Lake Atitlan Travel Guide for First-Time Visitors
Here is our travel budget guide on Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. Read more about the best things to do, top activities, tips on where to stay, when to travel, how to get to Lake Atitlan, and safety advice.
Lake Atitlan attracts a great number of backpackers traveling around Central American country Guatemala, which has been recently discovered by seasoned travelers, tourists, and vacationers.
The country got rid of the stigma of being a dangerous destination, and it is hard to keep overlooking the natural beauty and interesting culture. Although Guatemala has many amazing places, one attraction stands out in particular.
Set in a mesmerizing mountainous landscape, surrounded by volcanoes and gifted by the presence of Maya people, Lake Atitlan has recently become a top attraction in Guatemala, and thanks to plenty of things to do, it is a destination you should for sure put on your Guatemala itinerary. Simply put, Guatemala is nowadays on travelers’ radar.
The great thing about Lake Atitlan is, that it easily entertains every type of traveler, and the location close to another popular must-visit place Antigua, makes it an unmissable stop, and it does not matter whether you have a couple of days, or your schedule allows you to visit Lake Atitlan only on a one-day trip without an overnight stay. Every experience is well worth it, and even a short glimpse of the sparkling water surface will stay in your memories forever.
Lake Atitlan offers a large selection of things to do, and this is the main reason why it is a destination you simply cannot miss.
You can be a yoga person, avid hiker, you can love relaxing on the lake's shore, your main motivation can be to learn Spanish or know more about Maya people, who live in many villages surrounding the lake (and believe us it is hard not to be overwhelmed by the indigenous culture, because every village has the authentic style and authentic handicrafts), or simply if you enjoy taking pictures of beautifully blue lakes with volcanoes on the backdrop or you just want to enjoy a beer with other backpackers - Lake Atitlan is here for everyone.
When visiting the area for the first time, and when looking for inspiration on things to do, top attractions to see, information on where to stay, which village to visit or how to get to Lake Atitlan, you are at the right place. In this travel guide, we would like to cover everything you need to know before visiting Lake Atitlan.
BEST THINGS TO DO AT LAKE ATITLAN
The dramatic scenery, pleasant weather, and colorful clothes define Lake Atitlan.
When not on a strict schedule, it is pretty easy to lose track of time, and every day find a new activity, and discover before unseen highlights.
But if you are working on your Guatemala itinerary without much success, and cannot afford to go just with the flow, here are the top things to do around Lake Atitlan.
Hike San Pedro Volcano | Towering above the small town San Pedro La Laguna is the cone-shaped San Pedro volcano offering one of the most amazing views of Lake Atitlan.
Hiking to the top of 3020 meters high volcano is one of the best activities to do in this area.
To get to the trailhead take a short tuk-tuk ride to the San Pedro Ecological Park entrance.
Pay the entrance fee Q100 and start your hike.
Mind you, this is not for faint-hearted hikers as you will ascend more than 1100 meters of elevation on the way up on less than 5 kilometers. To get to the top, it usually takes three to five hours, depending on your level of fitness.
We would recommend hiring a guide for safety reasons, also keep your valuables in the hotel room, and pack appropriately for the trip.
Almost every single travel agency can arrange the hike for travelers, or you can reserve your spot in advance.
Watch Sunset | Is there anything even better than watching the sunrise at Lake Atitlan? Maybe only sunset.
The lake is a magical place, and from its shore, it is spectacular to see how the sky and surrounding volcanoes are turning red, orange and pink. For the best experience, look for hotels with a lake view, so you can catch the show right in your room.
Towns and Villages | A trip to Lake Atitlan wouldn't be complete without exploring its remarkable towns.
If time allows, visit more than just one town on Lake Atitlan's shore. Even if you are planning to visit the lake on a day trip from Guatemala City or Antigua, it's worth to take a boat ride to one of the many villages sitting on the shores of Lake Atitlan.
Every village and town is different, some places are very quiet, some, on the other hand, are buzzing with life and movement. Towns usually boast with colorful handicraft markets, and they are perfect places for souvenir shopping.
Although it can seem that the villages must be similar, it is not true. It is pretty remarkable, that more than 90% of people living around Lake Atitlan are Maya descendants, and they still treasure their traditions and customs.
If you are backpacker, want to meet new people, party, hang out, and socialize with others, and looking for a cheap place to stay, you will find all of this and much more in San Pedro La Laguna. This is the most popular town on the Lake Atitlan shore with well-established backpacker scene. Panajachel is usually the starting point for visiting the area, so you will meet here many people too.
