Exploring Panajachel, Guatemala: Your Gateway to Lake Atitlán
In the heart of Guatemala, volcanoes rise majestically above the quaint villages nestled below. These villages, the backbone of Guatemalan culture and tradition, teem with locals proudly showcasing their vibrant, traditional attire. Chicken buses add a dash of adrenaline, honking boisterously as they traverse the streets.
Immersed in the colorful tapestry of Mayan culture, one could easily believe they've stepped back in time. There's an exquisite beauty in this cultural preservation, albeit tinged with the sobering reality of traditional gender roles. Unquestionably, Guatemala stands as one of the most authentic travel destinations we've ever encountered.
Among the Guatemalan must-sees is Lake Atitlán, a magical body of water you're likely familiar with if Guatemala is on your travel itinerary. This guide sheds light on Panajachel, your gateway to Lake Atitlán.
As you meander down the road from Antigua, the first glimpse of Lake Atitlán will leave you breathless. Nestled amidst a trio of towering volcanoes, this lake - a testament to a volcanic eruption 84,000 years ago - is an awe-inspiring sight.
Your journey leads you to Panajachel, the idyllic village nestled at the base of the mountains, often abbreviated as 'Pana' by the locals. As the most frequented village on the lake, Pana serves as a common stopover for travellers before they embark on a lake cruise.
For us, embracing the slow travel lifestyle (with our baby in tow), Panajachel was our home for an entire month. The choice was driven by the reliable internet connection - a boon for our online work, and the comprehensive local resources, such as grocery stores, which made our extended stay comfortable. If you choose to travel Panajachel, Guatemala as our hub also offered us seamless access to the neighboring towns of San Marcos la Laguna and San Pedro la Laguna.
Travel Panajachel, Guatemala & Lake Atitlán
Panajachel is a medium-sized town with restaurants offering international and local cuisines, tour guides, spas, coffee shops, and street vendors. The main street with most of the shops and restaurants is called Calle Santander, a bustling street lined with vendors selling local artisan goods - although we recommend shopping elsewhere for more authentic products.
When we stepped off of our shuttle from Antigua, one of the most beautiful cities we've seen, we felt a bit underwhelmed. Pana was more busy, gritty, and dirty than we anticipated. Instead of the pristine lakeside village that we expected, we were standing in the middle of a noisy street with a starving fussy baby. Bre and I looked at each other in confusion, wondering why we left Antigua. However, over the next month, we got to know the village better and learned to like it more than our initial impression.
Geographically, Panajachel is located in the middle of Guatemala. It's two hours by car from Antigua and three hours from Guatemala City. The altitude is fairly high at 5,200 feet, or roughly 1,500 meters above sea level. The climate is very mild year-round with temperatures hovering around 70-80 degrees Fahrenheit, or 21-26 Celsius. Rainy season starts mid-May and lasts through June. We were in Pana during the rainy season and it did rain for a few minutes most days, but we experienced plenty of sunshine too.
Although every traveler's budget varies, we're going to pass along our costs for the month. Our sweaty backpacker days, living on a few dollars a day, are behind us - thank goodness for that (and those around us). But we are a full-time traveling family and not inherently wealthy, so we do keep a close eye on our budget. Take that into consideration when planning your trip to Guatemala. Can you travel for way less than we did? Absolutely. Can you splurge and stay in a beautiful villa overlooking the lake with a personal chef to cook all of your meals? Absolutely.
Guatemala is the most affordable country we have traveled in Central America.
We spent about $1,200 USD for one month through Airbnb, which included all of our utilities. We had a spacious two-bedroom apartment centrally located near Calle Santander with beautiful gardens, a full kitchen, a washer & dryer, and several private terraces to enjoy. If you are booking by the night, Airbnb ranges from $15-$100 USD per night. Check out where we stayed here.
When it comes to food, we always seek out Airbnb's with full kitchens. We found several local markets, a larger supermarket, local tortilla shops (still dreaming about those), and a bakery to complete our grocery shopping. The supermarket prices were generally a bit less expensive than shopping in the United States, with the exception of diapers. Grabbing fruit and tortillas from local markets were incredibly affordable and delicious. If you like to cook, you'll spend anywhere from $50-$75 USD for every five or so day of groceries. This number may average a bit on the high side, since we were purchasing extra baby items.
Eating out was a bit more expensive than we anticipated. Desayuno tipico, Guatemala's local breakfast, is the most affordable meal of the day. It averages $3 USD per person and includes coffee, eggs, fruit, tortilla or bread, plantains, and a slice of cheese. Talk about delicious! We could probably eat desayuno tipico for every meal. Average lunches or dinners out were $10-15 USD per person. If you plan to eat out for every meal, you can see how this would add up. See the list of our favorite restaurants down below.
