I absolutely loved Lake Atitlan. Imagine a very blue lake surrounded by mountains, with lots of cute villages dotting the shore. If you come to Guatemala, you should definitely stop here. Take as much time as you can because there are lots of things to do and see.
One of my favourite parts about Lake Atitlan was going to the many villages that surround the lake. We took a boat and just hopped from one place to another. Along the way, we admired street art, sat in cafes and tasted local chocolate. It was an amazing day. I just advise you to start early, because the weather tends to get more and more cloudy during the day.
If you’re heading to Lake Atitlan yourself, here are my five favourite villages that you should visit.
Panajachel was our base for exploring Lake Atitlan. Before we went, I had heard many negative things about this village. It was supposed to be too touristy, too large, not worth the visit. We still decided to stay here and I don’t regret my decision. Let me explain to you why Panajachel is a good town to base yourself and also worth a visit, even if you’re staying elsewhere.
Our main reason for choosing Panajachel was good connections. We were coming from Santa Ana in El Salvador that day and didn’t know how late we would arrive. Panajachel can easily be reached by bus. We finally made it at half past seven and it was no problem.
But besides Panajachel being a good base and transport hub, the town is also large enough to offer all kind of amenities. You can find ATMs and large supermarkets and lots of restaurants and souvenir shops. If you’re heading out to one of the small villages, stock up on money and food here.
Calle Santander is the main street in Panajachel. This is where you want to head for souvenir shopping. Whether you need magnets, ponchos, postcards or handicrafts, you can buy them here. Calle Santander is also a good place to go for lunch or dinner.
North of Calle Santander, you find the Catholic church and the market. The church, decorated with lots of white cloth, is very interesting from the inside. And at the market, you can buy fresh fruit and vegetables.
I only had good food while staying in Panajachel. My favourite two restaurants are La Palapa and Hana. La Palapa offered an amazing barbeque where we had the choice between multiple kinds of meat and burgers (they also have veggie options). Then, we got to choose three side dishes. The portions were large. We weren’t particularly hungry and shared the spare ribs and it was more than enough for us. So if you ever see them offer the barbeque, go for it!
The second restaurant I recommend is Hana. It is a Japanese restaurant and I knew I had to go there when I saw on their Instagram account that they offered fried ice cream as a seasonal special. It was absolutely delicious, both the ice cream and the main dishes we had here.
#2 San Marcos La Laguna
I think San Marcos was my favourite out of all the villages we visited as day trips. We arrived here by boat from Panajachel and didn’t even make it into the village. We saw the Posada Schumann next to the pier and the terrace overlooking the lake and stopped here for a coffee. I can highly recommend this place, it is amazing for looking at the lake and watching boats arrive and leave.
From Posada Schumann, make your way up into the village. You will walk along a tiny street. Here, you find cafes, shops and lots of street art along the way.
Our next stop was Xocolatl. It is a museum, shop, and cafe at the same time, dedicated to chocolate. Step inside to get a free tour and explanations about the process of making chocolate. And not just that, you will also get to taste chocolate, chocolate spreads, and chocolate tea.
If you like meditation or yoga, keep your eyes open while walking through San Marcos. Many places offer classes. At the end of the street, you can even find a board which announces all the events in town. Also, if the weather is clear, go back to the water and walk westwards. At the end of the path leading along the shore, you will get access to the hill. We didn’t go there since we would have had to pay an entrance fee and it was a very hazy day, but it’s worth considering if you have good weather.
#3 Santa Catarina Palopo
Santa Catarina Palopo is a beautiful village located next to Panajachel. Pick-up trucks leave from in front of the Catholic church and while, in theory, it is close enough to walk, security can be an issue all along the lakeshore. Plus, the road climbs up quite a bit before it goes down to Santa Catarina.
Santa Catarina Palopo is known for its colourful houses. The inhabitants painted them in blue and green, the colours of the lake. It is fun to walk around for a while and spend time taking pictures of the beautiful paintings. We stopped at Cafe Tuk, close to the church and the main square, where we had tea and coffee.
If you turn your back to the main entrance door of the church and walk straight, keeping slightly to your right, you will enter a narrow alley that leads you up to the Centro Cultural. Here, you can learn about the people living on the shore of the lake and their culture. They also have a shop where they sell handicrafts.
Next, when in Santa Catarina Palopo, walk down to the lake. On clear days, you have an amazing view of the volcanoes. Even on hazy days, like the one we had, the view is pretty.
#4 Santiago Atitlan
Santiago is one of the larger towns around the lake. We made the mistake of arriving here too late in the afternoon. By the time we got here, it was three o’clock and it was so cold that I just wanted to go back home. So make sure to get here early enough to enjoy the city.
Santiago is known for its handicrafts. Starting from the pier, walk up and you will get past lots of souvenir and handicraft shops. Most offer similar crafts, but if you look carefully, you will find some stores that have specialised in carving wood. There is also a small museum about the art of weaving that you can visit.
If you walk up far enough and turn left, you will end up at the Central Square. In its middle, you can take a look at a model of the lake and its surrounding volcanos. Just behind it, you find Santiago’s largest church. It is well worth a visit as its interior is decorated with white cloths and looks very different from what you’d expect a church to be like back home. When Christianity arrived, the Mayans adapted it to their own beliefs and it makes for a unique culture that you cannot find anywhere else. Plus, I have never seen a church so full of people that some had to stand outside.
At the pier, we came across several tuk-tuk drivers offering tours to churches, a Mayan temple, and viewpoints. As I said, when I was here, I was cold and just wanted to go back. Plus, with the fog, there was no use in going to any of the viewpoints. But if you decided to make your way there, let me know if it was worth it.
#5 San Pedro La Laguna
San Pedro La Laguna is the town where most backpackers base themselves to visit the lake. Personally, I liked Panajachel better but I don’t really think it matters where you end up. San Pedro offers beautiful lake views and the first thing we did was walk along a street close to the shore of the lake. We came past many cafes, restaurants and tour agencies and also a kayak rental shop. If we’d had more time, I totally would have gone there to paddle around the lake for a while.
In town, you can find the Museum Tz’unun ‘Ya. It was unfortunately closed when we arrived (it was Sunday afternoon), but I would have loved to see it to learn more about the local culture. Besides visiting the museum, you can wander the streets and observe locals going about their daily business. Or you have a relaxing break and soak in one of the thermal baths that you can find in town. Los Termales has a good reputation.
As already mentioned, I based myself in Panajachel while visiting Lake Atitlan. We stayed in Pana House which had very affordable twin rooms with private bathroom. The owners were very nice and helpful and we also had a fully equipped kitchen. I can highly recommend this place. Just like I can recommend staying in Guatemala for a few weeks and checking out everything this beautiful country has to offer.
Have you ever been to Lake Atitlan? Where did you go and what did you do?
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