Vibe-guide to the towns around Lake Atitlán, Guatemala
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When we first got to Guatemala, we had no idea there would be so many different towns at Lake Atitlán to choose from. When people talk about going to the lake, they rarely get specific about which towns around Lake Atitlán they go to. There are 11 towns in total. So here, I’ve written short vibe-guides to the 4 towns around Lake Atitlán that we stayed in and 2 that we day-tripped to. Don’t forget to also check out my ultimate Guatemala bucketlist to see where else to go in the country.
Fun fact: if you buy food on the street in San Marcos or Tzununá, you will be followed home by dogs. Lots and lots of dogs.
How to get between the towns around Lake Atitlán
The majority of the towns of Lake Atitlán are accessible by road, so shuttles from Antigua or Semuc Champey should drop you off to your hostel door – when we went to San Marco, we had to get off the shuttle onto the hectic dusty streets of San Pablo and get a tuktuk (which the shuttle company paid for) the rest of the way. To and from Santa Cruz, you’ll need to change at Panajachel with the help of a water taxi.
Water taxis go from one end of the lake to the other (San Pedro to Panajachel and back), looping around the lake to the different towns along the way. Just tell the driver where you need to stop when you get on, and prepare to get nice and cosy with your neighbours on the benches. Make sure you don’t take up any more space than you need to when the boat gets busy. You can’t book ahead and you can’t barter on the boat price, but it is pretty cheap, ranging from £1-3 depending on the length of your journey. From the less popular towns, you may have to stand on the jetty and wave the boats down.
You can actually walk to San Pedro from San Juan if you fancy the exercise or want a night of partying (recommend getting a tuktuk back late at night). Just follow the one road out to the south!
Learn Spanish at Lake Atitlán
This is a highly indigenous area, and owing to the fact that most locals speak an indigenous language as their first, we actually found a few places where they couldn’t speak Spanish at all. Initially, we thought some people were being patronising to us by talking very simply and slowly, then clicked that they were struggling as much as the average tourist with using the Spanish language. Saying that, the towns around Lake Atitlán are some of Latin America’s most popular places to study Spanish, mainly owing to its cheapness, the willingness of locals to earn a little extra cash by providing a homestay, and the fact that Spanish-as-a-second-language means the people of Lake Atitlán speak reeeeal lennnnto.
Vibe-guides to the Towns around Lake Atitlán
Best for: ethical shopping
The vibe here is semi-local, semi-touristy. When you arrive by boat, you’ll be surrounded on either side by souvenir shops, with little Guatemalan ladies calling out to you and telling you all the ‘colores diferentes’ they stock. What we didn’t realise at first was that most of these shops are owned and run by women’s cooperatives, who cut out the middleman to give the poor Mayan women at the bottom of the supply chain a chance at financial independence. This has all sorts of positive effects on the prevalence of domestic abuse, illiteracy among children (especially girls) and preventable health issues, to list but a few. Most of the items you buy in San Juan will have a label with the name of the woman who made them, plus a little info on the individual cooperative. Whilst there is some negotiation on price, you can’t barter down as much here as in the other towns (and in truth, it felt bad to do so), but at least you know you’re buying ethically and contributing to the community.
At night, definitely go to get street food along the main street inland (sol-4), and for an afternoon coffee head down to the white café you can see to the left as you take the boat in. There is a small alleyway to go through (which looks a little sketchy at first but opens up quickly); just ask the local shopkeepers how to get there.
Best for: hippie vibes
If you want to buy incense sticks and and get your palms read, this is your spot. The actual strip that everyone visits in San Marcos is pretty short compared to how far up the hill the town stretches, and it took us a day of staying there to realise it existed (we were wandering around the local areas trying to work out why everyone said it was such a cool, hippie place). You’ll find vegan restaurants, spiritual massages, drug dealers and social enterprises. Just off to the left of the main strip, not far from the boat dock, you’ll find a short hike that leads you to a giant trampoline you can jump off into the lake. If staying here, we recommend Hotel Villa Tzankujil; it’s right on the edge of town and although basic, super peaceful.
Best for: ultra-local culture and peaceful relaxation
The truth is, Tzununá is so local that you’re really going to struggle to find any tourist accommodation in the town itself. Instead, we stayed in the STUNNING Maya Moon Lodge. From as little as £9 a night, with a private jetty, free kayak use and no one else around, this lodge is the perfect getaway from all the hustle and bustle of the larger towns of Lake Atitlán. Due to all the boats going around, there are surprisingly few places on the lake where you can jump in and swim in the water safely without getting grossed out by loads of weeds. Maya Moon Lodge is one of those places. Crystal clear waters and probably the best views we saw on our several stops around the lake.
