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Guatemala is one of my absolute favorite countries in Central America. Lake Atitlan is a magical place. A volcanic lake in Southwestern Guatemala, surrounded by seven Mayan villages. In fact, 98% of the population in the towns surrounding the lake is made up of indigenous Mayans. No trip to Guatemala is complete without a trip to Lake Atitlan, and a chance to experience all of the amazing things to do in Lake Atitlan.
A stay in Lake Atitlan should be part of any Guatemala itinerary. What is amazing about visiting Lake Atitlan is that you could spend weeks doing absolutely nothing but just relaxing and taking in the views. However, there are so many amazing things to do in Lake Atitlan, for any type of traveler. Check out this list of all the best things to do in Lake Atitlan
Best Time to Visit Lake Atitlan: Weather in Lake Atitlan
The weather in Lake Atitlan is known as eternal spring, with beautiful temperatures all year round.
While there isn’t necessarily a bad time to visit Guatemala, with mild temperatures all year round, there are distinct wet and dry seasons.
The high season is from November to March, when the weather is typically the driest. This is the best time to visit if you’re planning a lot of outdoor adventures around the lake.
In May the rainy, wet season in Guatemala starts, and lasts until November.
How to Get to Lake Atitlan
First you will need to get to Guatemala. If you are coming from the US, the most common way to do this is by flying into La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City. From the airport you can go straight to Lake Atitlan, or first head to Antigua. From either Guatemala City or Antigua there are quite a few options. The most popular options include a shared shuttle bus, an Uber, or a private car.
Uber is an easy way to get to Lake Atitlan from Guatemala City or Antigua. It tends to be cheaper than booking a normal private driver, however you may need to negotiate the cost a bit with driver. You can book a private car through Viator here. If you are planning to arrive late at night, I recommend taking a private car.
I would try to avoid traveling during rush hour, as traffic can be really really bad. Make sure to plan accordingly if you are heading back to the airport for an evening flight.
If you’re traveling to Lake Atitlan from other parts of the country, there is a rather extensive network of tourist shuttles in place to get your from point A to point B. We booked a shuttle from Panajachel in Lake Atitlan directly back to the airport with Magic Travel and had a great experience. The shuttle was direct and tickets cost 190Q ($25). You can find the office right on the main street in Panajachel.
Taking a chicken bus a by far the cheapest way to get to Lake Atitlan, although it is definitely one of the slower ways to get to Lake Atitlan. The bus numbers can be a bit confusing so I recommend asking around to find the correct one. It should only cost a couple bucks.
While it is possible to visit Lake Atitlan from Antigua on a day trip, I would definitely recommend spending at least one night if you have the time.
If you are planning to visit for just one day, it is best to visit with a guided tour. Here is a tour option with Viator: day trip from Antigua to Lake Atitlan.
How to get around Lake Atitlan
Although it takes a bit of time, it is super easy to get from town to town. The public boat, or la lancha, typically runs from 6:30am until 7:30pm daily. The boats don’t have specific times that they run. Rather, they leave when the boat fills up with passengers. Outside of these times it is also possible to grab a private boat, which is not too expensive.
From Panajachel to one of the other towns you can expect to pay between 10Q and 25Q, depending on your destination (10Q to reach Santa Cruz la Laguna, 25Q to reach San Marcos la Laguna). You can easily visit multiple different towns in one day, but part of the joy of being on this magical lake is taking things slow.
How long should I stay in Lake Atitlan?
While it is definitely possible to visit Lake Atitlan on a day trip, I encourage you to spend at least a few nights properly unwinding in this magical area. At a minimum, I recommend 2-3 nights, but you there are so many things to do in Lake Atitlan that you could spend weeks here without getting bored.
Where to stay in Lake Atitlan
The first thing to decide is where you want to be staying. Panajachel is the gateway to the lake, as it is the only town easily accessible by car. This is where any shared tourist shuttles will drop you. When deciding where to stay, you can either choose one town and take day trips or move around and stay in a number of different towns. This really depends on your personal travel style and budget.
We decided to base ourselves just a few minutes outside of the town of Panajachel – on the road between Panajachel and Santa Catarina Palopo. Panajachel is definitely a busier, more touristy town than many of the quieter towns around the lake. We made this decision based on a number of factors including: access to strong WiFi, maximizing our limited time, and ease of heading back to Guatemala City with our group all having different flight times.
If you have the time I would recommend some time in Panajachel at this incredible AirBnb pictured above, and at least 1-2 nights in one of the smaller towns around the lake. All of these towns are easily accessible by both public and private boats.
Panajachel is a good place to stay if you are arriving to the lake late, or if you need to leave early the next morning. While the boat system is quite reliable, I wouldn’t want to risk you missing a flight (or an early shuttle to take you to your flight)!
San Pedro is the backpacker hot spot of Lake Atitlan. There are tons of budget friendly options available, so this is a good option if you are a solo traveler looking to meet people. San Pedro is where you will find the majority of the parties in Lake Atitlan.
