Delving into the lakeside towns of Lago de Atitlán
With its lakeside towns, volcanic landscape, and the ever-present lanchas, Lake Atitlán is best seen by boat and tuk tuk. We rented a car to get around during our stay, but mostly used that to get from Santa Catarina Palopó to Panajachel and back. For heading further afield, exploring Lake Atitlán by boat is the most efficient – and scenic – way to go.
All of the towns have piers where public boats depart for a small fare. Panajachel is the main hub with a constant flow of boats that depart to different areas along the lake throughout the day. With my grandmother in tow, we decided to charter a private boat for the day in lieu of using the public ferry service across the lake. For Q. 800 (about $105), we had secured our own private lancha with the ability to choose three stops along the lake.
Having read a bit about the different personalities of each village, we chose to explore San Pedro La Laguna, San Juan La Laguna and San Marcos La Laguna, three towns all in close proximity to one another once we made our journey across the water. Our villa on Lake Atitlan offered a private dock where we could hop on and off from the comfort of our home. There may be higher-end boats to charter but ours was basic, with some coverage overhead and a speaker so we could listen to music along the way. For us, it fit the bill.
Our biggest concern was getting my grandmother on and off the boat throughout the day as the pier heights vary from town to town. Having two men to assist with getting her on board was key, and at many stops our boat crew (two teenage boys) lent a helping hand to assist when they could. Even with them, we had some scary moments but managed to have a accident-free, insightful day exploring the lake. Check out our three stops, all unique and interesting in their own right.
San Pedro La Laguna
We departed around 10:30AM with our first stop in San Pedro La Laguna, a town with a population of about 13,000 (roughly the same as Anguilla). We allotted about 1 1/2 hours to meander the streets and take in the sights and sounds before our pre-scheduled lunch in a neighboring town. Like many of the towns we explored, there is a large indigenous community present but San Pedro also has a notable expat population. We had read about San Marcos being the epicenter of the hippy community that developed on the lake, but San Pedro La Laguna was visibly home to its own population of older hippy transplants eschewing life in the US and Europe to live in this peaceful waterfront area.
After scaling a small hill, we hit a road running parallel to the lake with a number of restaurants and shops, including a range of street vendors. From our experience, there were far better towns for shopping, but for some low-cost unique jewelry you’ll find stores as well as street vendors doling out locally crafted goods.
Even from our brief brush with San Pedro, we could tell that it is primarily a budget-friendly backpacker town as far as tourists go, and a great locale for those looking to hone their Spanish language skills. Guatemala is one of the top destinations worldwide for Spanish language learning in large part due to the fact that travelers can get around and enjoy immersive experiences affordably. During our time in Guatemala, we found ourselves using Spanish almost exclusively when conversing with locals at shops and restaurants; a great opportunity to call up the language skills that go dormant when we’re at home.
Head to San Pedro La Laguna for: budget-friendly hotels, Spanish language courses. volcano hikes.
San Juan La Laguna
After our brief stint in San Pedro La Laguna, we made our way to neighboring San Juan La Laguna, where we had made reservations for lunch at El Artesano Wine and Cheese Restaurant about a month in advance. With lunch as the anchor point for our day, we spent an additional hour exploring the lakeside town. Of the towns that we visited during our boat trip, San Juan La Laguna resonated with me more than any other place we visited, and is arguably my favorite town from the entire week on Lake Atitlán. The town blends an unequivocal small town charm with a vibrant local community whose cultural heritage bursts from markets lining the main street.
With traditional Mayan script welcoming us to San Juan, we knew from the start that we were in for a fun journey. The main strip is fairly steep, and makes its way from the lake up to the top of a hill that’s best traversed by tuk tuk for the less physically able. Pushing a wheelchair proved to be a sizable workout on its own, but pushing that same wheelchair up a steep hill was a workout that none of us were too excited to undertake. The ever-present tuk tuk, for a mere Q.5 per person (less than $1), was the clear way to go.
Before hopping in a tuk tuk to make our way to lunch, we explored the colorful shops lining the streets, including an inspiring women’s cooperative called Corazon del Lago. With 33 female weavers, ladies churn out colorful scarves, vibrant ponchos and stunning table runners using traditional Mayan weaving methods. We met Wendy, one of the weavers, while we were there and she gave us some insight into the process and to the natural dyes that are associated with the weaving done in this community.