And if you are seeking for more peaceful and less crowded experience, there are still plenty of places to go - to get the idyllic atmosphere, head either to Santa Cruz or San Marcos.
Learn Spanish | It's been said many times, that learning a local language will help you to understand the country and its people better. And you know what?
There is probably not a better place at Lake Atitlan to take a few Spanish courses than in San Pedro La Laguna, a small village on its shore, which can also be your base for exploring the area.
We know that if you are on your vacation, that you don't have time to spend weeks to learn Spanish, but some of the courses are created for travelers to learn some basics in one day.
When we were traveling in South and Central America, very soon we found out that it is absolutely necessary to know at least basic words, because English is not widely spoken in these countries.
Even though the nearby Antigua is more popular among backpackers, learning the language with views of Lake Atitlan and clouds above volcanoes can be once in a lifetime experience.
Drive Around the Lake | Driving around the lake early in the morning and watching the lake illuminated by sun penetrating the thick fog was one of our favorite experiences.
If traveling around Guatemala by car, take advantage of it, get up early, and enjoy your independence to the fullest while driving through the darkened landscape.
Take a Yoga Class | We have a feeling that yoga has never been more popular than it is now.
This activity is booming, and people working in the travel industry quickly understood that to attract more people, they have to go with this trend, therefore even in Guatemala, and at Lake Atitlan to be precise, you can find several yoga retreats, where you can work on your body and soul.
Out of all small villages around Lake Atitlan, San Marcos town is known for being the most hippie and yoga friendly - in case you are interested in this activity, it won't take long, and you will stumble upon a flyer or a person offering a yoga class.
It is hard to distinguish the quality though, so always rely on word of mouth.
Indian Nose Hike | The photo from the viewing point at the end of Indian Nose Hike is one of the most iconic ones from this destination.
The trek itself is not long, it takes only 30 minutes (although it is pretty steep), and you should be able to find the trailhead when using Maps.me app. The trailhead is located near Santa Clara village.
It is possible to do the hike on own during the day (you will pay Q50 as an entrance fee because the hike leads via a private land), but in case you want to catch the epic sunrise (and do not mind getting up around 3 AM), it is recommended to hire a guide and go with an organized tour because robberies have been reported lately.
Shopping | If you want to buy something really authentic in Guatemala, or you are simply interested in weaving and handworks, head to San Juan village where you can search for high-quality textiles, clothes, and purses.
If you are not looking for anything in particular, and only prefer to see how the local market looks like, it is a good idea to consider visiting Chichicastenango traditional market which is a bit away from Lake Atitlan, but still, it is within driving distance. Closer markets to the lake are in Panajachel or Solola as well, where travelers can taste the fresh produce from the near surroundings.
Water Activities | It would have been weird if there was no supply of water activities near Lake Atitlan, so no worries, you can for sure spend some time on the water surface, no matter if you prefer boat trips, kayaking or paddleboarding.
It is also possible to swim in Lake Atitlan, but better jump in when it is sunny because it can get pretty chilly when it is cloudy.
HOW TO VISIT LAKE ATITLAN ON A ONE-DAY TRIP
We know, that sometimes it is hard to fit all the must-visit places in Guatemala on a week or ten-day itinerary.
As for many travelers, the real base for traveling around the country is Antigua (from where you can also visit the beach destination Monterrico), there are plenty of one-day tours which will allow you to see highlights in only one day, when pressed on time, or if you simply do not want to move from one place to another and look for a new hotel so often.
Although there is a public bus going every morning from Antigua to Panajachel, in case you have only one day, you will most likely have to take a tourist shuttle or a tour, because you would not be able to get back to Antigua on time, and you would also be very limited on things to see.
Here are several tips on tours worth doing from Antigua or Guatemala City:
When to Visit Lake Atitlan & What to Pack
There are only two seasons at Lake Atitlan, and in Guatemala in general - dry and wet.
The dry season starts from November and lasts at the end of April.
During this time, it's sunny and the temperatures are at their highest. It's also the best time to visit Lake Atitlan, though shoulder season is your best bet if you want to avoid the crowds high season always brings.
The wet season is from May to October.
You can expect rain, sometimes heavy, but mostly only in the short periods throughout the day. There might be landslides which can make traveling more difficult, if not, in worst case scenarios, impossible. On the other hand, traveling out of season will give you the advantage to enjoy lower rates and have most of the places for yourself.
We would recommend traveling during the wet season to anyone who is not on a strict schedule, and who can postpone plans or be flexible.
