Boat docks, San Marcos (visit Lake Atitlan)

Boat docks, San Marcos La Laguna


Lake Atitlan (called Lago de Atitlán in Spanish) and its dozen or so surrounding towns and villages constitute one of the most popular destinations in Guatemala. When you see that cobalt-blue lake with its trio of volcanoes on the horizon, you understand why. It’s just gorgeous.

The problem for most visitors is deciding where to base themselves and how to organize their visit to Lake Atitlan. Unless you stick around for a couple of weeks, you won’t have time to visit all the towns. This post is my attempt to help you organize your stay.

How many days should you stay at Lake Atitlan?

How long should you dedicate to visiting Lake Atitlan? Some people only stay a couple of nights, but that isn’t long enough in my opinion. One of the reasons for coming to the lake is to relax. I would suggest basing yourself in one of the towns, and visiting some of the others as day trips. If you have at least a week, you could even base yourself in two different towns.

If you’re here solely for sightseeing, four days to a week might be a good length of time. Some people come and stay for weeks at a time though, to practice yoga or meditation, especially in the village of San Marcos. Some other long term travellers come to study Spanish, or get involved in aid projects.

Waterfront, Panajachel (visit Lake Atitlan)

Waterfront with view of the three volcanoes, Panajachel

How to travel to Lake Atitlan

As far as I know, there are only two ways to travel overland between towns and cities in Guatemala: chicken buses and tourist shuttles.

The so-called “chicken buses” are refurbished American school buses that have been painted bright colours. I didn’t see any chickens on them, but they are mostly used by locals. They are considered unsafe not only because of their dubious mechanical condition, but also because they are the target of pick-pockets and other criminal element.

Most foreign travellers use tourist shuttles, which operate between the most popular destinations. Several companies offer this service, using mini buses that fit about 14 passengers. All the luggage (except for a small personal item) goes on the roof rack.

The group shuttles generally go several times during the day and offer hotel pick up and drop off, and their fees are reasonable. They might also offer private transport, but this is quite a bit more expensive.

Guatemala City to Lake Atitlan

From Guatemala City and GUA airport, group shuttles stop operating around 2 PM. If you arrive later than this, you will probably need to request private transport. In that case, it may be more economical to travel to Antigua first and then to Lake Atitlan on a different day, in a group shuttle.

All the shuttles stop in Antigua to drop off and pick up passengers, so this will easily add half an hour to your trip. From the airport, the ride takes about 4.5 hours, more if leaving from the city centre. The group shuttles will cost about US$25 per person. (Some companies are recommended below.)

A chicken bus in Guatemala. Better avoided. (visit Lake Atitlan)

A chicken bus in Guatemala. Better avoided.

Antigua to Lake Atitlan

Tourist shuttles take between 2.5 to 3 hours to go from Antigua to Lake Atitlan, with a short bathroom stop midway if needed. How long you’re in the van depends whether you’re picked up first or last, as it could take half an hour or more for the driver to pick up all the passengers. Don’t expect a half-full vehicle either. I used them on three different occasions with three different companies, and they were always full.

The cost will be about US$15 and you should book at least one day in advance, although I’d recommend three days if possible because these shuttle fill up fast. You can either book online or at their office in town. I actually found the latter to be more straightforward.

To go from Antigua to Panajachel (main town on Lake Atitlan) I used a company I found online called Transport Guatemala. Their van had no AC, and no working seat belts. They were also late picking me up because of traffic delays, but the drive was relaxing.

To go back from Panajachel to Antigua I used ATI Trans, which had an office right on the main street. Their van was more luxurious (read “working seat belts”) but I found that the driver took the curves a little fast.

A Viajar Guatemala is another good company that I used. In their case, they had AC but I couldn’t get my seatbelt unstuck to use it. Antigua Tours is also recommended although they only have one departure a day in each direction. (Well, you’re in a third world country, so nothing is perfect.) I used their private transport from GUA to Antigua and it was very good.

If you get nervous waiting at your hotel for the transport, you can also tell them that you will board at the starting point, which is usually the company’s local office.

The road between Antigua and Panajachel is smooth, but you are traversing a mountainous area so there are lots of curves. You may wish to take some medication if you are very sensitive to motion sickness.

