This guide will look into the one-of-a kind Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. Because it really is a one-of-a kind. I mean, where else can you swim in an immense lake surrounded by volcanoes? Where else will you cross a lake by boat and only be surrounded by locals, even though it is a tourist magnet? Where else can you go from a laid back hippie town to a luxury boutique hotel in just a short boat ride?
Lake Atitlan is magic, tranquil and a great place to unwind, but at the same time it is crazy hectic and overwhelming. It all depends on where you are going on the lake.
…and that’s the trick here: Many people will refer to Lake Atitlan as one destination in Guatemala, but it is actually like a little country with various destinations along the lake. Each and every little town is just as different as the countries of Europe.
Ready to get to know some of those towns? Let’s dig into my guide to Lake Atitlan in fantastic Guatemala.
A complete guide to Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
Or just Pana as the locals call it (and you’ll end up calling it too, because it’s just easier and avoids you from the embarassment of trying to pronounce it correctly). Pana is the major city on the lake and the typical starting point. All transfers from Guatemala and Antigua arrive and depart here.
While many people head directly to the dock to embark on a boat to another town, then Pana is actually worth staying in for a day or two. Especially if you have work to do (then stay at Selina – their co-working space is amazing and their pool great for a well-deserved rest after a day at the office).
What to do in Pana
Pana is an excellent departing point for day trips on the eastern and southern part of the lake. Santiago and San Lucas are a short boat ride away and makes perfect destinations for a little half day trip.
Wake up early and do a yoga session with the Selina team. They offer daily yoga classes at their lake front yoga deck for around 100 quetzales.
If you’re not in the mood for yoga, then get up early anyway, and head down to the dock. The air is fresh in the morning hours, the atmosphere is calm and the locals are loading their boats with supplies for the other towns. Building bricks, chips, souvenirs, you name it, everything is being transported by boat around here. Waking up early gives you a first hand impression of what real life looks like.
…that’s why you are here anyway. To swim in a volcano lake, right? Pana is not a common place to swim due to the many boats arriving and departing. The water can be a little nasty and definitely not what you hoped for when you booked the trip to Atitlan. But fear not, because just outside the town is the cemetery and here you’ll find a little sandy beach with clear water. Just before the beach is a boat dock where you can jump head first into the lake. And the best? You’ll probably only be joined by locals, because this is not on the general tourist map (we were tipped by my yoga instructor). You get there within 6 minutes in a tuc tuc. Just ask them to take you to the beach by the cemetery.
Places to Stay, eat & drink in Pana
Dolce Gelato is the place to come for ice creams. The quality is extremely high and you’d be surprised to find locally produced ice cream made by italian recipes in Guatemala. Great vegan options as well. Visit here
Now this might sound as a comercial from Selina (I’m not sponsored, haha). The food they serve at this hostel is actually very good. And a nice change from the traditional local food you’ll find in most places around the lake. They offer a classy hipster cuisine with lots of veggies and fancy fish or meat options. This is also the place to stay in Pana if you plan on working a bit during your stay (and you’re up for the hostel vibe – if not, then go ahead and exclude Selina from your list right away).
If you are travelling in family or with a group of friends, then you might want to look into Villa Jucanya. Small rural houses in natural surroundings by the lake. Visit here
Unfortunately I cannot recommend other places to eat, because none of our experiences were worth recommending – sorry!
Santiago is one of the most local towns around the lake and often overseen by tourists. But what would a guide to Lake Atitlan be without including some traditional towns of Guatemala? Everyone in Santiago wears the traditional clothes (not for the tourists, but for their own cultural reasons). If you come on a marked day you can be sure to get a real local experience. Fruits, kilos of avocados, sweets and alive chickens are being exchanges for gold coins (the local currency looks like gold coins!) faster than the glimpse of an eye. Try the local biscuit “roscón”. It’s cheap and perfect to accompany your Guatemalan coffee later in the day.
There is an interesting tour around town that will take you to some of the historical parts. It’s takes about an hour in a tuc tuc and is very affordable. We would have taken it, if it wasn’t because our 2-year old wasn’t in the mood for a historic tour that day. Another time… Don’t book anything in advance, there will be plenty of people by the dock who can sell you the tour.
Places to eat & drink in Santiago
This is where you should go for a good coffee in Santiago. The place is simple, but the coffee great and it’s a nice place to relax before you head back to the dock. Visit here
Cet Café is another nice coffee shop in town. While this might not be where you’ll indulge yourself in a gourmet cuisine, then it’s nice for a simple lunch or snacks while in Santiago. As the town can seem very busy and overwhelming, then this place is quiet and clean. And that’s all you need sometimes, right? Visit here
San Marcos La Laguna
Chances you’re coming to Lake Atitlan just to visit San Marcos La Laguna are quite big. This is an extremely popular little town within the yoga and spiritual community. The town is tiny and most people are surprised about how tiny it is (with the hype it gets, you would think that it’s more than just one main street with a width of 1,5 meter, right?). Anyway, San Marcos La Laguna is the place to go to reconnect with nature. Tons of yoga retreats, some healthy food options and an alternative community reigns here. All accompanied by the best coffee shop around the lake.
What to do in San Marcos La Laguna
Get on the mat and practise some yoga. This is the place for it. If you’re into astrology, then there are various workshops around this. There’s no need for recommendations here, because just walking up the little mainstreet you’ll see at least ten signs with yoga class offerings.
BUT if you really want to get yourself grounded then have a look at The Yoga Forest. We could spot their huge platform on top of the mountain, from our little cabin and if I was to take a retreat then it might be there.
