Lake Atitlan is one of the most popular places to visit in Guatemala, and for good reason. Imagine a huge lake surrounded by volcanoes and dotted with traditional villages and small towns, each with their own personality.
Being that Lake Atitlan is easily accessible from the travel hub of Antigua, many travelers add a stay at the lake to their Guatemala trip.
You'll mingle with locals, backpackers, yogis and church groups on mission trips. You can choose to spend your time relaxing, hiking, volunteering, getting off the grid, hanging out with other foreigners, drinking a beer on the lake, cleansing your body and soul, or all of the above!
Fun Fact: In the Maya language, "Atitlan" means "the place where the rainbow gets its colors".
There are lots of things to do in Lake Atitlan, plus it’s perfect environment to get away from it all and simply relax. It's no surprise that people often end up staying around Lake Atitlan for much longer than expected.
We've been hearing about Lake Atitlan for years, but when it came time to plan our own trip we were a little bit overwhelmed. Which town should we stay in? What is there to do? How many days should be spend there?
Lucky for you, we've got the answers to these tricky questions:
After you've decided which town(s) sound best to you and how many days you'll need, let's talk about what you should plan to do during your visit to Guatemala's most famous lake. Here are the top things to do around Lake Atitlan:
1. Go handicraft shopping at Chichicastenago (Chichi) Market
Often called "Chichi", this market is very popular with foreigners. But just because you'll see tons of gringos there doesn't mean you should give it a miss. In fact, this is the largest handicraft market in Central America, and is well worth a visit (in our opinion!).
Find items like pottery, hand-woven textiles, traditional clothing and more. Thursdays and Sundays are the main market days, and while you can hop on a tourist shuttle, we'd recommend taking the local transport (aka chicken buses!) there for a more authentic and memorable experience (plus, it's much cheaper!).
Insider Tip: Be sure to check out the colorful cemetery in Chichicastenango, not far from the market!
How to Get to Chichicastenango “Chichi” Market
After getting off the boat in Panajachel (Pana), walk on the Main Street and past a gas station on your left. You'll come to a T in the road. Cross the street and you’ll see a bus stop. Wait here for the next chicken bus (shouldn’t be too much more than 10 minutes) headed to Solola.
The ride is about 15 - 20 minutes on a windy uphill road and this route can get quite packed, but they will squeeze as many people as possible on. Hang on tight and enjoy the experience! A man will squeeze his way through the isles and you’ll pay him. The fare to Solola is 3Q per person.
When you arrive in Solola, the final stop is at a town square with a park in the middle. When you get off the bus, ask around for a bus headed to Los Encuentros. Someone will probably approach you and escort you to the right bus (since it’s a popular route for foreigners). This leg of the journey should take around 25 minutes (although our bus made a random 10 minutes stop in the middle of the journey) and will cost 2.5Q per person.
Now it’s time to hop on the last bus, headed to Chichicastenango. Again, you’ll be dropped off in a square with other buses and you’ll just want to find the guy yelling “Chichi”! This leg of the journey costs 5Q per person. This ride takes about 35 minutes. Total cost from Pana to Chichi is 10.5Q and takes about 1 hour and 20 minutes (or more).
2. Hike to “Indian Nose” (aka La Nariz) for spectacular views
This short hike offers one of the best views of Lake Atitlan, and is well worth the 30-minute steep climb.
You can book a tour to do this hike at sunrise* for spectacular views, or you can hike it on your own during the day. From the top, you will have an incredible view of the lake, the surrounding volcanoes and the villages below.
*It would be very difficult to do this hike on your own at sunrise unless you're staying nearby (which is unlikely because there isn't much accommodation around here. The boats and buses don't start running until the sun is up, so the only way to get there is to go with an organized tour, which you can find advertised in many towns.
To get to the Indian Nose viewpoint, you will have to pay a fee of 50Q ($6.46 USD) per person to the farmer whose land you pass through. Think of it as an entrance fee. Please don’t try to sneak by them or argue, there are stories out there how people get robbed this way. The farmer we paid was friendly and we had no issues paying him to get to the top.
