Lake Atitlan is a magical place. It’s one of the most breathtaking lakes in the world, with its vibrant blue waters and three majestic volcanoes surrounding it. It’s also one of Guatemala’s most fascinating destinations, offering an interesting look into traditional Mayan culture.
Not only that, there’s plenty of things to do in Lake Atitlan, to suit any kind of traveler. Whether you’re looking for adventurous activities, relaxing on the lake, or one-of-a-kind cultural experiences, you’ll find it all in Lake Atitlan.
There are a dozen towns around Lake Atitlan, each offering its own distinct culture, identity, and personality. The towns are all primarily inhabited by a number of Mayan groups, and each offer a rich history and cultural diversity.
While there is plenty to do and you’ll likely have a hard time when narrowing down what to do in Lake Atitlan, be sure to allot extra time to savor the slow life here. Life moves slower in Lake Atitlan, which is part of its charm.
Lake Atitlan is truly a special place, and a must on any Guatemala itinerary – its spectacular natural beauty and unique culture will draw you right in and make you fall in love.
Keep on reading to find out all the unforgettable things to do in Lake Atitlan!
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Things to Know About Visiting Lake Atitlan
About the villages of Lake Atitlan
There are a dozen villages located around the perimeter of Lake Atitlan, each with its own personality and vibe. The towns are still inhabited by Mayan groups, and each have a rich history and unique cultural identity.
You’ll likely visit a few of the towns to do some of the best things to do in Lake Atitlan and to get a sense of its culture.
Here’s a brief overview of the villages around Lake Atitlan:
- Panajachel: Panajachel (or commonly “Pana”) is the gateway to Lake Atitlan and the main town on the lake. There’s always a flurry of activity, but you’ll also find the best handicrafts shopping and pretty lake views.
- San Pedro la Laguna: The backpacker’s hub of the lake, always buzzing with activity. Also offers a look into Mayan culture and breathtaking nature if you look beyond the surface.
- San Marcos la Laguna: The spiritual and wellness hub of the lake – find plenty of yoga studios, meditation classes, chakras readings, and organic cafes.
- San Juan la Laguna: The colorful, artsy Mayan town of Lake Atitlan, with vibrant street art, weaving collectives, art galleries, and more.
- Santa Catarina Palopo: The blue town – all the buildings in Santa Catarina are painted in various shades of blue with traditional Mayan emblems, as part of an initiative to promote tourism.
- Santa Cruz la Laguna: The peaceful town with the best views of the lake.
- Jaibalito: This tiny town is considered to be the hidden gem of Lake Atitlan
- San Antonio Palopo: This colorful and charming town is best known for its traditional pottery.
- Santiago Atitlan: The largest and most traditional town on the lake, you’ll get a more local vibe here.
- Tzununa: Best known for being the place to go to learn about permaculture, organic farming, herbal medicine, and growing mushrooms.
- San Lucas Toliman: The predominantly Mayan town where you’ll hardly see any foreign tourists.
- Santa Clara La Laguna: This town is located up in the hills and ideal for adventure seekers.
Want to learn more about the towns around the lake. Here’s my complete guide to all of the towns around Lake Atitlan!
How many days do you need in Lake Atitlan?
Short answer: as many days as you can spare. Lake Atitlan is truly an amazing place, and any time you can spend here is worth it! Even if you only have a day to spare, it’s worth it to experience the breathtaking beauty and unique culture of Lake Atitlan.
Long answer: At least three days to check out a few of the towns around the lake, experience their personality, and to experience some of the best things to do in Lake Atitlan. However, you won’t be able to see or do it all – not even close.
Keep in mind that it takes a bit of time to get around to the villages around the lake – the boats don’t really run on a set schedule, and they’re not that fast. It can take 45 minutes to get from one end to the other (Panajachel to San Pedro). Realistically, you can visit 1-2 villages a day (3 if you *really* cram it in).
Lake Atitlan embraces a more slow-paced style of traveling and you should definitely factor in some time to hang out, relax, and actually enjoy the lake and its beauty.
I ended up spending a week in Lake Atitlan, and honestly, I *still* didn’t get to do everything I wanted to do! Even though it gave me enough time to get a feel for life in Atitlan, I still didn’t get to see all of the villages, or do all the things that I wanted to do – I was distracted by all the beauty of the lake, can you blame me?!
Still, it gave me enough time to get a feel for the unique culture of the place. If you can, I’d suggest spending at least a week here too!
Best time to visit Lake Atitlan
Guatemala is referred to as the “land of eternal spring,” so there really isn’t a bad time to visit Lake Atitlan. Much of the country experiences warm temperatures and mild evenings all year round.
Do note that there is a distinct dry season (November-April) and rainy season (May-October). Dry season is going to be the best time to visit, as you’ll likely want to spend plenty of time outside when visiting Lake Atitlan.
However, it tends to be more crowded during the dry season, and accommodation prices are slightly higher. Still, Lake Atitlan and Guatemala in general tend to be *very* affordable. We visited in February and it was still much cheaper than I’m used to!
Even if you visit during the rainy season, this does not mean that you will experience pouring rain all day. Expect sunny mornings, overcast skies as the day goes on, a torrential downpour for an hour or two, and then clear evenings. It’s kind of similar to what you see in other destinations in this region of the world (like Nosara, Costa Rica).
Keep in mind that the weeks surrounding Christmas and Holy Week (the week before Easter) are especially considered to be high season, and when locals travel around the country. Therefore, expect to see increased crowds in Lake Atitlan during these times.
Traveling to Lake Atitlan
Most visitors arrive to Lake Atitlan from either Guatemala City (4 hours) or Antigua (2 hours).
One thing to note is that while Guatemala is a relatively small country, the infrastructure isn’t the greatest. This means that while things may look pretty close on a map, it still takes awhile to get around because the roads aren’t the greatest. Allow extra travel time for this.
Do note that whatever method of transportation you choose to get to Lake Atitlan, you will likely get dropped off in Panajachel (although there are a few shuttles that drop you off in San Pedro). From here, you’ll have to connect to your final destination via boat (more details on that below).
