Top 50 Things to Do at Lake Atitlan (2023)

by | Dec 3, 2022 | Guatemala, Travel

Lake Atitlan is one of the top places to visit in Guatemala. It’s got loads of history, culture, natural beauty, spirituality, and adventure. Everything you want in a destination. The problem is knowing where to find all these amazing travel opportunities.

In this guide, I’m going to share with you the 50 best things to do at Lake Atitlan and some practical tips on how to do them all.

This guide is based on my one-month working online and traveling around Lake Atitlan and my three months in Guatemala.


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Don’t you love it when a travel destination turns out to be better than you expected?

That’s how Lake Atitlan was for me.

But…

It wasn’t love at first sight.

It took me a while to fall in love with it.

I arrived on a rainy evening on a shuttle from Mexico. The first night I spent at a sad, ugly, and unfriendly hotel in Panajachel.

After finding an ATM, a SIM card, and breakfast the next morning, I headed to the shore of the lake.

And what I found…

was a BIG disappointment.

Lake Atitlan—I was not impressed. The volcanoes were somewhere off in the distance and to me, they just looked like 2 lumps on a distant shore. And the actual lake was…a body of water.

Ok. In all fairness to Lake Atitlan, the weather wasn’t great—cloudy, grey, drizzly.

But the next day I moved to San Pedro and got a place with a view of the lake. I started visiting all the different villages, getting out on the lake and kayaking, doing some hiking, going to the market, and drinking loads of good coffee.

And that’s when I fell in love.

I ended up staying a month on the lake, moving from village to village.

You just need to know where to park yourself—a hotel or Airbnb with a view of the lake (not Panajachel)—and you need to know what to see and do on the lake.

So, I hope this list of 50 things to do at Lake Atitlan will help you have an amazing trip. Hopefully, you’ll also fall in love with it as much as I did.

Oh and if you want some ideas on where to stay, check out my list of the best hotels and hostels at Lake Atitlan.

Check out my 2022-2023 Guatemala Travel Guide for more tips, tricks, ideas, and inspiration for visiting the land of eternal spring. You’ll find over 15 travel articles to help you explore the history, culture, food, and natural beauty of Guatemala.

A dock with boats on each side and volcanoes in the distance and a cloudy sky
This was my view of Lake Atitlan on my first day. Not all that great. Don’t you think?
a laptop on a table and on a balcony with the lake in the distance
My workspace during my first week at Lake Atitlan. Not too shabby for US$22/night and not too hard to fall in love, right?

About Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan is the deepest lake in Central America. It came about when a volcano erupted 1.8 million years ago, forming a caldera at its summit. This caldera gradually filled up with rainwater over time to form a lake, which we now call Lake Atitlan.

The shores of Lake Atitlan are dotted with 13 towns, 3 inactive but beautiful volcanoes (San Pedro, Toliman, and Atitlan), and a ring of mountains. One of the best experiences is to stay at a hotel or Airbnb in one of the villages, where you can enjoy views of the lake, the volcanoes, and the mountains.

the shore of Lake Atitlan

The lake is located in the highlands of Guatemala, a region of the country predominantly inhabited by the Maya, the original inhabitants of the country. There are over 20 Maya ethnic groups in Guatemala. The 2 Maya groups that reside in the towns around the lake are the Tz’utujil and Kaqchikel.

Historically, the two groups had been enemies. It was the Kaqchikel who allied with Spain against the other Maya when the Spanish invaded Guatemala. Eventually, the Kaqchikel realized the colonizers were not their friends, but by then it was too late and they too were crushed. Today the two groups are on friendly terms with each other (according to one of my guides). Each town around the lake is either a Tz’utujil town or a Kaqchikel town.

The other noticeable group is the foreigners from places like Europe and the US. A lot of hipsters, hippies, and free spirits. They moved in, bought land, opened up businesses (hotels, restaurants, coffee shops, yoga studios), and made the lake their home.

You’ll find towns like Santiago and Santa Catarina to be still very Mayan with little western influence, while other towns like San Marcos and San Pedro to be heavily influenced by the lake’s foreign residents.

sunrise over San Pedro on Lake Atitlan
San Pedro at sunrise

What to do at Lake Atitlan – Top 50

Here is a list of 50 things you can do at Lake Atitlan. It’s ideal for those who want to dig deeply into the history and culture of Guatemala. But there are also loads of things to do for people who love hiking, swimming, kayaking, and anything that’s adventurous.

For booking tours, I use Get Your Guide.

However, you can also find tour operators and guides when you get to Lake Atitlan. For each activity, I’ve included instructions on how to do them.

Here is a list of local travel guides based in San Juan.

1.      Visit the different villages around the lake

people walking down a street in San Juan
The main street of San Juan

The #1 thing to do when visiting Lake Atitlan is to visit as many of the villages as you can. Each village has its own unique characteristics. Some focus on arts and crafts, while other on yoga and holistic health. Some are just great for getting away from it all while others are known for partying away the night.

Almost all the villages are a gateway to authentic Maya culture. They still follow their own religion (a mixture of Christianity and ancient Maya traditions), wear their own traditional clothes (the women especially but you’ll also find men in Santiago), and speak their own language (not Spanish).

These are the top 2 villages to visit (they’re also easy to get to by public boat for Q20 – Q25):

•            San Juan * – don’t skip (culture)

•            Santiago * – don’t skip (culture, history, and local vibe)

There are stunning views of the lake from every village. But take these towns away from the lake, the volcanoes, and mountains, and I don’t think anyone can honestly say they are particularly charming or beautiful.  The architecture is plain grey cement. Most people don’t bother to paint their businesses or residents. You don’t get the red-tiled roofs like you do in Mexico. Instead, it’s sheet metal that gets rusted easily. There is a temporary or half-finished feel to everything.

The only exception is Santa Catarina Palopo. Here you’ll find many of the buildings have been painted blue and covered in artwork.

VillagesPopulationHighlights
PanajachelKaqchikelTransport hub to other villages, museum, Nature Reserve, restaurants, fire ceremonies
Santa CruzKaqchikelSabor Crucenos Restaurant, hiking, kayaking, SUP, community projects
JaibalitoKaqchikelGood restaurants, excellent views
TzununaKaqchikelYoga retreats, excellent views
San MarcosKaqchikelYoga, meditation, cacao ceremonies, temazcal, Cliff diving, swimming & hiking at Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve
San PabloKaqchikelNot accessed by the shore so it gets no visitors
San JuanTz’utujilArt galleries, handicrafts, weaving workshops, temazcals, hiking Indian Nose
San PedroTz’utujilHiking Indian Nose & San Pedro Volcano, museum, thermal baths, language schools, nightlife
SantiagoTz’utujilMaximon deity, St. James Apostle Church, monument to victims of the civil war, market
San Lucas TolimanKaqchikelVolcano Atitlan
San Antonio PalopoKaqchikelPottery workshops
Santa CatarinaKaqchikelPainted homes, hot springs, pretty town
SololaKaqchikelCentral market

2. Enjoy the views of the lake

view of lake and volcanoes at sunrise from Santa Cruz
A view of Lake Atitlan and Volcanos Toliman and San Pedro from the shore of Santa Cruz.

One of my favorite things to do at Lake Atitlan is to sit and stare at the lake—either at sunrise, at sunset, or even in the middle of the day. In my month-long visit, I never got tired of the views.