Responsible travel tip: This place is sacred to the indigenous people who call Atitlan home, so please be respectful when you are there. This is not a place to take topless photos or to get drunk. While you're at the top, you might even hear some ceremonies taking place in the nearby forest.
Safety Tip: There are reports of robberies happening on this trail, but we had no issues whatsoever. Be sure to read our Lake Atitlan safety tips before doing this hike.
How to get to the Indian Nose trailhead:
If you’re hiking independently, we would recommend to download the Maps.Me offline map to help guide you. This map has the trail head and trails clearly marked. Starting from Santa Clara, head toward the road down to San Pablo.
Before you get to the intersection, on your right there will be a road that twists left and then right and goes down hill a bit. At the end of this road, there is a dirt path that leads around some fields and starts heading toward the Indian Nose. Just before the uphill switchbacks there is a white sign so you’ll know your going the right way. From there it’s pretty easy to follow the path to the top.
3. Experience local life at Solola Market
For a much more authentic market feel, check out the Solola Market. We didn't see one other gringo while we were there!
You won't find many souvenirs here, but instead, you'll see where the locals come to buy fresh produce, fried fish and shrimp from the lake, and other household items. You'll see villagers wearing traditional clothing, and this is a particularly good opportunity to see the local men wearing their traditional dress.
If you have time, we'd recommend visiting both Solola and Chichi markets as they are completely different. You can even visit them on the same day, as they are close to each other, though they both have different "main market" days.
4. Go swimming in Lake Atitlan
On a sunny day, taking a dip in the lake is a favorite way for locals and tourists to cool off.
And while many of the towns have docks jutting out from the shore, the swimming isn't great everywhere, so beware. Some of the towns have a polluted shore where boats leak fuel and sewage is directed into the water, so you'll want to be careful about where you jump in. Umm, anyone else gagging a little or is it just me?
We’ve heard from a few people who got sick (think parasites!) after swimming in this lake, but have also known several others who have swam here many times with no problem.
BEST SWIMMING SPOTS IN LAKE ATITLAN
San Marcos is said to have the cleanest shore for swimming.
Here are a couple good spots to jump in near San Marcos:
Reserva Natural del Cerro Tzankujil: This nature reserve has a trail leading a place where you can cliff jump and go swimming. Water is nice and clean here. Entrance fee for foreigners is Q15.
Hostal del Lago: Even if you’re not a guest, you can walk in and enjoy a drink at their restaurant and hang out on the dock.
When we were there at the start of rainy season (May), it was a bit too cold and dreary for us to want to swim. But at other times of the year (November to April), it will be much more tempting!
Hot Tip: If swimming in a pool sounds more appealing to you, head to the town of Jaibalito where you can relax in the infinity pool at Club Ven Aca and enjoy epic views. Be prepared to pay a fee to use the pool.
5. Participate in a cacao ceremony
While spending time at Lake Atitlan, it's pretty likely that you'll hear about cacao ceremonies from other travelers or see posters advertising these events all around town.
So what the heck is a cacao ceremony?
It's important to know there are different types of cacao ceremonies. One type is a more relaxed "dance" type ceremony where participants drink chocolate, dance and mingle, and perhaps go through a few guided exercises together. The other type of ceremony is meant to be more spiritual and is more of a meditation and reflection. One type of ceremony might speak you more than the other.
We've heard both rave reviews and people who think it's "total bogus", so decide for yourself if it's something you're interested in. Even if you don't get much out of the actual ceremony, it could be an interesting experience, and San Marcos is a great place to give it a shot.
Want more spiritual experiences? And if you like the idea of a cacao ceremony, why stop there? San Marcos is the place to be to get your chakras balanced, have a reiki session or participate in a meditation retreat.
6. Take a yoga class
Get your downward dog on and stretch out those muscles after all those bumpy Guatemalan bus rides.
You'll find yoga studios and retreat centers offering classes all around the lake. But the town with the most offerings is definitely San Marcos. Check the community notice board around the corner from Circles Cafe for yoga classes.
