San Pedro La Laguna On a BudgetLocated in the Western Highlands of Guatemala, Lake Atitlan is a beautiful volcanic lake ringed by small towns and villages that are highly frequented by backpackers. Panajachal is one of the best known of the towns, as well as the main entry point of the region, while others like San Pedro La Laguna are quieter and more off the beaten path. Lake Atitlan and its villages attract visitors for its scenic beauty, outdoor activities, and Mayan culture nearby.
SightsAtitlan Lake is a volcanic area surrounded by three beautiful volcanoes. Volcan San Pedro is the oldest of the three, located within the caldera, and has been inactive for about 40,000 years. Also within the caldera is Volcan Toliman, which is probably still active though it has not erupted in recent history. Volcan Atitlan on the southern rim is the youngest of the three and is still active with the most recent eruption occurring in 1853. The three volcanos looming above the lake make up the stunning scenery of the area, as well as a playground for hikers and backpackers seeking adventure.
The Indian's Nose at the top of the mountain above the cities of San Juan and San Marcos is a great place to take in the views. There are a few trails as well as organized trips by horseback up to the top.
There are also several Mayan archaeological sites that have been found around the lake region, as well as a number of authentic villages that still practice traditions today. These can be fascinating visits if you are interested in experiencing some of the local culture.
NeighborhoodsAs mentioned earlier, Panajachal is Lake Atitlan's main point of entry and most visited of the lake towns. It is also the transport hub, with easy access by boat to any of the other lakeside villages. From this side of the lake you will get great views on the water with two volcanos as a backdrop.
San Pedro La Laguna is a more laid-back town, small and more popular with backpackers seeking outdoor adventure.
San Marcos La Laguna is quiet as well with a focus on meditation, yoga, and massage centers.
Each of the towns has a selection of cafes and restaurants, places to stay, and opportunities to shop. Other villages in the lake region include Santiago Atitlan, Santa Cruz La Laguna, and Jaibalito. San Juan is also an emerging destination known for its dyed fabrics, San Antonio Palopo is a Mayan village known for its ceramics, and Santa Catarina Palopo is an authentic Mayan village with an abundance of traditional Kaqchikel culture.
ActivitiesActivities on the lake itself include a full range of options including boat tours ideal for birdwatching and visiting geothermal hot springs, kayaking any time of day, scuba diving to experience unique wildlife and volcanic features down below, as well as swimming in the lake's volcanic waters. Yoga and meditation is especially popular in San Marcos La Laguna, while hiking up to viewpoints like Indian's Nose, Mayan Face, and Volcan San Pedro are also common with visitors. Bike rentals and tours are also available to explore the areas in and around the villages.
Food and DiningIn any of the lake's villages, you will find a number of restaurants and cafés serving typical food of the region, as well as some international and American options in Panajachal. Guatemalan cuisine prominently features corn, chilies, and beans as key ingredients as well as dishes with rice, pork, beef, chicken, cheese, and tortillas. Tamales are a common local favorite. They come in a variety of ways, but are basically a dish made of masa (or maize), which is steamed in a corn husk or banana leaf and usually filled with meat, fruits, and/or nuts. Other main dishes include a seafood soup with plantain slices called tapado, a variety of stews made with meat, vegetables, and spices, as well as a kind of stuffed pepper dish called chiles rellenos. Desserts typically consist of banana bread, a Spanish rice pudding called arrroz con leche, and chick peas in syrup, amongst many others.
TransportationThe nearest major airport to the towns surrounding Atitlan Lake is La Aurora Airport in Guatemala City. Buses from Guatemala City to Panajachal leave approximately every hour, from 6AM to 4PM, and cost only a few US dollars. Be wary that these are poorly maintained recycled school buses with drivers who do not always adhere to speed limits. These "chicken buses," as they are called, can be dangerous.
An alternative is to take a bus to Los Encuentros, and change there for a bus to Panajachal. Many tourist agencies will arrange tourist buses or transport shuttles to Panajachel, which is probably the safest way to reach Lake Atitlan. There are also buses from Guatemala City to San Pedro La Laguna.
Once you have arrived in any of the lake towns, there are small boats that provide transport from village to village around and across the lake.