To fully enjoy the views, though, you need to pick the right hotel or Airbnb in the right village.

Find a place where you can wake up every morning with views of the lake from a terrace or your bedroom window. Ideally, your own private balcony, where you can drink your morning coffee and watch the sun rise over the lake, or sit with a glass of wine and watch the sun set.

These are the villages with the BEST views of the lake and volcanoes (these villages face north or south, so the sunrise and sunset will be from the side):

  • Santa Cruz – excellent
  • Jaibalito – excellent
  • Tzununa – great
  • San Marcos – great
  • Panajachel – good

These villages have the best sunset view and nice views of the volcanoes

  • Santa Catarina
  • San Antonio Polopo

These other two villages have the best sunrise view

  • San Pedro

Here is a list of my favorite hotels and hostels around the lake. You can also check out my COMPLETE guide to staying at Lake Atitlan here as well.

VillagesAccommodations with great views of the lake
PanajachelHotel Utz Jay – $ (no lake views but great budget hotel)
Porta Hotel del Lago – $$
Villas Balam Ya – $$$
Santa CruzHotel & Restaurante Arca de Noe – $
Atitlan Sunset Lodge — $$
JaibalitoHotel La Casa del Mundo – $$
TzununaEl Picnic Atitlan – $$ – $$$
San MarcosEagle’s Nest  – $ – $$
Anzan Atitlan – $$$
San JuanChirris Hostel – $ (no views of the lake)
Eco Hotel Mayachik – $ (no views of the lake, but they have a temazcal)
San PedroMikaso Hotel – $ – $$
San Lucas TolimanHotel Toliman – $$
San Antonio PalopoHotel Terrazes Del Lago – $ – $$
Santa Catarina PalopoVilla Santa Catarina – $$
Tzampoc Resort – $$$

3.      Do a Boat Tour

a map of Lake Atitlan
A map of Lake Atitlan

Are you spending just one week in Guatemala?

Or are you just visiting on a day trip from Antigua?

Do a boat tour to the different villages. You can book one ahead of time on Get Your Guide website or book a tour while you’re at the lake.

Most boat tours leave from Panajachel and visit 3 villages:

  • San Juan
  • San Pedro
  • Santiago

Try doing a boat tour with a guide who can tell you the history and culture of each village. Here are 2 tours you can book before arriving at the lake:

  • Tour from Antigua – US$110 – 1. Panajachel 2. Santiago – visit the confraternity of the local saint named Maximon (RATING: 4.7/5 – 11 reviews)READ REVIEWS & BOOK HERE
  • Private Tour from Antigua – US$150 – Visit San Juan, San Pedro, and Santiago – the 3 most interesting villages – READ REVIEWS & BOOK HERE  

If you’re on a budget, you can easily do your own boat tour by taking the public boat for Q20-Q25 to the villages. See my guide below on getting around Lake Atitlan.

4.      Learn about the Maya history and culture

Mayan woman performing a ritual in front of the Santo Tomás chu

There are so many opportunities at Lake Atitlan to explore the Maya’s history and rich culture—dress, food, religion, arts, handicrafts, lifestyle, and the civil war.

The lake is the home of 2 main Maya groups: the Kaqchikel and the Tz’utujil. Another Maya group, the Q’iche, also reside in the highlands such as in Chichicastenango.

Historically, these three groups had been enemies, but not anymore. Each village, though, is either dominated by one or the other.

You can experience and learn about Maya culture on your own by visiting the local markets, art galleries, and weaving cooperatives. Other aspects of the culture like religion and daily life are more accessible with a guide. In this Lake Atitlan guide, you’ll find a list of all these opportunities and how you can access them.

Here are just a sample of some of them:

  • Handicrafts
  • Art
  • Religion
  • Food
  • Dress
  • Civil war

5.      Shop for textiles in San Juan

pillows and shalls
Textiles at a shop in San Juan

I don’t like shopping for souvenirs or handicrafts UNLESS there’s something that REALLY catches my eye. Maybe they’re particularly beautiful or of really fine craftsmanship. I really dislike tacky, cheap junk.

Luckily, I found that shops in San Juan sell beautiful and high-quality textiles. They’re located along the main street that leads down to the pier.

The textiles—clothing, shawls, blankets, and bags are created by hand by women cooperatives in San Juan (and other villages). They dye the wool using natural material and use a traditional loom to weave the finished product.

For an even deeper experience, book a guided tour of San Juan.

6.      Visit the art galleries of Lake Atitlan

a painting showing a bird's eye view of a vegetable market
A popular painting of a bird’s eye view of a vegetable market

Another thing that I fell in love with at Lake Atitlan (especially in San Juan) was its art galleries. They’re filled with these colorful paintings of local scenes done by local artists.

Artists in the Tz’utujil towns of San Juan, San Pedro, and Santiago produced a distinctive style of oil painting. A lot of the scenes are of the lake and local Maya life. My favorite is the bird’s eye view paintings of vegetable markets.

Art is a family affair. Painting skills are passed down to future generations. One family name that you might see repeatedly is Gonzales. The person who began this style of painting was Rafael Gonzalez. His grandson Pedro Rafael Gonzalez Chavajay and his cousin, Mariano Gonzalez Chavajay are 2 of the best artists (Lonely Planet Guatemala).

The road that leads up from the main pier in San Juan is lined with countless art galleries selling paintings of scenes from around the Guatemala Highlands. One of the most famous galleries is Galeria Xocomeel. You can find works done by the lake’s other 2 best artists: Antonio Vasquez Yojcom and Juana Mendoza Cholotio (Lonely Planet Guatemala).

For an even deeper experience, book a guided tour of San Juan.

7.      Try Guatemalan coffee

a cup of coffee

Don’t leave Guatemala without trying its superb locally-grown coffee. Sadly, much of its produced for export, and it’s not always easy finding high-quality beans.

But…

if you know where to look, you can taste some of the BEST coffee in your life.

There are 2 coffee shops that I highly recommend:

  • San Juan Coffee in San Juan – A great café with good WiFi and damn good coffee. There are other copycat cafes in San Juan, but San Juan Café is special and you should NOT leave the village without trying its coffee. They grow, harvest, and roast their own coffee beans. (Google Maps)
  • Crossroads Coffee in Panajachel – A small cafe owned by an American and opened in 2006. It’s a bit out of the way from the tourist center in Panajachel but from my experience, it’s well worth the visit. According to their website, they source all their beans from local farms and roast them in-house daily (Google Maps).

If you want to visit a coffee farm, the best place to do it is in Antigua. Read my Antigua guide to find out how.

8.      Learn traditional Maya weaving

a woman using a backstrap loom
Backstrap loom for used by women around Lake Atitlan.

How do locals produce their beautiful handicrafts?

You can find out by visiting their textile workshops in several towns around the lake. San Juan, though, is probably the best place to visit. In this village, several women’s cooperatives have formed to produce Maya traditional clothing, blankets, towels, shawls, and bags.

These cooperatives will show visitors how they dye the fabric using natural materials like flowers, leaves, fruit, etc, and then how they weave the yarn using a traditional method called backstrap loom weaving.

Here are some of the women’s cooperatives you can visit in San Juan:

There are also 2 places that have hands-on courses that teach you how to weave:

  • Amigos de Sant Cruz offers a reasonably priced weaving course – you learn how to use a backstrap loom weave and make your own scarf. It’s Q150 (US$20) for the 2.5-hour class.
  • There’s a  weaving workshop in San Juan that’s 7-8 hours long. Check out this website for more information.

