If there is a place you should not be missing during a trip across Central America, that’s Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. Set in the extinct crater of a volcano, and surrounded by yet more volcanoes, Lake Atitlan measures 130.1 square km. It will capture your heart with its unique vibe; the gorgeous views; the indigenous communities still living a traditional lifestyle; and the unique traditions of the many small villages (there are 11!).
In the local Nahuatl language, Atitlan means “between the waters” – indeed “atl” means water, and “titlan” means between. However, a more romantic interpretation suggests that the name actually means “the place where the rainbow gets its colors.” And it’s easy to believe this is the original meaning – because this is, indeed, a very colorful place.
There are many fun things to do in Lake Atitlan. This is a fabulous destination to learn more about the Mayan culture and the life of the indigenous peoples of Guatemala; it’s one of the best places in the country to rejoice with nature and feel its power. And it is an ideal place to simply relax for a few days.
Curious to find out more about all the best things to do in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala? Well, I have been there 3 times (that’s how much I like it) and I will share all there is to know to make the most of it.
The Best Things To Do In Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
Get to grips with San Pedro village and its medicinal herbs
Situated on the southwest shore of the lake, San Pedro la Laguna is one of the most important villages in the region. The most important sight there is the Iglesia católica, St. Peter’s Church – a blinding-white church that has seen much damage because of fires, earthquakes and has been rebuilt several times. You will find it at the end of a pretty courtyard, with a stone path leading to it. Just keep in mind the church is closed during lunch hours (so from 12:00 to 2:00 pm) but other than that it’s pretty much open all the time, and free to visit.
In recent years San Pedro La Laguna has also become a popular backpacking destination, renowned for its alternative lifestyles, including meditation and traditional medicinal herbs. You can visit a medicinal herb garden, and learn all about growing curative herbs and the traditions behind the various plants. I can testify that the herbal tea to cure a sore throat and a cold truly works!
Learn about Guatemalan coffee on a coffee farm tour
This Central American country is well known for its quality coffee, which is also found around Lake Atitlan. The rich, volcanic soil around the lake as well as the relatively high altitude are ideal coffee-growing conditions. One of the best things to do in Lake Atitlan is therefore a coffee tour. It’s easy to hop on a tour of a coffee farm around the lake; one example is Ija’tz, a cooperative organization made up of 35 smallholder farmers. You obviously get to try a good cup of freshly brewed coffee at the end of the tour!
Explore the underwater world of Lake Atitlan
If you thought the world above the lake was impressive enough, wait till you get underwater! That’s right: it’s actually possible to dive in this freshwater lake. It’s the highest altitude lake in Central America, and also the deepest, with plenty to discover under the surface. Close to the shoreline there are an array of dive sites, where you can glimpse marine plants, geothermal formations and even Casa del Mundo, a former hotel, now submerged.
Watch the sunset over the lake
There’s sometimes nothing better than simply sitting and soaking up a sunset, and here they are particularly stunning. For some of the best sunset viewpoints around Lake Atitlan, you should make your way to the east coast, where you’ll find several good places. One really nice point is between Panajachel and Santa Catarina Palopó. The photo above was taken in Santa Catarina Palopó.
Sample delicious local chocolate
Along with coffee, chocolate—or more accurately, cacao—is also grown in the fertile ground surrounding the lake. Because of this, it’s not hard to find somewhere to enjoy freshly made chocolatey delights. It’s sold at many cafes, but you can also go on a farm tour to learn about the history and traditions of chocolate-growing and making.
One place to check out is El Taller Dalileo, where you can taste handmade chocolate from the source. Another place to visit if you are a chocolate fan is Licor Marron Chocolate, which has some of the most delicious chocolate treats in the country.
Take part in a cacao ceremony
This is one of the most interesting things to do in Lake Atitlan, and chances are you won’t be able to do it anywhere else in the country – so if you have a chance to go, don’t skip it.
Cacao ceremonies are meant to drive spiritual inner awakening and to promote inner healing, and have the overall effect of relaxing the participants. There are several kinds of ceremonies – one is based on meditation and reflection; the other is more active, with chocolate drinking and dancing. The best place for cacao ceremonies is San Marcos, where you’ll find Keith’s Cacao Workshop.
