Your Guide to Lake Atitlan, Guatemala: the Most Beautiful Lake in the World
“There are none happy in the world but beings who enjoy freely a vast horizon” - Henry David Thoreau
It was August and we wanted a place not too far from Texas, and certainly not any hotter. We also didn’t want to fly too far because we had to be in Maine the following month for a wedding so we eliminated Brazil and other parts of South America because flights were too long (12 hours min) and Costa Rica and surrounding areas because it was too hot and rainy. We also wanted a place different and unknown to us, somewhere where we could travel deeply and live more naturally.
Jess had heard of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala from a famous quote from Aldous Huxley, the author of Brave New World where he called it “the most beautiful lake in the world.” Comparing it to Lake Como in Italy, he said Como "touches the limit of the permissibly picturesque." Atitlan, however, "is Como with the additional embellishment of several immense volcanoes. It is really too much of a good thing." We’re visual hedonists so that description sounded like heaven to us.
As we learned more about the lake and its indigenous habitants and infrastructure, we didn’t just get excited about getting off-the-grid, but also the opportunity to get to know a culture completely different from our own and to get back in touch with ourselves.
Sadly Jess got sick and our nearly 2 months at Lake Atitlan ended up being very trying for both of us. However we learned major life lessons, met lovely people, and created lasting memories. We’ll never forget the vibrant sunrises, colorful Mayan patterns, and spiritual awakenings we experienced. We had an exceptional time, but were also confronted with the unfortunate truth that life in the developing world is hard. All over the world, no matter how strong the community and beautiful the land, we saw how fragile nature can be, especially when not properly cared for.
If you go
When to go
Anytime really. Lake Atitlan’s weather is known to be “eternally Spring” because it’s in the highlands so it’s never too hot or too cold. But, with that said, there are two seasons – dry and wet.
Dry season (Summer) is from November to May and temperatures range from mid 80’s F during the day to 60’s F at night. This is considered high times at the lake for tourism.
Wet season (Winter) is from early April to mid/late October and this is when it rains a lot. Mornings are almost always sunny, but afternoons and evenings can have heavy rains regularly. Temperatures range from mid to upper 70s F during the day to mid 50’s F at night.
Every year there’s a few weeks in August/September when the rain stops and it feels like dry season. This is the sweet spot when tourism is low and weather is great. Don’t be put off by traveling in other months during rainy season though. Just front-load outdoor activities, pack a fleece for cool mornings and nights and a rain jacket for the afternoons. You’ll be out exploring. Because of the altitude, it often feels cooler than the temperature reads so be prepared with warm clothes.
Visit this site for specifics on temperatures, humidity, and precipitation by month.
How to get there
Fly into Guatemala City and Uber to Antigua. Stay here for a night or two and then take an Uber, chicken bus or private shuttle to the lake. We shuttled with Adrenalina Tours and it worked out well – they picked us up from our hotel and dropped us off at the dock in Panajachel. From there, you’ll have to take a boat (lancha) to the village of your choice.
Where to stay
There are 11 distinctly different Mayan villages surrounding the lake, 6 of which are worth staying in. Pick one or two based on the short descriptions below and then work on finding accommodations from there.
Panajachel (commonly called Pana for short)
The main road that leads to Lake Atitlan from the nearest city ends here so it’s the largest village. This is where you’ll find lots of shops (in other words the most access to things like specific supplies or groceries), businesses, Spanish schools, hotels and restaurants. Lots of people come to Lake Atitlan and end up staying here because it’s easy, but we think you’d be doing yourself a disservice. Travel deeper!
The next main village over from Pana, but worlds apart. The village of Santa Cruz is up in the hillside and its very secluded. Here you’ll find a few expats and no tourists. One of the best restaurants on the lake, Cafe Sabor Cruceno, which is also part culinary school, is located here.
Jaibalito (pronounced hi-balito)
Also known as hippie heaven. While we were there, we heard an expat/local say “they tried to offer us free drinks and we were like… we don’t drink alcohol, man. We drink cacao to get high.” Statements like this sum up the populace. This is where you’ll find yoga, holistic healers, chanters, crystals, cacao ceremonies and lots of healthy vegan food. We’ll share our recommendations for thing to do/eat/see here in other sections. If you’re an adrenaline junkie, this is also where you’ll find Lake Atitlan’s famous cliff jumping spot (it’s in the nature reserve).
The 2nd biggest village after Pana, San Pedro is popular with backpackers and people looking to party. There’s a thriving local community that lives alongside expats and travelers. Here you’ll find a few Spanish schools, a health clinic, lots of bars and places to eat and a massive market on Fridays. If hiking Volcan San Pedro is on your trip bucket list, we recommend staying in San Pedro for at least one night because this is where the hike will begin.
Home to the largest indigenous population at the lake, this is where you’ll find Mayan traditions most in tact – language (Tz'utujil), art, crafts, weaving, religion, clothes. Mayan women at Lake Atitlan wear traditional clothes of traje and sash (read more about this here), but men mostly wear modern clothes. Not in Santiago. Here both genders wear traditional clothes and it’s really moving to see.
