WHERE TO STAY ON LAKE ATITLAN
Located in the south-west highlands, and flanked by a veritable team of volcanoes, Lake Atitlan is one of Guatemala’s most spectacular destinations. Home to Central America’s most breathtaking sunrises & sunsets, it is little surprise that people have fallen in love with the lake for over a thousand years.
We came here to climb a volcano, do some yoga, and stare at the view.
But where on earth to stay?
Despite the environmental challenge (and slightly murky truth) that we’ve written about before, Atitlan remains one of our favourite places from our trip so far - A result of the people, the landscape & the variety of towns to explore around the basin.
Unbeknownst to me, Lake Atitlan is not a destination in it’s self and you have to pick from a number of lake-side towns as your base. There are a few, some at the waters edge, some further back in the foothills of the volcanoes, and some more welcoming than others.
Which makes deciding where to base yourself a little more challenging.
To help with the process we summarise the various towns below and provide some top-tips on where to stay.
Known as ‘Pana’ (or ‘Pana-pana’ if you’re a lancha skipper trying to hustle tourists), it is often a first stop given it’s good road connections and it’s a comfortable lay-over. There are great views of the volcanoes across the lake, especially at sunset, and a fair few places to stay & eat to suit any budget. The market stall owners are a little keen (read: agressive) & we felt a bit limited in terms of places to chill out with an atmosphere.
**Caveat: we’re travelling in off-season so travellers to fill the bars & restaurants have been a little thin on the ground**
Nevertheless, a great place to find your bearings & do some shopping. You’ll find back-packers in transit, an older generation of tour group travellers & Guatemalan families weekending here.
Stay: Dreamboat Hostel: Privates from Q175 (£17.50) per night. Dorms from Q65 (£6.50).
Don’t miss: Your bus connection!
San Pedro La Laguna
Where most back-packers end up. Mainly down to a solid mix of low-prices, good nightlife & a huge variety of cafes & restaurants. It’s main centre is close to the lake but extends back up into the foothills of the volcano it takes it’s name from. Be careful here - you could come for a weekend and stay for a month.
Stay: Hotel Mikaso: Privates from Q200 (£20.00) per night. Dorms from Q60 (£6) per night
Climbing Volcan San Pedro - By far one of the most spectacular things we have done so far. It took our breathe away (figuratively & literally). It’s a steep climb to a summit of 3000m - a bit like doing 3 hours on a particularly vicious stair-master - but broken up by a couple of refuge stops & a rope swing off the edge.
You can organise this trip from any tour-agency in town or from your hostel - about Q250 (£25) per person. Note that you can only do this in the morning, starting at 6am, 7am or 8am but rarely later. Guides are encouraged (and very useful) but not required. If you choose to go it alone you have to sign a waiver at the visitors centre. About 3 hours up & 2 hours down. Be patient at the top if the view is obscured, the clouds roll continuously and the view you’ll get will make all the thigh-burn worth it.
A little video of our hike below!
Bolso Bags - Handcrafted leather goods of the most insane beauty & quality. You’d drop a lot on something even half as gorgeous as one of these in London or New York. Although expensive too, you’d be buying at source and 20% of the cost goes straight into the local communities who make them & social & environment projects on Lake Atitlan. Wildly out of our price-range, Steph just had to lick the window, but we thought it important to pass on - also Christmas is around the corner… soooo… Read more about them here: https://www.bolsobags.com/new-page-4/
San Juan La Laguna
The next town along from San Pedro, it has a completely different vibe to the bustling back-packer hot-spot. You can tour the quiet streets, learn to weave at a local co-operative (like Casa Flor Ixcaco) & - somewhat uncomfortably - witness local women weeping over the death of Christ around the church.
Stay: Eco-Hotel Mayachik offers somewhat quirky but comfortable rooms, both privates & dorms, with afresh breakfast options & beautiful views across the jungle. Privates from Q186 (£20) per night. Dorms from Q83 (£9).
