The magical lake of Guatemala – Atitlán

San pedro volcano at Lake Atitlán

A deep blue lake sorrounded by cone-shaped volcanoes and lush green vegetation. This sounds like a place to check out, right? If I add the twist of a thriving Mayan culture, great food and sunshine to the mix, you would be insane not to visit this five star destination. This place exists, in Guatemala and is called Lake Atitlán. It’s one of the world’s most scenic lakes, a peaceful haven of Central America. If you are exploring this region, don’ think twice, just get your tickets.

How to get there:

It is approximately 150 kilometres away from the capital, Guatemala City at an elevation of 1500 metres. Your trip will take around 3 hours, as you will travel on smaller winding roads. You can always rent a car, of course, but I recommend you the greatest fun ride, a so called chicken bus. It is an old, colorful vehicle that transports not only people, but also goods (like chicken, hence the name) around the country. Safety is definitely not the number one concern of the operators. The bus drivers drive like crazy, but you will surely not forget your ride from the capital.

Where to go:

The 16th church at Calle Principal in Panahachel.

The city of Panajachel is your best bet for a good start. The „capital city” of Atitlán is rather touristy, with all of the advantages and disadvantages that come with it. It offers a nice selection of hotels and hostels, several travel agencies offering a wide range of activities and some awesome restaurants. On the other hand, bagpackers are flooding the streets during the day, and nightlife is loud and vibrant. Anyways, whenever you feel saturated with the city, the lake will compensate you for everything.

Mayans weaving traditional clothes
Mayan ladies weaving a traditional skirt.

I started my day at the local market and main street called Calle Santander. It is a fantastic place to get a good breakfast and to try as many of the local fruits as you can. When it comes to souvenir shopping, this area also offers better deals than Guatemala City or Antigua. There are artisan craft stands with traditional clothes, jewelry, pottery, hammocks and other treats to discover. If you are not too packed up already, take a stroll in the city center. The 16th century church on Calle Principal is worth the visit. An old hotel called Casa Cakchiquel also attracts tourists interested in the past of Panajachel. Today it serves as a cultural center, but being the first hotel at the lake it once hosted several prominent guests like Che Guevara and Ingrid Bergman. One spot I missed in town but heard great things about is the Maya Traditions Medicine Garden, where indigenous guides will explain the traditional use of herbal medicines. For some ideas on where to eat in Panahachel and around the lake, click here.

Boat ride on Lake Atitlán
Boatride on the lake with the volcanoes in the background.

There is no better way to leave town than by embarking on a boat ride. From the port of the city small boats will take you around the lake. These serve as the local way of transportation between the smaller towns around Atitlán. You will have a spectacular view of the three volcanoes on one side of the lake, and the beautiful lake houses and Panajachel on the other. Not far from the city, near Santa Cruz, you will find the Kayak Guatemala Los Elementos. Renting a kayak there was a superb experience for me. For around 10 bucks an hour you will have undisturbed private moments on the lake. If you take the guided tour, the Los Elementos team will take you to the best spots nearby. For more details visit their homepage here.

View of the lake from a mountain
The view of the lake and volcanoes from the top of another mountain.

I chose another great outdoor activity to get away from the crowd – hiking the San Pedro volcano. Leave early in the morning and cross Atitlán by boat to San Pedro. Climbing up to 3000 metres is an arduous hike. The trail leads you into the jungle, and will take around 3-4 hours, so come prepared with water, snacks and lunch. It can be chilly up on the top, so make sure to bring a jacket along. There were absolutely no signs along the way, though, so either rent a guide down by the visitor center, or take an organized tour from Panajachel already. If you are lucky and clouds are not covering the top of the volcano, you can enjoy a stunning view of the lake below your feet. For more tips on how to climb the volcano, click here.

Nature and culture make for an unforgettable mix at Atitlán. Looking back on the lake on my way back to Guatemala City made me smile and think: what a great trip!

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Views from the shores of Lake Atitlán