Here are some options for getting to Lake Atitlan:
- Tourist shuttle: An easy, affordable, and popular way to travel to Lake Atitlan. This costs around $20 each way. I’d completed the Acatenango trek immediately before heading to Lake Atitlan, so I used the shuttle service provided by my tour company, but used Atitrans on the way back. Do note that if you’re traveling to and from Guatemala City, shuttles often make a stop in Antigua, which adds an extra hour or so of travel time.
- Private transfer: This is the fastest and most direct way to get to/from Lake Atitlan. You’ll pay about $150 for a private shuttle, but it can be the most cost effective option if you’re traveling as a group.
- Uber: You can take an Uber from either Guatemala City or Antigua to get to Lake Atitlan. However, do note that cars are rarely available on the way back, so you’ll have to rely on another method of transportation.
- Chicken bus: These garishly decorated school buses are the public buses of Guatemala. They are an option if you are *really* on a budget, but otherwise not recommended for long distance travel as they aren’t very comfortable and not always safe.
Getting around in Lake Atitlan
There is no road that goes around the entire perimeter of the lake. While there are roads that run in between a few of the villages, it’s usually not advised to drive in between them.
So, you may be wondering – how the heck do I get around in Lake Atitlan? Generally, you will travel around Lake Atitlan via boat, but I will outline all of the ways to get around below:
Water Taxis (Lanchas)
The main method of getting around Lake Atitlan is via water taxi, or lanchas. Both locals and tourists alike depend on lanchas to get around the lake. They are relatively easy to use, inexpensive, and go to almost every corner of the lake.
Here are a few things to know about taking water taxis around Lake Atitlan:
- There’s no set schedule, but boats generally run between 8am and 6pm. If you’re traveling before or after those hours, you’ll have to hire a private boat (starts at around 150Q, goes up based on distance traveled).
- A private boat is also helpful if you have a lot or luggage, or your accommodations are located far away from the main dock.
- Each town has a main dock where all boats stop. You can also try to catch a lancha at the dock in front of your accommodations – simply try to wave one down when you see one – but they may or may not stop.
- Fares are calculated based on distance traveled, and there’s a different pricing structure for locals, expats, and tourists. In general, expect to pay about 15Q from Panajachel to Santa Cruz, 25Q to San Marcos or San Juan, and 35Q to San Pedro.
- It takes around 45 minutes to get around the lake (from Pana to San Pedro)
- Mornings have the calmest water – the water tends to get choppy as the day goes on, and by the late afternoon it gets BUMPY! Something to keep in mind if you have motion sickness, bring meds or bands.
- Boats will wait around to fill up before departing. Usually this takes less than 10 minutes, but I did have one time where we didn’t leave for an hour (then the driver went super fast to make up for it, which made for an extra bumpy ride lol).
Tuk-tuks are mostly used to travel within a village – for example, getting to the hilly parts of San Juan or Santa Cruz. They also can be used to getting to neighboring villages, like going from Panajachel to Santa Catarina.
You’ll find tuk-tuks waiting near the main docks in town. Be sure to negotiate a price before getting on to prevent any surprises.
Pickup Trucks (Carros)
You can also hop in the back of a pickup truck, or carros, to get around between some of the villages in Lake Atitlan (for example, going from Panajachel to Santa Catarina). Similar to bus stops, there are designated pickup spots in town. From here, simply hop on. It’s certainly unique, but this is a form of transportations that the locals use.
Is Lake Atitlan safe?
Safety is often a hot topic when traveling to Guatemala, so you may be wondering how safe Lake Atitlan is.
Guatemala is often perceived as a “dangerous” country, and yes, the country has a turbulent history. However, things have improved dramatically over the years. Sure, there are still parts of the country that are unsafe to visit, and crime is still very much an issue. Fortunately, most of the destinations frequently visited by tourists, including Lake Atitlan, are considered to be relatively safe.
I spent a week in Lake Atitlan and never once did I feel unsafe (or did I feel unsafe in Guatemala in general). I spent four days here as a solo female traveler, and never once did I feel like I was in any danger.
Lake Atitlan is considered to be one of the safest places in Latin America, partly due to the fact that it is governed by Mayan codes of conduct, which tend to make an example out of people who commit any wrongdoing. Violent crimes are extremely rare in Lake Atitlan.
That said, you should always keep your guard up and be aware of your surroundings at all times! Robberies are still common in the area, particularly on the hiking trails and roads in between villages. Be extra vigilant and carry no items of value on you. If you are unsure of the situation, ask the locals. If you plan to hike, consider hiring a guide.
In any case, you should always take basic safety precautions while traveling in Lake Atitlan, or really anywhere else for that matter. These include:
- Always let someone at home know where you’ll be at all times and give them a copy of your itinerary
- Keep a close watch on your belongings and don’t flash any valuables (jewelry, expensive electronics, etc)
- Avoid walking around at night
- Don’t consume too much alcohol (and never any illicit drugs)
- Don’t go off with strangers
- ALWAYS be aware of your surroundings!
Money + Currency in Lake Atitlan
The official currency of Guatemala is the Guatemalan Quetzal (GTQ). $1 USD is roughly ~8 GTQ (or 100 GTQ is roughly ~$13).
You will need to use cash in Lake Atitlan. You’ll find a few places that accept credit cards, but for the most part, cash is king here.
Plan ahead if/when you need to get more cash. Not all the villages have ATMs, and some only have one. Sometimes, the ATMs run out of money. Don’t wait until you are desperately low on cash!
Most of the ATMs you will see in Lake Atitlan are the yellow 5B machines. The good news: they accept foreign debit cards (while some other machines in Guatemala don’t). The bad news: the fees are exorbitantly high – I think I paid something like 60Q every time I used one. Plan accordingly, and try to limit your usage. Do also note that the withdrawal limit is 2000Q.
Language in Lake Atitlan
Spanish is the official language of Guatemala, and you’ll mainly speak it when visiting Lake Atitlan. English isn’t very commonly spoken here, so it will be *very* helpful if you brush up on some basic Spanish before your trip.