Learn new skills at the Lake Atitlan Women Weavers Co-op
The indigenous communities around Lake Atitlan have been weaving fabrics for hundreds of years, and it is an integral part of their culture that remains important to this day. The Atitlan Women Weavers is a cooperative that started its life back in 2014, with just five women; today it supports many more women, including single mothers. They sell traditional clothing, shawls, and handbags, with 75% of the profits going directly to the weavers themselves.
Another nice cooperative you may want to check out is the older Trama Textiles in San Juan, started in 1988 to bring together and employ women during the time of the Guatemalan Civil War (which lasted from 1960 to 1996, by the way). They actually grew so much that now they even ship internationally!
Stay with a local family
A homestay may well be one of the best things to do in Lake Atitlan. First of all, it’s a great opportunity to practice Spanish – if you already speak some, otherwise you can instead opt to take some Spanish classes. You can even learn a few words of language spoken by local communities – the Mayan communities speak Kek’chi, others speak Tz’utujil.
What you’ll love about the homestay is, however, getting to actually know the local people, getting a glimpse into their daily life. Expect to be flipping tortillas, washing dishes and clothes, and truly experiencing local life. The living conditions will be modest, but I promise it will be worth it, and a truly heartwarming experience – not to mention, the food you’ll it will be quintessentially local, which is a bonus!
There are various companies that organize homestays around Lake Atitlan, so make sure to enquire once you get there if this is something you want to try.
Try out kayaking on the lake…
If diving under the lake isn’t your thing, then one of the best things to do in Lake Atitlan for you may be to explore the lake above water instead – you can do this is by kayak. The waters are calm, and there are numerous places where you can go out on a group kayak tour and explore with the knowledge of a local guide. You’ll also get to see the shoreline from a different perspective, plus you’ll paddle between half-sunken buildings for a surreal and beautiful experience.
… Or opt for stand up paddleboarding instead
Then again, if you’re not a keen kayaker and would instead prefer to take it slow on a stand-up paddleboard, that’s definitely an option too. With the water so calm in the morning, gently gliding out into the immensity of it all on your paddleboard is an amazing experience. It could even end up being a highlight of your trip since it’s such a beautiful setting. Because of how calm it is, Lake Atitlan is also a great place for a beginner to try out paddleboarding for the first time.
Not your thing? One of the unmissable things to do in Lake Atitlan is actually a boat tour around the lake. Check out this one.
Zen out at a yoga class
Yoga is perhaps the most popular pastime on Lake Atitlan. It’s not hard to find a yoga studio or retreat nestled around the water’s edge. Rolling out your mat and practicing yoga with the beautiful lake as a backdrop, alongside other yogis and yoginis, is a super relaxing way to experience this Guatemalan destination. Follow up with a meditation class or chill with your newfound yoga friends. For starters, you could try Eagle’s Nest Yoga, Doron Yoga or The Yoga Forest.
Discover the pleasure of a Temazcal
Going to a traditional Temazcal is probably one of the unmissable things to do in Lake Atitlan. A common thing across the Mayan culture – Temazcales are also commonly found in Mexico, for example – the Temazcal is pretty much like a sauna (so don’t try it if you know that the steam will make you faint), and it is meant to heal and cleanse the body and soul (there is hot water you can use for that).
The clay and stone construction, meant to symbolize a womb, is small and with a low roof and ceiling. You literally have to bend your head to get in. There are benches inside, usually – but some have none so you either stand or sit on the floor. Inside, there’s a fire burning under large and smooth stones (sometimes, medicinal herbs are placed over the stones to enhance the healing power), over which visitors must throw cold water – that’s how steam is made. The steam is then fanned around the space.
You can find Temazcales around the lake. A popular one is Doron Yoga & Zen Center (in Tzununa, close to San Marcos), but there are many more – just ask around and locals will point you to one.
Learn about sustainable agriculture at Tzununá
Along with yoga, coffee, medicinal herbs, and the generally beautiful setting of Lake Atitlan, there are its many villages and the indigenous communities who call them home. One of these less-trodden destinations is Tzununá. Situated one and a half miles east of San Marcos la Laguna, Tzununá’s name translates as “Hummingbird of the Water”. It’s a village rich in traditional character, making it a natural place to learn about sustainable agriculture practised by the traditional Maya population.
Learn about the Maximon ritual in Santiago de Atitlan
Maximon is a deity of the Tz’utujil Maya people, a folk saint believed to have originated at the time of the Spanish conquest. Now Maximon is a blend of various historical figures, including Judas, Saint Peter and Pedro de Alvardo y Contras, former colonial governor of Guatemala. Maximon represents light and dark, and is something of a trickster figure. You’ll need a local guide to introduce you to the culture and traditions and to gain entry to the ceremonial houses, and don’t forget to take an offering.