Our Packing Recommendations
Since the weather can be moody and the elevation is pretty high in Guatemala, we recommend you pack clothing for any and all weather. Bring along some pants and a light waterproof jacket. Early mornings and evenings can be a bit chilly, so throw in a long sleeve or two. Other than that, plan for tropical humid weather.
High-quality footwear is also essential for Guatemala. A lot of you may be traveling to this region to hike or trek a volcano, so good tennis shoes or hiking boots will be essential. Even for just walking around Pana, we appreciated having a good pair of tennis shoes and comfortable sandals.
Don't forget the good SPF either! The sunshine is very intense around the lake and a gnarly sunburn is the quickest way to ruin a vacation.
The tap water is not drinkable in Guatemala, so we recommend checking with your accommodation to see if they have a refill station. If they do, pack your Nalgene or Hydro Flask to refill constantly. If they don't, we recommend bringing a water bottle with a built-in filter to reduce purchasing single-use plastic bottles.
How to Get to Panajachel & Lake Atitlán
Step 01: Uber
By air, you are most likely to fly into Guatemala City. From there, we recommend breaking up your trip to Lake Atitlan so that you don't have to travel so far in a single day. The roads are very windy, bumpy, and can easily become clogged with traffic and chicken buses. From the airport, catch a shuttle or Uber straight to Antigua. We've heard that Guatemala City can be quite dangerous and there's not many desirable attractions in the city, so don't stay there if you can avoid it.
We found the preferred way to get from the Guatemala City airport to Antigua is by Uber. Uber is around the same cost as private transport and we didn't have to worry about pre-booking anything. Our Uber ride from Guatemala City to Antigua was around $25 and the private transport we looked into was around $20 for a shared shuttle. When our Uber arrived at the airport, it was the tiniest pink car we'd ever seen! We laughed hysterically, alongside the Spanish-speaking driver, as we looked at our suitcases wondering how they'd ever fit in the car. Somehow, we did it. I'm sure we looked like a clown car with our luggage packed to the roof!
Tip: if you have children, leave the car seat at home. I repeat: do not pack a car seat. We did and regretted it the second we arrived. A) no one uses car seats in Guatemala, B) it wouldn't even fit inside of the car, and C) it was a real pain in the rear to carry everywhere.
Step 02: Shuttle
After staying in Antigua for a couple of nights, we booked a shared shuttle from Antigua to Panajachel through a company called Atitirans. The shuttle picked us up from our hotel in Antigua and dropped us off at our Airbnb door step in Pana. The shuttle was smooth and easy.
Alternate Option: Chicken Bus The last and final way to travel Guatemala are on the infamous chicken buses. So what are these chicken buses we keep mentioning? They're essentially colorful buses that locals use to travel from town to town, often with merchandise and cargo such as livestock and chickens (hence the name), in tow. They're loud and usually flying down the road at full throttle with a massive cloud of black pollution in the rear view mirror. It's truly like something out of a movie scene. We opted to avoid these since we don't travel light, we have a baby, and safe driving practices are never on the drivers' minds. We know that these buses provide cheap transportation for the locals and may be many people's only option, but the amount of pollution that these poorly-maintained buses put off was enough for us to be okay with not using them. We've heard that as long as the bus moves, regardless of any awful noises or smells the bus puts off, the bus will travel. To sum it all up: these are an experience.
Transportation Around Lake Atitlan
We are going to break down the three types of local transport to get you around Lake Atitlán from Panajachel.
01. La Lancha
Most of the towns around Lake Atitlán are only accessible by boat taxis, or la lanchas, in Spanish. These water taxis can feel a bit intimidating at first, but once we learned the system, it became effortless to get around the lake and hop from town to town.
In Pana, we used the docks at the end of the street Calle del Embarcadero. As you approach the dock, there will be many men asking you where you are going, if you need la lancha, and if you want a private or public boat. In general, we recommend walking past all of these locals and heading straight down to the dock. Once there, tell the driver your destination and he'll tell you which boat to get in.
Regardless of your destination, a boat road is a set price of 25 Quetzales (~$3.25 USD) per person. Locals pay a little bit less and this is just a well-known pricing structure. Don't argue with the driver or ask for a cheaper rate. For most rides, we paid the driver upon exiting the boat, but sometimes the driver might ask you to pay upfront.
The public boats were an overall positive and easy experience, but we do recommend traveling in the morning, as the lake in the afternoon can become choppy with storms.
If you have ever explored parts of Southeast Asia, you will be very familiar with this type of transportation. Each village has dozens of these charming little red vehicles buzzing around. Hail one just as you would hail a cab, let them know where you are going, and always as for the agreed upon price upfront. Feel free to negotiate with the driver. Generally, this type of transport should never cost more than 20-30 Quetzales.
03. Local Trucks
These come in handy if the town or village you are trying to reach is accessible by road . Santa Catarina Palopó and San Antonio Palopó are both accessible via trucks from Panajachel. These are tiny pickup trucks with metal bars and bench seats installed into the bed of the truck. This is a very common way for locals to get between the towns, so if you hop on, you'll likely be riding with a lot of locals just making their daily commute. This is certainly not a glamorous experience and sometimes they can get quite packed as people hop on the tailgate and hop off at the next town. However, we felt safe enough, even with an 11 month old baby, to take these trucks from town to town. The price for this option will be one of the cheapest at around 8-10 Quetzales.
In Panajachel the trucks that go to Santa Catarina Palopó and San Antonio Palopó are positioned at off of Calle El Amate near Tienda San Vicente. Just ask the driver where they are headed and hop in!
Where to Stay
Panajachel has many options for where to stay, but Airbnb is the best option for slow travelers like ourselves. We went this route to eliminate endless hours of searching for housing. We also like that Airbnb has wonderful customer service shall you be unfortunate enough to find yourself in an accommodation that is different from the photos, dirty, etc. We absolutely loved our Airbnb for the month. It was the perfect hub for exploring greater Lake Atitlan. You can find it here!
If you are looking to secure a longer rental or want to explore other options, we recommend joining the Panajachel Facebook group. It's easy to connect with other expats who might have housing recommendations or connections.
Where to Eat
If we are being transparent, we were seriously concerned about the restaurant scene upon arriving in Panajachel. After spending a month in Pana and diving deeper, we found some gems -- none of which are distinctly Guatemalan. Calle Santander has a ton of choices, but a lot of them get terrible reviews due to cleanliness and staff shortages.
A restaurant that came pretty frequently recommended to us called Deli Jasmin makes our list of places to skip. The food was bland and didn't taste very fresh. The garden it's located in is beautiful though!
So, let's get to the good stuff! Here are our favorite restaurants that we tried around Panajachel:
Origin Chill Garden ($14-16 for a plate + drink)
Craving some Mediterranian food? Maybe some tempeh or falafel? The owner is from Israel and offers many cuisines and well-crafted cocktails. The beautiful garden environment and live music are a bonus!
Delhi 6 ($12-$15usd for a plate + drink)
See what we are saying about a diverse lineup? We bet you would have never thought to come to Panajachel and eat Indian food. The owner is a young Indian man and somehow manages to pull off a pretty good menu of authentic Indian food -- spices and all. The restaurant is located on a rooftop overlooking Calle Santander.
Angelina’s-Restaurante-La-Condesa-Panajachel ($8-$10usd for plate + drink)
This is the only typical Guatemalan restaurant that we enjoyed in town. We loved their tipico breakfast for its cheap price and freshness -- coffee, beans, rice, cheese, eggs, bread... you can't go wrong here. In the evening, we would stop by for their delicious fish tacos. The family that runs the place loved to hold Indy while we ate, which was very sweet!
The Little Spoon ($18-$20USD for a plate + drink)
When spending a whole month in a place, sometimes you just need to head for a comfort option. With smoothie bowls, avocado toast, and good coffee, this felt the most like home to us. It's certainly one of the more expensive options we explored around town. The restaurant is run by a group of young women expats who do a great job!
Amaranto Panajachel ($15-$18USD for a plate and a drink)
This restaurant offers wood-fired pizza and delicious cocktails. They also have a menu of Indian food, but we stuck to the pizza. The ambiance here is stunning, with gardens surrounding the restaurant, lit candles, and friendly staff.
Circus Bar ($15-$18USD for a plate and drink)
Circus Bar is possibly the most popular restaurant in town. The pizza is also wood-fired and quite tasty (remember, we are in Latin America so go easy on our pizza opinions here -- not perfect but good). We found ourselves a bit disappointed in their drinks, so we recommend Amaranto overall if you're crazing pizza!
Guajimbos ($10-$12USD for a plate + drink)
A Uruguayan restaurant that is fairly meat-forward but, surprisingly, they do offer a few vegetarian options. The food was pretty good to us with reasonable pricing. Based on how busy it was each time we walked by, we are guessing the meat options must be quite delicious.
Restaurante Hana ($12-$15USD for a plate + drink)
Craving some decent Japanese food? Sushi in Central America? This is your best option and we enjoyed a meal there one night. They do have some vegetarian sushi options!
Cafe de Flor ($6-$8USD for a coffee and dessert)
This was our favorite place in town to enjoy a good quality coffee (cappuccino, espresso, drip, they have it all) and some delicious desserts. We loved the tiramisu! The best part is the breathtaking views of the volcanos and the lush gardens. You enter through the hotel entrance and the staff stops you to ask where you're going. If you tell them you are just going to the cafe, they will let you pass with a visitor wristband. One time they did make us pay a small amount upon entry, which went directly towards credit at the coffee shop, so no big deal for us! The hotel itself is well-maintained and we came here about every day to let Indy practice walking in the grass.
Azul Rosa ($8-$10USD for a cocktail with views)
This bar is owned by Selina Hostel and it sits on the waterfront with beautiful views of the lake and volcanoes. We enjoyed their cocktails and beach club vibe. They supposedly have some really fun club-type parties at night (well after our bedtime) catering more towards the hostel crowd.
The Towns of Lake Atitlan
We have to say that while you're in Panajachel, it's absolutely vital that you get out to explore the other villages. While Pana has the most resources, it's also the least attractive of the villages. Our days out on the lake restored us and gave us the opportunity to dive deeper into Guatemalan culture and art.
Below is a summary of the towns of Lake Atitlan but you can read our full guide, here!
Pros: Fast internet, large supermarkets, lots of restaurant options, roads connecting to nearby towns
Cons: Not as beautiful or clean as other villages, a bit of a party scene, noisy
Highlight(s): Resource availability, a great hub for visiting surrounding towns, and restaurant options
San Pedro la Laguna
Pros: Good place to connect with other young travelers, decent restaurant scene, great access to hiking and other cultural activities in the area
Cons: Party scene and hostel crowd (we realize this may not be a con for everyone but for us, it can be considered a con)
Highlight(s): Visiting local textile collectives and enjoying the local culture. A lot of travelers enjoy hiking Indian Nose or to learning Spanish in San Pedro
San Juan la Laguna
Pros: Our favorite town for buying local textiles and handmade goods, authentic and not overrun by tourists. We also loved the views of the lake from here!
Cons: Small restaurant scene
Highlight(s): Great place for visiting local textile collectives and watching local life play out. Also, a great hub for coffee or chocolate tours and climbing up to the Mirador Kiaq'Aiswaan viewpoint
San Marcos la Laguna
Pros: Abundance of health food, yoga, jungle hiking, and a great spot for swimming in the lake
Cons: Not the most authentic for Guatemalan culture
Highlight(s): Without a doubt, hiking around the Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve and the plentiful options for good coffee, fresh juice, or a healthy meal
Santa Cruz la Laguna
Pros: Great place for families and those looking to enjoy adventure activities on the lake
Cons: Secluded, lacking resource options
Highlight(s): A lot of travelers here spend their days laying on docks in the eternal spring sunshine, kayaking or stand-up paddle boarding, and hiking
Santa Catarina Palopó
Pros: A great place to take photos with stunning lake views
Cons: Not many options for restaurants or lodging except high-end resorts or Airbnbs
Highlight(s): The blue buildings with colorful patterns, the hot springs right on the lake
San Antonio Palopó
Pros: Authentic and largely untouched by tourism
Cons: Limited options for restaurants and lodging
Highlight(s): The local ceramic pottery, absorbing the local culture, and eating chocolate
Pros: A bigger city that's fairly untouched by tourism
Cons: Busy and loud, locals really wanting to sell you things and always asking where you are going and if you want a tour, etc.
Highlight(s): Great views of the San Pedro Volcano and seeing local culture
Other Things to Do
Visit the Nature Reserve
Pana has a nature reserve, called Reserva Natural Atitlán, that we never had the chance to visit. If you have time, give that a go.
If you're in Guatemala to shop or explore the weaving culture, visit another village like San Juan La Laguna. From our experience, the shopping in Pana isn't authentic and the goods could possibly even be imported from other countries. Stay tuned for a blog post about our experience with local artisans.
With a baby, we weren't up for hiking long distances in the heat and humidity, but hiking is a very popular activity around the lake. Hiking gives you a chance to see some incredible viewpoints of the lakes, explore Guatemala's ecosystems, and get off the beaten path. Some of the most popular hikes include Indian Nose, Atitáln Volcano Hike, and Ruta La Finca Hike.
Explore the Chichicastenango Market
If you're in Panajachel on a Sunday or Thursday, you'll have the opportunity to wander through Latin America's largest outdoor market. The market is one of the most authentically Mayan experiences in all of Guatemala. Twice a week, locals from surrounding villages flock to Chici to sell their handmade textiles, wooden Mayan masks, pottery, fresh tortillas, and more. We'll have a blog post coming soon with our experience at the market.