What’s interesting about Lake Atitlan is that Spanish tends to be a second language for many locals, who mainly speak one of three Mayan languages (Kaqchikuel, Tzutujil, or Kiche).
Because of this, you’ll find that people speak Spanish more slowly and simply than in other regions, which means that it’s a fantastic opportunity to practice!
About the people of Lake Atitlan
On that note – you’ll find that Lake Atitlan is primarily inhabited by a indigenous population, primarily belonging to several Mayan groups.
You’ll see women dressed in their traditional outfits, made of brightly colored, intricately woven textiles. Men usually are dressed in Western clothing, although they still wear traditional clothing in a handful of villages (most notably Santiago Atitlan).
The Mayan people are inherently kind and welcoming, and make Lake Atitlan a very hospitable place to visit. It’s also fascinating to experience the culture, and see some of the Mayan traditions in the villages.
Do remember that it is very important to respect the locals and their customs and regulations. You are a visitor to their community!
Remember to follow their rules. Do not photograph them without asking (especially important for children, as trafficking is still a big issue in Guatemala). And absolutely do not flirt with them – it is forbidden for Mayans to engage in romance with non-Mayans.
A few more things to know…
- Do note that Lake Atitlan is in a relatively rural area. This means that it’s likely you’ll encounter spiders, bugs, and other critters.
- Don’t leave your shoes outside at night, as there are scorpions that can crawl in them. Don’t worry, they’re non-poisonous and not considered to be any more dangerous in a bee, but that would be an unwelcome surprise to wake up to!
- The tap water is not safe to drink. Most accommodations offer purified water that is safe to drink, but otherwise get bottled water or bring a purifier.
- While Lake Atitlan is beautiful to gaze out, its waters are kinda polluted. This is especially so near more populated parts of the lake, and where the boat traffic is high. There are a few spots around the lake that are known to have cleaner waters, otherwise, it is not advised to swim in the lake.
- The power company sometimes does maintenance around here, and the power can be out at times. Usually this only lasts a few hours in the afternoon, but there was one day where the power was out all night, which was an interesting experience lol.
Where to stay in Lake Atitlan
It can be hard to narrow down what town to stay in when visiting Lake Atitlan, as you’ll find an array of options.
As I said before, each of the towns have their own vibe and personality, and this is something to consider when selecting which one to stay in. For example, San Marcos is known as the hippie town, so if that’s not something you jive with, then I wouldn’t stay there. If you don’t want to stay in a bustling, lively town, don’t stay in Panajachel and San Pedro. Likewise, if you’re looking for a bit of action and nightlife, skip the quieter towns like Santa Cruz and San Juan.
For first timers, I’d recommend staying in either Pana or San Pedro, which are both well-connected and have the most in terms of amenities, or Santa Cruz, which has the best views of the lake. I will go over pros/cons and some options in each of these towns below:
Staying in Panajachel
Panajachel is the main hub and gateway to Lake Atitlan, and where most visitors first arrive. Therefore, it is very connected and you can easily get around to all of the other villages when basing yourself here. There’s also plenty to do, plenty of restaurants and food options, and you’ll have easy access to all the best things to do in Lake Atitlan.
The downside – it’s busy. If you’re looking for the peace and solitude that the lake is known for, you’re probably not going to find it in Pana.
Here are a few options for where to stay in Panajachel:
- Selina Atitlan: Technically a hostel, but Selina properties always have a hip design and their private rooms rival any boutique hotel (but at an affordable price point). They also have awesome common spaces, so it’s an ideal place to stay if you’re traveling solo and want to meet like-minded travelers.
- Portas Hotel del Lago: This beautiful boutique hotel is just steps away from the lake. Each room has stunning volcano views right from the balcony. The pool area looks amazing as well!
- Hotel San Buenaventura de Atitlan: This boutique property is an excellent choice if you want the convenience of being in Pana, but also want some peace and quiet. The lush property is about a 5 minute drive from the center of Pana, and has a private beach, tropical garden, and outdoor pool.
Staying in San Pedro la Laguna
San Pedro la Laguna is a popular backpacker’s hub in Lake Atitlan. Like Panajachel, it offers a lot in terms of amenities, and you’ll find plenty of international restaurants, bars, and more. If you’re looking for nightlife, San Pedro offers plenty of that. And if you’re on a budget, San Pedro is an excellent place to stay, with plenty of hostels and cheap places to stay.
The downside – much like Pana, San Pedro is always a flurry of activity. If you want peace and quiet, stay elsewhere.
Here are some options for places to stay in San Pedro la Laguna:
- Sababa Resort: One of the best and higher-end places to stay in San Pedro. You’ll find a mix of dorm and private rooms at this boutique property. There’s also a terrace, garden, palapas, and a beautiful pool area with incredible views overlooking the lake.
- Hotel Mikaso: Located in a quieter part of town, Hotel Mikaso is housed in a colonial building and features a gorgeous terrace overlooking the lake, along with a private dock. There are both dorms and private rooms available.
- Zoola: This hip resort has a lively bar, outdoor terrace and pool area. They also have an on-site restaurant that is known for its fantastic Israeli food! Both shared and private rooms are available.
Staying in Santa Cruz la Laguna
Santa Cruz is only one town over from Pana, but it feels like a whole world away. If you’re craving peace and tranquility, along with incredible lake views, then you can’t do much better than staying in Santa Cruz.
I loved staying in Santa Cruz because it allowed me to embrace the slower pace of life that Atitlan is known for. Some of my fondest memories of my time here include savoring my morning coffee, enjoying the sunset over a glass of wine, hanging out in the hot tub while taking in the stunning lake views.
The downside – the town is tiny, and there aren’t a whole lot of options for dining and amenities. You’ll also have to plan ahead for dinner, as most places are reservation-only.
Here are some recommended options for where to stay in Santa Cruz la Laguna:
- Sacred Tree Atitlan: We stayed at this Airbnb and loved it soooo much! The entire property is stunning, with incredible views of the lake, which I loved waking up to every single morning. There’s also a hot tub and Guatemalan sauna, perfect for relaxing. Miguel, the host, was super hospitable and helpful throughout the entire stay.