For a guided experience of the Mayan cultures of Lake Atitlan, click here.
Check out San Antonio Palopó
This is actually one of my favorite villages in Lake Atitlan! Unfortunately badly hit by a landslide which left many families homeless and killed 20 local residents in 2010, San Antonio Palopó is significantly less touristy than the rest of the lake – the destruction caused by the landslide (which in turn means that there aren’t many hotels and restaurants) being one of the reasons.
The town remains very traditional, with men and women still wearing their traditional clothes. They also still practice traditional economic activities, which include ceramic pottery – local soil is rich in clay.
The Lago de Atitlan festival takes place in San Antonio every March. It’s a fun thing to attend if you are in the area. Be there to check out (and buy) lots of traditional art, listen to traditional music, and eat traditional food too.
Wander around Santa Cruz la Laguna
On the north shore of Lake Atitlan, you’ll find Santa Cruz la Laguna. This is a charming resort town, with a traditional local village nearby. In general, with its winding paths and backstreets, this is a place to simply wander and get lost (but not too lost). There’s a nice dock where you can take some time to chill out, too. It’s only accessible by boat, which adds to the charm of the place.
Take a hike from Santa Cruz To Jaibalito
If just strolling around the backstreets of Santa Cruz la Laguna isn’t energetic enough for you, then you could always embark on a longer hike. Specifically, the trail from Santa Cruz to Jaibalito is where you should head. It only takes about half an hour and isn’t too exhausting, but you do get rewarded with some amazing views of the surrounding volcanoes. Jaibailito itself is a tiny hamlet, and one of the most remote settlements on the shores of Lake Atitlan, as well as the least developed.
Go exploring at Atitlán Nature Reserve
Providing a gateway into the wonderful nature surrounding Lake Atitlan, there’s the Atitlan Nature Reserve to explore. Situated close to the town of Panajachel, this place is where you can have a real adventure and journey deep into the rainforest. You’ll get the chance to glimpse wildlife from monkeys to butterflies, hike to waterfalls, cross suspension bridges, and even go ziplining. This former coffee plantation was turned into a reserve in 1997 and is today a beautiful spot, particularly for families.
Swing by Crossroads Cafe for a pick-me-up
For when you fancy a coffee and a chat, head over to the Crossroads Cafe. Situated in the town of Panajachel, the cafe is well known for its good coffee, which is sourced from small local farms in the Atitlan highlands. It’s run by a friendly couple who serve up delicious food alongside the coffee. A nice place for a rest and to get talking to people who’ve made their home in this stunning location.
Shop for some souvenirs at the local markets
The area around Lake Atitlan is rife with markets, each of them slightly different but all of them filled with local life. Whether you want to shop for food, pick up gifts or souvenirs, the markets in this region are ideal for visitors and it goes without saying that one of the best things to do in Lake Atitlan is visiting one. You’ll find particularly large markets at Panajachel, Santiago, and San Pedro.
Go for a swim at Club Ven Aca
Though Lake Atitlan is obviously full of water, nothing quite beats a wonderfully designed infinity pool in a beautiful location with amazing views. You’ll find one of these at Club Ven Aca. The pool is free to use, as long as you buy some drinks—from the swim-up bar, naturally—or stay for lunch. It’s situated in Jaibalito, so if you hike here from Santa Cruz, it makes for a refreshing endpoint for your trek.
Refresh with a cooling dip in the lake itself
If the pool isn’t your thing, then why not take a dip in the lake itself? You can actually swim in multiple spots around the lake but best done away from harbors and large towns. San Marcos la Laguna is a good spot to cool off in the waters of Lake Atitlan. Another spot is Jucanya Beach, which has a sandy shore and is popular with locals and visitors alike.
Enjoy a few drinks at La Casa del Mundo
With its cliffside location, La Casa del Mundo is a hotel with beautiful views out over the lake, making its restaurant and garden the ideal place to lap it all up. You don’t have to stay at the hotel to enjoy all that’s on offer here; just head to the hotel’s restaurant to sample their menu of fresh coffee and dishes, such as burritos and the like. It’s a perfect little paradise on the lake.