9.      Discover the murals of Lake Atitlan

a mural of an elderly Maya woman
A mural in San Pedro

Another thing to do when visiting San Juan and San Pedro is to hunt for the colorful murals that have been painted on the sides of some of the buildings. Many of the murals depict important local figures participating in some activity around town.  

Check out San Juan’s town website for info on the murals.

10.      Climb up to the Mirador of San Juan

COST: Q30 (US$4.50) | OPEN: 5:00 am – 9:00 pm | LOCATION: San Juan

a view of Lake Atitlan from San Juan Mirador
A view from the San Juan Mirador – Mirador Kiaq’Aiswaan

On the outskirts of San Juan and within walking distance of the main pier is Mirador Kiaq’Aiswaan, a hill with stunning views of the lake and town.

At the mirador, you’ll need to climb some challenging stairs to get to the top. You’ll find a wooden structure with a cross in the center and colorful murals painted on the wooden walkway.

people standing on an oval lookout with a cross in the middle and a wooden platform around the cross
The lookout at the top of the San Juan Mirador

Vendors sell drinks and snacks and there are places to sit, rest, and appreciate the views.

It’s a popular place on the weekend and since you’re already at such a high elevation, the climb up can be a core. There are also no guardrails to protect you as you climb so one false move means a quick trip back down the side of a cliff.

11.      Experience a Maya sauna

the interior of a temazcal
Inside a temazcal

Another thing you should do before leaving Guatemala is to experience temazcal. This is a type of traditional Maya sauna. You sit or lie down in a room. Water is poured over volcanic rocks, producing steam. Medicinal and aromatic herbs are added as well.

Originally, the people of Mexico and Central America used temazcal for medicinal purposes—women who just gave birth or those who are sick.

It’s supposed to be helpful in calming one’s mind and curing insomnia.

Sometimes visiting a temazcal involves participating in a ceremony.

You can find temazcals all over Lake Atitlan. I found many of them in San Juan and San Marcos. Here are just a few:

If these don’t work for you, San Juan city has a website with a list of them.

12.      Climb Indian Nose (Rostro Maya) for a sunrise over the lake

COST: US$30 – $70 | BOOK ONLINE: Get Your Guide | LOCATION: San Juan

Indian Nose
Indian Nose (Rostro Maya)

One of the most popular things to do at Lake Atitlan is to climb Rostro Maya (more commonly known as Indian Nose) and watch the sunrise over the lake.

The mountain gets is known as Indian Nose from the fact that its profile looks like an Indian’s nose.

The good news is that it’s supposed to take 30 minutes to the top. The bad news is that it’s quite steep.

For the sunrise climb, go with a guide. You can book one online beforehand or when you get to Lake Atitlan.

Since Indian nose is on the outskirts of San Juan, stay overnight in San Juan or in San Pedro. It will be too difficult to find a boat at 3:00 am from other villages around the lake.

You can also climb the mountain during the day with or without a guide. However, be aware that you might encounter bandits.

13.      Visit the Maya cult of Maximon in Santiago

2 guys sitting around Maximon and with candles burning on the floor in front of them
Maximon (center) and his 2 assistants who give him alcohol and light his cigarette.

Located amongst a maze of narrow lanes in Santiago is a local deity who wears a black cowboy hat and a green tie. He smokes cigars and drinks whiskey. His name is Maximon. He is part saint and part god. The Maya appeal to him for help in love, business, relationships, family, school, health, and revenge.

In recent years, there has been a rejuvenation of traditional Mayan religious beliefs and practices in the Highlands. One of these is the cult of the deity, Maximon.

Maximon is guarded by one of the 10 brotherhoods of Santiago. There are 30 shamans in Santiago and each year the wooden figure of the deity stays in the home of a different shaman.

Tourists are allowed to visit Maximon. You can get there on your own as there are signs and arrows pointing the way. But it’s probably better to go with a guide who can communicate with the shaman and his assistants and explain to you what’s going on.

I was approached by a tour guide on the boat to Santiago. He offered to take me to Maximon and then to the church and the memorial to victims of the civil war for Q300 (bargained down to Q250 – US$35).

I got lucky. A ceremony was taking place when I arrived. A young man was sitting across from Maximon. A set of candles were on the floor between them. The man was wearing a hat that matched Maximon’s. A shaman was walking back and forth behind him, waving incense around, and chanting partly in Spanish and partly in Tz’utujil.

My guide said that he was asking Maximon for help because someone in his family was sick.

On each side of Maximon sat 2 assistants. They would light his cigarette and feed him whiskey every once in a while.

Off to the side were crates of Coca-Cola—gifts to Maximon—and 2 coffins with mannequins inside representing saints and Jesus.

The ceremony would last 2 hours. But I left after 20 minutes. More tourists were waiting at the door to take my seat so they could watch.  

There are many legends about Maximon’s origins—he’s a revolutionary figure, a trickster who slept with the villagers’ wives, or a defender of villages against witches. People say he originated 700 years ago. The first documented mention of him was at the end of the eighteenth century.

I could take 3 photos for Q10, but eventually, I was allowed to take as many as I wanted.

You can book a boat tour with a guide that will take you to Santiago and a few other towns around the lake. READ REVIEWS & BOOK TOUR HERE

14.      Visit the market of Santiago

people walking down a street with people selling food on  the side of the road
A market in Santiago

If you’re already in Santiago to visit Maximon or the church, stop by the city’s busy central market.

Santiago is one place around the lake in which the locals outwardly retain their traditional culture. You can see it in the way they dress, especially as they go about their daily lives in the market.

Maya women wear their traditional dress—long, narrow, and striped skirts called corte, colorful blouses with animal figures and patterns called huipil, and a shawl thrown over one shoulder. The men mostly wear western clothes, but sometimes you’ll see them in white shorts/pants with blue stripes that are cut up right below the knee, a western-style shirt, and white cowboy hats.

The fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices are also much more abundant than the market in San Pedro that foreign tourists often go to.

15.      Visit the Saint James Apostle Church in Santiago

COST: FREE | LOCATION: Santiago

the plaza in front of the Saint James Apostle Church
Iglesia Parroquial Santiago Apostol is the most beautiful church at Lake Atitlan

Not far from the main market is Iglesia Parroquial Santiago Apostol. Built in the 1600s, this simple but picturesque church played an important role in the civil war that plagued Guatemala for 36 years.

It was here in 1981 that one of the most well-known murders of the civil war took place. An American priest from Oklahoma, Father Stanley Francis Rother, was shot in the head twice by paramilitary death squads while he was praying in the parish rectory.

The civil war began in 1960 but it wasn’t until 1980 that the war finally came to the lake. Guerillas had moved in followed by the military. People were disappearing or just plain being murdered. Father Stanley had been warned that he was number eight on a hit list and that he should go back to the U.S. or he would be murdered. He stayed and on July 28, 1981 he was murdered.

You can visit the priest’s bedroom.

The church has some interesting features—a row of wooden statues of saints and an altarpiece at the front representing the 3 volcanoes of Atitlan. It is said that the volcanoes protect Santiago.

The building across the plaza is a primary school.

When I visited, the church was closed to the public due to COVID. It is most likely open to the public now.