- Casa Prana: Our friends stayed here and we were super jealous! The grounds are insanely gorgeous, as are the rooms. There are lush gardens, a furnished terrace, a pool area with lake views. It’s expensive, even by US standards, but if you want a bit of luxury, this is an ideal place to stay.
- Casa del Mundo: Technically is in neighboring Jaibalito, but it’s one of the best places to stay in Atitlan. Built on a cliffside, Casa del Mundo is one of the most beautiful and secluded hotels in the area, with insane views of the lake and volcanoes. One of the girls I met on the Acatenango hike stayed here and absolutely raved about it!
Things to Do in Lake Atitlan
Visit the villages via boat
There are a dozen towns around the lake, each offering visitors a different experience and vibe. Why not village hop and visit several to get a feel for the unique culture of the area?
Boats are the best way to get around the lake, and you can easily go from one village to another via lanchas, or water taxis. Simply find the dock in town to wait for the next boat, or try to flag one down from the dock in front of your accommodations.
You likely won’t have time to visit all of the villages, but I suggest going to at least a few of them to get a feel for each. This will allow you to see and experience the distinct personalities and identities of each of the villages around the lake.
If you’re limited on time, I suggest hiring a private boat to visit several villages in one trip. This will allow you to see multiple towns without having to wait around for a boat to come to pick you up at each dock. Be sure to agree on a price before you embark on your trip – you may have to haggle a bit.
Another option is to take a full-day boat tour around the lake out of Panajachel. The tour stops at three different towns in Lake Atitlan, including some of the lesser visited gems. The tour will allow you to learn more about the unique culture of Lake Atitlan and about the Mayan tribes that inhabit it.
Soak in heated thermal baths
Going for a soak in Los Termales is one of the most relaxing things to do in Lake Atitlan. These thermal baths are located in San Pedro and are a series of heated outdoor pools overlooking the lake.
They aren’t naturally heated, but it’s still a nice, relaxing activity, whether you want to hang out with friends or are trying to soothe some aching muscles (they are a perfect way to recover from the Acatenango trek!).
It’s especially fun with a group of friends – you can even BYOB.
The baths tend to fill up quickly and they need about 30 minutes to fill up the pool, so you can either WhatsApp them to make a reservation, or swing by and put your name down and come back at a later time. It costs 50Q a person to soak in the baths (or 100Q if you’re solo).
Los Termales is located on one of the side streets of San Pedro. The pathway leading to Los Termales is located near the El Barrio restaurant. Continue down the pathway until you reach the baths.
Visit a weaving collective
This was one of my favorite things that I did while in Lake Atitlan! I’ve always been drawn to the vibrant colors and intricate patterns of traditional Guatemalan textiles, so learning more about them and the process behind making them was a highlight for me.
These weaving collectives date back to the Guatemalan Civil War, when so many men lost their lives, leaving women few options for supporting themselves and their children. In these collectives, women gathered to practice traditional Mayan weaving techniques and to earn a fair wage for their work.
They are an important means for women to support themselves in the community, especially in Lake Atitlan, where much of the population is indigenous and tend to be disproportionately poor.
You’ll find a number of weaving collectives around Lake Atitlan. I visited Casa Flor Ixaco in San Juan, known for their natural thread dyeing techniques. I got a demonstration of both dyeing and weaving processes here, and got to see what materials and tools they use to create these intricate works of art. It was super fascinating!
They also have a shop where you can buy textiles, clothing, accessories, and more. I couldn’t help but pick up a few things to take home! The prices are a bit higher here, but remember that you are supporting these women. Each item comes with a tag with the name and photo of the women who made it, along with what materials were used to dye it.
If you have a bit of extra time in Atitlan, you can also sign up for a weaving class at Teixchel Women’s Weaving Association in San Pedro, where you can learn to make your own creation.You can do a natural dye workshop if you are limited on time, which takes a few hours.
However, if you want to learn to weave a larger project, such as a scarf, do note that this takes a bit of time. A scarf can take all day, and making a table runner take days, so it is sadly not a great option if you only have a few days in Atitlan. You’ll also need to contact them in advance so they can set up the supplies and materials for you.
Go kayaking or SUPing on the lake
One of the best ways to experience the lake is to get out on the water. Therefore, going kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding is one of the most popular Lake Atitlan activities.
It’s also a way to get active on the lake, and a fun way to village hop!
I recommend kayaking or SUPing in the morning, as the waters are at their calmest then. In the afternoon, the wind picks up and it gets *super* choppy out there! For an extra magical experience, go for a paddle at sunrise and you’ll get a breathtaking view of the lake and the sun coming up over the volcanoes.
Many accommodations rent out kayaks and paddleboards, but if not, there are a number of places that rent them out in Santa Cruz, San Marcos, and San Pedro.
If you want to go kayaking with an experienced guide, I recommend this half-day tour, which starts in San Pedro, makes a stop in San Juan, and then at the beach in Las Cristalinas, where you can relax and take in the views.
For a full day of adventurous fun, they also offer a full-day excursion that includes kayaking, swimming in the lake, hiking, rock climbing, archery, and even cliff jumping if you dare. At the end of the day, you’ll be able to relax on the lakeshore and enjoy the views in a hammock.
You can also do a full- or half-day kayaking tour that visits a few of the villages, experience the unique Mayan culture of each, and learn more about the lake’s geology. You’ll learn about fascinating aspects of the local life, from weaving, coffee production, and more. If you’re an adrenaline junkie, there is also an option to go cliff jumping on the tour!
You can also combine kayaking with a sunrise hike to the summit of Indian Nose (more on that later), another one of the most popular things to do in Atitlan, in this tour.
Paraglide over the lake
For one of the most adventurous Lake Atitlan activities, consider going paragliding. Real World Paragliding in Panajachel offers tandem flights over the lake with an experienced pilot, offering an unforgettable experience.
While there are many incredible views of the lake, there’s nothing quite like seeing it from high in the sky. Flying above the lake gives you a true birds-eye perspective! You’ll soar high above the lake, feeling free as a bird, taking in the incredible views of the lake and the surrounding volcanoes.
