Lake Atitlan is the biggest lake in Guatemala at 50.2 sq mi. The lake was formed 84,000 years ago by a volcanic eruption that filled in with rain water. Atitlan means “at the water” in Nahuatl language. Three volcanoes now stand at its south end and are all active, named Atitlan, San Pedro, and Toliman. The lake is surrounded by several towns all reached by public boat taxis leaving from the main town, Panachajel. The other major towns are Santa Cruz, San Marcos, San Juan, San Pedro, and Santiago. There are also other small towns that are less visited like Jaibalito.
Each town along the waters of this volcanic crater lake has something different to offer and appeals to different traveler personalities. We stayed in Santa Cruz, the first biggest town to the right of Panajachel. Sitting at their restaurant with a patio and large windows facing the lake and the three volcanoes, La Iguana Perdida in Santa Cruz provides the best relaxing place on the lake. We stayed there for five nights to round out the end of our seven month trip. They are known for their unique dive company, ATI Divers, that offers PADI certifications and unique dives to see the under water Mayan village and a unique sunken hotel. We don’t dive, but loved lounging in their hammocks, meeting all the guests, and joining in on their communal dinners. We also enjoyed renting a two person kayak to glide across the lake.
Santa Cruz is a sleepy town and a great place to just chill on the breezy lake at one of the few resorts, including La Iguana Perdida, Free Cerveza, Isla Verde, and Five Elements Spa and Resort.
Next door to Santa Cruz is Jaibalito and it can be reached by a nice hike through the hills from Santa Cruz. This town is not over touristy and only has a few places to stay. Here you get more of a local sense for the lake. You can see how local Mayan and Guatemalan people live their daily lives along the lake. Local ladies in their traditional bright colored blouses and black skirts with woven belts can be seen at the shores of the lake dredging up rocks and hand washing laundry. We walked over to this town to have lunch at the swanky hotel, Ven Acá, and swim in their infinity pool overlooking the lake. They serve a delicious and unique signature mojito with hibiscus and basil. The views are picturesque as you swim in the pool before the faces of the volcanoes across the lake.
Moving around the lake, the next major town is San Marcos. This town has a reputation that precedes itself as the big hippie town on the lake. The town attracts travelers seeking spiritual yoga retreats and organic crunchy granola. You can visit the herbal shop and buy fresh medicinal herbs and tinctures. You can stay at the Kaivalya Yoga School and get yoga teacher certified. There are white girls wearing bindis and white boys with dreads talking about their spiritual capacity. It’s crunchy and healthy and holistic. If that’s what you’re into San Marcos is for you.
If you’re seeking a more authentic experience away from tourists, stay in the next town over, San Juan la Laguna. San Juan offers homestays with local Mayan families. The town hosts the women’s cooperatives for weaving. It’s a great town for shopping for local textiles. As soon as you exit the boat there’re locals waiting to sell you walking tours, artwork, and colorful textiles made locally. The prices aren’t cheap, but they do support local women and men for their talents. They spool all their own cottons and dye them with natural plants. Their work is beautiful and full of love. We bought way too much here, but were happy to support the locals.
Not looking for culture or relaxation? Would you rather party and meet other backpackers? San Pedro is the town for you. This town has the opposite reputation of San Marcos. It’s known for being the biggest party town on the lake. It’s crowded and overpopulated. The houses decorate its hills with colorful facades. There’s plenty of party hostels and bars on its congested streets. There’s tour offices for hikes up San Pedro volcano too, if you’re not too hungover. You can also paraglide or kayak. This town is for the active backpacker, who wants a lively experience. It tends to attract young people. We visited for a drink, but didn’t stay long.
Moving along, the town of Santiago sits right next to San Pedro. They have a tumultuous history and more museums and a bigger city feeling. You can visit the markets for some bargaining. They also host a cultural festival every March with music, arts, food, and camping for $20. We didn’t visit this town, so I don’t know a whole lot about it.
Last, but not least, Panajachel is the gateway to the lake and the biggest of all the towns. It offers a bustling local town with great bargain shopping for souvenirs. There’s also great restaurants and it’s the gateway to other parts of Guatemala. Most people just pass through this town on their way across the lake, but it’s worth a visit. There’s a Nature Reserve with hiking trails and it’s the only town with access to necessities needed by those living on the lake.
We met a lot of expats who bought property on the lake ten years ago, who said it’s changed a lot over the years. The lake itself also grows 15 feet every ten years then recedes 15 feet every ten years, so you don’t want to live right on the waters. You can see houses sunken in the lake at the edge of towns. There’s still lots of land up for sale though for cheap. There’s something about the lake that really attracts people to it. It might have to do with the picturesque views, the thermal qualities of the water, and the peaceful lifestyle.