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Lake Atitlan is one of the most beautiful places to visit in Guatemala. Formed by a volcanic eruption thousands of years ago, a massive crater was left that got filled with a body of water now known as Lake Atitlan. Surrounded by volcanoes and natural beauty, there are many so many wonderful outdoor adventures and things to do in Lake Atitlan.
Lake Atitlan is just a couple of hours away from the charming town of Antigua, making it a perfect logical stop on your Guatemala itinerary. You can learn Spanish, enjoy some outdoor recreation, or just kick back and relax by the lake.
Antigua to Lake Atitlan
While it’s possible to get from Antigua to Lake Atitlan all by road, the easier way is by bus and boat transfer. The traffic coming from San Pedro (one of the villages on Lake Atitlan) is a nightmare and you will likely get stuck in it for hours. If you take a bus from Antigua to Panajachel and a short boat from there, the journey will be considerably shorter.
To get from Antigua to Panajachel you can either catch a chicken bus or a tourist bus. If you aren’t familiar, a chicken bus is a modified and decorated school bus that transports goods and people between communities in Latin American countries. Chicken buses are the main form of local transportation in Guatemala.
Taking a chicken bus is a fun experience that you should try at least once on your visit to Guatemala, but I don’t like to use them to go long distances. While it’s always the cheapest form of transport, they can be hot and crowded, which isn’t always fun when you’re carrying your bags. Chicken busses also take significantly longer as they stop to pick up people in each community along the way.
If you do want to take the chicken bus from Antigua to Panajachel, you can catch one at the main bus station in Antigua (it’s next to the market). There is only one chicken bus a day from Antigua to Lake Atitlan, which leaves at 7 am. It doesn’t arrive until late at night into Panajachel (around 10:45 pm)
A much quicker and comfortable option is to book a tourist bus from Antigua to Lake Atitlan. You can either book it online or through most hostels/hotels in Antigua. I booked mine through Tropicana Hostel, which is a great hostel to stay in Antigua. The tourist van will pick you up at your accommodation and transport you to Panajachel.
You can also hire a private shuttle to take you between Antigua and Panajachel. If you split the cost between a group, this isn’t a bad option.
The drive from Antigua to Panajachel takes about 2.5 hours and is scenic, especially as you start to approach the lake. You can request to be dropped off at the public dock where you can get a boat to the other villages of Lake Atitlan.
Pro tip: Book your shuttle/boat ride to coincide with sunset, it’s stunning.
The Towns of Lake Atitlan
There are several communities and small towns surrounding Lake Atitlan, and where you should stay depends entirely on your preference. Each of the towns has its own distinct vibe. If you have the time, it’s worth checking out a few. You can always stay in one and visit the others as day trips.
San Pedro is the main backpacker town. Here you’ll find a lot of affordable accommodation options, delicious restaurants, and a lively night scene. Many backpackers come here to study Spanish for the low cost of living. I based myself out of San Pedro as I knew people there and it’s an easy point for getting around the other villages and taking day tours.
I stayed at Mr. Mullet’s hostel which I enjoyed. They have a nice bar/social area, a legit free breakfast, and clean, small dorm rooms. Plus lots of hammocks to chill out on! This hostel is great value.
If you prefer private accommodation, check out Mikaso Hotel. This hotel is located right on the lake and has a beautiful rooftop terrace you can sunbathe on while soaking up the view.
San Marcos is a haven for hippies. Here you will find a number of yoga and meditation retreats, so this is the ideal place to stay if that’s what you’re looking for. It’s also home to Reserva Natural del Cerro Tzankujil, a beautiful nature reserve where you can jump off a 7m platform into Lake Atitlan. The nightlife here is quiet.
Santa Cruz is less touristy and has a strong Mayan culture present, so this is an ideal place if you’re looking for a more authentic and quiet experience. However, you won’t find many restaurants and shops here.
Panajachel is the most developed town around Lake Atitlan. It’s where the bus shuttles from Antigua will bring you. It has great markets and gorgeous views of the lake and surrounding volcanoes from the dock. Calle Santander is the main street, where you can find lots of shopping and restaurants. It’s a good place to buy souvenirs in Guatemala with reasonable prices.
How Long to Spend in Lake Atitlan
Since there are a number of towns surrounding Lake Atitlan all with unique things to do, I’d recommend spending at least 3-4 days in this area, otherwise, you will feel rushed.
You could easily spend longer than that in Lake Atitlan. Many travelers stay for weeks or months studying Spanish. There are also long-term volunteer opportunities here, as well as yoga retreats. The setting of the lake is so beautiful, so it’s the perfect place to stay for an extended period if you’re looking to unwind. If you look on Airbnb, there are many affordable long term rentals.