Hiking is certainly the best way to experience the lake, but if you have the budget (expect to pay around $100 USD) and are not afraid of heights, you should definitely consider paragliding. The best company that does paragliding experiences is Real-World Paragliding and you’ll find it in Panajachel. Flights last between 20 and 45 minutes, depending on the weather and on the winds. Just make sure to be dressed appropriately – trainers, a jacket – and bring your camera for incredible photos!
Hike up to La Nariz del Indio for amazing sunrise views
Sunset may be a thing at Lake Atitlan, but so are sunrises. One of the best spots for that is the viewpoint of La Nariz del Indio, also known as Maya Face or Rostro Maya (Rupalaj K’istalin in the local language). The name obviously came from its shape: observers noticed that it looked like the nose of an indigenous person! From there you’ll get to see the sunrise over the volcanic peaks before it gleams down onto the surface of the lake. The only thing is you’ll have to get up pretty early to enjoy it—think 3:00 am.
The peak of La Nariz is 7,342 feet (2,238 meters) above sea level, so you’ll have to prepare for a relatively strenuous journey. Once you’ve witnessed the sunrise, head down the other side of the peak to Santa Clara, past farmers on their way to work.
The trail to walk up the viewpoint is near San Juan La Laguna, where you’ll have to pay a small fee to continue walking. Ask around for directions to the beginning of the trail as it’s not so easy to find.
You can walk up independently, but beware that you may be stopped by locals demanding yet another payment for you to continue walking. Alternatively, you can just to to the viewpoint that’s a 10-minute walk from the starting point of the trail. You will recognize it by the mosaic cross. It’s a steep climb but doable.
Finally, if you are really keen on going all the way to the top, you have the option of joining a guided tour. Local guides will basically know what to say and do to avoid the fees demanded by the local “banditos” (don’t worry, they are not really bandits). Depending on where you are staying, you may even get a pick up from your hotel.
For information about guided hikes to La Nariz click here.
Hike up San Pedro Volcano for some amazing views
You may like views, but you don’t have to get up before sunrise to enjoy them. One of the best things to do in Lake Atitlan is hiking San Pedro Volcano. Situated 4,500 feet (1,371 meters) above sea level, this is one place you can hike up any time of day to enjoy the view. You can access the volcano from the town of San Pedro.
The hike is around 5 miles (8 km) (ascent and descent) but be warned that it gets gradually steeper towards the summit, and ends in a stone staircase. Don’t worry though, there are several viewpoints along the way where you can sit on a bench to catch your breath.
Go on a day trip to Chichicastenango…
Chichicastenango is located about 1.5 hours drive north of Panajachel and can be visited on day trips from Lake Atitlan – in fact, many actually visit on their way to Lake Atitlan from Antigua. Home to the largest outdoor market in Latin America, it’s a fantastic place to explore and – needless to say – to shop for souvenirs. The market runs on Thursdays and Sundays.
While in Chichi, make sure to also visit the 400-year-old church of Santo Tomas and to pop into the cemetery, where you can observe several Mayan rituals.
Beware of pick-pockets at the market! Don’t bring anything valuable with you and keep whatever money you have in internal pockets.
To get to Chichicastenango, you have the option of getting a very comfortable shuttle from Panajachel. Alternatively, hop on one of the chicken buses headed to Sololá. Once there, look for buses to Los Encuentros, where you’ll have to change again for a bus to Chichicastenango. The overall journey should last no longer than 1.5 hours and cost no more than 10 or 12 Quetzales (no more than $1.50).
Or to Iximché
This is actually one of my favorite sites in the area. You can stop there on your way to Lake Atitlan from Antigua – in fact, it is actually quite close to Chichicastenango. Or simply, plan to visit for when you are in Lake Atitlan.
Iximché was actually the very first capital of Guatemala, proclaimed so by the Spaniards when they conquered it and other nearby sites in 1524. When they arrived there, the Spaniards found a Kaqchikel community, which had fled following a war with the K’iche’. The arrival of the conquerors forced the Kaqchikel to leave, and the site was abandoned soon after, the city entirely burned. It was first discovered in the 17th century, and then actually excavated in the 1940s.
Today, when you visit you can not only admire the site, but also spot members of the local communities performing interesting Mayan rituals.
Ixhimche is relatively close to Lake Atitlan. To get there, you’ll first have to make your way to Panajachel. From there, the easiest thing to do is take a taxi (but you’ll have to negotiate the rate), which leaves you alone to explore independently (or with one of the guides you’ll find at the entrance), or join a guided tour such as this guided tour to Iximche from Panajachel.