16.      Learn about the Guatemalan Civil War

COST: FREE | OPEN: 24/7 | LOCATION: Santiago

Parque la Paz
Parque la Paz

On the outskirts of Santiago is the site of another terrible event of the civil war. It has now been turned into a park and memorial in remembrance to the 14 people who had been murdered there by the military on December 2, 1990.

During the 10 years since the military established a base in Santiago in 1980, the villagers had experienced harassment from the military. Over 1,700 people died and many more simply disappeared.

On the night of December 2, 1990, a group of army officers got drunk, beat up some locals, and shot and wounded a 19-year-old local. The villagers had enough and a crowd of over 2,000 people formed in front of the military garrison to protest. The military opened fire on the crowd, killing 14 people.

On December 20, the military closed the garrison and left Santiago for good.

The war ended in 1996.

There are 14 stone markers in Parque de Paz (Peace Park) representing each person who died and where they were shot. The markers had flowers next to them and pine needles sprinkled over them.

You can read more about the massacre in this article. And if you want to read more about the history of Guatemala, check out this comprehensive list of the best books on Guatemala.

17.     Attend the Kite Festival

a crowd of people and 4 kites at a Kite Festival
A Kite Festival on the Day of the Dead

If your trip happens to be during the Day of the Dead, make sure to plan your Guatemala itinerary so that you’re at Lake Atitlan during this holiday.

How do people at Lake Atitlan spend this Catholic holiday?

On November 1, Guatemalans also have altars in their homes and visit the graves of their loved ones like they do in Mexico. They clean, decorate, light, and pray over the graves. This is also the only time of the year when Guatemalans eat the fiambre salad. See my guide on food in Guatemala to learn more about this salad and other dishes.

But in 2 Kakchiqel Maya villages (Santiago and Sumpango), the locals create these giant colorful kites months before November 1. Then on the Day of the Dead, they fly them over the cemetery.

How can you take part in the Dead of the Dead celebrations?

Rogers Tours offers guided tours to help you experience this unique lake celebration.

For more ideas on holidays and celebrations check out this useful guide to Guatemala.

18.      Study Spanish

COST: Q820 – Q1120/20 hours per week | TIMES: flexible | LOCATION: San Pedro, San Marcos, Santa Cruz, San Juan, & Panajachel

The most popular country in Latin America to study Spanish in is Guatemala. People say it’s because Guatemalans have the clearest accents so it’s easy to understand. I’m not sure about that. But I do know that the language schools in the country have years of experience teaching Spanish, so the schools and teachers are supposed to be good.

Let me tell you a secret, though, there are lots of bad schools and bad teachers, too. So, look carefully.

Antigua is supposed to be the best place to study Spanish, but from my experience and from talking to so many people, Lake Atitlan is just as good AND most schools are cheaper than the ones in Antigua.

Plus, I have heard ONLY positive things about people’s homestay experiences at Lake Atitlan and mostly negative things from people who studied in Antigua. The other reason the lake might be better than Antigua is that you’re more likely to get to stay with a Mayan family than you would in Antigua.

Regardless of where you study, Spanish classes in Guatemala are one-on-one for a reasonable price. You can choose how many hours you want to study, and you can choose the times as well. The other good thing is that you can study Spanish on a tourist visa.

Here are the different schools at Lake Atitlan:

19.      Soak in the solar pools in San Pedro

COST: Q60-Q80/bath + Q200/massage | OPEN: 7:00 am – 10:30 pm | LOCATION: San Pedro

a narrow lane in San Pedro with a sign for Solar Pools
Entrance to the Solar Pools

A visit to the thermal pools in San Pedro is the perfect way to end your hike up Rostro Maya or for the more adventurous up the San Pedro Volcano. Better yet, visit the baths in the evening when the chill sets in over the lake.

For Q60 (US$9)—it could now be Q80 (US$12), you can sit for a couple of hours in a hot thermal bath overlooking the lake and then getting a massage for Q200 (US$28) or vice versa.

Expect to wait around 30 minutes for the baths to be filled up.

20.      Visit Tzunun-ya Museum to learn about local history & culture

COST: Q35 (US$5)| OPEN: 9:00 am – 5:00 pm Tu-Sa; 12:00 – 5:00 pm (Su) (closed M) | LOCATION: San Pedro

Entrance to the Tzunun-ya Museum
Museo Tzunun-ya

This small museum in San Pedro is great for those curious about the history and culture of the lake.

When I visited, a guide took me around the museum. He spoke Spanish very clearly, but I think there are also English guides. I learned about the Mayan calendar, the history of San Pedro, and the geology of the lake.

Great photos!

There’s a short but interesting film about life in San Pedro in the 1940s.

The best parts were learning about how a volcano erupted long ago to form Lake Atitlan and learning about how Maya culture has changed over the years.

21.      Hike up San Pedro Volcano

ENTRANCE FEE: Q100 | LOCATION OF TRAILHEAD: San Pedro

a view of Lake Atitlan from San Pedro Volcano
Scenic view of San Pedro, Lake Atitlan from the San Pedro volcano hike

One look at San Pedro Volcano and it’s hard not to be tempted to want to climb it. When I was at Lake Atitlan, it was recommended not to attempt it due to the number of bandits hiding out on the trail ready to rob hikers as they made their way up.

Nowadays, it sounds like it’s safer as there are police posted along the well-maintained trail. That’s good because San Pedro is the easiest of Lake Atitlan’s 3 volcanoes to hike up.

San Pedro Volcano from across Lake Atitlan
San Pedro Volcano

The hike is still going to be strenuous. At 3,000 meters (10,000 feet), it will take most people 3 to 5 hours up and 2 to 4 hours down. A good friend of mine had to turn back halfway due to elevation sickness.

If you do accept the challenge, you’ll be rewarded with beautiful views. The volcano is taller than the surrounding mountains, so if it’s a clear day you can see a bit beyond the first mountain ridge.

Start early at 7:00 am so you can get to the top before the clouds set in and get back before sunset. Some people will even make it back around noon.

Bring lots of water and wear layers.

You can do the hike yourself or you can hire a guide. Check with Los Elementos Adventures for hiring a guide.

22.      Hike up Volcano Atitlan

Hiker with panoramic view of Lake Atitlan and volcano San Pedro and Volcano Toliman
A panoramic view of Lake Atitlan and Volcanoes San Pedro and Toliman early in the morning from the peak of Volcano Atitlan.

If San Pedro seems just a little too easy for you, then there’s always Volcano Atitlan. A climb up and down this volcano is the most challenging of the three. At 3,500 meters (11,600 feet), it’s higher and steeper than San Pedro and it’s got even grander views of the lake.

There are a few tour operators who offer both one-day and overnight hikes to the summit:

  • Get Your Guide – Start at 6:00 am from Santiago. Get to the top at 11:00 am. Start the hike down at 12:00 pm and arrive back to Santiago at 3:00 pm.
  • Rogers Tours – 2 days, 1 night – Departure: 6:00 a.m. to San Lucas Tolimán, you start out in the morning from San Lucas Toliman. Get to the summit in the afternoon. You’ll camp out overnight under the stars. Wake up the next morning to see the sunset. For the rest of the day, make your way down the volcano.

23. Tour Santa Cruz village with a local

a village on a cliff at sunset
Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz is a village situated high above Lake Atitlan. It’s a very local village with few tourists and so a visit is a great way to see an authentic Mayan way of life.  The best way to explore the village is by joining a cultural tour.