Waterfront, Panajachel (visit Lake Atitlan)

Southern boat docks, Panajachel

If you are not staying in Panajachel, but in another town around the lake, you will need to take a boat to your final destination. Your shuttle should take you to the docks. The boats only operate during daylight hours (see below).

Note: A Viajar Guatemala offers shuttles from Antigua directly to San Marcos or San Pedro but due to possible safety and security issues (there have been accidents and robberies on that route) I’d personally choose the boat option.

Where to stay on Lake Atitlan

Where you stay on Lake Atitlan depends both on your personality and what kind of vacation you envision at the lake.


Panajachel (or Pana for short) is the main town on the lake and the easiest point of access from other cities in Guatemala.

Pana has all the services you may need (including ATMs), as well as grocery stores and plenty of restaurants and coffee shops. (Scroll to the bottom of this post for recommendations.) It also has the most boats departing for other points along the lake.

Calle Santander, Panajachel (visit Lake Atitlan)

Calle Santander, Panajachel

Because I was planning to stay and visit Lake Atitlan for over a week, I wanted to be close to the food. I also knew some people who were going to be there at the same time, which helped clinch my decision. And I figured that it would be a good base to visit other towns on the lake, which it was.

Another benefit I didn’t realize until I started exploring the area is that most towns around the lake are set on a very steep incline. You could find yourself huffing and puffing your way up less than a 100 metres from the shore, or having to rely on tuk-tuks if you’re not in great shape. Pana by contrast is flat all the way from the shore to the main road (about a kilometre further) and beyond.

If your plans include eating out, drinking coffee, shopping, and day trips around the lake, consider Panajachel. What I didn’t enjoy about Pana are the constant haranguing from handicraft sellers, even while I sat down to enjoy a meal. There are also a lot of stray dogs in Pana and they walk into restaurants as well.

Waterfront promenade, Panajachel (visit Lake Atitlan)

Waterfront promenade, Panajachel

The traffic (mostly tuk-tuks and motorcycles) is not too crazy, especially if you’re used to living in a city. A nice tiled walkway with benches skirts the lake providing beautiful views of the water and volcanoes (and sunset views too).

San Pedro

Across the lake from Pana, San Pedro La Laguna is the other “big” town on Lake Atitlan. It has the reputation of being a backpacker and nightlife enclave. I was there during the day so can’t say anything about the nightlife. The street that runs along the lake seems to cater mostly to visitors and offers views of the lake from the small eateries. There is no open walkway along the lake like in Pana though. Besides, you can’t see the volcanos from San Pedro because they are behind you.

I climbed up the steep grade to find out what else was in this town. To be honest, I didn’t find it very attractive with all the electric cables hanging overhead and its rather ramshackle buildings. It looked dilapidated compared to Panajachel.

San Pedro La Laguna (visit Lake Atitlan )

San Pedro La Laguna, Lake Atitlan

The exception was the fenced-off Parque Municipal with its green lawns, white church and colourful statue of San Pedro. It’s so clean, freshly painted and well-manicured that you feel like you’ve stepped into a different town! On the way there from the docks, you’ll also pass the Primera Iglesia Bautista, which is what a church would look like if it was a wedding cake.

Statue of San Pedro in San Pedro Municipal Park (visit Lake Atitlan )

Statue of San Pedro in San Pedro Municipal Park

San Pedro has a few small grocery stores.

San Marcos

San Marcos La Laguna is peaceful and mostly traffic-free and exudes a unique vibe. If you like yoga, meditation, crystals, reiki, or anything New Age, this could be the place for you.

From the docks, a narrow path overhung by trees takes you past massage parlours, tattoo places, small restaurants and cafes, and the occasional tour agency or even cooking school. At the end of the path, a road climbs up steeply to the village proper where most of the locals live. It’s quiet and sedate with great views over Lake Atitlan.

Tourist area, San Marcos (visit Lake Atitlan)

Tourist area, San Marcos

I met Cara (pictured above), another middle-age Canadian blogger, during my time at the lake. After staying in this town for three weeks, here are her impressions of San Marcos.