Dusk around the church - when worshippers light candles & pour rum onto flower petals strewn across the steps
The Indian Nose Sunrise Hike - Up at 4am, a 30 minute ascent, a spectacular sunrise and a casual walk back town. A good option for those pressed for time and less keen on a 5 hour sweat-a-thon up San Pedro - about Q115 (£11.50) per person with a guide & shuttle to the start. Cheaper if you just a take a tuk-tuk and go it alone (in the dark… up a mountain…)
The largest town on the lake, people mostly visit here for the church & to experience a bustling & authentic lake-side town - especially on market days (Sundays & Fridays). You’ll see first hand the interesting blend of traditional Maya-Catholicism & many of the local community dressed in traditional clothing.
Stay: We’d actually advise coming back to San Pedro to sleep. Santiago is a great day-trip but decent accommodation is quite expensive. If you’re determined however, Hotel y Restaurant Bambu has a pool, private lake access & lovely grounds to explore.
Everyones favourite Saint - When you arrive listen out for guides offering to help you visit the Mayan spirit / folk-saint known as Maximón (mah-shee-mohn) or San Simon. He lives in Santiago but intriguingly moves house each year. He’s a bit of a badass; a shapeshifter who drinks rum, smokes cigars & loves tortillas (all of which are offered to him regularly). He has as many roles as he does faces, ranging from protection, success, sexuality, resilience, justice, prosperity, wealth… all of the good stuff. Ask around and you should be able to track him down.
San Marcos La Laguna
Known predominantly for it’s ‘new-age’ vibes, you can sign up for a yoga retreat, learn how to grow your own mushrooms (edible and otherwise), grow your hair into dreads and swap all of your synthetics for hemp without turning any heads.
We spent most of our time on the lake here, but no, we’re not hippies (yet!).
We were actually here during low-season, so we mainly found an incredibly chilled out & peaceful haven, some of the best gelato we’ve ever eaten and the most spectacular view of San Pedro volcano.
Stay: Hostel de Lago - Stunning views from their pier, their restaurant is part of the slow food movement (and tasting all the better for it), & a they have a great selection of craft Guatemalan beer. Privates from Q160 (£16). Dorms from Q70 (£7)
The purpose built dive platform - As one of the smallest towns, this part of the lake is typically very clean and the best spot to swim if you choose to. The platform offers a 7m jump into the lake. It’s located inside the Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve.
Early morning, lake-side yoga - The air is still & fresh, the lake like glass & the light low. Even if you’re a bit rubbish at the postions (hi, us too), you’re guaranteed to leave feeling peaceful.
Off the beaten track …
The next town along from San Marcos, this is a short-walk around the lake’s edge. Your view is a little obscured by private villas & gates, but it is pleasant enough in the evenings. We were warned not to walk between the towns in general (tuk-tuks & lanchas are cheap so it’s not worth the risk), but this one was pretty close and very accessible.
Very quiet, and not at all touristy, but home to a beautiful farm-to-table restaurant & bamboo guest house set back into the hills. Worth a visit & a stay if they have availability.
Stay: Bambu Guesthouse* - a stunning building made of natural materials, this place is a centre for regenerative living (not entirely sure of the scope of that), permaculture (same again), and holistic health (as defined). There are dorms & private rooms, a beautiful yoga & a workshop space (with stunning views). Privates from Q280 (£28) per night. Enquire directly for dorms.
Don’t Miss: The associated Farm-to-Table restaurant stocked by Atitlán Organics, where all dishes are local, fresh & prepared to order
*not to be confused with ‘Hotel y Restaurant Bambu’ in Santiago de Atitlan
For the daring…
San Pablo La Laguna
We didn’t visit here, but were warned (in no uncertain terms) that this is not one for the average tourist. lacking in infrastructure for visitors - like hostels, cafes or places to eat - Santos (our guide on our Volcano hike) was pretty clear “ there mala gente” - Bad People.
On the flip-side, we’ve also heard that it is often visited by the next-level spiritual - we’re talking darkness retreats, mystical yoga & Shaman ceremonies where you’re guided through frightening mushroom trips in order to confront your darkest demons & own personal hell (sounds delightful). Not for the feint hearted - or slightly tame… we’ll just be over here drinking our banana smoothies & playing UNO…
We spent 5 days in Atitlan in total, but only in one town. Instead we travelled between them all during the day via boat, tuk-tuk or on foot. Since leaving, I’ve had it in the back of my head that we’ll go back there - as if we have simply been travelling Guatemala and will soon return home; to a land of glittering water, blue volcanoes, and operatic sunsets.
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