Riding down the steep and windy road towards Lago de Atitlan (Lake Atitlan), we were filled with excitement to explore more of the small villages that are dotted around Central America’s largest lake. We were descending into the valley toward the lake once again, after climbing out of the valley on the eastern side just that morning.
We spent a few nights on the luminous lake in the village of Panajachel. It is a bustling village built on the eastern side of Lake Atitlan. We had experienced the wonder of a Central American Christmas Eve and had spent the night watching with a childlike excitement as the lake lit up with fireworks, and the town celebrated the beginning of Christmas Day.
There are roads and hiking routes that lead between the villages around the lake which don’t require you to make the massive climb out, and then back in, to the valley. However, the road between Panajachel and San Pedro would have taken us around the south side of the lake, through the villages of San Lucas Toliman and Santiago Atitlan. And it was this very route that we had been told by many other travelers and locals to avoid. ‘Robbers Highway’ is known for banditos who rob passersby. Locals told us to make sure we had a police escort if we chose to ride this way. We decided to avoid any potential trouble and take the northern, and much longer, the route to the western side of the lake.
Lago de Atitlan is in the southwestern highlands of Guatemala, approximately 150km (by road) from the popular city of Antigua. The lake was formed during an enormous volcanic eruption and is surrounded by three towering volcanoes – Volcan San Pedro, Volcan Atitlan and Volcan Toliman.
Lago de Atitlan has been described by many as one of the world’s most beautiful lakes. Riding down the steep road into San Pedro La Laguna, we could certainly see why. The vistas were heartbreakingly beautiful with the deep blue waters of the lake, the cloud-swept sky and the powerful volcanoes standing guard over it all.
The area is still populated by Mayan people. The cultural immersion is a key attraction for travelers and tourists alike. The lake, with a backdrop of the volcanoes, has a presence – one which is difficult to describe other than it exudes a sense of knowing, of understanding, of being.
Spending time on this majestic lake is a must for anyone visiting Guatemala, but it’s not just about admiring the beauty of the lake from afar. There is plenty to keep your mind and body active!
1. Study Spanish
Learning another language can be challenging, but oh so rewarding. I always find such joy in attempting to interact with local people in their own language. Even if you butcher the pronunciation and get the conjugations all wrong, your efforts help to build relationships which ultimately lead to more a diverse and fulfilling travel experience.
After much investigation, my research led me to the town of San Pedro La Laguna for the best value Spanish language schools in Guatemala. We chose a school on the edge of the town and studied for four weeks. We opted to stay in a bungalow on site, rather than taking a homestay, and enjoyed all of the extra-curricular activities. It was such a wonderful experience and we improved our Spanish immensely.
Check out the Corazon Maya School in San Pedro La Laguna!
2. Learn more about Mayan Culture
Mayan culture is alive and well all around Lake Atitlan. Whilst some villages are geared up for tourism, such as San Pedro La Laguna, others are smaller and less influenced by what is colloquially known as ‘Gringo-landia’ – the place in town dedicated to entertaining Western travelers!
We based ourselves in San Pedro given this is where we were studying, and this presented an excellent opportunity to experience Mayan culture. We invested in interacting with the locals and were lucky enough to witness a traditional Mayan fire ceremony. Also,we took a walk to a local Mayan temple in a cave, up in the hills behind the town of San Pedro – in which we were invited to place a candle and listened intently as our guides explained the importance of the small, cave temple and what our candle would mean.
Learning about other cultures helps us to expand our mind and challenge our own perceptions and biases. Most of the villages around the lake offer cultural activities – we took the opportunity to participate in the ones offered at our Spanish school.
3. Eat Street Food
Seriously. Eat street food. Especially at Lake Atitlan. In Panajachel, we ate amazing tortas and tacos from street vendors and in San Pedro La Laguna we feasted on street barbeque many nights in a row. There is also a whole range of local dishes that can be purchased in each village’s local market for about $1US – yes, that’s for a whole meal!
A visit to San Pablo saw us feasting on all sorts of street snacks, from fresh fruit to cups of cereal drenched in steaming hot milk, chicharrones (deep-fried pork or chicken skin) and various types of meat on sticks.
The street food is cheap and delicious!
4. Experience the Powers of the Lake
There are many options for experiencing the mystical powers of the lake. Sitting in one of the lakeside cafes, restaurants, bars or street stalls and enjoying a meal or a drink is one way.
Our Spanish tutor talked to us about the importance of the lake in Mayan culture. Swimming in the lake is a popular experience with the locals. You can swim in the lake from anywhere really, but most people say that the water is clearer around Panajachel and San Marcos.