Each basket held colored yarn which had been dyed with natural products. Coconut is used for the light tan yarn, indigo for the rich bluish-purple, plus a host of other local flowers, plants and insects. Our discussion with another female weaver lent insight into the unique patterns and designs (cacao beans, corn flowers, certain color selections, etc.), which are significant within the Mayan culture. In the co-op, each design is tagged and signed by the woman who weaved it, making it an extra special purchase for travelers looking to take home a piece of Guatemala.
Of the towns we visited, I found San Juan La Laguna to be one of the best places to shop for bags, scarves and other textiles. The heritage is very rich in the community and the shops burst with colors, character, and personality. While Panajachel’s Calle Santander is the biggest shopping area on the lake, I found myself more captivated by the places in San Juan. To me it felt a bit less touristed and trafficked, with weavers excited to share their history and art with travelers.
After a bit of exploring, we made our way to lunch at El Artesano, which is a fair distance from the pier in San Juan. We opted to use a tuk tuk, which is a wise choice for even the most physically capable of people. While El Artesano offers a host of great lunch offerings, it is famed for its cheese and charcuterie platters that leave even the most well-traveled of people in utter awe. Platters are selected for 2, 3, or 4 people, and cheese plates are prepared with 23 – 28 cheeses depending on what’s available, plus are outfitted with figs, olives, nuts, honey and chutney. Charcuterie platters have anywhere between 12 and 16 different cured meats to sample, with a mascarpone dip and a mustard as an added bonus. Paired with your choice of wines – red or white – or sangria, all available by the cup, 1/2 liter or liter, it’s utter perfection. We spent around two hours just taking it all in, slowing moving between wine, bread, and cheese until we were all so full that we had to waddle to the tuk tuk.
Head to San Juan La Laguna for: Locally crafted textiles and bags, a strong sense of Mayan community, the best lunch you’ll have on the lake.
San Marcos La Laguna
We had heard San Marcos referenced as the hippy town on the lake, and with the concentration of yoga studios and wellness retreats available in the area, I was sure that was accurate. When we visited San Pedro earlier in the day, I wondered if San Marcos could really be that much more of a draw for hippy transplants by comparison. After we disembarked and walked through town, there was no doubt.
Exiting the pier, San Marcos’ initial stretch bursts with bright colors that pull you in. We walked through covered pathways with hand-painted murals, and passed by organic food stalls and folks with dreadlocks selling amber. We saw information about yoga retreats and daily meditation sessions, plus flyers for reiki and retreats for doctors focused on holistic medicine. San Marcos is undoubtedly the place for those looking for more spiritual escapes, and many of the accommodations we passed by catered to that market perfectly with daily yoga practice and healthy cuisine or organic produce on offer.
One of the biggest turn offs for us was the number of children at the pier that followed us as we meandered through town. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love chatting with local kids but I also realize that they were looking for more out of us than just friendship. After being asked for money constantly, we couldn’t help but feel slightly annoyed and a bit on edge.
For me, one of the worst feelings when traveling is that sensation of needing to constantly be hyperaware of your surroundings with fear of letting your guard down (e.g. hand gripped to the outside of your purse). In San Marcos there was a bit of that for us. While I can see how it would be a total draw for many visitors to the lake, it didn’t captivate us nearly as much as San Juan. For the most part we were ready to say goodbye after about 45 minutes in town. Had we been visiting as part of a yoga or wellness retreat or had we strategically planned to be in town for a yoga session, our experience would have been different, but when done as a stop like ours (especially since we’d already had lunch), there wasn’t quite enough to keep us going for more than an hour or two.
Head to San Marcos La Laguna for: yoga sessions and retreats, meditation, spiritual enlightenment.
After our stop in San Marcos, we began the journey back to Santa Catarina Palopó at around 4PM, which got us back to our private pier before 5PM. While we never went the public boat route for getting around the lake, I think we did it right by chartering a private boat and I would do the same again in the future. For groups of people traveling together, this provides great value and really allows you to maximize time. We took a cooler of beer and wine, plus our own music, and enjoyed cutting across the lake and seeing the towns by water. If you’re traveling solo, are on a strict budget, or are looking to get from Point A to Point B (versus doing a ‘tour’ of different towns along the lake), the public boat options are an incredibly simple and cost-effective way to get around. For the most part we found that driving would have actually been very ineffective. Driving around the perimeter of the lake is a pursuit, and many of the town centers surround the piers so arriving by car would be a hassle, if possible at all. Lastly, in cases like ours where we wanted everyone to be able to enjoy a glass of wine (or two!) with lunch, taking the driving out of the equation makes for a simple solution over all. Between the lanchas and the tuk tuks available in all of the towns, getting around is a breeze!
Have you explored Lake Atitlán by boat? Which towns did you visit? What were your highlights?