Santa Cruz

If you’re looking for complete relaxation rather than sightseeing and doing yoga, Santa Cruz may be for you. As you come off the boat, you‘ll see a beautiful hostel called La Iguana Perdida right in front of you. I liked the atmosphere and the lake views, and had a wonderful pineapple and avocado shake in their restaurant. The village itself is a strenuous walk (or a tuk-tuk ride) up a zig-zagging paved road.

Hostel La Iguana Perdida, Santa Cruz (visit Lake Atitlan)

Hostel La Iguana Perdida, Santa Cruz

Road climbing up to the village of Santa Cruz (visit Lake Atitlan)

Road climbing up to the village of Santa Cruz

The main reason to go up there is a restaurant called Cafe Sabor Cruceño in the yellow CECAP building (which you’ll see clearly as you ascend). This restaurant is a community project run by local students who are learning to cook typical Guatemalan dishes for tourists. The views from their terrace are stupendous (although it can be a tad windy).

Terrace at Cafe Sabor Cruceño, Santa Cruz (visit Lake Atitlan)

Terrace at Cafe Sabor Cruceño, Santa Cruz

If you like hiking, you can do a short hike from Santa Cruz to the tiny village of Jaibalito. The walk should take between a half hour and an hour, depending how fast you walk and how often you stop to take pictures and admire the lake views!

The walk is on a narrow dirt trail with some loose rocks and the occasional scrambling. I was led to believe that I could do it in canvas sneakers, but this was a mistake. Wear thick sole runners or hiking shoes, preferably with some ankle support. Also, there are sections that are open to sheer unprotected drops, so probably not recommended for people with vertigo.

To tell you the truth, I didn’t like Jaibalito at all. For starters, it was full of stray dogs and they seemed aggressive. I didn’t see any tourists, and the local kids were all staring at me, asking where I was going. The whole thing put me on edge.

If you don’t want to be in a town, there are several places to stay along the lake near Santa Cruz such as  Free Cerveza (a tented site popular with young backpackers), 3-star hotels La Casa Rosa and Isla Verde, and more upscale La Casa del Mundo.

How to visit other villages around Lake Atitlan

Small covered motor boats called lanchas stop at various towns and villages around the lake. They mainly start from Panajachel and San Pedro.

Panajachel has two boat docks (embarcaderos): one at the north side of town at the end of Calle del Embarcadero which serves the towns on the northern shore of the lake (travelling counter-clockwise), and another to the south, at the end of Calle del Rio, which serves towns to the east and south. (I didn’t use this latter one, so the information below is for the northern embarcadero.)

Boat dock, Panajachel (visit Lake Atitlan)

Northern boat docks, Panajachel

You’ll be approached by guys as you near the docks asking where you’re going or naming towns. I ignored them and went straight to the docks before asking for my destination. The main thing to know is that some boats (on the right hand side) stop at every town and even some properties in between, while others (on the left hand side) go directly to San Pedro (lanchas directa).

An old expat guy I talked too also mentioned that the boats are run by two different indigenous groups, who live on opposite sides of the lake. One is apparently more organized than the other, running on a schedule, while the other isn’t. I didn’t see a schedule posted anywhere mind you, and often the boats only seem to leave once full. Expect to wait 5 to 20 minutes between the time you sit in a boat and the time it leaves. The centre of the boat is probably the best place to sit to avoid being splashed. By afternoon, the wind tends to pick up and the lake gets rougher.

If the lake is rough and the boat is speeding, it starts bouncing and slamming on the water which can be really hard on the body. If this happens, grab the edge of the seat to keep your body connected to the boat, and maybe sit on a safety vest for cushioning.

Fares vary from 10 to 25Q and you pay as you get off the boat. Here’s a list of boat fares (Pana to San Marcos should be 20Q, not 25Q though). By the way, you’ll rarely be offered a hand getting on or off the boat, but ask someone if you don’t feel steady. I was told that climbing from the front is easier than from the back. Be careful.

Tuk-tuks in San Pedro (visit Lake Atitlan )

Tuk-tuks in San Pedro

Within the towns, or between nearby towns like San Juan and San Pedro, you can use tuk-tuks to get around, but negotiate the price before climbing in. It shouldn’t be more than 5 or 10Q for 2 or 3 kilometres.

