North America > Central America > Guatemala > Western Highlands (Guatemala) > Lake Atitlán
Lago de Atitlán, (English: Lake Atitlán), is a beautiful volcanic lake in the Western Highlands of Guatemala, renowned as one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, and is one of Guatemala's most important national and international tourist attractions. German explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt called it "the most beautiful lake in the world". It is ringed by small towns, many of which are favourites among backpackers. The region encompasses the lake and the towns around them. Panajachel is best known, and a good entry point, but more off the beaten track are San Pedro La Laguna or the "less party, more meditation" village of San Marcos. Due to the region's popularity, other towns along the lake, such as Santa Cruz la Laguna and San Juan, are now starting to see growing tourism.
Towns and villages
- 1 Panajachel - Lake Atitlan's most-visited town
- 2 San Pedro La Laguna - a laid-back small town with established backpacker reputation
- 3 San Marcos La Laguna - "less party, more meditation" than San Pedro
- 4 Santiago Atitlán , small town on south side of Lake Atitlán, famous for a shrine to Maximón
- 5 Santa Cruz la Laguna - small village on north side of Lake Atitlán. If getting away from it all, but still being a short boat ride away from a night club is your desire then this is the place to be.
- Jaibalito - very small village with its own lancha stop, which is just as well as the only other way of getting there is by footpath
- 6 San Juan La Laguna - emerging destination
- 7 San Antonio Palopo - Laid back and simple Mayan village. Can service tourists nicely but only a couple dozen at a time
- 8 Santa Catarina Palopo - an authentic Mayan village with an abundance of traditional Kaqchikel culture
- San Lucas Toliman
Lake Atitlán and its villages are a winning combination of scenic beauty, a relaxed atmosphere, easily accessible Mayan culture, and a good tourist infrastructure, at 1562 m of altitude, and the Tolimán volcano at its extreme southern end (3158 m). The maximum depth registered on the charts is 340 m. It is shaped by deep surrounding escarpments and three volcanoes on its southern flank.
Most travelers arrive in Panajachel. Bus and other transportation instructions are in that town's article.
Many lanchas (small boats), provide transport from village to village around and across the lake. Some boats are scheduled like buses, other will go as soon as they accumulate enough passengers, like share-ride taxis. Generally the prices are Q5 for one stop, Q10 for two, etc. There are variations to these prices depending on certain factors. If you are indigenous, you pay a lot less. If you are an obvious first-time tourist, and worse still, ask the skipper how much, then you can expect to pay a lot more. Ask other gringos how much before you get to the boat and just hand the exact money over. This way, you appear like you know what you're doing.
Examples of typical prices:
- Pana to/from Santa Cruz & Jaibalito - Q10-15
- Pana to/from San Marcos - Q20-25
- San Marcos to/from Santa Cruz - Q15-20
Lake Atitlan itself is probably the most beautiful place in Guatemala, especially since it acts as a giant mirror to the three volcanoes that surround it.
A large collapsed volcanic cone can be found right at the lake. The descendants of the ancient placed called Maya even today live off the land, which is rich in volcanic soils. The maize farming methods have changed little through the years, and in many ways the local people continue to live in the same way they have done for centuries.
Around Lake Atitlan can have many activities such as hiking, volcano tour, bike tour, tour in the villages, coffee tour, birdwatching tour, trek around the lake, kayak adventure, cultural tour by village around the lake.
There are a number of activities you can do on the water, such as kayaking (rent from Casa del Mundo below, or San Pedro la Laguna) and jet skiing. Diving is also possible in Santa Cruz la Laguna through the hostel "La Iguana Perdida". Or, if you're not the watery type, there's horseback riding, and hiking galore.
There exists a vague, and at times somewhat precarious, path that encircles pretty much the whole lake. New holiday homes and hotels have restricted some of the access to the lakeside path, but it's still possible to walk it. It's a very rewarding and enjoyable hike. Swim in the beautiful water anytime you need to cool off. Wave down a boat from any of the countless jetties if you get tired and want to return back home.
Another option is to rent out and tour via bike, spending a night in different village around the lake.
Climb the three volcanoes. San Pedro from San Pedro, guided for Q100. Atitlan and Toliman can be arranged from Pana. It is not recommended to book tours for climbing the volcanoes in Pana. Most of the prices for climbing the volcanoes will be very similar at most agencies (around US$40 for San Pedro) and they probably collude to keep the price there. However the Pana tour agencies will outsource the work to another tour agency in San Pedro. Agencies in Pana will act as middlemen and take a cut of Q100 to Q200. It is better to approach the agencies in San Pedro directly and cut out the middleman. It is also possible to do the hikes completely on your own for under Q200 (approx US$24, the bulk of which is the entrance fee to the park for foreigners and the boat fare). Most of the people you will meet on the mountains are indigenous people who will be very nice. It seems safe to hike the mountain by yourself (without a guide, but if you hire one you will be helping the local Quiche people). Please bring a plastic bag with you on the hike and pick up any plastic bottles or plastic packaging on your way down. You will be a good citizen of the world. Climbing Atitlan can be done in one to two days.
Travel Atitlan  provides different adventure: tours boat departure morning visiting towns that there are around the lake visiting weavers working women with natural dyes, crafts of towns, painters men, local vegetables, coffee plantations, or if you like adventure they organize tours to volcanoes, visit the towns on bicycle, hiking around the lake you can contact them directly
However you could do it on your own: the best/easiest would be to bike/rent a motorcycle and go from Pana as far as you can. Look at summitpost for detailed description. If you want to commute there, the easiest would be boat to Santiago, and pickup to San Lucas, this will if you carry luggage though incur a lot of hassle (from people), so better get a cheap hotel room somewhere and leave as much as you can there before you go. Do it as early as possible in the morning.
Volunteering opportunities: many of the schools around Lake Atitlán offer built-in volunteering opportunities. For medical students wanting to offer service and gain experience, Hospitalito Atitlán in Santiago Atitlán (another pueblo on the lake) accepts medical students and clinicians. The new Hospitalito Atitlán, scheduled to be completed in November 2010, can mold any volunteer work to fit the skills available (carpenters, MBA students, computer work, group volunteering for construction, etc.).
Many of the towns around the lake have restaurants, at a variety of price points from luxury to budget. See the individual town articles for details.
Each of the towns and villages around the lake offer a wide range of hotels. See the individual town articles (under Cities above) for details. The following hotels or resorts are not in a specific town.
- Lomas de Tzununá. A relatively new place perched on the hillside between Santa Cruz la Laguna and San Marcos. Facing the volcanos, with amazing views, friendly staff. Only accessible by boat.
- La Riviera de Atitlan, ☏ . A high-end resort, located a few km to the west of Panajachel on the bay of San Buenaventura. US$150/night.
On the road around the Lago de Atitlán, especially between the villages of San Juan and San Marcos, some daytime violent crime has been reported (Nov 2004). Tourists have been robbed (although not injured), and there were also rapes against women. The road from San Lucas Toliman to Cerro de Oro, once dangerous, is now considered safe.
Although the road from San Marcos La Laguna to the next northern village is now controlled by the Tourist Police, walking this way with backpacks or large amounts of money is not recommended.
Hiking in the mountainous areas around San Marcos La Laguna is not recommended- there are several known thieves in the area and police and community members, while helpful after an assault, have very little control of the situation. If you feel you must explore these regions definitely go in a group of three or more, or if you're alone take nothing of value with you.