When I first began to research Lake Atitlan villages almost two years ago, there wasn’t a lot of diverse information. Lake Atitlan is a massive lake with 15 small villages surrounding it. What I could find online basically said every village was gringo town with a little variety here and there. Now, I’ve been back and forth to the lake probably 10 times. Here is what I wish I knew about the Lake Atitlan Villages when I first went.
How to Get There
Travel within Guatemala is not difficult, if you know what you’re doing. There are two ways to arrive at the Lake: slow, local and cheap or semi-comfortable and less cheap. If you’re looking for the most local experience, the chicken buses are the way to go. For about Q30 or 40 ($4-5) you can arrive at the Lake. In Guatemala City, meet up with the chicken buses headed to Quiche in Pamplona (just before the major Trebol interchange). When you arrive at Los Encuentros, you’ll need to change to a bus headed to Solola. Sometimes buses head straight to Panajachel (this cuts off a leg). If on the Solola bus, change buses a last time when you arrive at the main square of Solola. Hop on a bus to Panajachel and you’ll be at the lake 20 minutes later.
If all the bus changes stress you out, no worries. Just schedule a shuttle bus for yourself. Many of the hotels at the lake offer private shuttles (aka more expensive, but more comfortable and convenient). Many businesses offer public shuttles that leave Guatemala City 3 times a day. They can pick you up directly from the airport or a hotel/house in Zone 9, 10, 13 and 14. These shuttles are $25 one way from Guate City to Panajachel. The shuttles stop briefly in Antigua and you transfer to a shuttle headed back to the lake (the transfer is super simple). The shuttles hold 15 people. Either way, it’s pretty easy to get yourself to the lake. Personal Recommendation: Pay a bit extra and take the shuttle. It’s quicker and less stress of making sure you get on the right bus.
Pana (as it’s more commonly know) is the biggest of the Lake Atitlan villages. This is where the buses and shuttles will end up. It is the largest town with the most banks, restaurants and hotels. Also, the most reliable internet. Calle Santander runs through the middle of the lower part of town. Here are where all the vendors line up to sell their products. Buy your gifts here or in Chichi, not in Antigua or one of the other villages (with some exceptions). You’ll get the best prices. International food is quite common and you can find people that speak English. Pana is also the hub of day excursions to other areas of Guatemala.
What to do in Pana
Pana is the launching point of activities around the lake and the Western Highlands of Guatemala. Tour agencies dot the main street and offer trips to Xela and other adventures in the Mayan Highlands. In Pana, there are several agencies offering paragliding. You’ll get a brief tutorial in paragliding 101 and off you go. Real World Paragliding is highly recommended by English speakers. They weren’t available the day I wanted to go, so we went with Paragliding Guatemala. Roger, the owner, speaks English but the guides who took us up only spoke Spanish (heads up), but we had a great time.
Pana is hands down my ideal place to shop around the Lake Atitlan villages when looking for Mayan gifts that are typical of Guatemala. Antigua and Guatemala City also offer similar gifts but Pana is significantly cheaper. You can get blankets, jewelry, shoes, carvings…. Mayans are famous for their textile work. You can find almost anything with a touch of the textiles on it. Also, jade is common and Pana has stores offering jewelry with Jade and other stones. Vendors are prepared to haggle with you. Make sure to walk the line of partaking in haggling but not being disrespectful or insulting.
Pana is also home to the Lake Atitlan Nature Reserve. The reserve is on land that was once a Mayan village turned sugarcane plantation turned coffee plantation. It houses a butterfly sanctuary, home to rescued monkeys, offers a campsite, hiking trails and zip lines. Paying for one of the zip line trips gives you full access to the reserve. I recommend the Ultra Xtreme zip lines (~$50/person). Warning: the hiking required to get to the lines is tough, but totally worth it. The other zip line (~$34), is also a good trip.
Where to Eat in Pana
Stop by Cafe Loco for the best coffee in town. Heads up, they don’t have wifi. Hotel Atitlan has a good lunch (get the nachos from the bar menu) and you can visit the botanical gardens while there. The nature reserve is just down the street from the hotel too. Circus Bar has great pizzas but they are better for dinner or carry-out (their lunch atmosphere tends to leave a bit to be desired). Gaujimbo’s has some of the best Uruguayan style steaks and sausages I’ve ever had. I make sure to go every time I’m in town. They also have strong wifi and are on the main street so there is plenty of people watching to do. I’m normally not a huge breakfast person, but Mister Jon’s at the start of Calle Santander will get me up and at breakfast every time.