Luckily, you’ve got a couple to choose from:

  • Learn about the history and culture of Santa Cruz with Claudia Cumes. At 9:30 am every Friday, Claudia will take you to a weaving workshop, a tortilla-making business, and lunch at Sabor Cruceno. I have heard very good things about this tour from other travelers. Contact Claudia using WhatsApp: +502 4794-0816
  • Los Elementos Adventure Center also takes travelers to visit Amigos de Santa Cruz, a non-profit organization that helps locals with childhood education and provides vocational training in the tourism industry. The tour also includes a meal prepared by the students. READ REVIEWS & BOOK TOUR HERE

24.      Dine and drink with views of the lake

PRICES: Menu | OPEN: 8:00 am – 6:00 pm | LOCATION: Santa Cruz

a view of Lake Atitlan from Sabor Crucenos Restaurant
A view of Lake Atitlan from Sabor Crucenos Restaurant

Don’t leave Lake Atitlan without having breakfast or lunch at Café Sabor Cruceno, a restaurant in Santa Cruz with the best food I had in Guatemala and million-dollar views of the lake.

The restaurant is run by a cooperative that trains locals to work in the tourism industry.

They serve traditional Guatemalan dishes like pepian. Expect to pay typical tourist prices–Q43 – Q55 (US$6 – $8) per dish.

Don’t skip dessert or the fruit drinks.

25.      Take a Maya cooking class

COST: US$35 – $60 | TIME: half a day | LOCATION: Santa Cruz

a bowl of Jocon with a tortilla on the side
A Guatemala traditional dish called Jocon Pollo.

One of the best things I did in Guatemala was to do a cooking class where I learned to make traditional Guatemalan dishes. I took my class in Antigua with Cuscun.

If you’re not able to make it to the one I did in Antigua, Lake Atitlan has a class that has gotten stellar reviews. The cooking class is run by the NGO, Amigos de Santa Cruz, the same group responsible for the excellent restaurant, La Sabor Crucenos.

READ REVIEWS & BOOK YOUR CLASS HERE

26.      Go kayaking

a kayak on the shore of Lake Atitlan
Paradise Beach at Lake Atitlan

Kayaking is the perfect way to enjoy the lake, especially in the morning when there’s less boat traffic and the water is calmer.

Some hotels have kayaks for guests to use (or charges for them). I went kayaking when I stayed at Hotel La Casa del Mundo. Check out my list of places to stay in Lake Atitlan that have free kayaks for guests to use.

But there are a few places in Santa Cruz, Panajachel, and San Pedro that rent out kayaks.

You can also join a kayaking tour of the lake. Many of them combine kayaking with hiking or mountain biking. Two of the most reputable tour operators in Guatemala organize the following kayaking tours:

  • Los Elementos offers really cool tour that combines kayaking and hiking. You kayak from Santa Cruz to San Marcos and then hike back passing through Jaibalito and Tzununa villages. THAT is not a short distance! They charge US$85/person (2-person minimum) – READ REVIEWS & BOOK HERE
  • Los Elementos has another cool 2-day tour from Antigua that combines kayaking and hikingREAD REVIEWS & BOOK HERE
  • Another well-known tour operator, Old Town Outfitters, has a really adventurous tour that combines kayaking and mountain biking – READ REVIEWS & BOOK HERE

27.      Go stand-up paddleboarding

A sign for SUP rental

In addition to kayaking, you can also do stand-up paddleboarding (SUP). I’ve never done SUP because I’m a klutz and I’m sure I’ll fall in the water, but I guess you can also sit on the paddleboards.

You can rent from a variety of places in San Pedro, Santa Cruz, and Panajachel or get ones from your hotel.

You can also join a tour that combines SUP and hiking:

  • Los Elementos – SUP or kayak from Santa Cruz to San Marcos and then a hike back while visiting these villages: Santa Cruz, San Marcos, Jaibalito, and Tzununa villages, – FUN! – US$85/person (2 person minimum) – READ REVIEWS & BOOK HERE
  • Los Elementos has another cool 2-day tour from Antigua that combines SUP and hikingREAD REVIEWS & BOOK HERE

28.      Go scuba diving

COST: US$70 – $360 | WEBSITE: ATi Divers | LOCATION: Santa Cruz

When I stayed in Santa Cruz, I ran into so many people who were there to scuba dive. It turns out Lake Atitlan is one of the most popular places in the world to get one’s high-altitude diving certificate and it happens to be the home to an actual underwater ancient Mayan city. You can take a diving course with ATi Divers in Santa Cruz.

Many of the hidden gems that you can discover under the water of the lake were formed as a result of a volcanic eruption, an earthquake, and a hurricane.

Around 1.8 million years ago, a volcano erupted here leaving a crater that eventually filled up with water and sediment. This volcano left fissures and thermal vents in the rocks under the lake, where divers can experience a hot spring and boil some eggs. Unique geological formations also developed over time.

Then in 1976, Guatemala was devastated by an earthquake that created fissures in the surface of the lake, which led to a drop in water levels at Atitlan. People built hotels and homes along the shore.

But then in 2005, Hurricane Stan hit the country, causing water levels to rise, burying these homes and hotels under water. Scuba divers can swim through a hotel and someone’s home.

Unfortunately, the 2,000-year-old underwater island city (perhaps a ceremonial site), Samabaj, is currently off-limits to the public. But maybe one day it’ll be open to divers.

PRO TIP: What kind of luggage should you take with you on your trip to Guatemala? Backpack or rolling suitcase? Due to the cobblestoned streets, the location of remote hotels, and the hiking opportunities that require a backpack, go with a backpack. One of my favorite backpacks is the Osprey Fairview 40 for women (Osprey Fairpoint 40 for men). These compression packing cubes from Tripped work really well with backpacks. For more ideas, check out my complete list of what to pack for Guatemala.

29.      Go swimming

There are a few good spots for swimming at Lake Atitlan.

  • Santa Cruz – a lot of hotels have private docks
  • JaibalitoHotel La Casa del Mundo has an area along shore for swimming
  • Panajachel – hotels have their own private docks and there’s a beach at the Nature Reserve
  • San Marcos – besides the private hotel docks, the lake at Nature Reserve Cerro Tzankujil has quite clean water for swimming
  • Santa Catarina

30.      Go hiking high above the mountains that ring the lake

mountains above Lake Atitlan

Looking for a more challenging hike with even more stunning views of the lake and a visit to off-the-beaten-path Maya villages?

The mountains above Santa Cruz village are perfect for that kind of strenuous hike. There are paths up behind the village that go to waterfalls, lookout points (Los Dos Miradores), a river valley (Rio Pashputin), or all the way to Solola town.

Go to La Iguana Perdido hostel to get info on the different hikes in the mountain ranges around the lake.

Want to go with a guide or don’t want to go alone?

Los Elementos Adventure Center (a very well-respected tour operator in Santa Cruz) has a couple of guided hikes for the adventurous.

