Have you ever thought about visiting Guatemala? Let me rephrase…have you ever thought about wanting to see active volcanos, drink some of the finest coffee in the world, or visit ruins of the great Mayan Empire? What about meeting warm, welcoming people, being awestruck simply going outside, or enriching your life through travel? You’ll notice I am making these criteria more and more generic and that is because I think that you should absolutely visit Guatemala!
Okay so you are sold on visiting? Great! Now I’ll make the case for why you should absolutely, 100%, spend some of your time in Guatemala at Lake Atitlán!
Lake Atitlán is the deepest lake in Central America. It was formed roughly 84,000 years ago due to a volcanic eruption that left a massive caldera, a depression in the earth caused when the ground collapses similar to a sinkhole. Due to the rich volcanic soil and the fresh water supply, several towns popped up around the lake and are gems today’s for travelers like me wanting to experience natural beauty while also learning the local culture!
Hands down, lake Atitlán is one of the most picturesque lakes you may ever see. It sits peacefully amongst mountains and volcanos and offers breath-taking views at all hours of the day. Whether you are interested in learning about Guatemalan culture, hiking volcanos, cliff-jumping, or enjoying some local delicacies like chapin at sunrise or pepian or kak’ik at sunset, Lake Atitlán has something for you.
Read on for logistics about Lake Atitlán including how to get there, where to stay and more…
Getting To Guatemala
Main Airport: GUA – La Aurora International Airport situated in Guatemala City
Traveling During Covid: According to the Guatemalan Government’s website on 2/14/2021, the current travel restrictions for Covid-19 are as follow:
- ANTIGEN no more than 72 hours negative or PCR no more than 96 hours before (applies to people 10 years and over) for passengers entering the national territory.
- Use of a mandatory mask for people over 2 years old (Airlines must provide those who do not wear them). Passengers with severe respiratory or cognitive difficulties who cannot tolerate them are excepted from the use of masks.
- For those entering via airway, you must also fill out this health pass
Check here to confirm the latest travel requirements: https://igm.gob.gt/protocolo-de-ingreso-al-pais-covid19/
From my experience, there were two checks of the Covid results. The first check occurred prior to boarding the airplane in the country of departure. (For me it was the USA). The second check occurred when I landed in Guatemala City prior to going through customs. Check your local country health pages for more information on testing prior to departure.
Getting to Lake Atitlán
You have landed in Guatemala and made it through customs! So, what’s next?
Lake Atitlán is roughly 78 miles/125 km from GUA Airport. The trip is estimated to take roughly 3 hours per Google Maps. Reason being, the lake is surrounded by mountains and therefore the roads are winding and you have to go up and over. You are in for a real treat when you make it to the lake side!
Bonus! If you have a few hours to spare or are spending a decent amount of time in Guatemala, add a stop in Antigua to your itinerary! It’ll only add about 20-30 minutes to your drive time and the views are UNREAL. You can see 3 volcanos from the city if that tempts you at all.
There are a couple of options for you to make this journey.
By Car – There are many car rental options available at GUA airport including Alamo, Avis, Enterprise, National, and more. Prices vary but can be checked on individual sites or travel sites such as Kayak or Expedia.
For car rentals, consider your lodging choice and road/parking access at the lake. Also consider that there may not be one-way rentals from Guatemala City to Lake Atitlán.
A few things other considerations if you are renting a car and don’t know where to start:
NOTE: You should ALWAYS do your own research prior to traveling!
- License Validity: Check to see if your license qualifies you to drive in Guatemala
- Insurance: Before you travel, check in with your home auto-insurance policy to see if international rentals are covered! Check local insurance requirements
- Local Driving Laws – Official traffic Law PDF … if you by chance opened that link, you might notice that it is in Spanish! Welcome to traveling abroad! You can download as a pdf, and input the pdf here to translate to English if you are interested!
- Road Conditions – Read about all the locations you intend to visit and the places in between for road safety and any news.
Have a plan! Know where the closest gas stations are and the emergency number in every country.
