In Guatemala, Lake Atitlán is one of the country’s top tourist attractions and for good reason: the lake and the surrounding landscapes are quite simply spectacular! Follow the guide!
👍 The Captain’s top picks 👍
Accommodation, flights, activities, excursions … You’ll find all the Captain’s suggestions in the section Captain Ulysses’ favourites at the very end of the article!
A few words about Lake Atitlán
Geography of Lake Atitlán
Nestled in a caldera formed during a volcanic eruption over 80,000 years ago, Lake Atitlán is located in the south of the country, approximately 90 kilometers/55 miles from Antigua and 125 kilometers/77 miles from Guatemala City.
With an average depth of 188 meters (617 ft) and a maximum depth of 340 meters (1,120 ft), it is the deepest lake in Central America. Nestled 1,554 meters (5098 ft) above sea level, it stretches over 130km² (50.2 sq mi). It is watched over to the south by three volcanoes: San Pedro (3,020 m), Tolimán (3,158 m) and Atitlán (3,535 m). To the north, a landscape of hills, mountains and high plateaus unfolds as far as the eye can see.
The magical charm of Lake Atitlán has seduced countless poets and well-rounded travelers. Famous German explorer Alexander von Humboldt simply described Lake Atitlán as “the most beautiful lake in world ”. Aldous Huxley was slightly more loquacious and wrote: ““Lake Como, it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing.”
Brief history of Lake Atitlán
According to historians, the suroundings of Lake Atitlán have been inhabited for many centuries. The Tz’utujil, Cakchiquel, Mam and Quiché communities settled in the region 5 to 7 centuries ago.
The remnants of an ancient Mayan city, Samabaj, are actually submerged 17 meters deep below the surface of the lake.
The cohabitation between the different communities inhabiting the surroundings of the lake was eventful, to say the least: over the centuries, Lake Atitlán was the scene of countless wars, alliances and conflicts between indigenous communities.
Spanish conquistadors set foot in the region in the 16th century and encountered fierce resistance from local populations. Legend has it that the inhabitants of the region threw all their riches in the waters of the lake rather than ceding them to the Spanish invaders.
Centuries later, visitors of a very different kind started flocking to Lake Atitlán! In the 1960s, the lake became a “hippie” destination. Some of the villages of the region still retain this bohemian and whimsical spirit.
But today no need to be a hippie to appreciate the charms of the lake. Lake Atitlán has become one of the top tourist attractions in Guatemala and is well worth the hype.
Culture & religion
Despite the waves of invaders (both Spanish and hippie), Lake Atitlán has thankfully retained its authentic spirit and preserved its traditions. Most of the region’s inhabitants are from indigenous communities. They make a living from agriculture (mainly corn and coffee), fishing, tourism and handicrafts.
Traditional Mayan culture remains very much alive, as does the religious syncretism between Catholicism and local folklore.
In the eyes of the local communities, the lake, which they nicknamed “Grandmother Atitlán”, is sacred. As for the strong wind blowing on the caldera (Xocomil), legend has it that that it is the soul of an ancient Mayan princess incessantly looking for her long lost lover.
Getting to Lake Atitlán
Getting to Lake Atitlán if you’re traveling on your own
If you are traveling on your own, two options to get to Lake Atitlán:
👉 The chicken-bus, a very inexpensive local option: local buses travel back and forth between Guatemala City, Antigua or even Chichicastenango and Lake Atitlán. That being said, be warned, the journey isn’t exactly comfortable and drivers tend to have very different standards of safety from those of Western tourists!
👉 Tourist shuttles: although more expensive, this option is still affordable ($10-15 per person). The shuttles are comfortable and air-conditioned! You can book your trip through a local travel agency or online here.
Day trips to Lake Atitlán
Some agencies also offer day trips to Lake Atitlán from Antigua Guatemala. These day trips are handy if you’re only staying in Guatemala for a short time, but Captain Ulysses definitely recommends spending a few days in Lake Atitlán if you can.
👉 You can book your day trip to Lake Atitlán here.
Organized tours in Guatemala
If you don’t want to plan your entire trip to Guatemala yourself, Captain Ulysses recommends one travel agencies in particular: Evaneos
Visiting Lake Atitlán: the best things to do
Panajachel is the most touristic and therefore the least traditional of the villages on Lake Atitlan. The village looks like a small seaside resort and is home to quite a few hotels, restaurants and shops.
If Panajachel isn’t exactly authentic, it is a nice stopover to relax and unwind.
But if you’re looking to get off the beaten track, then Panajachel is definitely not the right option for you (San Pedro de Laguna or San Juan de La laguna should be better suited to your needs).
That being said, the Captain recommends two attractions in Panajachel:
👉 The Galería Panajachel where local and international artists living in the region exhibit their works
👉 The Butterfly Sanctuary nestled in a geodome sheltering thousands of butterflies
Exploring the villages on the shores of Lake Atitlán
Santiago Atitlán , San Pedro La Laguna , San Juan La Laguna , San Pablo La Laguna , San Marcos La Laguna and Santa Cruz La Laguna are just waiting to be explored.
