Guatemala is home to 37 volcanoes and incredible hikes and off-road adventures. But in addition to the adventure, I found something something unexpected. At the deepest lake in Central America, Lake Atitlan, you’ll find a calming place of relaxation and reflection. This gem is a must see when in Guatemala. It’s also a great contrast to the other native adventures such as Tikal, Acatenango, and the bustling cities.
GETTING TO LAKE ATITLAN
Most flights into Guatemala arrive at Guatemala City. From there, the best way to get to Lake Atitlan is to jump on a shuttle bus to Antigua (10-15 USD). The journey takes about 3 hours. Reservations aren’t needed as you’ll be offered rides on your arrival. But if the minimum of 4 passengers isn’t met, the cost goes up slightly per person. Generally this is only a couple of dollars, or you can wait for more passengers.
I do recommend staying in Antigua for a few days, as it’s a beautiful place to explore. We booked our tickets to Lake Atitlan through our Antigua hostel and set off for a weekend at this beautiful lake. The lake is surrounded by many villages steeped in Mayan culture. Because there is no road around the lake, water taxis are the best way to explore the towns and the area.
We stayed in Panajachel, which is situated at the northern side of the lake and offers incredible views of the volcanoes on the opposite side. This town has long been the gateway to Lake Atitlan. While Panajachel has a limited selection of restaurants and bars, we also didn’t find too many travellers here. This was right at the end of the dry season, which runs from November to April which is generally the warmest. So if you’re looking for a true retreat, this is a great place to be.
The shuttle dropped us off at the edge of the town by the docks connecting the nearby villages, and we made our way to our hotel on foot. We made sure to book a hotel with a nice view of the lake. Down at the Playa Publica (the public beach area) visitors and vendors alike congregate, and apparently, this is where the happening nightlife would be. We didn’t quite stay out that late as I’m slightly beyond my late-night adventure years.
We were woken up on our first day by an incredible symphony of birds. To say we felt connected to nature is an understatement. There was something so soothing about walking out on to the dock (there are so many to choose from around the lake!) and simply admiring the incredible view of the volcanoes to mother nature’s soundtrack.
From Panajachel, you are easily able to hop over to San Pedro for a day trip. This is a fun and beautiful town filled with other travelers. Alternatively, you can stay the night in San Pedro if you prefer a more lively and sociable vibe.
1) GETTING TO SAN PEDRO
After a lovely breakfast buffet at the hotel, we headed over to the docks at the edge of town. Here we jumped onto a water taxi to head across the lake to San Pedro La Laguna (“San Pedro”). We didn’t have any tickets or reservations in advance for this. There are a few docks here and each one heads to a different destination around the lake. So be sure to let the guys working the docks know, and they’ll make sure to put you on the right boat!
It cost each of us 25 Quetzales each way (roughly 3 USD) and the boats left regularly every 20-30 minutes. While you wouldn’t expect it with a lake, our journey was a bit of a rough one and the captain even told us to move back from the front of the boat. Perhaps a bit nerve-wracking, but a fun adventure nonetheless. Roughly a half hour boat ride later we made it to the other side, still afloat and only slightly wet from the rough waves!
2) WHAT TO DO IN SAN PEDRO
We arrived in San Pedro to find a wholly different vibe from Panajachel. Steep hillsides with windy roads, souvenir shops, tuk-tuks galore and many more travellers. It seems this would be the place to stay if you want to mingle with fellow backpackers and hippies. We wandered the streets of San Pedro amongst the coffee shops, juice bars, and evening hang out spots. Eventually, we stumbled upon our own piece of this Central American paradise – a coffee shop with views of the lake and the many iconic docks below.
We wandered the town some more, fell in love with a puppy on the street and couldn’t decide which café to stop in next. The beauty of the steep volcanic hillsides meant every place had amazing views! We decided that the next time we visited the lake, we would book a hotel and spend a few days in San Pedro as well.
After a less bumpy (or, at least, more familiar) water taxi ride back, we sat on the dock and enjoyed the sun setting behind the incredible volcano backdrop. At that moment I knew I had a completely new understanding of the word “relaxation” and what it meant to be in awe of nature.
GET CONNECTED WITH NATURE
There are also a ton of hiking trails around the lake with equally stunning views. No matter where you end up staying at Lake Atitlan or how long you plan on being there, you must get out in nature. We didn’t have enough time to fit a hike in on this trip, but it’s on the list for next time! The area trails will take you up impressive volcanoes, into agricultural villages, and through stunning landscapes of coffee farms and forest. You can also choose from many water-based activities such as stand up paddle boarding and kayaking.
For more information on some of the nearby hikes, including the hiking time and difficulty, visit this website.
Guatemala has a lot to offer for the nature lover or adventurous traveller, much like most of Central America. So if you happen to make your way here for destinations like Tikal, Flores, Antigua or Acatenango, make sure you do not skip Lake Atitlan. It is easily accessible and yet feels like an entirely different world.
Depending on what your preference is, I would suggest staying in San Pedro to mix and mingle with more fellow travellers. Personally, I wanted to wake up to the volcano views, so Panajachel was the choice I made. Either way, you’ll feel rejuvenated and in touch with Mother Nature after get off the beaten path to explore Lake Atitlan.
Have you been to Guatemala? If you have any additional tips for our readers or questions please leave these in the comments below.
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