Although seasons at Lake Atitlan change, there are still a couple of things you must pack with you no matter what.
Where to stay near Lake Atitlan
Lake Atitlan's shore is dotted with smaller or bigger villages, and it is only up to you where you will decide to stay.
There is also an option to encircle the lake and stay in a different village every other night.
Before you will choose the right hotel, you need to figure out what kind of place you are looking for (lively or quiet), and then how many Quetzales you are willing to spend for it.
To help you decide where to stay, we highlight three popular towns around Lake Atitlan.
San Pedro La Laguna | The first and only choice for many backpackers is San Pedro La Laguna.
Mikaso Hotel y Restaurante is a popular choice among travelers who want to spend a night in the town.
San Marcos La Laguna | If you are into spiritual practices, meditations, alternative medicine, massages, or yoga, then San Marcos La Laguna is the perfect place to spend your time at Lake Atitlan.
Lush Atitlan is a wonderful hotel close to the lake with nice clean rooms with rustic decor. More expensive rooms have amazing lake and volcano views.
Panajachel | The most developed and touristy town on the shore of Lake Atitlan is a village Panajachel. Panajachel is a transportation hub with all the pros and cons you would expect.
The pros first. It's easy to get in there either from Guatemala City and Antigua, there are many hotels to choose from, there are bars, restaurants, and you meet lots of people there both foreign travelers and Guatemalans, especially on weekends.
All those positives can be easily turned into negatives, in case you do not enjoy company, and prefer more quiet destinations.
How to Get to Lake Atitlan
Once you've landed at La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City, you have a few choices what to do next.
Some travelers choose to travel first to Antigua, and then to Lake Atitlan area, some of them travel there directly.
Good news, several shuttle buses leave the airport daily to Lake Atitlan via Antigua which gives you a freedom to decide your next course of action. The price is $25 per person.
If you want to stay and explore Guatemala City first, most hostels and hotels can arrange a shuttle bus from there.
Tourist shuttle buses operating around Guatemala are the safest and most time-efficient way how to get around the country.
If you don't like this option, take a taxi to the bus terminal, from there hop on a chicken bus to Panajachel, where you can base yourselves or take a boat to one of many towns and villages on the Lake Atitlan shore. This option is cheaper, but better for more seasoned travelers, as this option usually requires more planning and you will spend more time on the way.
We opted to rent a car while in Guatemala so we could have that extra flexibility to explore this beautiful Central American country at our pace and make stops whenever we wanted.
The traffic in Guatemala City can be quite hectic at times, mainly during rush hour.
Also, note that streets in small villages are narrow, and roads around the Lake Atitlan are full of bends, twists, blind corners and require good driving skills especially after dark.
As you can see, there are plenty of options on how to get to Lake Atitlan.
HOW TO GET AROUND LAKE ATITLAN
Public transport around Lake Atitlan is made mostly to suit locals, which is absolutely fine, and you should adjust to the local pace.
In case you need to get from one village to another, always ask locals what time a truck leave, and be mentally prepared you might have to wait until the car fills up.
Except for motorized vehicles, another way how to get around Lake Atitlan, or how to visit another village is to take a boat.
Boats usually run on an infrequent schedule, but you should get an approximate time of departure when asking around.
HOW LONG TO SPEND BY LAKE ATITLAN
How many days to spend near Lake Atitlan?
Well, it is quite tricky to answer.
The truth is, that the lake with volcanoes nearby is so exceptional, it is worth to visit it even for a day.
On the other hand, to get the most of the area, and of some of the best things the area has to offer, consider allocating at least two to three days near the lake.
If you have more days to spend at Lake Atitlan, consider yourself lucky!
The surroundings are out of this world, and with that many top attractions, you do not have to be worried to get bored easily, plus you will enjoy the destination in a much more relaxed way.
Is Lake Atitlan Safe?
Once a dangerous area is now considered quite safe for traveling, and increasing numbers of tourists are proof of that.
However, you should always use your common sense.
Stay watchful while exploring villages, especially crowded areas, markets, poorly lit alleys and places after dark. Consider hiring a professional guide if you plan to hike in the area as robberies have been reported on some hiking trails.
The safety varies from town to town, and the best advice we can give you is, always ask locals about the current situation.
The most up-to-date information you can get is usually by asking a manager in your hotel or local guides.
Another great source is other travelers who have been at Lake Atitlan or already done activities you want to try.
That said, we've never felt in danger and enjoyed our stay there.
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