  • A challenging hike from Santa Cruz village high up into the mountains to an elevation of 2,500 feet and then onto a remote mountain village. It ends with a visit to Solola for a visit to its market. READ REVIEWS & BOOK YOUR ACTIVITY HERE
  • Another challenging and unforgettable hike is along a trail high above the lake that the Kaqchikel Maya use for tending their crops. The hike then descends on the other side of the mountains to the Pumpatin Canyon where there’s a series of up to 5 waterfalls. There’s time for a picnic and swimming in the falls. READ REVIEWS & BOOK HERE
  • Rogers Tours is another tour operator run by Roger, a local from the Guatemalan Highlands. A 3-day trek from Panajachel to San Pedro with a stop in Solola. Includes spending time in Maya village and camping under the stars.

31.      Walk along the shore of the lake between villages

a path along the Lake Atitlan shore

One fun and easy hike to do is to walk along the shore between Santa Cruz and San Marcos. It should take around 3 hours.

Along the way, you’ll see some nice views of the lake and a few good restaurants.

  • Santa Cruz – Jaibalito (30 minutes – stop in Jaibalito for a drink or a meal at Hotel La Casa Del Mundo, Jaibalito Posada (Han’s), or El Indigo)
  • Jaibalito – Tzununa (1 hour)
  • Tzununa – San Marcos (1 hour – organic and vegan restaurants – you can end your hike with a swim or some cliff jumping at the Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve in San Marcos)

There have been robberies on this route, so don’t bring your passport or lots of money with you. It’s best to do the hike with other people as there is safety in numbers (this is according to my hotel).

32.      Find spiritual enlightenment in San Marcos

The most fun way to visit San Marcos is to go all in on the spiritual enlightenment. Leave your cynicism at the boat dock when you arrive. Take a yoga class, do some meditation, boost your energy at a cacao ceremony, have a vegan meal, and end it all with a massage and a traditional Maya sauna.

People from other countries moved to San Marcos and set up businesses devoted to mental and physical health and wellness (yoga, meditation, massage, etc), making this village the Central American hub of alternative health.

Some of the things you can experience originate in the Maya culture, while others like yoga and meditation come from outside of Guatemala:

  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Cacao ceremonies
  • Qigong
  • Temazcal
  • Massage
  • Reiki
  • Dance

       Here are some businesses where you can experience it all:

33.      Take a yoga class or attend a yoga retreat

Do a yoga retreat at Eagle’s Nest in San Marcos (Credit: Agoda)
Eagle’s Nest is one of the best places to take a yoga class (Credit: Agoda)

Lake Atitlan is a terrific place to do yoga. The villages of San Marcos and Tzununa are the home of several world-class yoga centers.

The really cool thing about doing a yoga retreat here is the view. All of them offer you the opportunity to do upward dog while looking at the views of the lake.

I’ve met several people who have done yoga retreats at Lake Atitlan and they ALL rave about the experience.

Here are the most popular retreats:

If you don’t want to do a retreat, you can simply attend a class or two. Contact the yoga retreats to see if you need to register ahead of time or if you can just drop in.

The retreats offer a variety of other activities like meditation, temazcal, and cacao ceremonies. Check out their websites for details.

34.      Do a cacao ceremony

Person giving ceremonial cacao in cup.
Hot handmade ceremonial cacao

An ancient Olmec, Mayan, and Aztec ritual, cacao ceremonies are very popular at Late Atitlan, and there are several places you can do one.

The communal ceremony involves a ritual of drinking ceremonial-grade cacao along with some other activity like meditation, singing, or dancing.

Ceremonial cacao comes from the highest-grade cacao bean, the criollo, or from a hybrid cacao called tirinitario.

There are 4 types of cacao: forastero (grows easily, used in commercial chocolates), criollo (rare and usually grows in the wild), trinitario (hybrid forastero and criollo), and nacional (rarest cacao, recently discovered in Peru).

Criollo cacao has special compounds like theobromine, serotonin and others that aren’t contained in commercial chocolate. These compounds are part of what gives you that special feeling during the ceremony: a feeling of connectedness, warmth, euphoria, a boost in your mood, an opening of the heart, a greater peace of mind, and for some people even an altered state.

Each ceremony is a bit different depending on who’s conducting them. One of the most famous cacao ceremony practitioners is an American named Keith, also known as the Chocolate Shaman. He sells ceremonial cacao and holds ceremonies at least once a week at Keith’s Cacao in San Marcos.

Many places in San Marcos and Tzununa offer cacao ceremonies:

I did a ceremony in Mexico. Not at Lake Atitlan.

35.      Go swimming, diving, and hiking at Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve

COST: Q20 (US$3) | OPEN: 8:00 am – 4:00 pm | LOCATION: San Marcos

Lake Atitlan viewpoint at Cerro Tzankujil park near San Marcos
Lake Atitlan viewpoint at Cerro Tzankujil park near San Marcos La Laguna village.

If you make it to San Marcos, a visit to the Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve is a must. This is a great place to do some hiking. The trails are well-maintained, you don’t have to worry about bandits, and there are some great lake views.

Cerro Tzankujil is also the best place on the lake to swim as the water was the cleanest and clearest I saw at Lake Atitlan. There’s a fun diving platform for cliff diving. But if you don’t need that much adrenaline, you can easily climb down to the shore for swimming in crystal clear water. Or simply sunbathe on the rocks.

Go in the morning when the water is the calmest on the lake and when the place is not so busy. Bring water and snacks.

36.      Take a leisurely bike ride around the lake

A bike and couple along the shore of Lake Atitlan at sunset

A really fun way to explore the lake is by a leisurely bike ride. Rent a bike or join a biking tour and ride from San Marcos to San Pedro. You’ll pass by villages and the countryside where you’ll see coffee fields and farms. It’s a great way to see not just the touristy side of Lake Atitlan but also the authentic local side.

Check out Los Elementos Adventure Center’s website for info on their biking tour.

37.      Go mountain biking around the like

If you want a more adventurous biking experience, Lake Atitlan is a great mountain biking destination—ride through forests, beside fields, over mountains, and along cliffside trails.

Rogers Tours has 5 different mountain biking tours around the lake. They range in price from US$50 – $75. Some stick to the shore while other tours go high up into the mountains above the lake. They also rent out mountain bikes.

Old Town Outfitters, a reputable tour operator out of Antigua offers mountain biking tours around the lake. This tour is 10 hours long and takes you from Panajachel to Santa Catarina by riding through the countryside, to viewpoints high above the lake, and along cliffside trails before ending in Santa Catarina. READ REVIEWS & BOOK YOUR TOUR HERE

38.      Shop for handicrafts in Panajachel

LOCATION: Google Maps

a souvenir market in Panajachel

If you’re looking for handicrafts, a quick spot to look is at a huge market in Panajachel. Just walk down the main drag of Calle Santander and you’ll see a market with countless stalls selling a wide variety of Guatemalan souvenirs and handicrafts.

39.      Visit the Atitlan Lacustre Museum to learn about the Maya Atlantis

COST: Q50 | OPEN: 8:00 am – 5:00 pm | LOCATION: Panajachel

This small but interesting archaeological museum in Panajachel focuses on the pre-Hispanic history and culture of Lake Atitlan.

Besides the usual pre-Hispanic Maya artifacts, there is a cool exhibit on the Maya Atlantis (that’s what the promotional material calls it)—an ancient Maya city once located on an island in the middle of the lake that is now underwater. You learn about the history of the ruins and their excavation.

I had a hard time finding this museum. It’s located inside the Hotel Posada Don Rodrigo.

