Everything You Need to Know to Visit Lake Atitlan
Renowned as being one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, Lake Atitlan is bound to leave you with some lasting memories.
The local Mayans say that the lake is the “bellybutton of the world” and there are unique energy fields running through the area. Whether you believe that or not, you won’t be able to deny that the lake is a truly special place.
Lake Atitlan is a volcanic lake located in Southwest Guatemala. It lies in a spectacular setting in the central highlands, nestled between three volcanoes; Atitlan, Toliman and San Pedro. It’s 18 kilometres long, 6 kilometres wide and at 325 metres deep, is the deepest lake in Central America!
There are so many things to do around Lake Atitlan: hiking, volunteering, kayaking, learning Spanish, doing yoga and so much more. It’s also the perfect place to get away from it all and relax. Don’t be surprised if you end up staying longer than you intended!
There are numerous towns surrounding the lake in the foothills of the volcanoes. The vast majority of Lake Atitlan’s population are Maya descendants who still treasure their traditions and customs. This has resulted in each village having its own distinct personality and charm. Some villages are lively with a lot of activities and entertainment, others more secluded with a laidback hippy vibe. We’ll discuss some of the different villages later on.
In this guide, we’ll discuss some of the best activities you can do here, then where to stay, how to get there and how long you should spend.
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Things to do on Lake Atitlan
There are so many things to do on Lake Atitlan, you could easily spend a couple of weeks here and not run out of activities. Here are some of the top ones:
Kayaking on Lake Atitlan
Many of the guesthouses will have access to their own kayaks you can rent, or if not, they’ll be able to point you in the right direction.
Watch the Sunset
Sunsets on Lake Atitlan are pretty epic. The lake is a magical place in general and watching the sky and neighbouring volcanoes turn different hues of reds, oranges and pinks is spectacular. As the sky gets darker the volcanoes will turn to silhouettes. On a calm evening, you’ll be able to see their reflections in the lake, giving you the bucketlist of all sunsets
Swim in Lake Atitlan
The perfect activity on a hot day is jumping in the lake for a refreshing dip. Not everywhere, however is great for swimming. Although you may find big inflatables on the waters’ edge by some of the guesthouses in San Pedro, and people jumping onto them and into the lake having a great time, the lake in this area is fairly dirty and polluted.
The nicest area we found to swim in was on the other side of the lake in San Marcos. Cerro Tzankujil is a nature reserve with sheltered swimming areas and crystal clear waters. You’ll also find walking trails, places to sit and chill out and gaze open-jawed at the volcanoes across from you. There’s even a wooden platform built on the edge of a cliff you can jump off. Entrance to the nature reserve is 15Q (less than 2 USD).
Shop at Chichicastenango
Chichi Market is most famous for its textiles, especially huipils. These are traditional garments worn by indigenous females in Guatemala.
Chichi is also known for its wood carvings, leather goods, colourful fabrics, handmade jewellery, candles, medicinal plants, fruits, vegetables, candles, condiments and numerous other souvenirs to take home.
The market is open every day with the main days and extended opening hours being on Thursdays and Sundays. There are tourist shuttles to take you to the market but for the most authentic experience, take the local “chicken buses”.
Hike to La Nariz
For some of the best views over Lake Atitlan, hike to La Nariz (Indian’s Nose). It’s a short but steep 30-minute uphill climb but the views are definitely worth it.
This place is considered sacred to the indigenous people that Lake Atitlan is home to. They sometimes pray and conduct religious services at the top.
The hike starts in Santa Clara. You can either take a guide, which is popular if you’re wanting to do the hike for sunrise as there isn’t a lot of accommodation closeby. Robberies, in particular, while it’s dark are also known to happen here.
Alternatively, you can take a local chicken bus to Santa Clara. Maps.Me is a fantastic app if you’ve not used it before. You can download the map offline and it’ll clearly show you where the trail is.
Hike San Pedro Volcano
Towering above San Pedro village is San Pedro Volcano, rewarding hikers with magnificent views over Lake Atitlan, Mayan villages and other neighbouring volcanoes. The volcano is no longer active and is now a protected wilderness area.
The volcano is 3.020 metres above sea level with an elevation gain of roughly 1400 metres. The 6.5-kilometre hike is rated as medium-difficult and should take around 3 hours to reach the top.
The easiest way to get to the trailhead is to take a tuk-tuk the 10-minute drive. It should cost around 10Q. Once you’ve reached the trailhead, you’ll need to pay an entrance fee of 100Q (approx. 13 USD) which will also include a guide if you wish.
There are agencies in San Pedro where you can pay for a guide but they’ll also charge more for the transport costs. The cheapest thing to do is take a tuk-tuk and use a guide included in the entrance fee.