By Bus/Public Shuttle – Not the most Covid safe option but cost effective. Guatemala takes Covid seriously and follows the rules when it comes to wearing masks, taking temperatures, and sanitizing.
Options (not extensive)
|Guatemala Tours and Travel Services||$25 p/p Non-direct; $35 p/p min 3 pax Direct|
|Adrenalina Tours||$40 p/p|
Private Shuttle/Taxi – Best for groups!
Options (not extensive)
|Transport Guatemala||$105 1pax; $150 2-3pax; $170 4-7pax; $210 8-10pax|
|Taxi||~$120-$130 (Agree on the price before leaving!)|
|Uber||~$62 for 4 pax|
Getting to Know the Lake Area and Where to Stay
There are several towns surrounding Lake Atitlán that offer accommodation plus several stays that are situated around the lake but not necessarily in a town. Each town has its own micro-culture and you should base your stay on personal preference!
The best way to travel between towns and explore the area is by lancha (boat). Here is a list of boat prices as of November 2020:
Pana to/from Santa Cruz/Jaibalito – Q10
Pana to/from San Marcos/San Pablo/San Juan/San Pedro – Q25
Pana to/from Santiago Atitlan – Q25
San Marcos to/from Santa Cruz – Q10
San Pedro to/from Santa Cruz – Q20
San Pedro to/from San Marcos – Q10
$1 USD = 8Q and 1 Euro = ~9.5Q
Visit here for more info on boat schedules.
This is one of the largest cities on the lake. It is also the primary hub for all transportation to and from Lake Atitlán and therefore you will likely end up here at some point in your journey! It also has several ferry stations making it a good hub location for those looking to explore the other lake towns.
It has many restaurant options for the foodies on Calle Santander and Calle Principal. Some of the top-rated restaurants include Circus Bar and Guajimbo’s (the garlic bread may be the best thing I’ve ever eaten) which are both excellent and deserve a visit!
There are many hotel and hostel options here.
San Marcos La Laguna
Aka the hippy town. This town is made for vegetarians and vegans everywhere. Many of the restaurants serve exclusively vegetarian options and much of the town gives off a chill, peace, love, and happiness vibe. Here you can find great yoga and meditation.
Also here is Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve. It is a beautiful wooded area next to the lake that has some of the only safe swimming around the lake. It also offers several cliff jumping sites to get the adrenalin going.
Santa Cruz La Laguna
Santa Cruz La Laguna is one of the smaller towns around the lake. It is only accessible by boat and footpath. Once there, explorers can take a car or hike to Mirador El Pico de Cielo for an incredible lake view.
Additionally, this small town is home to an incredible restaurant with one of the best views on the lake! Cafe Sabor Cruceno has amazing views and an amazing mission of improving the lives of the indigenous people of Santa Cruz and surround villages through support for education and sustainable economic empowerment.
San Juan La Laguna
San Juan La Laguna is a great spot for cultural tourism. In this town, you can watch locals perform their craft such as making handmade fabrics with some of the most vibrant colors that nature offers or mixing up some of the smoothest, sweetest, and tastiest chocolate you may ever try.
If you’re looking for recommendations:
Handmade Fabric Demonstration – Casa Flor Ixcaco Weaving Cooperative – This cooperative empowers the women with the goal of improving their economy and their education. Each product is handmade and includes a photo of the woman who made it.
Check out their website –> https://www.woven-gt.com/
Chocolate Demonstration – Liccor Marron Chocolate
Check out their website –> https://www.facebook.com/licormarronChocolate/
*NOTE: Many of these towns are steep leading away from the water’s edge. Getting to either of the recommendations listed is a HIKE. Feel free to take a tuk tuk to get to the top! Saves you time and they are very cheap. Agree on the price before getting in 🙂
San Pedro La Laguna
San Pedro is mostly identified as the backpacker/party town. It can be great for finding cheap accommodation and food due to its backpacker culture but is also filled with more travelers/tourists than some of the other towns.
Check out Hostelworld or Google accommodations in the area to book directly. Hostel dorms tend to be ~$10USD with private rooms between ~$15-$30.