Where to Stay in Pana
Hotel Atitlan is the high-end hotel ($150+ a night for a double). I’ve stayed here a few times (some on my own dime, sometimes thanks to mom and dad). This is my favorite place to stay for a treat. They have wifi, a good on-site restaurant, pool and hot tub and gardens. The rooms are well equipped, elegant and comfortable.
Hotel Dos Mundos is my typical place for when in town. It’s the mid-range point and usually is about $40 a night for a double. They don’t advertise their pricing online and its hit or miss with answering emails. But, there is wifi and free breakfast included. The rooms are well equipped but simple. It’s right on Santander but tucked back enough to not have the noise of the busy street bother you. Bonus points for a coffee shop/bar/cakes at the entrance and right next door to one of the main shuttle company’s offices.
Hospedaje El Viajero is on the cheaper end ($13-$25 per night). I’ve never personally stayed here but did check it out for some friends and on looking around gave it a thumbs up. It’s basic but has your necessities. There is also wifi and it’s on the main street.
My favorite of the Lake Atitlan villages, San Pedro is the next largest village and has the most amenities after Pana. When I head to the lake, I usually cruise around Pana for a day and head over to San Pedro for the rest of the time. From Pana, take a lancha (boat) directly to San Pedro (20 minutes). It should cost Q25. Or you can take the public boat but it will stop at every village between Pana and San Pedro (~45 minutes). It is known as the backpacker, party town and it has definitely earned that name. However, that does not define every part of the town. The Mayan village is up a steep hill and the majority of hotels and restaurants are along the lake coast. One of the few villages with an ATM.
What to do in San Pedro
San Pedro rests at the base of the San Pedro Volcano, known for world class coffee. Several places offer coffee tours. I’ve used tours offered at Cafe Atitlan. Pro Tip: don’t do the tour on Sunday (although it may be available) and make sure you know exactly what is offered in the tour. I had two tours within 3 months that varied widely. For the price, you should have a guide that speaks English, pay for the tuk tuk up the volcano and back down at various intervals (you can walk if you want), see the drying, roasting and completion process, receive a sample back at the restaurant and a free bag of coffee. Other travel agencies in the village also offer coffee tours.
Several of the hostels and travel agencies offer jet skis and other water sports. This is a fun way to get out and enjoy the lake and take in the villages from another point of view. Make sure to go out in the morning, the lake gets rough in the afternoon. Also, during rainy season (April/May – September/November) it rains almost every afternoon.
Many of the travel agencies will also offer tours to hike up Indian’s nose. The most recommended is to do the sunrise hike. While I’ve never personally done it (I just haven’t been able to force myself to wake up at 3 am), the views are supposed to be breathtaking. It’s definitely on my to do list in the near future.
San Pedro is also known as a landing place for Spanish schools. Several schools are spread throughout the town and offer a variety of class schedules. If you’ve been wanting to learn Spanish, look into schools here. You’ll study half the day and spend the rest of the time free to explore the lake.
Where to Stay in San Pedro
Hotel Sak’cari is my go to every time I’m in San Pedro. Known as the “nicest hotel in the village”, but still at a great price ($20-40/night). Note – in terms of “nicest hotel” Sak’cari has nothing in comparison to Hotel Atitlan or some of the other top of the line hotels. But for San Pedro, it’s clean, quiet and has amazing hot water. It’s tucked away from the main drag with the majority of restaurants and bars, but is still a quick walk from everything.
Hostel Fe is the party hotel. Double rooms with a private bath are $10/night. There is always something to do and people to meet. The hotel has hammocks and common areas to meet other travelers. Across the street is the hotel’s bar and restaurant. Friday night Trivia is a must. And the Indian curries and naan are the best.
There are several Airbnb options in San Pedro in a variety of prices. Some are close to the the main street and others are tucked into the outskirts of town. Tuktuks (motor taxis) are readily available to help with getting around.
Where to Eat in San Pedro
For Breakfast, Idea Connection hands down is the best place to go. It is an Italian bakery and restaurant. That said, the pastries are a must. I like the nutella croissant. I usually rotate between an egg, ham and cheese croissant and huevos rancheros. The coffee is great. Cafe Atitlan also has a good breakfast and roast and brew their own coffee in house.