Flights last about 20-45 minutes, and it costs about 700Q ($90 USD). White it’s one of the most expensive Lake Atitlan experiences, you’ll find that this is about as cheap as it gets for paragliding (comparatively, it costs $200+ in San Diego).
Do note that flights may or may not take place depending on weather and wind conditions. I had this high up on my bucket list, but unfortunately, the wind conditions were just not ideal the entire week I was there (as luck would have it, OF COURSE it was perfect that day I left). I’d love to come back to do this, though (and after going parasailing on Catalina Island, I want to try paragliding even more)!
I do want to say that I was really impressed with the service and communication of Real World Paragliding, and I wholeheartedly recommend them just based on that experience. While sadly my paragliding excursion never took place, they were super communicative, updating me every day with the conditions. I also appreciated that they had safety in mind and wanted to provide the best experience.
Jump into the lake
Lake Atitlan’s bright blue waters are tantalizing – why not jump in and go for a swim in them?
However, do note that some areas of the lake are cleaner than others, and not all of the lake is safe for swimming. Pollution is a problem on the lake, so don’t just jump in anywhere.
In general, stay away from the main docks in the villages, as these tend to be the most polluted. You’ll want to avoid the areas where there is a lot of boat traffic as well – not only because of polluted waters, but also because you don’t want to get hit by one.
You’ll find the cleanest waters away from the main villages (avoid swimming in Pana or San Pedro), or away from the most heavily populated areas in the lake.
San Marcos is said to have the cleanest waters around the lake, especially at the Cerro Taznkujil Natural Reserve (more on that later), which has a platform for jumping into the lake. Some of the other cleaner spots around the lake include Santa Cruz (my friends went swimming from the dock at our Airbnb and loved it!), Jaibalito (especially around Casa del Mundo), and Las Cristalinas beach near San Juan.
Do note that the water is COLD – it’s not like those tropical beach waters, even if the weather seems warm! Also be aware that the lake is DEEP – like, over 300 meters deep – so be sure you’re a good swimmer. The water isn’t that deep around the shores, but tends to drop off quickly and suddenly.
Another thing to be aware of is the toxic algae bloom that occurs every so often. If it’s happening, you’ll know – there will be green stuff in the water and it will smell. Luckily, it doesn’t happen that often, but when it’s there, stay out of the water!
Be sure to also check for rocks before jumping into the lake.
Explore Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve
The Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve is known to be one of the best places to go swimming in Lake Atitlan, thanks to its jumping platform and its rock outcroppings. There is a 12 meter high platform above the waters, and it’s the perfect place to jump in!
Even if you aren’t looking for the adrenaline rush of jumping into the lake from high above, you can lie out here and sunbathe while you people watch and observe the daredevils that do. There are also plenty of entry points into the lake so that you can go for a swim without jumping in.
Aside from that, there are a number of paths round the reserve that offer some stunning views. You’ll find two miradors (or viewpoints) from where you can experience the lake’s beauty and catch views of the surrounding volcanoes and mountains.
It costs just 20Q to enter, and you get in and out privileges.
Hike to Indian Nose at sunrise
Hiking to the summit of Indian Nose (also known as La Nariz del Indio or Rotro Maya) is one of the most popular and adventurous Lake Atitlan activities.
The name comes from the fact that the mountain is said to look like a profile of a human face, with the peak resembling a nose.
A one-hour climb will get you to the summit, from where you will enjoy spectacular views of the lake, the volcanoes, and the villages below. It is especially magical at sunrise, when you see the sun peeking through from behind the volcanoes and casting the view in a golden glow.
Do note that you will likely have to pay an “entrance fee” of sorts, usually around 50Q, to the farmers whose land you pass through while on the hike. Be sure to carry some cash on you for this (but don’t carry too much!).
The hike starts off in San Juan, so it can be difficult to get there for sunrise if you aren’t staying there. For this reason, I suggest booking a tour that includes transport from Panajachel or from San Pedro. Hiking with a guide is also recommended for safety reasons.
If you don’t feel like hiking all the way to the summit, you can also complete part of the hike to the Mirador Kiaq’Aiswaan. You’ll find a giant cross here, which you can see from below in San Juan. The view isn’t as expansive as if you were to go to the summit, but it is still beautiful!
Sadly, I didn’t do the climb this time around because I was still limping around from the Acatenango hike (that trek is no joke, y’all!), but it is definitely at the top of my list for next time! However, a few of the people on my Acatenango trip did it and raved about it, saying that it was absolutely spectacular and one of their favorite experiences in Lake Atitlan!
Climb a volcano
While Acatenango and Fuego may be some of Guatemala’s most famous volcanoes (and can sometimes be seen from Atitlan), it’s not the only ones that it offers. Lake Atitlan is surrounded by three majestic volcanoes that dominate its skyline – Atitlan, Tomilan, and San Pedro.
These volcanoes were formed some 80,000 years ago, when another, even larger volcano erupted and created the massive crater that would eventually become Lake Atitlan.
You can technically climb all three volcanoes, although it is *HIGHLY* recommended that you hire a guide to attempt the trek.
Of the three volcanoes, Volcan San Pedro is the most popular to hike. The volcano stands at over 3000 meters high (almost 10,000 feet), so climbing it is no easy feat, but can be accomplished if you are relatively fit.
Many people take a tuk-tuk to the trailhead (which stands at 1800 meters). From here, you’ll pay a 100Q entrance fee, which also includes a guide.
The highest of the three volcanoes around the lake is Volcan Atitlan, which stands around 3535 meters high (11,600 feet). You’ll definitely need to be in shape to attempt this, as the elevation gain on the hike is around 1600 meters (over 5000 feet).
The hike is grueling and takes 7-9 hours, and you’ll definitely want to hire a guide for this. Be sure to also be prepared, as conditions at the top, as it gets pretty chilly.
NOTE: There have unfortunately been reports of armed robberies on the trails leading up to the volcanoes. For this reason, it is *HIGHY* recommended that you attempt these hikes with a guide. The trails sometimes close because of such incidents, so be aware. You can also ask the locals if it’s safe or not.