If you don’t stay here, come for the big market on Sundays and for a scavenger hunt to find Maximón (pronounced mashimón), the local beloved deity who changes houses each year. Vice wrote a long piece about Maximón you can read it here.
We visited almost every village around the lake, and while San Marcos was the most livable for us, Santiago was our favorite.
We highly recommend staying with design-focused Michael & Dita in San Marcos. They have a few different options for accommodations on their property so check out their Airbnb listings here to pick one that suits your needs. We stayed in the main house (Casa Rosa, above) "White Suite" and their separated "Artist Loft" and both were great.
We also stayed at this house in Jaibalito and enjoyed it, but it was more "rustic" than it looked in the photos. Pasajcap is also worth checking out. It was recommended to us from an expat who’s lived at the lake for many years.
How to get around
Take a boat (lancha) to other villages, hike the footpaths between them (just not at night because people have been mugged along the trails) or hire a tuk-tuk.
Lancha boat schedules and costs are here.
What to do
Shop - traditional textiles, art, and wood carvings along the streets in Santiago. Their village market on Fridays is also worth a visit. Find more places to shop under the “Where to shop” below.
Volunteer - do good on your vacation.
Atitlan Ayerveda - get an Ayurvedic consultation, massage and/or therapy session with the talented and kind, Eran Dolev and detox based on your body type. Philipp had a session with Eran and can vouch for his services.
Take a Workshop - learn how to make, spin and dye thread, and weave it using traditional back strap methods at this Weaving Workshop or learn how to make fermented food & drinks at this Fermentation Workshop with Love Probiotics, a local business with the best kombucha and kefir in town!
Party at Bar Sublime - start your bar crawl at this popular spot
Cliff jump at Cerro Tzankujil - a hidden nature reserve in San Marcos.
Rent a kayak - Cruise along the lake at your leisure.
Set your alarm at least once - You won’t regret it. Sunrise over the lake is absolutely divine. Read, relax, observe, think, do nothing.
Where to eat & drink
Medicine Foods Cafe - Jess’ favorite. Incredibly high-vibe smoothies, tonics, teas, bowls, breads, super foods in San Marcos. To get here, walk up from the dock about 40 meters and take a left. Walk down the small footpath. When you think you’ve gotten lost or walked too far, keep going. You should see a small grass volleyball court soon. Walk into it and you’ll see a colorful door for Medicine Foods. You’ve arrive in happy food heaven.
Moonfish - delicious falafel plate in San Marcos with a chill outdoor seating area
Posada Jaibalito (or Han’s as the locals call it) - this is a restaurant and hostel in Jaibalito owned by Hans, a bearded German expat. A few eccentric locals hang out here. Come for beer, good bread, cheap good quality food and interesting conversations.
Cafe Sabor Cruceno - restaurant in Santa Cruz run by graduates of its culinary school. They have some of the best food on the lake and undoubtedly the best view.
Where to shop
San Pedro has a large market every Friday and Santiago has one every Sunday. Go to one even if you’re not shopping for food so you can get a taste of local culture.
You'll also find a small shop in Jaibalito across the path from Han’s where you can buy basic supplies and groceries. In San Marcos, buy produce from the two fruit & veggie stands on the main road up from the dock, and more provisions from the shops in the central square up the hill. For a big grocery run, head to Pana.
Crafts & Clothes
Buy local. Mayans have a traditional weaving technique called backstrap and it’s beautiful. Support their craft, or buy second hand at Gypsy's (located on the main road in San Marcos).
Casa Iximche - fine arts & crafts store in Santiago with paintings, well-made wood tables, chairs and decorations. They also serve breakfast!
Other important things to know
DON’T DRINK THE WATER! It’s contaminated with amoebas and possibly other parasites that are endemic to the area. This includes lake water. Stick to bottled water and cooked foods. Additional tips to stay healthy are here.
If you feel ill while there, there’s a health clinic in San Pedro called Los Volcanes. It’s on the same road at the public dock, just straight up the hill about 50 meters and on the left-hand side. Locals will know where it is. Be prepared to explain your symptoms in Spanish.
Cell service and wifi can be spotty. Embrace the idea of going off-the-grid for a little while.
There are local and tourist prices for lanchas and boat captains will try to overcharge you if you look like you can afford to pay an extra few bucks. Be familiar with how much your fare should cost before you get on the boat.
Weather is “eternally spring” but it does get chilly at night and early mornings. Bring some warm clothes like thick socks and a sweater.
The locals, expats, and Mayans are very friendly and welcoming. Don’t be afraid to start a conversation with them, language permitting.
Mayans speak Spanish as their second language so try saying hello (utz awach) and thank you (matiox, pronounced mall tēē yōsh) in their local language. Tz'utujil and Kakchiquel are the two most common native languages.
Before you go
Buy and bring the following with you:
A good probiotic like this one to help prevent or ease food poisoning and traveler’s diarrhea.
Bug spray - yea, you’ll need it.