The restaurant at Hostel Fe is divine. The restaurant/bar is home to their big party nights, but they have amazing Indian curry dishes and naan. If the party scene isn’t always you… plan to arrive around 6 or so to eat before things get into full swing. Pequenos Pecados is also a must go to place. Also established by Italian ex-Pats, the make all their pasta dough by hand. The pastas are worth it and make sure to save room for their namesake – the Pequenos Pecados dessert. I also like The Clover as a low maintenance, easy dinner. They have a huge menu but I also head straight to the Asian inspired section.
San Marcos is the last of the ‘big three’ villages to visit. The town is known as a holistic, yoga retreat and the vibe is different than the rest of the villages. From the docks up the town is mostly footpaths. The village is filled with retreat centers ranging from common to eccentric. Please note: recently there has been increasing tensions between the local, Mayan people and visitors. Please be respectful when visiting any village, but particularly this one. The locals are concerned about visitors using drugs and being drunk in front of the youth and have complained about nudity. Be respectful and thoughtful in your decisions.
Where to eat in San Marcos
In all honesty, I haven’t spend too much time eating in San Marcos. I usually head over for a massage and to splash around at the nature reserve. But, when I do need to stop in for lunch, I also go to Fe Restaurant. This is the sister restaurant of the Hostel Fe’s restaurant in San Pedro. The have the same tasty curries but also some bomb chocolate chip cookies (pro tip: don’t have them heat them up, they don’t taste as good as room temp. and they are much messier).
Up by where the main road passes through town (to the side of the concrete soccer/basketball court) there are some little tiendas. They sell your standard Guatemala tined food, along with curry paste, rice noodles, quinoa and other tasty foods. When I had an airbnb nearby, I always stopped into these stores to stock up on groceries.
What to do in San Marcos
Famous for the yoga, holistic lifestyle, why would you do anything but that when visiting San Marcos? Many yoga studios and retreats are spread throughout town. I’ve also heard of (and heard) drumming circles.
Every time I am in San Marcos, I get a massage. The East West Center is my go to because they seem to have the best assortment of services and availability. Although, recently I used Atitlan Massage Center on a last minute whim and was happy. At the East West Center I mostly get the more traditional massages (think tables, oils, etc). But, they also offer some alternative healing therapies like Reiki, crystals and chakra balancing. At the Atitlan Massage Center, both a friend and I dabbled in Chinese medicine massages.
The San Marcos nature reserve sits on the outskirts of town, close by the water. I’ve haven’t extensively explored all the paths. I stick to the kayak and swimming. To one side of the reserve, there is a large platform to jump into the lake. San Marcos is said to have some of the best swimming waters, and I don’t doubt it. Climbing back up the hill is a little tough on your feet at first (lots of rocks!) but not too bad once you get the hang of where to go.
Where to stay in San Marcos
Really, I have never stayed the night in San Marcos proper. When visiting I found that renting a house via Airbnb better served my needs than a hotel in town (although I did look closely at a few). Pasajcap is just a few miles down the road from San Marcos and offers many homes available to rent short term for a good price.
I’ve heard decent things about both Hotel Aaculaax and El Dragon Hotel. But, I can’t vouch because I’ve never actually visited them. I recommend staying in nearby San Pedro or Pasajcap and day tripping to San Marcos. Depending on your reasonings for visiting San Marcos, some retreats centers offer housing on site.
There are many other Lake Atitlan villages. Some that I haven’t visited yet and others where I went for day trips or specific activities. My two favorites are San Juan and Santiago.
San Juan, famous for Mayan textiles, have lots of shops dotting the road up from the dock. In town, several shops offer ‘tours’ of the weaving process from picking the cotton, to natural dyeing and the loom process. Most only ask for a donation or purchase of an item. My favorite place to stop is Cafe El Artesano. It’s a little restaurant serving cured meats and cheeses with a solid wine offering. This is a hands down must do at the lake.
Santiago has a unique history. It was the point of tension during the Guatemalan Civil War and a massacre of the local population took place there. When I went to visit the town, there was a peace memorial going on for the anniversary of the event. Santiago is also know for preserving their mayan culture and clothing. This village is one of the few where the majority of the male population continues to wear traditional clothing. A nice, little horse ranch run by some ex-pats, Jim and Nancy, sit on the outskirts of town. The farm is called Finca Xetuc. They offer a variety of tour options that include home ground coffee and a gourmet meal. Side note – the food is great! Jim and Nancy also lived in Guatemala since the ’60s with first hand experiences during the Civil War. They have several dogs on the property and some rescued wildlife animals.