Go shopping for traditional handicrafts
Lake Atitlan is known for its traditional handicrafts, featuring traditional Mayan weaving techniques. Its vibrant colors and intricately woven patterns are so beautiful, it is almost impossible to leave without at least bringing a few things home!
San Juan is especially known for its weaving and handicrafts, and you’ll find no shortage of galleries and shops selling woven merchandise, paintings, clothing and accessories, and other souvenirs. However, you’ll find plenty of vendors lining the streets in each of the towns.
Calle Santander in Panajachel is also an excellent place to go shopping for traditional handicrafts and souvenirs. It’s the main drag in Pana, and is lined with hundreds of vendors selling anything and everything from bags, scarves, dresses, blankets, toys, shoes, table runners, and much more.
You’ll find the best prices on Calle Santander. Bargaining is common, but remember to be respectful. Don’t lowball – these people make a very modest living, and work hard. It’s important that they get paid fairly.
Learn about Mayan culture
One of the reasons Lake Atitlan is so intriguing is that it has a predominantly indigenous population, and you can experience many aspects of traditional Mayan culture. It was so cool to observe a bit of the traditional way of life, and to learn more about its traditions!
A place I really enjoyed visiting during my time in Lake Atitlan was the Centro Cultural in Santa Catarina. We stumbled upon it when a woman handed us a flier while we were walking around town, and so glad we found out about it!
Tucked into an alley in Santa Catarina, the Centro Cultural is run by a women’s collective, and offers a free tour. You can see the women practice their weaving, learn about the village’s history and the Kaqchikel people that inhabit it, and even get a traditional fortune telling.
In addition, there’s a small boutique where you can shop for local handicrafts (I picked up a pair of beautiful earrings for 50Q!), as well as a rooftop cafe that offers some stunning views of the blue-painted buildings on the hillsides of Santa Catarina.
It is free to visit the Centro Cultural, but please remember to support them if you visit, whether it’s offering a small donation, buying something in the shop, or getting a drink at the cafe.
For another intriguing look into Mayan life, you can take a cultural tour led by local women in Santa Cruz. In the experience, you’ll be invited into a traditional village home, enjoy an authentic home-cooked Guatemalan lunch, learn about local handicrafts, and relax in a temazcal.
Admire the street art
I always love visiting destinations with a vibrant street art scene (some favorite spots include Lisbon, Nashville, Todos Santos, and Austin), and I was pleasantly surprised that Lake Atitlan was one of them!
You’ll find plenty of murals when walking around Panajachel, San Marcos, and San Pedro, but my favorites were in San Juan, which is also known as the artsy town of the lake.
My favorite murals were on Avenida 5ta, lined with tons of colorfully painted facades and amazing murals. There’s also colorful hats and pompoms hanging above the street, which is super fun!
Get in touch with your spiritual side
Looking to get your chakras balanced? Join a unity circle? A tarot card reading? Get your birth chart done? You can do all that and more in San Marcos.
Lake Atitlan is known for its mythical pull, especially in San Marcos, the village of choice for those looking to get in touch with their spiritual sides. If you’re looking for what to do in Lake Atitlan and want to get in touch with your spiritual side, this is the best village to do so. You’ll find plenty of yoga studios and meditation centers lining the streets, as well as organic cafes and vegan restaurants.
You’ll also find plenty of flyers advertising crystal healing, reiki massages, fire and drum circles, and more.
San Marcos isn’t for everyone (it New Agey-ness was a bit too over the top for me), but it’s definitely unique!
Take a yoga class
Like Sayulita, Mexico and Nosara, Costa Rica, Lake Atitlan is known as one of the top yoga destinations in the world. You’ll find tons of yoga classes, retreats, and teacher trainings around the lake, particularly in San Marcos and Tzununa, although you’ll find classes in several other towns as well.
You’ll get to practice yoga with the stunning backdrop of the lake and volcanoes, which is quite an amazing experience!
You can drop in for a class or two, or you can take a weeks-long or even month-long retreat. Those really wanting to step up their yoga game can sign up for teacher training as well.
Take Spanish lessons
Lake Atitlan is one of the best places in Central America to learn Spanish. This is the best of what to do in Lake Atitlan for those looking to improve their Spanish skills! You’ll find a number of Spanish schools around the lake, particularly in San Pedro, and you can sign up for some drop-in classes, or do a full homestay experience.
Visitors from all over the world come to Lake Atitlan to learn and improve their Spanish language skills. Lake Atitlan is a popular destination for this because classes are very affordable, and locals have a more clear and easy-flowing way of speaking Spanish than in other Latin American countries (which tend to speak super fast).
A friend of mine did a homestay with Lake Atitlan Spanish School in San Pedro and really raved about it! She paid about $200 USD for a week of Spanish lessons and a stay with a local family. You get four hours of Spanish classes with a private teacher, then have the rest of the day to explore. Meals are included, and there are gatherings with other participants in the program. It’s an awesome way to see Lake Atitlan, and to immerse yourself in local culture.
She said it was a fantastic experience to experience authentic local life and that her Spanish improved tremendously!
Doing a homestay is also a wonderful way to support the local families, many of which use the money earned to send their children to school.
Admire the blue buildings of Santa Catarina Palopo
Of all of the villages in Lake Atitlan, Santa Catarina Palopo was one of my absolute favorites. Known as the “blue town,” all the buildings in town are painted in varying shades of blue, adorned with traditional Mayan motifs picked out by each family.
It is not only highly Instagrammable, it’s got an amazing purpose behind it. Painting the town’s buildings blue was part of an initiative to revitalize the town and promote tourism. This in turn helped stimulate the local economy, helping bring families out of poverty.
The result is a vibrant, colorful village, full of Kaqchikel Mayan culture and natural beauty. You can see the various shades of blues up on the hillsides, and it makes an incredible sight, especially with the lake as a backdrop.
To learn more about the project and the motifs painted on the buildings, stop by Pintado el Cambio. Here, you’ll find a museum and showroom that explains the meaning behind the various colors, shapes, and symbols on the buildings in town, which are inspired by traditional huipiles.