Pop into Sololá Market
Sololá is a much lesser visited town at a short distance from the lake – just 20 minutes drive from Panajachel. You will pass through on your way to the lake and on your way out, so you may as well make time for it. The market is significantly less touristy than that of Chichicastenango or other markets around the lake (in fact, it is not touristy at all and you won’t find souvenirs there), which makes it all the more charming!
Practical Information To Plan Your Trip To Lake Atitlan
Where to stay in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
Your experience of Lake Atitlan will vary enormously depending on where you base yourself. Some towns are inevitably more touristy – Panajachel is nicknamed Gringotenango, where “tenango” is the suffix for city, and Gringo… well, you know it. Likewise, San Pedro, which is one of the largest towns, is well geared to tourism.
I stayed in Santa Cruz La Laguna and Santa Catarina Palopó on different visits, and enjoyed both.
Santa Cruz is the smallest village on the lake and can only be reached by boat. There are two hostels – La Iguana Perdida and Free Cerveza, each having both dorms and private rooms, and offering family style dinners and a bunch of activities for guests. Both hostels are located on the shore, whereas the village is up on the hill, so you don’t really get much of a chance to mingle with the local community. Nevertheless, the atmosphere is nice.
Santa Catarina Palopó is a larger village but has only a few offerings in terms of accommodation – the best place to stay is by all means Hotel Casa Palopó. You can get there by car from Panajachel, which is just a few minutes drive away and where you’ll find a much larger selection of restaurants, bars and cafés.
Depending on how much time you have, you may even opt to spend a few nights in one place, and then move to another across the lake.
Make sure to read my post Where To Stay In Lake Atitlan.
How to get to Lake Atitlan
You can easily get to Lake Atitlan from Antigua or Chichicastenango by chicken bus, but you’ll have to change buses several times. Alternatively, you can opt for shuttle rides.
For shuttles from Antigua to Panajachel click here.
How to get around Lake Atitlan Guatemala
The best way to get around Lake Atitlan is by boat. Connecting up most of the towns on the water’s edge, boats run all day and into the evening. They’re generally quite affordable, too, but note that tourists do pay more than locals.
Another way to get around is by hiking. Obviously you’re not going to be hiking around the whole circumference of the lake, but many of the towns and villages around Lake Atitlan are close-ish together, and are fairly easy to walk to.
How long to stay in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
This depends on how much time you have, and your budget, too. If you’re short on time, then a couple of days is all it takes to give you a good taste of what Lake Atitlan is all about. But if you’ve got plenty of time, then anything from four days to around a week should be fine for experiencing the area. For those of you who really want to get to grips with the lifestyle here— what with all the organic foods, yoga and meditation—then a two-week stay is a great idea.
I recommend spending at least few days in Lake Atitlan to make the most of it. However, if you are tight on time you can visit on guided day trips departing from Antigua such as this one.
Lake Atitlan Guatemala safety tips
Many people travel to Lake Atitlan and have a completely safe and trouble-free time. That was my experience both times I visited. However, there are some things you need to know to ensure you stay as safe as possible. For one thing, there have been reports of robberies and more serious crimes on hiking trails around the lake. For this reason, it’s important to keep your wits about you, hike in a group or opt for a guide who’ll be able to steer you safely with local insight.
General tips, such as not flashing your cash or valuables in public—particularly in larger towns—always apply, and make sure to watch your belongings in crowded areas, such as markets. For solo female travelers, it’s best to book into a hotel or a hostel that comes with glowing reviews from previous female guests; and make sure you let people know your whereabouts and itinerary.
Otherwise, Lake Atitlan is a totally safe place, and an amazing destination where you can chill out in nature. Enjoy!
Make sure to read my other posts:
- Everything You Need To Know Before Visiting Guatemala
- The Best Things To Do In Guatemala
- The Best Things To Do In Antigua, Guatemala
- The Best Guide To Chichicastenango Market
- The Best Mayan Sites In Guatemala
- The Best Things To Do In Flores, Guatemala
- The Best Guide To Visiting Tikal
- The Best Guide To Semuc Champey
- The Best Itinerary For Two Weeks In Guatemala
- Everything You Need To Know To Hike Pacaya Volcano
- Everything You Must Know About Chicken Buses