To get there, you’ll have to hop on a lancha, a water taxi connecting the different villages located around the lake. The price of the trip revolves around 15 to 25 quetzales.
If you don’t have time to explore all the villages, you should at least go to San Pedro de la Laguna and San Juan de la Laguna . With their colorful houses, bustling markets, craft shops and murals, they’re definitely worth the visit.
That’s also where the Captain recommends staying if you’d rather avoid the touristy hotels in Panajachel.
As for San Marcos, it has remained a hippie stronghold ever since the 1960s! Meditation, yoga, holistic medicine, mysticism and even astral travel: you name it, it’s all in San Marcos!
Visiting the local markets
Vibrant, colorful, lively… local markets are most definitely worth a visit. If you can, you should definitely make sure that you’ll be around on a market day.
The Captain highly recommends going to Sololá market, especially since the walk from Panajachel is quite simply spectacular and the view on the lake is truly breathtaking. You can also to get to Sololá by bus (10 minute drive from Panajachel) or opt for a day tour to Sololá (but it’s much more expensive!)
Market days – Schedule
|Sunday||San Pedro La Laguna, Santiago Atitlán, San Lucas Tolimán|
|Tuesday||Sololá, Santiago Atitlán, San Lucas Tolimán|
|Thursday||San Lucas Tolimán|
|Friday||Santiago Atitlán, Sololá, San Lucas Tolimán|
Hiking up the Indian Nose
Nestled between the villages of San Pablo de la Laguna and San Pedro de la Laguna, the “Indian Nose” (in Spanish “Nariz del indio”), is a rock formation whose silouhette seems to outline the shape of a nose, hence its name.
It offers a breathtaking panorama of Lake Atitlan. The view is particularly magical at sunrise but you’ll have to wake up dreadfully early (around 3 am)!
You can hike up the Indian Nose on your own but if you’re not experimented, you should opt for a guided tour so as not to get lost, especially if you leave before the sun is up to admire the view on Lake Atitlán in the morning light. Horseback tours are also available.
👉 You can book your hike directly at the agencies in San Pablo de la Laguna and San Pedro de la Laguna, or online: sunrise Indian Nose hiking tour.
Hiking up San Pedro Volcano
If you in good physical condition, the Captain recommends hiking up San Pedro Volcano.
The volcano is located in a natural park whose entrance is a 30-minute walk from the village of San Pedro de la Laguna approx.
You can hike on your own (entrance fees are 100 quetzales) or to opt for a guided tour (125 quetzales, entrance included). The trail is pretty clearly marked out, and there’s no risk of getting lost.
You’ll find a cabin in the park where hikers can camp to admire the view at sunrise and sunset.
The trail is quite steep: avoid this hike if you’re not in good physical condition and remember to bring plenty of water!
👉 Book you hike up San Pedro Volcano
Kayaking, climbing, cycling, horseback riding …you’ll find plenty of sport activities around Lake Atitlan.
You can either book your activities directly with the local agencies or online beforehand, on Viator (a TripAdvisor company) and GetYourGuide:
- Full-Day Kayak and Trek Adventure
- Stand Up Paddle Board or Kayak and Extreme Zipline Adventure
- Mountain Bike Tour Around Lake Atitlan
Getting off the beaten track
You’re looking to fully experience local culture? Lake Atitlan offers plenty of possibilities to get off the beaten track and discover the daily life of local communities:
How many days should you stay at Lake Atitlán?
If you want to take the time to properly explore Lake Atitlan, Captain Ulysses recommends staying for at least 3 days.
💡More traveling tips 💡
Captain Ulysses also explored Tikal in Guatemala. Find out more in his detailed article here!
👉 Book your tours & activities in Guatemala!
👉 Looking for tips and recommendations? Here are all of Captain Ulysses’ suggestions!
🛏️ Accommodation: Panajachel is the most touristic town on Lake Atitlán. That being said, it’s not necessarily the best place to stay at, especially if you’re looking for authenticity. The Captain recommends San Pedro de La Laguna or San Juan de La Laguna instead. You’ll find plenty of options on Booking.com.
🎟️Activities: Hiking, horseback riding, day tours, sports activities … You will find plenty to chose from on Viator (a TripAdvisor company) and GetYourGuide.
🚐 Transfers: Private shuttle transfers are undoubtedly the most convenient and enjoyable way to get to Lake Atitlán. You can book the trip at a local agency or online.
🚌 Local transport: Lanchas – water taxis – are the easiest and cheapest way of getting around Lake Atitlan (15 to 25 quetzales per person)
📍Organised tours: If you don’t want to plan your itinerary in Guatemala yourself, Captain Ulysses highly recommends Evaneos. This travel agency is reliable, respects local communities and will be attentive to your needs and expectations.
✈️ Flights: The Captain highly recommends Skyscanner to book your flights to Guatemala. You’ll be able to compare offers from different airlines to find the best deal. If your dates are flexible, you can even compare prices over several weeks!
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