Best Things to do in Lake Atitlan
Take a hike
With the stunning surrounding landscapes, one of the best things to do in Lake Atitlan is to go hiking. One of the most epic hikes is San Pedro Volcano. This summit of this volcano is 3020m high so this is a very strenuous hike. At the top, you will be rewarded with panoramic views of the Lake Atitlan region.
I had just come from hiking Acatenago Volcano, and my legs couldn’t face another volcano hike, so I never got the chance to do this. Just another reason to return to Guatemala!
A great alternative hike to San Pedro is the Indian Nose hike. It offers some of the best views of Lake Atitlan and is only a 30-minute climb to the top where you can see the volcanic chain. You can hike Indian Nose on your own during the day or join a guided tour of Indian Nose for Sunrise.
You can also hike between Santa Cruz and San Marcos which is a great way to see local village life in Lake Atitlan.
Kayaking or SUP on the lake
How many times can you say you’ve kayaked in a Volcanic crater? Wander the main tourist streets of San Pedro and you will see tons of tour companies offering kayak rentals. The standard prize is 15 quetzals per kayak per hour (2018 prices). From the water, you get amazing views of Volcano San Pedro and Indian Nose. It’s better to go kayaking early in the morning as the water can get choppy in the afternoon.
You can also take a boat trip to explore the lake.
Relax/Swim in the lake
This is what I spent most of the time in Lake Atitlan doing – relaxing and enjoying the beautiful surrounding scenery.
There are mixed reviews about the safety of swimming in the lake, but a beautiful lake glistening in the sun is just too much for me to resist. I had to jump in. Honestly, I was fine after swimming in the lake. That said, I have heard tales of people getting sick. The government is making efforts to clean up the pollution in the lake, so use your discretion and ask around what the current situation is.
San Marcos is known for having the cleanest water to swim in. It’s home to the Reserva Natural del Cerro Tzankujil, where you can go cliff jumping into the lake.
Late Atitlan provides the setting for a unique experience to go diving at high altitude. It’s not your typical diving experience. The water will be murky, but you can see volcanic rock walls and boulders, the remains of flooded docks and houses, as well a unique fissure with a volcanic hot vent that could cook an egg! The main company in town for diving is Ati Divers.
If you’re looking for an active way to see the beauty of Lake Atitlan, then check out these mountain biking tours. Departing from Panajachel via boat, you head over to the village Tzununa, and take the bikes through San Marcos, San Juan, and San Pedro la Laguna. This is a great way to see several of the towns in Lake Atitlan in one day all while on a fun adventure.
Another great way to explore the area is to join a horseback riding tour. It takes you to the village of San Juan, passing through many coffee plantations along the way. San Juan is known for it’s textiles, art galleries, and coffee.
Watch the Sunset
Lake Atitlan is the perfect place to watch the sunset. As the sun goes down and the sky changes into hues of yellow and orange, the volcanoes become beautiful silhouettes. The best place to watch the sunset is from Panajachel, as it faces West.
San Pedro is one of the cheapest places in Central America to learn Spanish. Guatemalans speak slowly and have great pronunciation, so it’s one of the easier places to learn in Latin America. With the beautiful backdrop of the lake and volcanoes, cheap accommodation, and readily available and affordable Spanish schools, San Pedro is the perfect place to learn some Spanish before traveling through the rest of Central America.
Where to Eat and Drink in Lake Atitlan
San Pedro has some really nice restaurants and cafes. My favorite restaurant was Zababa, it has a beautiful interior with swings overlooking the water while you eat. The sunset was great to watch from there. It was the only time I’ve tried fried Avocado and it was delicious.
For a cheap but delicious eat, try Ha-falafel. Fifth dimension is another popular choice, which is entirely vegetarian.
If you are in Panajachel, check out Deli Jasmin which has a gorgeous garden, and delicious vegetarian food.
If you want to go out while in Lake Atitlan, San Pedro is your best bet. It has a reputation for being a party place among backpackers.
Sublime was my favorite bar in the town. During the day they have a deck that’s pretty chill, but at night it picks up. They have a good variety of drinks, a dance floor with different types of music each night, and often throw themed parties.
Another popular place to go in San Pedro Wild Rover, which is a party hotel chain found throughout Latin America.
Where to go after Lake Atitlan
If you didn’t come from Antigua, I recommend spending at least a day there exploring the gorgeous colonial towns and the hike up Acatenango Volcano. Another option after Lake Atitlan is to head to the town of Xela, where you can explore some beautiful natural hot springs. It is also possible to visit Semuc Champey from Lake Atitlan, but this will be a LONG journey, around 12 hours.
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