Enjoy a meal at Cafe Sabor Cruceño
On the hillsides of Santa Cruz la Laguna, you’ll spot a yellow building with the letters “CECAP” emblazoned on it. Here, you’ll find one of the best places to eat in Lake Atitlan at Cafe Sabor Cruceño.
If the building looks more like a school than a restaurant to you, well, that’s because it is. The food at Cafe Sabor Cruceño is made by students that are a part of Amigos de Santa Cruz, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of the indigenous population by giving them skills and on-the-job training.
Some of the marketable skills taught here include cooking, weaving, and sewing (there is also a small shop that sells handicrafts made by the students).
At Cafe Sabor Cruceño, the students are your chefs and servers, and they do an amazing job! The food is absolutely delicious and the service is impeccable.
Not only that, you’ll find one of the best views in Lake Atitlan, which makes the perfect backdrop as you enjoy a delicious meal!
Wander a local market
I always love wandering around local markets when traveling, as they give such a fascinating look into local life. This is especially true in Guatemala and it’s one of the most unique things to do in Lake Atitlan, as it’s an amazing way to observe daily Mayan life and culture.
Each of the villages have their own market, although San Pedro and Panajachel have some of the biggest markets. A friend of mine also went to the market in Santiago Atitlan and loved how authentic it was.
You’ll find vendors selling anything and everything from fresh produce, meats, spices, handicrafts, and much more.
You can also visit the market in the nearby town of Solola, located 15 minutes away from Lake Atitlan via chicken bus. You can also take this market and village culture tour that leaves out of Pana, where you’ll visit the famous market in Solola, and learn more about the indigenous culture of the Guatemalan highlands.
Take a day trip to Chichicastenango Market
And speaking of markets, Chichicastenango (or Chichi for short) is the most famous market in Guatemala, and one of the largest in Central America.
If you happen to be in town on a Thursday or Sunday, its market days, then definitely consider taking a day trip to the Chichicastenango Market.
Locals from nearby towns flock to the market to sell their wares, which include anything and everything from fresh produce, chickens, wooden boxes, flowers, traditional textiles, paintings, medicinal plants, and much more.
Chichi is located about 1.5-2 hours away from Lake Atitlan, and if you’re feeling adventurous, you can take the chicken bus there. However, the easiest way to get there is via a tourist shuttle from Pana on Guatego.
Learn something new at a museum
Looking to learn more about Lake Atitlan, the people who inhabit it, and the geology of the lake? Head on over to one of its museums.
Here are some museums to visit when visiting Lake Atitlan:
- Museo Lacustre Atitlan: This small museum in Panajachel tells the story of the history and geology of the lake, displaying various Mayan artifacts. There is also an exhibit here dedicated to Sambaj, a submerged Mayan archaeological site in Atitlan, which I found to be super interesting.
- Tzunun’Ya Museum: Located in San Pedro, this museum is dedicated to the history, geology, and the cultures you’ll encounter around the lake. You’ll learn about how San Pedro has changed over time, how the volcanoes and the lake came to be, and about the Tz’utujil Maya people who make up the majority population of Lake Atitlan.
Go gallery hopping
While Lake Atitlan is especially known for its Mayan weaving and textiles, that isn’t the only form of art on display around the lake.
You’ll also find art galleries displaying traditional Mayan painting techniques. San Juan is especially known for this, but I’ve also spotted galleries while walking around in San Pedro and Pana. Two notable galleries to check out are Galeria de Arte Chiya and Galeria Imox.
Not only are the works incredibly beautiful, they also depict local affairs and historical events, which provides a bit of interesting insight into Mayan life and culture.
You can pop into these galleries and admire the talent and skill of the local Mayan artists and take a beautiful souvenir home. Or, you can also try your hand at creating your own special creation, as some galleries also offer painting classes.
Take a cooking class
One of the best ways to get immersed in the local culture is to take a cooking class. You’ll learn more about the local cuisine and food culture, and to cook some of the most popular Guatemalan dishes.
Guatemalan cuisine has roots in Mayan culture, along with colonial influences, with unique flavors, textures, and ingredients. In this 4-hour Guatemalan cooking class, you’ll learn to make three authentic Guatemalan foods (like pepian), and learn more about its ingredients and influences.
You’ll then get to enjoy the fruits of your labor with a tasty lunch in a beautiful location overlooking the lake.
They even give you a recipe book so you can recreate the dishes when you get home!
Visit a chocolate factory
Chocolate is one of Guatemala’s main exports, so obviously, visiting a chocolate factory is one of the best things to do in Lake Atitlan!
At Licor Marron Chocolate, you can get a free demonstration on how chocolate is produced, and learn about cacao and how it is turned into a bar of chocolate. If you’re looking for a more in-depth experience, they offer workshops and classes as well.
They also have a shop with tons of chocolate products from bars, drink mixes, and more, which make the perfect souvenirs to take home!
You can also sample some chocolate, and order a drink in their cafe. They have hot chocolate, or even iced chocolate beverages, which I thought was absolutely delicious on a warm day!
Attend a cacao ceremony
Long before cacao beans were used to create chocolate, it was used for ritualistic purposes by the Mayans. The word cacao translates into “food of the gods,” and Mayans believed that it had magical powers in its rawest form.
By participating in a cacao ceremony, you’ll get to observe one of the most sacred traditions in Mayan culture. The celebratory ritual is intended to open up the heart, mind, and spirit, releasing negative energy and opening up the spirit.
A cacao ceremony can be a more relaxed experience, where participants dance, drink chocolate, and do some guided exercises together; or, it can be more of an intense spiritual meditation and reflection.
You’ll find cacao ceremonies that take place all over the lake, but it is especially popular in San Marcos. You’ll find fliers and signs advertising cacao ceremonies all over town. Or, you can take part in a cacao ceremony led by Keith, a Cacao Shaman and a local legend of sorts.
Try Guatemalan coffee
Guatemala is known to have some of the best coffee in the world, thanks to its rich volcanic soil that allows the cacao plant to thrive. You’ll find the highlights above Lake Atitlan covered in coffee plantations and fields.
Therefore, it’s a must to sample some Guatemalan coffee in Lake Atitlan! I highly recommend stopping in at one of Atitlan’s cafes to sample some local brews. Here are some of the best to check out:
- Crossroads Cafe (Panajachel): This place is a bit of a local legend. They’ve built a whole community around the cafe, and it’s truly something special. Having coffee here is like visiting old friends – the vibe is friendly and homey. The original owners have moved on, but the new owners carry on the same feeling, and you’ll enjoy talking to them as you sip your cup of coffee – which is also amazing, by the way (and roasted in-house).
- Cafe Las Cristalinas (San Pedro): You’ll find some of the best coffee around at Cafe Las Cristalinas, not only in Atitlan but in the world. Stop in for a cup of coffee (also roasted in-house), and watch the flurry of activity down on the street below. If you want to take it a step further, ask about their coffee tours to their plantation – you can either do a tour on foot, or on horseback.
- Cafe Las Marias (San Juan): San Juan is especially known for their nearby coffee plantations, and you can find some amazing freshly roasted coffee at Cafe Las Marias. It’s a bit hidden and tiny, but they have a nice terrace with an amazing view over the lake!
- Cooperative La Voz (San Juan): Stop for one of their two cafes in San Juan – one near the dock, and one on the way to the Mirador. Or, you can take a full-day coffee tour, head to the plantations, and then about the roasting process. They also offer a shorter tour with a demonstration of their in-house roasting techniques.
Sweat in a traditional Temazcal
Sitting in a traditional Temazcal is not only one of the most relaxing Lake Atitlan activities, it’s one of the most culturally enlightening Mayan experiences.
So what is a Temazcal? Think of it sort of like a Guatemalan sauna.
It’s housed in a low, rounded structure made of stones and clay. You crouch to enter, and once inside, you are surrounded by moist, warm, darkness, meant to resemble a womb. In the middle burns a fire under large, smooth stones, which you throw water over to create steam.
The Temazcal serves several purposes, including bathing for health, finding spiritual enlightenment, and medicinal healing. Basically, the idea is to sweat out your impurities.
Apparently shamans would even stay in a Temazcal until they saw visions of spirits.
Well, I can’t say that I had any visions while sitting in a Temazcal. But, I found it to be a relaxing activity after a busy day of exploring Lake Atitlan.
You’ll find a Temazcal at some accommodations (including at our Airbnb). You can also take part in a Temazcal ceremony offered by Doron Yoga in Tzununa.
Visit a historic church
Religion plays an important part in Guatemalan culture, so you’ll find churches all over the country. Lake Atitlan is no different.
Most of the towns have their own churches, but one of the best to visit is the Iglesia Catolica de San Pedro la Laguna. The all-white church stands out in contrast to the colorful town and its people. The church has been destroyed by earthquakes and rebuilt several times over the years, and now stands proudly in the center of town.
While the outside of the church is pretty, the interior is also beautiful and worth a look as well.
The church sits behind Parque Hermosa, a beautiful green space in the middle of the bustling town. You’ll find greenery and a bit of peace and tranquility, away from the craziness down below near the docks.
It’s also an ideal spot to people-watch and to observe a slice of local life. You’ll also find some vendors selling street food, handicrafts, and more.
Another one of Lake Atitlan’s most iconic churches is Iglesia Parroquial Santiago Apostolis in Santiago Atitlan. Built in the 16th century, it is the oldest and most important building in town.
What’s interesting about this church is that you can see a confluence of Catholic and Mayan influences here – for example, the statues of Christian saints are dressed in Mayan clothing. The church is also used for both Christian and Mayan rituals as well.
Learn about medicinal plants
Mayans have been using natural plants and herbs for their healing properties for thousands of years.
At Plantas Medicinales Mayab, you can learn more about how the Tz’utujil still use plants and herbs to treat various ailments. You can take a look at the medicinal plants and herbs that grow in their gardens, and get a demonstration of how these are made into various creams, medicines, and soaps, all of which are for sale in their shop.
Learn about beekeeping
Confession: I am *deathly* afraid of bees. Like, every time I see one, I run away screaming. (The funny thing is, I’ve never actually been stung by one haha.)
Apparently though, Guatemala is home to 33 species (!!!) of stingless bees. These bees still do the important task of pollination and also produce honey, with a unique flavor profile.
You can learn more about these bees and the entire process of how they produce honey and other honey-infused products at Xunah Kaab in San Juan. The 45 minute tour is free, but donations/purchases are appreciated.
Watch the sunset
The sunsets in Lake Atitlan are absolutely MAGICAL.
Seeing the lake with its volcanoes, as the sky turns various shades of orange, is absolutely breathtaking. I couldn’t help but stop and watch the sunset every single night that I was in Lake Atitlan – they are truly spectacular and should not be missed!
While I don’t think there’s a *bad* sunset spot in Lake Atitlan, I loved watching the sunset from the boardwalk (at the end of Calle Santander) in Pana, and from the lakeshore of Santa Cruz.
Savor the slow life
When figuring out what to do in Lake Atitlan, don’t forget to leave time to embrace the slower pace of life that the area is known for.
Life moves slower in Lake Atitlan. While it may be tempting to cram your itinerary full of activities (there are TONS of things to do in Lake Atitlan, after all!), be sure to set aside some time to relax and enjoy the beautiful scenery.
Some of my favorite memories of Lake Atitlan are doing just that – slow mornings in our Airbnb, savoring our morning coffee and taking in the views; relaxing with a glass of wine while enjoying the sunset.
It will make you appreciate the little things, and see exactly what makes Lake Atitlan special!
Have you ever been to Lake Atitlan? What are some of your favorite things to do in Lake Atitlan?
More Guatemala content you may enjoy:
A Complete 7 Day Guatemala Itinerary
The Ultimate Guide to the Towns Around Lake Atitlan
26 Amazing Things to Do in Antigua, Guatemala
Everything You Need to Know About the Acatenango Volcano Hike
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