40.      Visit the Nature Reserve in Panajachel

ENTRANCE FEE: Q75/adults (US$11); Q40/children (US$6) | LOCATION: Panajachel

a swinging bridge at a nature reserve in Panajachel
A hanging bridge at Nature Reserve at Panajachel

On the outskirts of Panajachel is a beautiful nature reserve with waterfalls, hanging bridges, hiking trails, monkeys, and the best butterfly farm I’ve been to.

Take a tuk-tuk out to the reserve. It cost me Q10. Finding a tuk-tuk back to down can be a long wait.

There are different trails. Some go to a series of waterfalls, while another goes along the coast to a beach.

I’ve been to loads of butterfly farms in Central America, and this one had the widest variety of butterflies of all of them. However, their Blue Morpho butterflies weren’t actually blue. Not sure why that was. And I didn’t see a hatching station where the caterpillars hatch from their chrysalis to become butterflies.

You’ll also come to a platform where you can watch some spider monkeys and coatis eating fruit that the park sets out for the animals.

Except for the monkeys and butterflies, hiking in the park isn’t as interesting as other hikes around the lake. However, if you’re alone and you don’t have anyone to go hiking with, then this is a safe bet. 

The park also has ziplining for Q150 – Q410.

41.      Experiencing a shaman-conducted fire cleansing ceremony

COST: US$50/person | TIME: usually any day | LOCATION: Panajachel

hand adding candle to shamanic fire ring
shamanic fire ring

Seeing a fire-cleansing ceremony is a fascinating experience that you should not miss while in Guatemala.

I came across one in the cemetery in Chichicastenango (see my Chichicastenango guide here). But you can also easily do one at Lake Atitlan. You just need to know where to look.

On the outskirts of Panajachel high above the lake are 3 sacred caves (Nimajay, San Simon, and Colorado caves) where shamans conduct fire cleansing ceremonies for locals who need protection or healing. You can watch and learn about the local hybrid religion that mixes Catholic and traditional Mayan beliefs and rituals.

Los Elementos, a very reputable tour operator, offers tours to the sacred caves with a guide. It’s highly likely that you’ll come across a shaman performing a fire ceremony. READ REVIEWS & BOOK TOUR HERE

42.      Shop for ceramics in San Antonio Papolo

a set of blue-green cups
Blue-green pottery in San Antonio

The off-the-beaten-path village of San Antonio Palopo on the southern coast of Lake Atitlan is famous for its beautiful handpainted blue-green pottery.

You can enjoy shopping for the pottery or go so far as to take a class on how to make it at Cermica Palopo Multicolor. Prices for the pottery are supposed to be cheaper here than if you bought the same thing in Panajachel.

Now here’s the kicker:

The pottery that San Antonio is famous for and that you can find all over Guatemala is not a local style at all. In fact, it was introduced to the lake by an American, Ken Edwards. He arrived at Lake Atitlan in the 90s looking for high-quality clay. Ken stayed and taught the locals how to make ceramics and open up their own businesses.

Now there are 2 ceramic workshops in San Antonio.

43.      Visit the painted houses of Santa Catarina

Aerial view of Santa Catarina Palopo
Santa Catarina Palopo

What’s the prettiest town at Lake Atitlan? Not counting lake or volcano views.

I’d say it’s Santa Catarina.

By far.

Originally, this town wasn’t getting much love from tourists and thus not much money like other towns on the lake. In order to bring in the tourist dollars, the leaders of Santa Catarina came up with a city-wide aesthetic plan.

Families can choose to paint their businesses or residences a shade of blue. They can also choose to add a band of traditional geometric patterns in certain colors or figures from nature (cat, quetzal, deer, peacock, butterfly, or corn).

About half the buildings in the town are covered in a variety of shades of blue with bands of geometric designs. The vibrant colors and the meaningful patterns and the animal figures make this the prettiest and most colorful town at Lake Atitlan.

I would combine a trip to Santa Catarina with a trip to San Antonio. Spend your time walking down the steep roads and stairs of this hillside town, admiring the murals, taking your photo in front of them, and checking out the handicraft shops. Don’t skip the museum, Pintando Santa Catarina Palopo, which will explain the meaning behind the colors and patterns.

Stop at one of the cafes in the town square or head to Artesanal Café for its good food and even better views. 

44.      Soak in the hot spring at Santa Catarina

COST: Free | OPEN: 24/7 | LOCATION: Santa Catarina

I wouldn’t go out of my way to visit the hot springs of Santa Catarina.

But…

I recommend coming here at the end of a combined trip to the ceramic workshops in San Antonio and the painted houses of Santa Catarina.

The hot springs are at a small section of Lake Atitlan, where there are vents in the rocks that heat up the water (Lake Atitlan was formed by the eruption of a volcano). The water is more warm than hot. Still, it’s a nice place to visit at the end of your trip to the southern villages. The lake is also clean so it’s a nice place for a swim.

45.      Go Paragliding

COST: Q700 (US$100) | TIME: 20 – 45 minutes flight time | LOCATION: Panajachel

If you’ve got the guts, the time, and the cash, then Lake Atitlan is probably one of the most fantastic places you can go paragliding.

There are two paragliding businesses that offer flights over the lake.

Even if you have never done it before, you can do a tandem flight, which is a flight with an instructor, who controls everything from taking off to landing. You just enjoy the ride.

Depending on the direction of the wind, you’ll either take off from Santa Clarita or Santa Clara.

46.      Go on an ATV tour

COST: Q450 (US$64) | TIME: 9:00 am or 2:00 pm (4 hours) | LOCATION: Panajachel

Driving an ATV (an all-terrain vehicle) is a lot of fun and you should try it at least once during your trip to Guatemala.

I did 2 ATV tours in Antigua. The same company, Simoon’s Tours, that I did my tours with also has an office in Panajachel. They offer one tour that goes to Santa Catarina and San Antonio Palopo villages.

47.      Visit Solola and remote Maya mountain villages

Maya indigenous people on the local market of Solola near the Atitlan
Solola Market

The villages around the lake can be incredibly touristy, so being able to get out of the tourist zone can be a real treat for those who really want to explore the local Maya culture more deeply.

Above the lake are some mountain villages (Concepcion) and the city of Solola that will give you a more authentic Maya experience.

Los Elementos, a highly reputable tour operator at Lake Atitlan, offers tours to the Solola market, small farms, and Mayan villages where you get to dig deeply into Maya culture. You’ll get to stroll through the Solola market, witness a fire cleansing ceremony, check out a church built in 1612, and visit a religious brotherhood (confradia) and its Maximon deity. READ REVIEWS & BOOK TOUR

48.      Take a day trip to the market in Chichicastenango

flower vendors on steps of Iglesia Santo Tomas in Chichicastenango
Santo Tomas Church in Chichicastenango

About 24 miles (40 kilometers—it takes 2 hours due to the windy narrow mountain roads) from Lake Atitlan is the city of Chichicastenango. It is the site of the most famous market in Guatemala and was the highlight of my travels in Central America.

Every Thursday and Sunday the Maya Q’iche from the surrounding area descend on the city for its market day.

The market is huge and represents everything I love about Guatemala. The color, the culture, the history, the food, and the people.

Everything on earth is sold at the market—fruits, vegetables, live chickens and ducks, rat poison, pots and pans, traditional clothing, and handicrafts. But for me, the two best things about the market were the world-class photo opportunities and the people-watching.

The market is not the only attraction. There are two austere but beautiful churches where you can experience a hybrid religion that combines elements of Catholicism and Mayan traditions.