If you want an epic place to take a yoga class, check out the Eagle’s Nest Retreat Center. Check their schedule for times open to the public. But if you do go, it is about a 30 minute hike up to the center.
Note: I will say that during off-peak season (May), we found that many of the classes that were scheduled to take place just didn't happen. We showed up for 2 classes and we were the only ones there. No teacher. No other students. We've seen pictures and heard stories of packed classes during peak season, so I think it really depends on the time of year you're visiting.
7. Support the community at CECAP
Located in the small town of Santa Cruz La Laguna, this organization (also known as Amigos de Santa Cruz) provides practical skill training to people in the village and neighboring areas. They offer industrial, culinary and handicraft training; and the mission is to give their students skills and opportunities that lead to meaningful and fulfilling jobs.
How cool is that?! You can support this organization by visiting their onsite restaurant where students will be your chefs and servers.
Not only is it an amazing organization, but they serve up some excellent food. We'd recommend going for breakfast or brunch. There is also a small selection of handicrafts made by students for sale.
8. Have a drink with a view
If your budget allows and you're looking for a splurge, staying at the stunning La Casa del Mundo would be dreamy. Imagine laying in a hammock on your private terrace and watching the afternoon pass by...
But if your budget doesn't allow for a private terrace type of place, you can still enjoy the spectacular views Casa de Mundo has to offer. From Santa Cruz, it's just a 30-minute hike to get to this secluded, lakeside hotel. Once you reach the property, head to the restaurant and grab a seat on their outdoor terrace that overlooks the water.
If you arrive between 4 and 6 p.m., you'll get to enjoy happy hour!
And if you want to spend the whole day in Jaibalito, head to Club Ven Aca where you can enjoy a relaxing swim in their infinity pool!
9. Try Guatemalan chocolate
This region of Guatemala is known for chocolate, and if you have a sweet tooth, you'll definitely want to do some sampling.
If you’re in San Marcos, try visiting Dalileo to learn more about the process and to try organic chocolate that has been made using beans from the family’s farm.
Insider Tip: If you just want to taste a few different flavors, stop into just about any convenience store around the lake and you'll see long, cylindrical bars of chocolate near the register with "Diego's Chocolate" on the label. We loved chocolate sea salt, but there are a ton of flavors to choose from. Try 'em all!
10. Go kayaking or SUP on the lake
Take out a kayak or SUP in the morning and enjoy the calm waters with volcanoes looming in the distance. Many guesthouses around the lake rent out kayaks, or can point you in the right direction.
And if you're in Santa Cruz, you can check out Los Elementos Adventure where they rent out all sorts of water toys and offer guided services as well.
11. Hang out in cute coffee shops
Guatemala is known for its beans... coffee beans, that is! Sample the local brews at one of the many cute coffee shops around the lake.
Crossroads Coffee in Panajachel: We heard incredible things about this coffee shop and the owner, Mike. (Just look at their reviews!) Sadly though, they were closed while we were visiting in May. One of the bummers of traveling during low season is some places will be closed (in exchange for less tourists)! If they’re open, stop in and let us know what you think.
Circles Cafe in San Marcos: cute little garden courtyard to enjoy a specialty coffee
Cafe Rafa in Santiago: If you’re looking for creative coffee art, you’ll find it here!
Shambhala Cafe in San Marcos: Good coffee, vibes and prices.
12. Test your knowledge at Trivia Night
Admittedly, we are terrible at trivia, but it's still one of our favorite things! We love going to trivia night, whether we're living somewhere longterm and become locals, or we're just passing through.
Unfortunately, we weren't able to go to any of the trivia nights while we were at Atitlan, but if you are staying in one of the towns on the correct night, it could be a fun event to attend!
Friday night Tacos and Trivia at La Perdida Iguana in Santa Cruz
Sunday Quiz Night at Alegre Sports Pub in San Pedro
Note: If you are not staying in these towns or in a neighborning village, it will not be possible to do trivia, as the boats stop running at 7 p.m. and you will not be able to return to your hotel. Also, it is not advised to walk on the paths at night.
