A Seriously Serene Mountain Lake
Everyone I have spoken to who has visited Guatemala rates it as one of their favourite countries. Guatemala City, Antigua, Rio Dulce and Semuc Champey are all top places to see in the country and well worth a visit, but it’s Lake Atitlan I enjoyed most. And the village of San Pedro to be precise, where I ended up spending most of my trip.
Sitting 1,500 metres above sea level and ringed by volcanic mountains, it’s a magical place with a laid-back vibe. Seven miles long, three miles wide and with an average depth of 200 metres, Lake Atitlan was formed 84,000 years ago following a massive volcanic eruption. Lucky for us backpackers, Atitlan’s volcanoes are dormant now and better known for spewing coffee beans – the region’s main source of income – rather than lava.
Get your bearings
Atitlan is surrounded by several Mayan villages, varying in their authenticity, but each with an individual appeal for backpackers. Locals are poor but extremely hospitable, eager to share their language, culture and home with you. It’s a fantastic place to come if you want to learn Spanish, as you can sign up to a homestay programme for excellent value, or to just immerse yourself in an alternative, but not alien, culture. With mountain and water sports aplenty there’s loads to do, but most people I met had just come to chill out.
Where to go and what to see
How much or how little you do in San Pedro is up to you. Many backpackers stay just a few days, enjoying long lazy days at the lake and boozy nights on the town. Others stay for months, learning the lingo and immersing themselves in the Mayan way of life. Wherever you fit – maybe somewhere in between – you’ll never be bored in San Pedro.
Whether you’re a seasoned hiker or a fairweather walker you should definitely climb the volcano. It takes a while to make the ascent (about 4 hours) but, accompanied by a guide, the going is fairly easy. The walk from the lakeside, through coffee plantations and subtropical jungle, and finally across alpine meadows to the peak is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It’s possible to do the climb unguided but it’s not advised as there have been many reported robberies. A guide costs 100 GTQ (£9) and is worth every penny, not only for protection, but also for what you’ll learn about the Guatemalan Highlands.
After a hard day’s hiking take a dip and reward weary muscles in San Pedro’s solar pools (25 GTQ / £2, no time limit). The name’s a bit misleading: the pools aren’t natural, they’re man-made bathtubs sunk into the ground and they’re not heated by the sun but by a water heater. Who cares, they feel good after a long day. The staff will do your laundry while you wait and there’s a decent bar and restaurant onsite too. Give them a least an hour’s advance warning so they can heat up a tub… thenrelax!
San Pedro is best known for its partying scene. I had a brilliant night at the quiz at Hostel Fe, where you’re encouraged to dive off the back terrace into the lake as soon as the quizmaster shouts ‘lake’, whatever state of dress you’re in. Parties go on well into the morning and it’s not a night out if you don’t end up at a house party by the time the sun rises.
If San Pedro is laid back, the quaint Mayan village of San Marcos is horizontal! Here you can really get your mojo back and indulge in a range of alternative therapies, including yoga and reiki. There are some really good organic restaurants here too.
Santa Cruz La Laguna
Santa Cruz La Laguna is the lake’s scuba capital and there’s some excellent diving to be had here. Once a volcanic crater, Atitlan has an average depth of 200 metres and at its deepest point plunges to a whopping 340 metres. The opportunity to dive in a high altitude lake should not be missed and the underwater scenery is otherworldly. Because the lake is still rising it has swallowed up whole villages over the years – swimming among the submerged shells of hotels and houses is really eerie. Seek out British-owned ATi Divers who offer guided diving from 500 GTQ (around £50) a day.
Panajachel, Jaibalito & Santa Catarina Palopo
Atitlan’s largest town, Panajachel, is also the most touristy. As the region’s main transport hub it’s likely you’ll pass through here and it’s worth spending the night. Panajachel is well-known for locally made crafts and clothes, and has a wide range of bars and restaurants.
There’s good walking and eating to be had around the village of Jaibalito on the lake’s north side. The smallest and most remote of Atitlan’s villages, it is the least touristy. It’s a beautiful, tranquil place to stay with a thriving community of US ex-pats who’ve defected for exactly that reason.
If you want a really authentic Mayan experience visit Santa Catarina Palopo and meet the Kaqchikel people who live here – take a lancha from your resort or grab a fletes,a sort of pick-up truck come taxi, if you’re in Panajachel (this is the cheapest option, just 10 GTQ / 90p return).
When to visit Lake Atitlan
Atitlan has a temperate climate; mild with average temperatures of around 26°C during the summer (November to April). Rainy season is between May and October. Heavy rainshowers are interspersed with sunny spells – watching the storm clouds race across the lake is an awesome sight but, watch out, as the streets often become temporary rivers!