Things to do on Lake Atitlan

The best thing to do when visiting Lake Atitlan is find a spot (preferably with a coffee or a beer) and stare at the lake with its surrounding volcanoes and mountains. If you’re looking for something a little more active though, you could:

Kayak rental, Panajachel (visit Lake Atitlan)

Kayak rental, Panajachel

  • Rent a kayak in Panajachel (25Q per person per hour) and enjoy being “on” the lake. (The waters are calmer in the morning.)
  • Shop for handicrafts along the main street (Calle Santander) in Panajachel and in the Handicraft Market (across from the ChocoMuseum).
  • If you’re really into textiles, visit the Casa Flor Ixcaco Weaving Cooperative in San Juan.
  • Have lunch with a view at Cafe Sabor Cruceño in Santa Cruz
  • Hike to Santa Catarina from Panajachel, or to Jaibalito from Santa Cruz. It’s a good idea to enquire locally about the safety of any hike, especially if walking alone.
  • Take a dip in the infinity pool at Club Ven Aca (in Jaibalito) and buy a drink at the swim-up bar. No entry fee. Closed on Monday and Tuesday.
  • Take a chocolate-making tour at Licor Marrón Chocolate Factory in San Juan.
  • Take a yoga class, have a massage or get a temporary (or permanent!) tattoo in San Marcos
  • Hike to Indian’s Nose
  • Take a Spanish class in San Pedro or Panajachel
Part of the hiking trail between Santa Cruz and Jaibalito (visit Lake Atitlan )

Part of the hiking trail between Santa Cruz and Jaibalito

If you want something more structured and organized, you can sign up for a coffee tour, hiking tour (including up Volcan San Pedro), boat tour, workshop, and more, from one of the agencies. I didn’t participate in any organized activity but you can check out one of these these sites for tour ideas:

(Note: I cannot vouch for any of the companies on these sites. This is for reference only.)

Where to eat (and drink coffee) in Panajachel

Since I was based in Panajachel for 9 days, this is mostly where I had my meals.

(At the time of writing 1 Quetzal (Q) is worth about US$0.13 or CA$0.17.)

Set lunch at Cafe El Cisne, Panajachel (visit Lake Atitlan )

Set lunch at Cafe El Cisne, Panajachel

My recommended Panajachel restaurants

  • Almendros Supermarket & Cafe (set lunch and dinner for 35Q – also breakfast)
  • Cafe El Cisne (set lunch for 30Q)
  • Deli Llama de Fuego (huge and varied drink concoctions, and everything from soups and salads to Mexican, Italian and Asian-inspired dishes – 35-70Q for mains)
  • Lazzaroni and Ricassoli Pizza: affiliated restaurants with the same pizza menu (48-60Q for a small pizza)
  • Creperie Pti’ Breizh (crepes and waffles – their eggs and avocado waffle is huge!)
  • Sandra’s Health Food Store (grocery store that makes big deli sandwiches)
  • Dolce Gelato (gelato – owner is Italian)
  • Guajimbo’s (Uruguyan Parilla – steakhouse). Pricier but you can get Chilean wine and tender steaks. No dogs or sellers allowed. Live music at night.)

My recommended Panajachel coffee shops

A cappuccino (my coffee drink of choice) will cost you between 12 and 15Q.

Cafe Loco, Panajachel (visit Lake Atitlan)

Cafe Loco, Panajachel

  • Cafe Loco (probably the best, tastiest coffee in town. Korean-owned!)
  • Crossroads (talkative owner Mike, who’s the main attraction of this place, wants to sell after 19 years, so not sure how it will change)
  • Te Quiero (A large and quiet room to work or study. Good espresso.)
  • Cafe Asawa-ko (In the Hotel Dos Mundos building. Delicious cakes. Check out the upstairs.)
Cafe Asawa-ko, Panajachel (visit Lake Atitlan)

Cafe Asawa-ko, Panajachel

Is Lake Atitlan safe?

The above is what I could gather from a 9-day visit to Lake Atitlan. I didn’t experience any safety issues during my stay, but I was very careful, didn’t go out late at night, and asked locally before hiking alone. Here is the perspective of a long-term expat if you’re looking for more insight.

Happy Travels!

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