Do a Stand Up paddle or kayak tour
This is not exclusively for San Marcos La Laguna, but it’s a nice place to do it as it is all so quiet and tranquil around here. There are currently no Airbnb experiences in San Marcos, but I’m sure it’s possible to get on a guided tour from one of the hotels or hostels in the area.
That’s about it in San Marcos. Besides of doing some yoga, bathing in the lake and sipping coffee at the local coffee shop, then there’s not much to do here. And that’s great, because for once there is a place where you just get to relax and unwind without distractions.
PLACES TO EAT, DRINK & stay IN San marcos la laguna
Circles Café & Bakery
Circles Café & Bakery is the (only) place to be in San Marcos. The coffee is great, the bakery great and the WiFi powerfull. If you pass by this little corner of the world as a Digital Nomad, then this is the place to hang out. And if you’re not a Digital Nomad, well, then this is just the place for a good coffee and a pastry. Visit here
Samsara’s Garden is a vegan restaurant with an outlet in Antigua city as well. Imagine quinoa porridge for breakfast, tortillas with vegan filling, squash pasta, salads and other delicious dishes for lunch and dinner. It’s very, very recommendable. Visit here
Konojel community center
Konojel is a NGO community kitchen, where you can enjoy a traditional meal for as little ad 25 Quetzales. This might not be your most memorable dining experience ever, but it is definitely a great place to try some typical Guatemalan food and support the local community. Visit here
Rent a remote cabin
We stayed in this cabin during our time in San Marcos and I would travel aaaall the way back, just to stay there again. Now that you’ve come all the way here to connect with nature, then do it properly in a secluded cabin with the most beautiful view you’ll ever wake up to.
If you prefer to have someone prepping the breakfast for you in the mornings, then check out the hotel Lush
San Juan La Laguna
San Juan La Laguna is where most textiles are produced around the lake. There are bunches of cooperatives run by women in the area. They both produce for the shops and teach curious tourists how to elaborate and dye the raw material. Very interesting.
I was honestly a little disappointed by the San Juan as a town. While there are many cooperatives to visit in town (which I really enjoyed), then the food offerings are very limited. It’s only the stretch from the main road and down to the dock that have restaurants and coffee shops. We thought there would have been more in the town itself, but no. However Café San Juan around 100 meters from the dock, is brilliant. They even have a coffee plantation behind the restaurant.
What to do in San Juan La Laguna
Visit the cooperatives
Visit the cooperatives and learn the techniques behind dying the raw cotton, weaving and designing. I particularly liked Lema Associaction which is one of the smaller cooperatives. If you visit Lema then treat yourself to one of their homemade popsicles with avocado or peanutbutter (and thank me later!).
Buy your gifts and souvenirs here
This is the place to buy a nice purse, wallet, scarf or bag for yourself or as a gift. The prices are low and everything is made in the town.
Where to stay, eat & drink in San Juan la Laguna
Café San Juan
This place is located right off the dock, so very convenient if you need some caffeine to kick off your time in San Juan. The coffee is very good and the chocolates they sell are out of this world (try the round chocolates looking like tabletennis balls!). Visit here
Caffe La Cabaña
You’ll come here for the location right on the lake. It’s hard to beat the view, if not impossible I would say. A lille wooden house right on the shore. Come to enjoy a coffee (or a pizza after 5pm) and let this be your last stop before you head out of San Juan with all your newly purchased textiles. Visit here
Okay, you might not come to Guatemala for italian sausages and cheeses. However, if you feel that special craving, then go straight to El Artesano for their popular cheese and sausage platters (accompanied by wine of course). The garden is super cosy and it is a nice break from the dusty streets of San Juan. Only little twerk is that they do not accept walk-ins; you must reserve prior to arrival. Visit here
This is a great and very affordable accommodation for a prime location right on the lake and with walking distance of both San Juan and San Pedro. The hotel is a bit worn down, but it’s very rustic and has a great local feel to it. The restaurant is open-air with a stunning view to the lake and the mountains.
San Pedro La Laguna
This is where the party happens (and this is where we spend the least time – not much party going on with a 2-year old travel buddy). San Pedro is where the words hectic and overwhelming come into place. Gosh, San Pedro is the total opposite from San Marcos! Some people love it, others hate it (any guesses where I lie here?), but overall this is the place with the biggest variety of restaurants, coffee shops, shops and bars are.
Since I only use first-hand recommendations (I like to keep my integrity!), I honestly have no recommendations for San Pedro. We ran out as quickly as we came in, because it was hectic and not really what we were searching for. But, like any other place, then I’m sure that there are some real treasures in town – you just have to look for them.
Practical info about Lake Atitlan
We need this little section about the jewel of Guatemala that Lake Atitlan is, because what would a guide be without the practicalities, right?
Getting to lake atitlan, guatemala
There are daily shuttles from Antigua and Guatemala City to Panajachel. The trip from Antigua is around 2,5 hours and around 3,5 hours from Guate. The cost from Antigua is 12 USD one way.
Moving around the lake
This is the easy part. Boats depart continously and are very cheap. They function like small busses, where there are stops along the way in each little town. If you stay at a hotel with a dock, ask to get off there and give a little extra tip for the service. Just be aware that they usually stop departing around 5 pm due to wind and waves (you would think that there are no waves on a lakes, but you’re wrong!). For the smoothest boat trips, then go before 2 pm.
In the small towns you can move around by tuc tuc.
WiFi is unstable and so are the credit card terminals. Bring cash and avoid having to withdraw money by the lake.