There are plenty of options for experiencing the lake from a kayak and you get also get out on the water by using lanchas, a popular local transport to get you to other villages around the lake. You can also take sunset cruises on the lake from most of the villages, including Panajachel and San Pedro La Laguna.
Want to go scuba diving? Head to the village of Santa Cruz La Laguna and visit ATI Divers, based at the La Iguana Perdida Hotel.
5.Hike the Volcano
If you enjoy a physical challenge, hiking up Volcan San Pedro is likely to get you excited. The hike is obviously challenging because you are climbing elevation and a moderate level of fitness is recommended. Once you reach the top you will be rewarded with fabulous views of the lake and the surrounding villages. You can take a tuk-tuk from San Pedro to the visitors center at the trailhead where you will pay an entrance fee and be able to pick up a guide if you wish. Many locals recommend taking a guide as some hikers have been robbed by bandits on the climb. Remember to allow the full day, layer your clothing (it can get chilly at the top) and take enough food and water.
6.Visit a Chocolate Factory
Most of us love chocolate, right? Well, it’s no different in Guatemala! The cacao plant has great significance to the Mayan culture and Guatemala actually produces quite a lot of chocolate each year. Don’t be fooled though – this chocolate won’t taste like Cadburys Dairy Milk or Hersheys Milk Chocolate! It’s definitely better!
Visiting a chocolate studio on the lake will allow you to witness (and maybe even participate in) making chocolate in the traditional method. We visited a small, local studio in San Pedro and were able to watch the whole process of making chocolate right from the cacao bean. We were given the option of pure cacao chocolate, or chocolate with added milk to provide a sweeter, creamier taste more like ‘western’ chocolate. All ingredients used were natural and locally sourced, even the flavorings. Local, fresh coffee beans, sea salt, chili, coconut and every other fruit and nut that grows locally.
Obviously chocolate is a drawcard, but it also allowed us to delve deeper into the connection between the plant and the Mayan culture. There is a popular factory in San Juan, but you can also find smaller factories in the other villages – just ask the locals and they will point you in the right direction. We had to be directed to the one in San Pedro as it is well hidden down an alleyway on the lake’s edge.
7. Attend a local basketball game
I was surprised to learn that basketball is a popular pastime here. Yet the rivalry between the towns is fun natured and competitive. We had heard about a basketball game between San Pedro and San Pablo which promised to be a great game. We headed out on a local bus to the game and boy, what a hoot! The crowd at the game swelled and swelled until the umpires had to push everyone back off of the court. The atmosphere was electric and we were heartily welcomed by the commentator as the only gringos in attendance. The competitive spirit is the same in every country and it was an immensely enjoyable evening.
These games happen regularly, both within villages and between villages. Ask at your accommodation and they will be able to help you get to a game!
8. Visit Chichicastenango Markets
There are fantastic markets in Panajachel and you can probably find everything you are after on the lake. But if you are after a different experience, a visit to the Chichicastenango Markets is definitely a worthwhile day trip. The Chichi markets are absolutely huge and geared to tourists, so think heaps of souvenirs and inflated prices. You can still bargain and will probably find yourself a good deal if you are after one, but for me, the highlight of this market was the size, noise and smells. You can buy anything your heart desires here and the food section of the markets is simply outstanding. You can take a bus from San Pedro or Panajachel to the markets for a relatively cheap fare and then spend the day exploring.
As with any crowded spaces, there are pickpockets so keep an eye on your belongings. One of the travellers we were with had his phone stolen out of his pocket here.
9. Day Trips around the Lake
The lake is home to many villages and it is worth spending a few days on each side and taking some day trips to the smaller villages. There are regular lanchas that run between the villages and it is easy to take day trips using these. Just remember to check the return times, as some of the smaller villages may not have as many return options.
There are also various hikes you can do between villages. You can walk from Panajachel to the small village of Santa Catarina Palopo, and from San Pedro La Laguna to Santa Cruz. It is important to talk with the locals about the safety on these trails. Lake Atitlan is generally safe for travelers, but there are times and paths that can be prone to banditos.
The best tip for a visit to Lago de Atitlan:
Ignore anyone who tells that you a few days is enough. Experience the lake in all its beauty – base yourself on both sides of the lake for a few days. This will allow you easy access to all of the villages, who all have their own focus and culture. Take in the Mayan culture and try to participate in as many activities as you can to experience this.
Experience the majesty of the lake. Embrace the vibrancy of the villages. Soak in the beauty that is Lago de Atitlan.
This article is contributed by guest blogger Chantelle, who runs overyondaadventures, her blog which is a platform for some brilliant travel tips and advice!