It is possible to get a bus directly to San Pedro, however it is more common to take the public boat from the pier in Panajachel.
San Marcos la Laguna
San Marcos is the hippy town of Lake Atitlan. You’ll find lots of yogis and spiritual travelers here, those really looking to relax and connect with nature.
Santa Cruz la Laguna
Santa Cruz has some of the most beautiful accomodation options in Lake Atitlan. However, it is important to note that it is a very vertical town, with many hotels sitting atop a steep hill. Plan to either take tuk tuks or get a good workout in.
Where to stay in Santa Cruz: La Fortuna at Atitlan (Luxury eco-resort), La Iguana Perdida (mid-range option with dorms available), Free Cerveza (budget hostel)
San Juan is easily the quietest town in Lake Atitlan. It is a good place to go to get away from the crowds. San Juan is also a great town to shop for local Mayan textiles.
Where to stay in San Juan: Eco Hotel Uxlabil Atitlan (eco-friendly hotel)
Where to eat in Lake Atitlan
There are so many great places to eat in Lake Atitlan. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Deli Jazmin in Panajachel
- Samsara in San Marcos la Laguna
- Restaurante Hana in Panajachel
- Restaurante Jose Pinguinos in Panajachel
If you are planning on visiting Lake Atitlan, I highly recommend booking travel insurance through World Nomads. This will ensure that you are covered in the event that any issues arrive during your travels.
Best things to do in Lake Atitlan
1. Cliff jump at Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve
Spending a day at Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve is one of the best things to do in Lake Atitlan. You’ve got to admit, there is something so magical about swimming in this amazing volcanic lake.
Locally known as the “trampoline”, the nature reserve is spot for known for cliff jumping. You can enter the reserve for 25Q, and then spend the day swimming in the lake along the rocks (or cliff jumping if you have the courage). You can also rent kayaks, but note that these are only available in the morning, as the water is too rocky in the afternoon.
2. Swim at the infinity pool at Tzampoc Resort
I highly recommend snagging a day pass at Tzampoc Resort for one of your days in Atitlan to experience on of the best views in the area. Or even better, spend a night here!
Located in Santa Catarina Palopo, the area surrounding the property (down the very steep hill) are also super charming. A day pass costs 200Q ($25 USD) and gets your access to this gorgeous infinity pool for the day. It is super convenient because there is space to store your luggage right at the pool, so you can focus on soaking up the sun.
3. Go kayaking (or rent a SUP) on the lake
One of the best ways to explore Lake Atitlan is to experience it by enjoying it from the lake itself, either by kayak or SUP. GuateSUP is one of the most popular companies for SUP exploring. You. can book a number of tours through them, including sunrise and sunset tours.
4. Enjoy live music at Restaurante Jose Pinguinos
A night at Restaurante Jose Pinguinos is one of the best things to do in Panajachel. This popular restaurant in Panajachel offers nightly live, traditional music in addition to their traditional Guatemalan dishes. The prices are a bit higher, but it is worth it for the lively experience. I highly recommend trying the pepian de pollo.
5. Hike Indian Nose at sunrise
Indian Nose is known as one of the best sunrise spots around Lake Atitlan. The name “Indian’s Nose” comes from the shape of the mountain, which people say looks like a man lying down on his back. The hike to Indian Nose starts super early, around 3:45 am, so prepare yourself for an early wake up call. You will need to depart from San Marcos la Laguna, so I recommend overnighting here the night before the hike. One of my friends put together a super comprehensive guide to the Indian Nose hike.
6. Visit all of the towns around the lake
There are a number different local villages surrounding the lake, each worthy of exploration if you have the time. The best way to explore each of the towns is by boat if you have the time. If you only have a few days, I recommend picking out of the towns that sound the most appealing to you and your travel style.
It is also possible to take a guided tour around the lake, but it isn’t necessary as getting around is quite easy.
7. Relax and enjoy
Before I get too far into this list of the best things to do in Lake Atitlan, I want to call out that above all, Lake Atitlan is a place to relax and enjoy. Relaxing may look like something different for everyone, maybe a beer with the sunset or a sunrise yoga class and meditation.
8. Take a local lancha between the towns
As I mentioned above, taking the local boats in Lake Atitlan in a must!
It is super easy to get from town to town using the public boat, and an experience that you should absolutely have while in Lake Atitlan. The public boat, or la lancha, typically runs from 6:30am until 7:30pm daily. The boats don’t have specific times that they run. Rather, they leave when the boat fills up with passengers. So make sure to give yourself some extra time to get anywhere you are trying to go!
9. Hire a private boat on the lake
If you have the opportunity to take a private boat at sunset, I 100% recommend it. We paid 150Q ($20 USD) for a boat to take us from San Marcos la Laguna to Panajachel, with a stop to drop some friends off in Santa Cruz. Our driver was great and stopped for about 30 minutes to let us drink our beers and enjoy the sun setting over the lake.
A private boat is also a great option if you need to travel between the towns in the early morning or evening, after the public boats stop running.