If you plan to hike the mountains or volcanoes, it can be up to 20 degrees cooler at altitude than at the lakeside, so don’t set off without suitable hiking gear.
Easter is a major event around here and the villages are in full party mode – crammed with tourists and backpackers, it’s kind of like Spring Break and an excellent time to see the lake locals in full swing.
Getting around Lake Atitlan
It’s not possible to fly into Atitlan so ‘mochileros’ (Spanish for backpackers) get to the lake by bus from one of Guatemala’s three nearest cities. Buses from Antigua, Guatemala City or Quetzletenango take 3-4 hours. You can opt for an official bus operator, like Transportes Mendez (Guatemala City) or Le Ceiba (Antigua) but I recommend taking a chicken bus because it’s way more fun travelling like the locals and much cheaper too! I did this by myself and found it ok. Obviously if you speak Spanish it’ll be that little bit more enjoyable as you can relax. Travelling by shuttle bus costs approximately 60 Quetzals (around £5.50) but a ticket on the chicken bus will cost you only 35 GTQ (around £3).
During your stay on the lake the best and often only way to get around is by lancha. Lanchas are small water taxis that ferry people from place to place. With no official schedule, no official pricing structure and no official routes, lanchas will take you wherever you want to go, when you want to go, for around 7-20 GTQ (60p-£2) each way. Just wave a boat down from any of the jetties on the lake.
Most of the villages on Lake Atitlan are so small you can get about on foot but there are plenty oftuk-tuks around for when you’re feeling lazy or can’t be bothered with an uphill hike – remember, you’re in the mountains so the streets tend to be steep and winding.
Finding accommodation in Lake Atitlan
Most backpackers can be found at the lakeside village of San Pedro La Laguna. It’s not Lake Atitlan’s biggest resort but it’s the liveliest and has a reputation for great hospitality and cheap living. For these reasons, backpackers love it. But San Pedro is also a great base for exploring the lake; it’s located at the foot of one of Atitlan’s three volcanoes and offers a wide variety of watersports.
There are loads of places to stay in San Pedro, most offering really good value for money, and the hostels here, especially, have a reputation for hospitality and ambience.
Mr Mullet’s at the port boasts a great location and attentive staff. For around 60 GTQ (£5.50) a night you’ll get breakfast thrown in (try the hash browns!) and a hot shower (rare in Guatemala!).
Hostel Fe, the quiz hostel, markets itself as a party hostel so early-nighters should look elsewhere! On San Pedro’s main street, it’s right in the thick of it. Private rooms and dorms (sleeping up to four) have WiFi, showers and power sockets and start from 65 GTQ (around £6 GBP).
Eating in San Pedro
Most of San Pedro’s bars and restaurants are near the lake and the food served, like most things in San Pedro, is an eclectic mix of local peasant fare and international fodder. Regional specialities include mosh, a breakfast dish of oats and milk, the ubiquitous tortilla with a diverse selection of fillings, hearty stew-like caldos and street food hero, the tamale.
Guatemala is a well-known producer of coffee and the highlands are one of the highest yielding regions in the country. The coffee is complex and aromatic and it’s the drink of choice for locals and visitors alike. Chatting over a cup of the black stuff is a great way to meet fellow backpackers or practise your Spanish! With free WiFi and a wide coffee menu, Café Tzutujil just off the port is the perfect place for a spot of people watching.
Italian restaurant, Café Pequeños Pecados, is highly rated for its delicious and extensive menu. You can get all the usual Italian favourites here, including pizza and lasagne (try the seafood one for a change) and homemade helados, the local delicacy. There can be a wait between courses because chef cooks everything from scratch; but it’s the perfect place to spend a leisurely evening over a bottle of wine, or two.
In a rush? Grab a bite from Angel’s Tacomex Restaurant. Hailing from nearby San Marcos, Angel serves a range of delicious tex-mex style food. Super-cheap and super-filling, you can get burger and a beer for just 15 GTQ (around £1.40) or a loadedquesadillas for 12 GTQ (around £1).
Top five experiences at Lake Atitlan
1. Scale the three peaks. Together San Pedro, Atitlan and Toliman make up the dormant volcanoes that ring the lake. Hike all three and enjoy the mind-blowing views from the top.
2. Get away from the hustle and bustle of the port and wind your way up through San Pedro to find the ‘wedding cake’ church.
3. Go lake diving in Santa Cruz and discover the submerged villages of Lake Atitlan – float on balconies and swim across terraces once frequented by travellers just like you.
4. Watch the sunrise from the sacred mountain, La Nariz de Indio or Indian’s Nose. It’s a 3:30am start from San Pedro but it’s worth leaving the party early for the stunning views of the lake from the top.
5. Hire a kayak and explore the lake with paddle power. Do a ‘pueblo hop’ and see how many villages you can visit in one day.