Lake Atitlán, the deepest lake in Central America at 340m, was formed by volcanic eruptions over 80,000 years ago, which may not be surprising when you see the stunning views of the three volcanoes surrounding the lake, two of which are still active. Not only is this region full of natural marvels, but the villages surrounding the lake each have their own unique ambience still thoroughly embedded with Mayan culture. For more information about Lake Atitlán, click here
Lake Atitlán has managed to remain a cultural paradise even as it has opened itself up to tourism over the years. With all of the different communities and natural landmarks surrounding it, there is something here for everyone. Whether you’re looking for pure serenity in San Marcos, shopping and cuisine in Panajachel, or hiking up San Pedro Volcano, you can truly find your niche.
Though Lake Atitlán’s famed body of water is believed to have been formed by eruptions tens of thousands of years ago, the entire region has been influenced by volcanic activity long before that, dating back millions of years. Long after the region finally settled into moreso of what it looks like today, the Mayans began to settle around the lake. The volcanoes made the soil rich for farming crops such as corn and coffee beans, while the lake provided them with fresh water and an abundance of fish. To this day, Mayan fishermen still set out on their boats and women still weave traditional fabrics along looms.
It also remains a spiritual place for the Mayans, particularly in the community of Santiago Atitlán. Many people there still worship Maximón, a deity that is thought of as both a saint and a demon, depending on who you ask. The overlapping beliefs come from pre-Columbian Mayan beliefs colliding with those of the Catholic Spanish conquistadors.
The region has struggled over the years, losing tourism during Guatemala’s civil war and facing a build up of destructive algae in its waters. However, since the end of the war Lake Atitlán has grown into a spot for tourists of all kinds. And measures have been taken and will continue to combat the algae growth to maintain the beauty of the water.
Today, each community surrounding the lake has its own personality. Panajachel is the most popular tourist hub, as it is the most easily accessed from Antigua or Guatemala City. Meanwhile, Santiago Atitlán, the largest yet simultaneously one of the lesser visited areas, is rich in Mayan culture and provides the opportunity to visit the ever-moving effigy of Maximón. San Pedro attracts backpackers with its easy access to volcano climbs while San Marcos is the most tranquil area with plenty of opportunities for yoga and meditation. On top of these are other small communities such as San Antonio Palopó, Jaibalito, Santa Cruz, Sololá, San Juan and San Lucas Tolimán.
Where you want to stay will also vary widely based on which communities you want to stay in, as well as a few other variables. The most outstanding places are often a little far from town centers and the closer you get to the water, the more expensive the rooms get. You also will likely face some difficulty staying overnight in most of the smaller places such as Jaibalito or even Santiago Atitlán, as they have very few accommodations.
That being said, it isn’t impossible, so if staying somewhere more remote is right up your alley we have some suggestions. In Jaibalito, La Casa del Mundo is accessible only by boat and can be a little pricier but is a magical place in the cliffs over the water with cozy, colorful rooms. Santiago Atitlán has a few more options. For those willing to pay a little more, Hotel Bambú is a peaceful and breathtaking place to stay. Those looking to save some money, Hotel Ratzan is your best bet with a great central location.
Panajachel offers a much wider variety of accommodations. Every though Hotel Playa Linda, is incredibly close to the water, it actually offers cheap rooms. The price can vary slightly based on whether or not you choose a room with a lake view though. Porta Hotel del Lago is a nice 3 star hotel option on the water, but to find a hotel at higher than 3 stars you will need to venture out from the center of the town to Hotel Atitlán.
In San Pedro you can find everything from the more expensive yet eco-friendly Hotel Sak’cari El Amanecer to the cheap party center that is Hostel Fe. And in San Marcos, Posada Schumann is pricier, but it is situated on the water and its very friendly staff only helps you relax even more. For a cheaper option, La Paz is an eco-hotel tucked away in greenery also known for its peacefulness.
Guatemala tends to keep consistent spring-like weather year-round. Thanks to its location and and altitude, this tends to be even more true for Lake Atitlán, with its constant fresh air and lack of humidity. However, June to February is the country’s rainy season. Even though this may not need to be heavily taken into account for Lake Atitlán, it is helpful to keep in mind in case you are planning to visit other parts of Guatemala as well. The busy season across the country tends to run high in December through March, and again a little higher in July and August.
Guatemala may not have a single particular dish it is known for, but all around in Lake Atitlán, it’s not hard to find a typical mix of their savory ingredients such as white rice, corn tortillas, black beans, beef, and chicken. Their meats and stews will often be found flavored by peppers and other fresh vegetables, while fruits are also easy to find for some sweetness. “Café Sabor Cruceno in Santa Cruz” is hailed for its incredible Mayan traditional food, as well as a spectacular view.
Aside from traditional Guatemalan food, Lake Atitlán is also known as a place with access to a whole host of international food. Panajachel, for example, has everything from steaks to pasta to sushi to crepes, all of great quality. In San Marcos you can find burgers or Thai food. Most of these foods can be found in cafés or even hotels.
Panajachel acts as the port community of sorts for visitors to Lake Atitlán. It isn’t possible to fly directly into Lake Atitlán, but shuttles are frequently offered from two major cities in Guatemala:
As shuttles can become crammed, from either of these cities you could also choose private transportation of a higher comfort level, but it will certainly be reflected in the price.
One of the best things about Lake Atitlán is that you can make a trip to tailor to almost anything. Maybe you just want a peaceful few days with great scenery. Or maybe you want to venture up volcanoes. Maybe there are some communities you don’t mind skipping over, or maybe you want to spend time in every single one. If you want to do it all, you could easily spend a week here, bouncing around to different towns and activities. If you’re only in it for the peace or the adventure, you could probably see the highlights you would like to in 3-4 days before packing up and heading home or to another part of Guatemala.
Highlight attractions in and around Lake Atitlán are: