patio!
Guajimbo’s – this place serves Uruguayan cuisine, with steak, sausage, chicken. Excellent service and prices are cheap compared to other places around town. You’ll find this place in Pana.
Sunset Café – I’m only mentioning this one because of its bad reviews. You might be tempted to go here since it has great views of the lake, but it’s not worth it. The food was just ok, and the service was pretty slow.
Chile’s Latina Kitchen – this is considered one of the best spots in San Pedro. Beautiful views of the lake, and the food is fresh and tasty!
Tul y sol – located in San Marcos, it’s a French restaurant that’s really laid back and it offers a nice view of the lake and surrounding volcanoes. And the owner can make the coolest cocktails…truly genius!
Posada Schumann – this restaurant is part of the hotel in San Marcos…not the best menu or service but you can’t beat the view of the lake. So, for a beer and a quick snack, it’ll do!
Simoneta Mixology Cantina – this place is a MUST visit in Pana. The bartenders here are true mixologists! There is no menu, because they’ll just craft something for your own tastes!
I told the guy to surprise me, and the result was a beautifully tasty cocktail with blackberries, cinnamon, basil – and then he grabs the little blowtorch to fire this thing up. Some of these cocktails take 5-10 minutes to make!
We also had flaming shots! It’s not a very big place and it’s off the main road, but the atmosphere is vibrant and you can write on the walls and tables!
Pana Rock – the town’s best rock bar. Live music every night; it’s always busy so try to get there early. They offer great happy hour deals and a fun party atmosphere. Really popular with the locals too.
Hamburguesa Gigante – not sure what the food is like but I’m including it for one reason only…. $1 shots of tequila! Doesn’t get much cheaper than that!
What to eat:
Chicken pepian – a traditional Guatemalan dish. It’s like a stew; flavored with pumpkin and sesame seeds, garlic and tomatoes. It is mixed with vegetables and served over rice or with tortillas. A must have while in Guatemala!
Rellenitos – fried plantain with a filling of sweet bean paste, topped with sugar. How can you say no to that?
Chiles rellenos – chili peppers stuffed with rice, cheese, meat, and veggies. With tomato sauce and tortillas.
Frijoles – refried beans…a staple in most Guatemalan meals.
Kak-ik – a traditional Mayan turkey soup, flavored with spices like coriander, garlic, onions and chili peppers. Served with rice and tortillas
Nachos – on pretty much every menu in Guatemala…topped with cheese, meats, avocado, veggies, refried beans.
Elote loco – grilled corn on the cob, topped with ketchup, mayo and cheese. Maybe not all together, but you have options!
What to drink:
Gallo beer – the most famous and oldest beer in the country, dating back to 1896. It’s a pale lager, and so refreshing in the Central American heat.
Coffee – Guatemala makes some of the best coffee in the entire world!!
Quezalteca – this yummy sweet liqueur comes in a variety of flavors…but be careful…they go down easy, and you’ll find yourself drunk as a skunk in no time.
Atol de elote – you get this drink from street stalls…it is a sweet warm corn drink. I know, it sounds weird but its actually really good.
What to buy:
Coffee – you need to bring some of this home with you!
Textiles – the beautiful colors make these items hard to resist. You can get blankets, rugs, table runners, bags, and clothing
Mayan pottery– all kinds, all sizes
Jade jewelry– there are many jade mines in the country, try a ring or a necklace
Ceremonial masks – brightly painted in various colors, my favorite is the jaguar head
Paintings -I found so many beauties in the village of San Juan
Ron Zacapa Rum – Guatemala’s most famous rum, and it has the most complex flavors
Worry dolls – I thought these were so cute, and they have a story behind them. If you have a problem, tell the doll. Then place the doll under your pillow when you go to bed. The dolls will take your worries away!
Chocolate – there is a chocolate factory in San Juan, and so many flavors to choose from – bitter or sweet, some salty, nutty, minty…or they taste like coffee, rum, tequila, etc.
Whether you have only a day or can spend a few days at Lake Atitlan, you are sure to leave there feeling like you’ve seen some of the best that Guatemala has to offer!