Our Top Tip: It can get quite windy and cold at the top so take a jacket with you.
Do Some Yoga
Where to Stay on Lake Atitlan
I’ll mention Panajachel first as it’s the gateway to the lake. Depending what time you arrive, and if boats are still running, you may have to spend a night here anyway.
Panajachel is the most developed and touristy town on Lake Atitlan’s shore. You won’t get the laidback vibes of the smaller villages, but you will get lots of options when it comes to shopping, hotels and eating out. If you’re looking for somewhere that’s more lively, I’d recommend Panajachel as one of your options. Head to Santander Street where you’ll find handicraft stalls, restaurants and rowdy bars among other things.
San Pedro La Laguna
San Pedro La Laguna is popular with backpackers as you’ll find some of the cheapest prices around Lake Atitlan. It’s also a great place to meet new people, socialise and go out in the evenings.
Although San Pedro has earned a reputation for being a bit of a party town, it’s also a great place to completely unwind and chill out while keeping a bit of atmosphere. It’s the town with the most options in terms of accommodation, restaurants, shops and if you’re wanting to learn Spanish, it’s got the highest concentration of Spanish schools making the prices extremely competitive. You can easily avoid the parties.
Hostel Fe is the party hostel in San Pedro. I stayed here for 2 nights before heading over to the more laidback San Marcos. The outside bar can get quite rowdy and they have a deck you can jump off into the lake. Sometimes they have large inflatables to jump on. It’s a great place if you want the nightlife and to meet new people.
Our Top Tip: the only downside to San Pedro is that, although you’re able to swim in the lake it’s fairly dirty and polluted here. The government are doing their best to clean it but it’s not uncommon for people to get sick in the lake. I’d recommend taking a boat over to San Marcos to swim.
San Marcos La Laguna
San Marcos is a cute town, on the other side of the lake to San Pedro with a very different vibe. If you’re looking for something more peaceful and less crowded but still with options for dining and activities, then San Marcos is an idyllic choice.
San Marcos is also the perfect place if you’re into meditation, massages, spiritual practises and yoga. It’s best described as having a “hippy vibe” and it’s pretty common to see dreadlocked foreigners who’ve made this place home for a few months by selling jewellery.
The best places to swim in the lake are found here. I’d recommend heading to Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve for crystal clear water, walking trails and a platform on the cliff edge to jump off.
There are a few other villages, like Santa Cruz, that are very secluded. You’ll most likely eat all of your meals at your accommodation, but they’re a great place if you’re wanting to get off the grid and unwind. Regardless of which village you stay in, you can easily do trips to the other villages.
Our Top Tip: some of the towns have paths between them but it’s not recommended that you walk. There have previously been robberies targeting backpackers. Instead, take a tuk-tuk or a boat (see below).
How To Get Around Lake Atitlan
It’s very easy to get around Lake Atitlan if you’re moving to a different village or if you’d prefer to use one as your base and make day trips out.
One of the first things you’ll notice is how dire the roads are! Most roads are bumpy dirt tracks, so, the easiest and most comfortable way to get around the lake is using the boats or lanchas.
Boats leave from the dock in each town and the men working there will point you in the direction of which boat to take for your destination. There isn’t a set schedule per se, instead, they tend to wait to fill up before leaving.
Boats start running at 6:30am and the last boat leaves around 7:30pm. Prices seem to change quite regularly, but as a tourist, you’ll be charged more than a local.
Our Top Tip: if you can, take the boat in the morning when the water is calmer. The wind usually picks up in the afternoon and makes the conditions rougher.
All the towns around Lake Atitlan are full of tuk-tuks. They’re quick and convenient but fairly pricey compared to the other means of transport. They’re handy for getting around the town you’re in but I’d recommend taking a boat to another town. Prices increase at night and also when you enter a new part of town.
Chicken buses are also a common way to get around the lake. You may have to take a few rather than a direct one, but they’re fun and cheap to use. They’re also quite straightforward to use if you do have to change. Usually, your next bus will pick you up exactly where the last one dropped you off.
How To Get To Lake Atitlan
How Long Should I Spend on Lake Atitlan?
Lake Atitlan is somewhere you can spend a few days or a few months. I spent three nights here and I would have liked at least one if not two more.
I’d recommend at least two nights in two places so you can experience the different vibes of the villages and the contrasting views on different sides of the lake. Four nights in total will give you enough time to get a feel for the place and try out various things to do.
It’s also very common for people to spend longer here either through one of the numerous volunteering options or at a yoga retreat.
I hope you’ve found this guide helpful in planning your visit to Lake Atitlan. If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment or contact us 🙂