13. Be vegan for a day
Around Lake Atitlan, you'll have no trouble finding healthy cafes and vegan restaurants. Even if you're a carnivore, it's a great place to try some veg eats.
There are plenty of good vegetarian & vegan options around Lake Atitlan, but here are a few of the most popular:
Samsara's Garden in San Marcos: This cute outdoor cafe has another location in Antigua, and we loved their filling bowls filled with spiralized veggie "noodles", quinoa and yummy sauces.
Deli Jasmin in Panajachel: Beautiful garden setting with big portions.
The Fifth Dimension in San Pedro: Good restaurant with vegan, vegetarian and gluten free options in San Pedro.
14. Catch the sunset
Sunsets on Lake Atitlan are pretty epic. Watch as the sky turns orange and pink, making the volcanoes turn to silhouettes. This beautiful sight is reflected in the calm waters below, giving you the sunset view of a lifetime.
BEST SUNSETS IN LAKE ATITLAN
Being that it faces west, Panajachel enjoys the best sunset views on the lake. For the best spot, walk on the road headed south, toward Santa Catarina. Once you’re away from the business of town, stop and enjoy the epic sunset.
15. Scuba dive in Lake Atitlan
Whether you’re an experienced diver or a novice, Lake Atitlan would be an interesting place to explore beneath the water’s surface. Although there’s not a lot of marine life to see, you’ll be able to see sunken buildings, volcanic rock walls, swim-throughs and volcanic hot mud.
Plus, Lake Atitlan is a great place to get your high altitude specialty.
Which town should I stay in at Lake Atitlan?
This is a difficult question to answer, and each person will have their own preference depending on what they're looking for.
The towns each have their own distinctly different vibe and attract different crowds: For instance, San Marcos is a hippie haven and San Pedro is popular with backpackers seeking cheap prices and nightlife.
Some towns, like Santa Cruz, are pretty secluded and you will most likely be "off the grid" and eat meals at your hostel. Whereas other towns, like Panajachel, are busy and have many options to choose from when it comes to hotels, restaurants and nightlife.
If you have the time, we'd suggest staying in at least 2 different towns to get a different feel.
We stayed in both San Marcos and Santa Cruz. Each had a different vibe and we liked them for different reasons.
This town is cute and has a decent amount of restaurants and shops and can be best described as having a "hippy vibe". There is good swimming here and options for yoga, but it's pretty quiet in the nighttime.
We enjoyed this town, its cute cafes and pretty lake views, but felt that it was borderline cheesy. Everywhere you look, you'll see dreadlocked foreigners who have been staying in this small hamlet for months selling homemade jewelry on the streets.
If you choose to stay in San Marcos, the accommodation selections are quite bleak, and the best options we found when we were looking were Airbnbs. ($40 USD off when you use this link)
This quaint town is perched on the cliffside and spills down to the lake.
Aside from two hostels (La Iguana Perdida and Free Cerveza) and a handful of Airbnbs, there's not much near the lake, and most of the local life takes place up above. This means tourists and locals are quite separated.
Since there aren't restaurants or grocery stores near the lake, you'll likely be eating at your hostel (both of which serve family-style dinners). Both hostels have a social atmosphere and a decent nightlife scene, though from our observations, it seemed like Free Cerveza was a younger, rowdier crowd, while La Iguana Perdida was a little more relaxed.
Good to know: The hostels do not have WiFi, so it is a good time to relax and go off the grid.
Insider tip: If you do stay in Santa Cruz, be sure to take a tuk tuk up the hill (it is steep!) for 10Q to wander around the town square and eat a meal at CECAP.
Here are short descriptions of some other main towns around Lake Atitlan:
San Pedro: Known for having some of the cheapest prices around Atitlan, San Pedro attracts a young backpacker crowd and has a lively nightlife scene.