While staying there, we recommend taking a few strolls into the town itself (5 minutes downhill) and buying any snacks and other supplies there. The Maya Moon food isn’t expensive per se, but it’s not as cheap as it could be in Guatemala. Expect ultra-local vibes; the town is not a wealthy one, and tourists only tend to pass through its muddy streets on their way to or from the Jaibalito hike from Santa Cruz. The kids will laugh at your gringo-ness, but they’ll also probably slip you a friendly ‘buenas’ or even an excited ‘hellooohhh!’.
Best for: stocking up on cash and getting shuttle transfers
Really, that’s all it’s good for. A big, dusty town with very little character, Panajachel is the oddball on the lake. We took a day trip just to get some cash (very important to stock up before you go as most towns have no access to ATMs), had an uber-cheap, pretty tasty lunch at a slightly dodgy-looking Los Tres Tiempos family restaurant (unfortunately basically all tortilla places in Guatemala are called this so other than ‘on the main road’ it’s hard to get specific) and ended up finding an expat bar in which to watch some Spanish football surrounded by Americans and their local girlfriends. We got one of the last water taxis out of the town just before 6pm and to be honest were glad we didn’t have to stay in Panajachel overnight, although a Selina has newly opened here which is usually a sign of gentrification to come. There are some good market stalls for souvenirs, but nothing you can’t find in other places. A number of the bus transfers to Antigua, Quetzaltenango or Semuc Champey go from Panajachel, so lots of people end up passing through.
Best for: partying
This is one of the larger towns of Lake Atitlán and is where most people stay, but we found it a little ‘meh’. It’s got a typical touristy vibe with big hostels and sticky bars. It also has some very cheap Spanish schools, so don’t let us completely put you off! It’s popular with large groups of travellers (especially Israelis, for some reason) and solo travellers who want to make new friends easily.
There’s a huge amount of choice when it comes to juice bars, non-juice bars, cafés and restaurants, and you’re more likely to see signs and menus in English or Hebrew than in Spanish, so it’s the most accessible of all the towns of Lake Atitlán for tourists. You have to go pretty inland to find the authentic stuff. Shopkeepers seem happier to barter aggressively here (sometimes dropping their price in half as you are walking out the door), so it’ll be among the cheapest souvenirs. If you enjoy hiking, San Pedro is a good place to pick up the sunrise volcano hike.
Best for: views and social enterprise
Nestled up high in the lush, misty mountains, it’s no wonder that Santa Cruz has such incredible views of the lake and surrounding area. This town is a key start-point for the Jaibalito hike. Most people stay at either Free Cerveza (glamping tents) or La Iguana Perdida (pictured, recommend a private cabin w/balcony if you do stay there), which are both slightly outside the town, on the shore. They’re both famed across Central America for their open vibes and delicious family dinners.
It takes around half an hour or a 5-minute tuktuk ride to get up to the Santa Cruz itself. There aren’t many tourists who venture up here, but enough that the locals don’t stop and stare at you. Sit on the main square to watch the kids playing football, or take a stroll round the town to see daily Guatemalan life.
It’s one of the best towns around Lake Atitlán to see daily life go by. For lunch or a drink, you should absolutely stop in a CECAP. It’s a large yellow building on your right as you come up towards the main square (just left of centre in the above pic, with a blue sign on). CECAP is an organisation dedicated to helping the local community develop, providing training in hospitality, cooking and sewing, as well as language skills and sex education for kids. While there, the staff who serve you will all be students of the social enterprise. Take a chair up on the top deck, with views of the lake, and do not – DO NOT – fail to order a banana and cacao smoothie. That ish is life-changing.
That’s all for now, folks! We hope this guide helps you decide which town around Lake Atitlán to visit and stay in. There’s really something for everyone around the lake, you’ve just got to find your vibe! If it’s still all a little overwhelming, there are plenty of organised tours you can sign yourself up to that would help you explore the Lake Atitlán area whilst making like-minded friends and learning from the locals. Check some of our recommendations here:
If you’re heading to Antigua after visiting Lake Atitlan, don’t forget to check out our top places to quench your thirst: