(This is a guest post by Iva Ursano – see her bio at the end.)

When I decided to leave Sudbury in Northern Ontario for warmer climates, I honestly had no clue where to go. I knew it was going to be Central America. I had already been to Costa Rica and as lovely as it is, I found it to be too hot and too expensive for my small budget. A tea leaf reader I hooked up with suggested Guatemala. Strangely enough, it wasn’t even on my top-5 list.

Guatemala it would be then. I did a tiny bit of research (emphasis on tiny) and through the magazine International Living, chose the Lake Atitlan area, and the town I now call home: Panajachel. I joined a couple of Facebook groups, asked a few questions, made a couple of good friends there, and off I went.

I honestly didn’t know what to expect and was almost prepared for just about anything. Almost.

Lake Atitlan near Panajachel with boats ready to go

Lake Atitlan near Panajachel, with boats that will take you to other towns around the lake

I’ve been down here now for almost three years, when my trip was only supposed to last five months. I’ve fallen in love with every single thing here, especially the climate, the people, and the freedom.

My friends and family back home ask me many questions about the living conditions in Panajachel such as costs, safety, and why I’m so happy. Here is the breakdown.

The town of Panajachel

Panajachel is one of a dozen towns and villages around Lake Atitlan, one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. Surrounded by three volcanoes and lush mountains, it’s pure paradise, with the perfect climate, and sunsets that take your breath away.

Panajachel is the best-equipped town, as we have two “major” grocery stores, two “gringo” grocery stores, and several clinics, dentists, and doctors. Many people come from around the lake to shop and attend doctor’s appointments. There is a healthy mix of indigenous people, Latinos, and expats, but it can be quite touristy between December and April.

Sunset in Panajachel

Sunset in Panajachel

Cost of living in Panajachel

(All amounts below are in Canadian dollars. CA$1 = US$0.77 as of September 2018.)

Accommodation

Though I’ve always had an apartment here, you can get a dorm bed in a decent hostel for about $10 a night. Private rooms with bath for a single person start at around $15. Apartments range from as low as $140/month, which really just gets you a private room and sometimes a private bathroom, to as high as $500/month. The latter are usually 2+ bedrooms with all the trimmings like a washer/dryer, nice fridge and stove, and other first world luxuries.

Food

You can have a wonderful meal at any restaurant for around $10-$15, or if you prefer something fancier, you can pay up to $40 or more at our top restaurant. A margarita can run you $4-$7 while a beer is $2.50. These differ slightly depending on where you go. Every place has happy hour!

Market/produce shopping is wonderful. A pineapple is 87 cents and other fruits cost about the same price. Butchers ask for around $5 for a pound of ground beef and about $4 for two pounds of chicken.

Transportation

It’s ridiculously easy to get around. A tuk tuk anywhere within the town is 87 cents and there are plenty to be found. You can take a chicken bus for about $4 to the closest city, two hours away from the lake, which has two shopping malls and a Walmart! It will cost you approximately $10-$15 to go to Guatemala City, which is about five hours away, depending on traffic and road conditions. During rainy season, road washouts are quite common.

Chicken buses in the city of Quetzaltenango (Xela) two hours from Panajachel

Chicken buses in Quetzaltenango (Xela), the nearest big city, two hours from Panajachel

You can also grab a public shuttle van to get to just about any place you want to go, even the ocean, which is about 5 hours away. Shuttles are a little more expensive but still reasonable, costing $30 to get to Guatemala City.

Many people take boats to other towns around the lake for many different reasons. Each town has its own vibe and lure. You can get a boat for $4.50 for a 30-minute ride. One thing to note is that you can’t rent cars or scooters here. I found one place that does rent scooters, but they are really small and not something I’d take on a road trip.

Safety in Panajachel

There is still so much controversy about the safety of travelling in Guatemala, especially as a solo female traveler. First and foremost, the same common sense you would use in North America applies here. Don’t walk alone late at night and don’t get into cars with strangers.

Now that we got that out of the way …

The town I live in is ridiculously safe. The only crimes that have been committed in the time I’ve been here have involved locals. However, with that said, I know there have been reports of carjacking and robberies on the back roads. Yes that’s happened. I’m not sure how often but it’s not a common occurrence. Traveling at night is not recommended at all. It’s best to travel during the day anyway, so you can take in all the beauty!

No one wants to hurt you here. They love the expats because we support the economy.

Lake Atitlan: viewpoint on Godinez to Panajachel road

Lake Atitlan: viewpoint on the Godinez to Panajachel road

Sightseeing and adventures

Zip lining, paragliding, and volcano climbing are the top travellers’ adventures, but you can ride two hours out of town to see some amazing Mayan ruins. Other towns around the lake offer tours of chocolate making ‘factories’ (yum), coffee making, and fabric dyeing, just to name a few.

Like any other place, the Lake Atitlan region is not perfect and does have its downsides. Stray dogs are everywhere. There is garbage on the streets. And finding some first world stuff can be difficult. If you can handle that, you’ll love it here!


About the author:

Iva Ursano is a former hairstylist of 25+ years turned freelance writer, motivator, and Angel Card Reader from Sudbury Ontario, who got rid of 53 years of her life for the complete unknown in Guatemala. Her mission is two-fold: help people live a life they deserve and feed hungry bellies. You can follow her on her Facebook page Amazing Me Movement or her website of the same name.


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