10. Take a yoga class at Eagle’s Nest
Yoga is a super popular activity in Lake Atitlan, and easily one of the best things to do. You will find popular yoga studios throughout Lake Atitlan, especially in the hippie town of San Marcos. However, if you can only choose one stop, let it be Eagle’s Nest. Eagle’s Nest offers one of the best views in all of Lake Atitlan.
11. Embrace the slow lifestyle of San Marcos
As I mentioned above, San Marcos is the hippy town of the lake. It is the town where you’ll find ample yoga classes, cafes for sipping teas, and slowing down. Let yourself spend some time here to just embrace the slow lifestyle.
12. Hike Volcan San Pedro (San Pedro Volcano)
There are three major volcanoes surrounding the lake, with San Pedro volcano being the most popular one to hike. Depending on your level of fitness, the hike up San Pedro Volcano can take anywhere between 2.5 and 5 hours. For the best visibility, it is recommended to visit as early as possible, before the afternoon clouds roll in.
13. Go for a swim in the lake
Going for a swim in Lake Atitlan is one of the most magical experience you can have! However, you can’t swim just anywhere in the lake. A number of the lakefront properties have docks that you can swim off of. However, a good public spot is the Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve mentioned above!
14. Take a Mayan cooking class
Guatemala dishes have an amazing mix of traditional Mayan and Spanish flavors. Pepian is a traditional Guatemalan stew made of peanuts, and one of the most popular to eat and cook while on the lake. You can take a class to learn more about these traditional dishes and cook a few of them in a traditional Guatemala home.
Here are a tour that you can book through Viator: Mayan Cooking Class
16. Snap a photo with the colorful walls in Santa Catarina Palopo
Santa Catarina Palopo is known to be filled with beautiful artwork and colorful murals painted on the walls. Take a stroll through this quiet town to experience the magic!
17. Learn about traditional Mayan weaving
Weaving is a huge part of Mayan culture, and an amazing thing to experience while in Lake Atitlan. You can learn more about the natural dyeing process, and well as the traditional weaving processes.
You can book a tour through Viator to explore a number of towns, and learn more about the traditional Mayan weaving traditions.
18. Dive into a spiritual practice in San Marcos
No matter what type of session you are looking for, you’ll find it in San Marcos. Meditations, cacao ceremonies, crystal readings, you name it! This is definitely the town to visit if you are looking to connect with yourself spiritually.
19. Enjoy the sunset over the lake
The sunsets around the lake are some of the most beautiful in the world. Definitely some of the most beautiful that I’ve experienced. Although as lovely as they were from our airbnb, nothing compares to experiencing a sunset from the water. As I mentioned above, renting a private boat at sunset is one of the best ways to do this!
20. Shop at one of the local markets
All of the towns around the lake have their own local markets where you can shop for local handicrafts, souvenirs, and local produce. Make sure to always haggle and bargain!
21. Taste authentic Guatemala coffee in a local cafe
You don’t have to be in Guatemala for very long to understand that they are known for their amazing coffee and coffee production. Lake Atitlan is a great place to slow down in a local cafe and enjoy the regional brews. Or a cup of tea or kombucha if you are a non-coffee drinker like me.
Tips for visiting Lake Atitlan
- ATMs: There aren’t a ton of ATMs around the lake. I recommend taking out money in Panajachel for the most reliable ATMs. Most places don’t take credit cards, so carrying cash is important.
- Boats: Make sure you keep and eye on the time if you are planning on getting around by public boat.
- Pack Layers: Due to the altitude, the towns around the lake can be quite chilly at night. I recommend packing a light jacket or sweater.
- Comfortable Walking Shoes: In Lake Atitlan you’ll find lots of hills and cobblestone streets. Make sure to make shoes that are comfortable to walk in.
Is Lake Atitlan Safe?
Yes and no! I am not going to pretend that there aren’t areas of Guatemala that have higher rates of crime, including violent crime. That said, I would consider the popular tourist areas of Guatemala listed in this Guatemala itinerary to be safe. Crimes still exist, especially petty crimes like theft, so I have included some tips below for staying safe. My second and third visits to Guatemala were also about 10 years apart, and the cities have gotten much safer during that time as they have become more touristic.
Here are some tips for staying safe while traveling to Lake Atitlan:
- Don’t walk around alone at night. Rather than walk, it’s always better to grab a tuk tuk.
- Don’t carry around unnecessary cash or credit cards. Only the essentials.
- While most people walking around now have smart phones, avoid flashy electronics or jewelry.
- Make sure to only take registered taxis or shuttles. I prefer Uber because of the tracking capabilities.
- Trust your gut. Whether you’re traveling in a group or solo, it is so important to always trust your gut.
- A different kind of safety, but please please please do not drink the tap water. I promise you will not have a fun time if you do.
Planning to visit Guatemala? Here are some other articles to check out:
- 16 Best Things to do in Antigua, Guatemala
- Best Restaurants in Antigua Guatemala
- 1 Week Guatemala Itinerary