The Top 8 Towns and Villages Surrounding Lake Atitlán
Ever since we began pursuing long-term travel, we heard over and over that we needed to head to Guatemala and check out Lake Atitlán. Fellow travelers raved about Lake Atitlán's year-round temperate weather, lush jungles jutting up against mountains/volcanos, and their eye-opening cultural experiences. After having spent a month based in Panajachel, we agree that Lake Atitlán offers a unique travel experience.
It was one misty morning sitting in a local boat, surrounded by locals going about their day-to-day lives, staring at jungles and mountains like a scene out of the movie Avatar, that we fell in the love with the lake. It's the kind of travel destination that will give you goosebumps and make you feel alive.
What we didn't know prior to visiting this famous destination in Central America was that there were so many different villages surrounding this massive lake -- and furthermore, the diversity of each town. We read a few blurbs about each town, but it wasn't until we visited each that we truly believed how different each town is. Had we done more research prior to arriving in Guatemala, we probably would've chosen a town other than Panajachel to base ourselves in.
We hope this blog helps you decide on the perfect town to base yourself out of when visiting Lake Atitlán. Also, we should mention, that you can't go wrong when choosing because all of the towns are just a day trip away from each other and it's easy to hop from town to town.
The Towns of Lake Atitlán:
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
We wanted to start with Panajachel as it's the town you are most likely to hear about first when looking into travel around Lake Atitlán. It's the town that we based ourselves in for a month of slow travel. If we had to choose again, would we base ourselves in Panajachel? Probably not.
Panajachel is the gateway to the rest of the lake and where you will land no matter where you come from - Guatemala City, Antigua, etc. All of the taxi boats, known as la lanchas, leave from here, taking off in multiple directions across the lake to other villages.
Panajachel has a main street called Calle Santander that is lined with shops, bars, and restaurant options. Due to the fact that it is the main gateway to the rest of the lake, it is generally bustling with tuk-tuks, buses, tour companies, and locals taking care of their day-to-day business. There are lots of options for places to stay (we chose a nice two-bedroom Airbnb) but overall we found ourselves mostly using the city for sleeping and eating in. During the day, we would be off adventuring to some other town or village on the lake.
If you are interested in making this your home base, check out our full guide for staying in Panajachel here.
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
We spent just one day exploring this town, which is very popular with the hostel crowd. The restaurant scene here is quite global with many options for vegetarians, healthy options, etc. If you're looking to connect with other backpackers and go out at night, then this might be the best option for you.
There are two ways to access this town. The first way is directly by boat from Panajachel. The second option, what we opted for, is to ride a tuk-tuk over from San Juan la Laguna for 5-10 quetzales.
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
Okay, we tried not to pick favorites but we can't hide our admiration for San Juan from you. We actually visited several times because we couldn't' get enough of this cute town. Known as the artistic village, San Juan la Laguna has committed a lot of time and energy into making the town feel quaint, colorful, and clean. The town has more of a serene less touristic vibe as opposed to bustling Pana or backpacker San Pedro.
Three activities you can do within San Juan la Laguna are visiting an artisan weaving collective and taking a workshop, joining a coffee and/or chocolate tour, and wandering the streets to shop for local artisan goods.
Outside of town, you can hike up (or tuk tuk) to a panorama viewpoint known as Mirador Kaqasiiwaan or complete the famous Indian Nose hike (guide recommended).
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
We spent one day in this village and we have to say, we found it to be one of the most unique villages on Lake Atitlán. In the late 60s and early 70s, a lot of off-the-grid, hippie-type ex-pats began migrating to this sleepy little village in search of a simple life. Today, that influence is still prevalent. As you walk through the winding alleyways, you will pass yoga retreat centers, health food stores and restaurants, and energy healing centers. There are still a lot of off-grid ex-pats calling this place home. Forgive us for saying it, but the vast majority of these people smell as though they haven't showered in quite some time!
The Cerro Tzankujil (Nature Reserve), accessible right from the town center, was one of our highlights of all of Lake Atitlán. It's just a stunning, well-kept, jungle retreat with spots to cliff dive off into the lake if you're feeling daring. We hiked up to the top where the jungle fades and the intensity of the sun increases.
Back down in town, pop into any of the restaurants for a delicious smoothie bowl or grain bowl, strong coffee, freshly squeezed juice, and generally westernized food options.
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
We actually did not get a chance to visit this small little eco-village but it's high on our list to return to. The highlight here, from what we have heard, is simply enjoying nature and the beautiful views of the lake. Most people we saw from the boat were kayaking or paddle boarding, laying in hammocks on the docks, or enjoying one of the little local restaurants.
If you are looking for some relaxation and peace and quiet, this might be your spot.
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
Santa Catarina Palopó is accessible from Panajachel via tuk-tuk or the small trucks that pass from town to town. We made a couple of day trips here to explore the blue buildings and local Mayan culture.
The vibrant shades of blue and purple originated from women's traditional clothing and headdresses - which can still be seen today. The town transformed a few years ago as it was painted in similar shades of blue. The project was designed to increase tourism and bring the community together. Each family had the opportunity to choose their shade of blue, as well as traditional Mayan designs/motifs, for their homes.
There are plenty of artisan shops, women selling woven textiles on the streets, coffee shops, and some fancy hotels that sit up on the cliffside. There are also hot springs right on the lake, which can make for a unique experience.
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
Also accessible via tuk-tuk or a local truck from Panajachel, this is another great town for an authentic cultural experience. San Antonio Palopó is most famous for its ceramic pottery. The combination of sentiment runoff from the river and the volcanic ash creates the perfect clay for creating beautiful handmade pottery. We wandered into several pottery shops wishing we'd had room in our suitcases to take some home.
The town is picturesque and sits steeply on the hillside of Lake Atitlán. The women wash their clothing on the rocks by the lake, men and boys play intense games of fútbol, and weavers show off their beautiful creations. We found everyone to be very friendly and genuine in this town! One woman even insisted on tying Bre's hair up in their traditional way.
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
Stepping off the boat onto the dock, we felt we were in another world here. Santiago is the most populated and one of the most authentic villages on the lake. Tourism hasn't touched this community yet, as evident by the ways that locals reacted when we stepped off the boat. We were instantly greeted by artists wanting to sell us handmade goods or a tuk-tuk tour of the town.
The town is quite spread out and much larger than we anticipated. For these reasons, we recommend pre-arranging a guide while here or buying a tour from one of the locals if you're hoping to see the town in a day.
There is a mirador or famous viewpoint, some local coffee/chocolate shops, plenty of artisan collectives, and a unique experience visiting the Maximon.
The story of the Maximon dates back to ancient Mayan traditions and is a deity or folk legend that is said to exhibit both light and dark. You can make a visit to the Maximon, which relocates each year into a new home, and enter to offer your blessings and prayers. Due to the traditional nature of this deity, and the fact that it's inside of a local residence, we recommend hiring a local guide to help you understand proper customs and offerings. Unfortunately, we didn't have time to personally experience this, but we heard that it's a must-see!
After having spent a month exploring Lake Atitlán, we felt like we barely scratched the surface. The lake and daily water taxis provide such a unique experience that we haven't seen anywhere else in the world. We hope this insight helps you to select which town will suit you the best.
In love and adventure,
Daniel & Bre