Panajachel (aka “Pana”): The most developed town around Lake Atitlan, you won’t get the laidback vibes of some of the smaller villages. But in exchange for peacefulness, you’ll get lots of options when it comes to shopping, hotels and restaurants.
Tzununa: A short walk (or tuk tuk ride) from San Marcos, this tiny village is the place to go if you want to get away from the crowds.
Jaibalito: Accessible only by boat or hiking, this tiny town (if you can call it that!) has just 3 places to stay. While there’s not a ton to do here, it is a fantastic place to relax with some epic views.
Do you know where you’re going to stay now? Good, time to check out the top things to do in Lake Atitlan.
How long should I spend at Lake Atitlan?
Again, there's no correct answer to this question, but if you are pressed for time, I would say you should allocated 3-4 days minimum to Atitlan. This will be enough time to explore a little and get a feel for a couple different towns. Plus, getting to and from Atitlan is pretty time consuming (about 4-5 hours from Antigua), so going for less than 3 days is (in our opinions) not going to be worthwhile.
Ideally, 5-7 days will allow you to stay in 2 to 3 different towns and will give you a chance to explore and also relax.
Lake Atitlan is a popular place for people to spend more time as well. There are many volunteer opportunities, yoga retreats and longterm Airbnb rentals around the lake. So if you have a month to spare, you won't be alone.
Getting around Lake Atitlan
Even if you are staying in just one town during your trip to Lake Atitlan, you can certainly see more of the surrounding villages.
Some of the towns have paths between them and you can either walk or hire a tuk tuk. (Read below for safety information on walking between the villages).
There are also trucks that the locals use to go longer distances. Just ask around and friendly locals will point you in there direction. They are very cheap (like 5Q between cities) and a fun experience.
And we can’t forget the boats, or lanchas. The boats leave from the dock in each town, and when you ask the young men working there they will point you in the direction of the correct boat for your destination. They typically wait to fill up before leaving.
We found that many of the prices on other blogs were not up to date, as it seems they have risen in recent years. There’s really no negotiating with them as there is one boat going at a time. Boats start running around 6:30 a.m. and last boat leaves around 7:30 p.m.
The same boat travels from Panajechel to Santa Cruz la Laguna, Jaibalito, Tzununa, San Marcos la Laguna, and then San Pedro. Going back is the same route but in reverse.
Public Water Taxi Boat Costs in Lake Atitlan:
Tourists are typically charged a higher price than locals. That’s just the way it is. Don’t try to argue with the workers, locals ride these boats everyday and you’re just here for a little bit. Here are the estimated prices for the Lake Atitlan water taxis (from 2018):
Panajachel to Santa Cruz la Laguna: 10Q
Panajachel to Jaibalito: 10Q
Panajachel to Tzununa: 15Q
Panajachel to San Marcos la Laguna: 25Q
Panajachel to San Pedro: 25Q
San Pedro to San Marcos: 10Q
San Pedro to Santa Cruz: 20Q
San Pedro to Santiago: 10Q
Safety Tips in Lake Atitlan
In general, Lake Atitlan is safe, and we had no issues whatsoever. That said, there have been robberies of tourists reported in this area. Typically, these robberies take place on the paths between villages, and it’s said that the most dangerous road is between San Pedro and San Marcos.
Don’t get too worried or let this scare you away from visiting Lake Atitlan, because the majority of visitors (including many solo female travelers) don’t have any bad experiences. But it is good to read up on the current situation and to be prepared.
Here are some safety tips for traveling around Lake Atitlan:
Read up on our general travel safety tips, because many of them will apply here as well.
Avoid walking very far after dark. Instead, hire a tuk tuk when possible, it will only cost a few quetzales.
Don’t carry large amounts of money. Typically if you’re robbed, they will ask for your money and may threaten violence. Hand over your money.
Walk with other people if possible.
Want to hear from you!
Have you been to Lake Atitlan? How did you like it? What other things to do in Lake Atitlan do you recommend? Are you heading there soon? What questions do you still have? Let us know in the comments below and we’ll get back to you!