Also because of it is a backpacker spot, there are many Spanish schools for those interested in learning or improving their Spanish! If you take a look at Spanish schools in San Pedro on Google, you will be pleasantly surprised to see that many of them are extremely highly rated. I did not take Spanish classes in Lake Atitlán, but I did take them in Guatemala and I really enjoyed using it to communicate with the locals!
The town San Pedro La Laguna is also the best access point for hiking one of Guatemala’s many beautiful volcanos. According to AllTrails, the hike up San Pedro Volcanos is about 6.4km/4 miles. It is very steep, but it has very rewarding views. The vast majority of people tackle the hike early in the day, leaving at roughly 7AM. There have been some safety issues on the volcano and incidents regarding bandits targeting tourists. Leave your valuables at home and do plenty of research to be prepared for this hike!
This town is great to experience the local culture of Atitecos (the name for those from Santiago Atitlán). The streets here are filled with street vendors selling everything you can imagine form various chili powders to fresh fruits and vegetables to common touristy items.
You may also notice here that you can’t understand anyone despite speaking Spanish. That is because, there are many languages spoken around the lake in addition to Spanish. Here, in Santiago Atitlán, the locals speak a Mayan language called Tz’utujil. There are actually 22 Mayan languages spoken today in Guatemala though most people under the age of 50 speak Spanish as well.
For the history buffs, Santiago Atitlán is a crucial site from the Guatemalan Civil War. I won’t dive into it here, but if you are interested you can read more about it here. There is also a gorgeous church sitting atop the hill in the village called Saint James the Apostle Church.
San Lucas Toliman
San Lucas Toliman is one of the larger towns on the lake and is more commercialized due to its accessibility by main road. It is the starting point for those wanting to hike Volcan de Atitlan or Volcan de Toliman though these are not very common activities.
If you are interested in one of these hikes, here is a resource I found for hiking Volcan de Atitlan – https://www.anywhere.com/guatemala/destinations/panajachel/tours/atitlan-volcano-tour
Because of its location on the far side of Volcan de Atitlan, separated from the other towns listed, it is not a very common destination for boat tours around the lake.
Choosing your Stay
Hopefully the brief description about each of the towns can guide your decision on where to stay! There is really no wrong choice here and you can fully enjoy all of the towns of the lake during any visit.
A shoutout to a hotel stay not situated directly in a town – La Casa Del Mundo
We stopped in at this magical hotel accessible only by boat or foot from Jaibalito and I must say it one of the most stunning and surreal places that I have ever been. For between $50-100 USD per night, this experience is a steal.
Overall, I felt very safe everywhere I went around the lake. That being said, travel insurance while exploring the world is always worth looking into! You never want to get caught in a position where you aren’t covered. Check with your existing insurance policy to see what the cover abroad. There are also companies specializing in travel insurance such as Travelex, World Nomads, InsureMyTrip, and more where you could buy travel policies for the duration of your trip.
Specific to Lake Atitlán, you should follow normal precautions when it comes to pick-pocketers and being alone at night. Additionally, there may be some safety concerns on some of the hikes as I called out above. If you are doing an excursion, be sure to read past reviews and any safety notices prior to booking. Beyond taking these safety precautions, you’ll come to find that the people of Guatemala were very warm and welcoming
The water of Lake Atitlán is calmer in the mornings and choppier in the evenings though I never felt unsafe in a lancha I was traveling in.
If you are interested in swimming in the lake, read about lake conditions prior to jumping in! I mentioned above that San Marcos is one of the popular swimming spots. I swam and cliff jumped here with no issue. However, certain areas of the lake are deemed unsafe to swim due to cyanobacteria blooms caused from sewage and fertilizer from local farming. Also there are many lanchas on the water so be wary about swimming near any docks or in the middle of the lake. There is no scuba diving available in Lake Atitlán.
Lake Atitlán is a real life fantasy. From the vibrant blue water to the mystical volcanos, Lake Atitlán will be one of the most beautiful places that you ever set eyes on. If you are considering going, hopefully this article will be the little nudge you need to make it happen.