There’s a museum with archaeological artifacts that’s ok but not a necessary stop. However, the colorful cemetery not far from the market is one that you shouldn’t miss. If you’re lucky, you’ll come across a few shamans performing a fire cleansing ceremony.

You can read my post on how to get to Chichicastenango and how to see all the fantastic sights.

49.      Take a day trip to Iximche Maya ruins

Ruins of the pre-hispanic Mayan town Iximche, Guatemala
Ruins of the pre-hispanic Mayan town Iximche

Iximche was the capital of the Kaqchikel Maya from 1470 until its defeat by Pedro Alvarado in 1524. The Spaniards then established their first capital there before moving it to present-day Ciudad Viejo in 1527. They eventually moved it to Antigua after an earthquake and then to Guatemala City after another earthquake.

Iximche is the closest Maya ruins to Lake Atitlan and Antigua. You’ll find 4 ceremonial plazas surrounded by temples, palaces, and ballcourts. These structures here are quite modest in comparison to Tikal or Chichen Itza as the Maya at that point in time were nowhere near as wealthy and powerful as their Maya ancestors were. However, the ruins are still historically significant, and if you’re a history lover like me, they’re worth a visit.

And if you’re lucky you might come across a shaman performing a ceremony in front of one of the temples. I didn’t see this when I visited.

There are no English explanations, so it is best to get a guide.

How to get to Iximche from Panajachel

The only problem is that the ruins are not easy to get to.

You need to change buses in Solola and then change again in Los Encuentros to a bus going to Guatemala City.

This journey is quite an adventure, but it’s doable. Getting back to the lake will require you to flag a bus down on the side of the highway. Again, a whole part of the Guatemala experience.

The other option is to find a travel agency in Panajachel that would do a private tour of Iximche.

When I was there, I could only find private tours, but this was during COVID and tourism was way down at that time.

50.      Hike from Quetzaltenango to Lake Atitlan

Guatemala is famous for its epic hikes. There’s the hike up Acatenango Volcano and the 5-day trek to El Mirador. The third most epic hike is the Xela (Quetzaltenango) to Lake Atitlan 3-day hike.

This strenuous hike goes through cloud forests, coffee plantations, remote villages, and up and down steep mountains.

Hikers stay overnight with local families in mountaintop villages.

The trek ends with sunrise at Indian Nose and then a final hike to San Pedro.

Lots of different companies do this hike. Here are just some of them and their prices as of October 2022:

FAQs

How do I get to Lake Atitlan?

The best way to get to Lake Atitlan is by tourist shuttle from Guatemala City, Antigua, Quetzaltenango, and Lanquin (Semuc Champey).

For buying shuttle tickets online, check out GuateGo’s website.

You can also easily book shuttle tickets from travel agencies or even your hotel or hostel when you’re in Antigua, Quetzaltenango, or Lanquin (Semuc Champey).

There is supposedly one chicken bus a day that goes from Antigua to Panajachel and vice versa. Unless you’re REALLY on a budget, I wouldn’t recommend taking a chicken bus on this route due to its windy roads and the bus drivers’ notorious reputations for being unsafe drivers.

Can I get to Lake Atitlan from Mexico?

Yes, you can. I took a tourist shuttle from San Cristobal de Las Casas to Lake Atitlan. We started out early in the morning and arrived in Lake Atitlan after 7:00 pm. I bought my ticket from Viajes Hoteles Chiapas Guatemala. They only had shuttles on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays in 2021. You can contact them via Whatsapp. The number is on their website.

You can buy shuttle tickets going to Mexico from Lake Atitlan.

How do I get around Lake Atitlan?

It’s super easy!

Just take a small public boat from the main pier in each village or from private docks.

In Panajachel, you want to take public boats that leave from the dock at the end of Calle de Embarcadero (Google Maps).

Expect to pay Q20 – Q25 for ride. Locals pay Q5.

There are basically 2 routes for the public boats:

  • Panajachel – Santa Cruz – Jaibalito – Tzununa – San Marcos – San Pedro – San Juan (then it returns to Panajachel stopping off at all the villages again) – If you want to stop at a private dock belonging to one of the hotels, just tell the driver which hotel
  • Panajachel – Santiago

You can also take a tuk-tuk between San Pablo-San Juan-San Pedro.

To get to Santa Catarina and San Antonio, you’ll need to take a tuk-tuk or pick-up truck from Panajachel.

If you want to get to San Lucas Toliman, take a bus from Panajachel.

Tuk-tuk is also the best way to get around within a village.

Is Lake Atitlan Safe?

Yes and no.

I stayed alone for a month in Lake Atitlan, and I was fine, but I was also cautious.

This info is from my experience:

It’s fine walking around the villages and traveling by boat and tuk-tuk around the lake during the day.

But robberies happen, especially at night and out hiking in remote areas. Robberies are even more so nowadays with the influx of drug use by foreign tourists.

Here are some things I was told not to do:

  • Don’t walk around alone late at night; instead, take a tuk-tuk
  • Don’t hike Volcano San Pedro
  • Don’t hike alone including along the trails between the villages
  • Don’t carry your passport and lots of money with you when going on a hike
  • Only use ATMs inside shops and hotels
Where can I find an ATM?

Anywhere you go in Guatemala, avoid using ATMs on the street. Those ATMs not under surveillance are notorious for containing skimmers that steal your debit or credit card data.

Use ATMs inside hotels or shops. I always used the ATM inside the Hotel Kaqchiquel in Panajachel. The hotel doesn’t show up on Google Maps, so I’m not sure if it’s still there. But it’s located on the corner of Calle Santander and Calle 15 de Febrero.

There is an ATM in this store in San Marcos. I am sure there is an ATM on San Pedro as it’s a pretty good sized town.

Where can I buy a SIM card for my phone?

I bought a SIM card from this phone store on Calle Santander in Panajachel.

Final Thoughts

There’s a lot to do at Lake Atitlan. The 6 things you shouldn’t miss during your trip to the lake are the following:

  1. Book a place to stay with views of the lake
  2. Explore the village of San Juan—art galleries, handicraft shops, weaving cooperatives, murals, and the El Mirador
  3. Visit the cult of Maximon in Santiago
  4. Go kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding on the lake
  5. Hike up a volcano or Indian Nose or along the shores of the lake
  6. Take a day trip to Chichicastenango

Now where to go after Lake Atitlan?

There are so many great places to visit and things to do in Guatemala that it’s might be hard to choose.

Make sure to visit Antigua, Flores and Tikal, Semuc Champey, and Rio Dulce.

You can easily take a short trip to San Ignacio in Belize or Copan in Honduras.

PRO TIP: No one likes to think about insurance, but accidents do happen. I highly recommend getting travel medical insurance. During my travels over the past 3 years, I’ve been using SafetyWing for my medical insurance. They’re very affordable and digital nomads can use their insurance long-term.

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50 Things to do at Lake Atitlan pin
50 Things to do in Lake Atitlan pin

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About the Bamboo Traveler

The Bamboo Traveler

Welcome to The Bamboo Traveler, a travel blog dedicated to helping those travelers who want to dig deeply into the history, heritage, and culture of a place. Whether it’s through the pages of your passport or the pages of a book, I’ll help you travel the world and uncover the history, culture, food, architecture, and natural beauty of some of the world’s most fascinating places.

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