Lake Atitlan is one of those truly special places that I think everyone who gets the privilege of travel needs to experience. Here’s why.
It’s real dang pretty.
Seriously. Just look at this.
The weather is perfection. Always.
The weather in Guatemala in general can get HOT on the coasts, so if you’re looking for some cool fun in the sun + water I’d advise Atitlan. Central America + some mountainous altitude yields beautiful balmy times year round. There is a bit of a rainy season though, so if to get those killer views you may prefer to go during their summer months (November-May) for clarity’s sake.
Water = Good Times
You can jump from high places, dive to low ones, and scoot around the surface to your heart’s content.
You can jump from El Trampolin at San Marcos and enjoy the really great swimming sunning on large rocks around the same place. It’s all at Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve, so be prepared to pay 20 Qs (<$3) for the privilege of enjoying the space and to help them preserve it. My advice? Focus on your pencil form. Smacked arms are no bueno. Also, maybe ask around about the lake depth. We unknowingly jumped when the lake was a little low, making the jump farther, and I may or may not have needed to pay for a massage to work out the neck pain afterward. Or maybe I’m just getting older. I’ll let you figure it out.
The nature reserve is also where you can rent kayaks. It’s a really fun way to spend a few hours on the lake. Don’t ignore your life jacket though. When the winds pick up the kayak is very flippable. Mi amor may know from experience.
You can also go diving with ATi divers at La Iguana Perdida hotel in Santa Cruz.
It’s also just a really good time taking a lancha (boat taxi) everywhere when you want to visit other towns.
If you pay attention, you’ll notice that each town’s indigenous folks are wearing slightly differently patterned traditional clothing (especially the women). We worked alongside indigenous ladies in San Marcos speaking Kaqchikel. For many indigenous peoples in Guatemala, Spanish is their second language. There are 21 Mayan languages in Guatemala and the population is 40-60% indigenous peoples. Despite this, they have no formal representation in the government. That’s a whole other post, and I’m probably not the one to write it. Here’s a small sampling of resources if your curious about indigenous history and culture:
Killings of Guatemala’s Indigenous Activists Raise Specter of Human Rights Crisis on NPR’s All Things Considered, January 2019
Indigenous and female: life at the bottom in Guatemala by Ellen Wulfhorst for Reuters, May 2017
The Indigenous Role in Guatemalan Peace by Kay B. Warren for Cultural Survival, June 1997
The Blood of Guatemala: A History of Race and Nation by Greg Grandin for Duke University Press, March 2000
To take a deeper dive, I recommend visiting Solola and Santiago market days on Fridays. We didn’t make it to Santiago, but my Spanish tutor told me that a lot of the men still wear the traditional clothing there which is a much rarer sight than the women.
A bit more touristy because they have capitalized on the tourism industry, you should also visit San Juan. The laws in this town prohibit anyone but indigenous peoples from owning land, so all the of the businesses are indigenous owned. You can visit places that roast chocolate, make traditional Mayan herbal medicine, honey makers, and visit weaving and painting cooperatives. You’ll especially want to buy textiles while in Guatemala and San Juan is a good place to do it.
We spent most of our souvenir money at Panajachel, the largest lake town. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.
Lake Atitlan is a more longstanding tourist destination, so whatever your needs the lake can accommodate. From backpacker to luxury budgets, Atitlan has it all. Earthy yoga retreat? Yep. Private luxury AirBnBs that you need a private boat to get to? You betcha. The cheapest hostel money can buy? Mhm. You get the idea. It’s also pretty easy for shuttles to and from Atitlan and other destinations. Especially the ever popular Antigua or the airport in Guatemala City.
The hippie folk in San Marcos will tell you all about energy centers and a sort of particular power they feel in the lake and the volcanoes. I’m not sure about that myself, but it IS a pretty special place.
Whether the lake, mountains, volcanoes, or forests connecting with nature (and maybe whatever the hippies are talking about too) is only steps away.
Guatemala is not a very expensive destination in general. Atitlan may be a bit pricier than a lot of other less visited parts of the country, but it is way cheaper than Antigua. At the time of our visit $1 = 7.68 quetzales. For our entire 6 weeks we spent less than $600 per person. Granted, we were volunteering in exchange for a room and some food and sticking to a pretty strict budget but STILL. It wasn’t hard to stick to that budget and we were a little sticker shocked when our next destination was Antigua.
Don’t just take my word for it…
The Towns of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala by Adventurous Kate
20 Amazing Things to do in Lake Atitlan by The Broke Backpacker
You’re planning already aren’t you?
Save this so you won’t forget!