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If you’re a nature lover in Guatemala, visiting Lake Atitlan is an absolute must. Formed by a volcanic eruption thousands of years ago, a massive volcanic crater was left which Lake Atitlan now sits in. Surrounded by the highlands of Guatemala, Lake Atitlan is one of the most beautiful areas to visit in Guatemala.
Post last updated April 2nd, 2019
Getting from Antigua to Lake Atitlan
Lake Atitlan is a logical next stop on a Guatemala itinerary after visiting the charming colonial town of Antigua. It is possible to go just by road from Antigua to Lake Atitlan, but I don’t advise doing this. Instead, take a bus from Antigua to Panajachel, and then catch a boat from Panajachel to San Pedro (the main town in Lake Atitlan). This will save you hours of travel, as the traffic coming out of San Pedro Town is often under construction and jammed. To get to Panajachel you can either catch a chicken bus, or a tourist bus.
You’re probably thinking “what on earth is a chicken bus”? Well, a chicken bus is a modified and decorated school bus that transports goods and people between communities in Latin American countries. Chicken buses are the main form of local transportation in Guatemala. They are cheap and crowded.
Taking a chicken bus is a fun experience that you should try at least once on your visit to Guatemala, but I don’t like to use them to go long distances. They can be hot and crowded, which isn’t always fun when you’re carrying your main luggage. Chicken busses also take significantly longer as they stop to pick up people in each community along the way.
If you do want to take the chicken bus from Antigua to Lake Atitlan, you can catch one at the main bus station in Antigua (next to the market). There is only one chicken bus a day from Antigua to Lake Atitlan, which leaves at 7 am. It doesn’t arrive until late at night into Panajachel.
A much quicker and comfortable option is to take a tourist bus from Antigua to Lake Atitlan. Tourist buses can be booked directly through your hostel/hotel, or at a tour agency in town. I booked mine through Tropicana Hostel (which is a great hostel to stay in Antigua). The tourist van will pick you up at your accomodation and transport you to Panajachel. Booking a tourist bus also includes the boat transfer to the main towns of Lake Atitlan, which makes life easier.
If money’s not an issue, hire a private shuttle to take you between Antigua and Panajachel. If you split the cost between a group, this isn’t a bad option.
The drive from Antigua to Lake Atitlan takes about three hours and is scenic, especially as you start to approach the lake. At the end of the journey, we transferred on to a quick boat ride to San Pedro town. Pro tip: Book your shuttle to coincide with sunset, this was beautiful to watch.
The Towns of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
Although there a number of communities surrounding Lake Atitlan, the boat will make three stops at the towns most visitors stay at. These are San Marcos, Santa Cruz, and San Pedro.
San Marcos is the official hippie town. Here you will find a number of yoga and meditation retreats, so this is the ideal place to stay if that’s what you’re looking for. It’s also home to Reserva Natural del Cerro Tzankujil, a beautiful trail that leads to a point where you can jump off into the lake.
Santa Cruz is a traditional Mayan town and here you will find more of a local experience. Santa Cruz has many hills, so if you want to give your legs a workout, this is the place to go.
San Pedro is the main backpacker town. Here you’ll find cheap accommodation, yummy food, and a lively night scene. Many backpackers come here to study Spanish for the low cost of living. I based myself out of San Pedro as I knew people there, and it’s an easy central point for getting around. You can visit the other towns surrounding Lake Atitlan as day trips from San Pedro.
You can also stay in the town of Panajachel, on the other side of the lake. This town has good markets and gorgeous views of the lake/volcanoes from the dock. Calle Santander is the main street in the town with good shopping and prices for souvenirs in Guatemala.
Where to stay in San Pedro
I stayed at Mr. Mullet’s hostel which I enjoyed and would recommend to backpackers. They have a nice bar/social area, a legit free breakfast, and clean, small dorm rooms. Plus lots of hammocks to chill out on! For only $12/night, this place is a great value option.
If you prefer private accommodation, check out Mikaso Hotel. This hotel is located right on the lake and has a beautiful rooftop terrace you can sunbathe on while soaking up the view.
Things to do in San Pedro, Lake Atitlan
Take a hike
One of the best and epic hikes to do from San Pedro town is to hike up Volcano San Pedro. This gorgeous volcano reaches 3020 m and at the summit, you will be rewarded with panoramic views of the Lake Atitlan region.
If you don’t have the energy for San Pedro, a smaller hike you can take is up to Indian Nose for Sunrise. This five-hour journey takes you on top of one of the most famous mountains in Lake Atitlan to watch the sunrise from the summit. At the top, you can see the volcanic chain of Guatemala.
Full disclosure: I didn’t do these. I was beat after hiking Acatenago Volcano, and my legs couldn’t face it in the short time I was there. Admittedly, I wish now that I had. They both look amazing. Just another reason to go back to Guatemala.
San Pedro is one of the cheapest places in Central America to learn Spanish. Guatemalans speak slowly and have great pronunciation, so it’s a good place to practice your Spanish. With the beautiful backdrop of the lake and volcanoes, cheap accommodation, and readily available and affordable Spanish schools, San Pedro is the perfect place to learn some Spanish before traveling through the rest of Central America.
Take a boat trip to explore the surrounding volcanoes.
How many times can you say you’ve kayaked in a Volcanic crater? Wander the main tourist streets of San Pedro and you will see tons of tour companies offering kayak rentals. The standard prize is 15 quetzals per kayak per hour. From the water, you get amazing views of Volcano San Pedro and Indian Nose. It’s better to go kayaking early in the morning as the water can get choppy in the afternoon.
Like any good backpacking town, San Pedro has a lively nightlife. Sublime was my favorite bar in the town. During the day they have a deck to chill that’s pretty chill, but at night it picks up. They have a good variety of drinks, a dance floor with different types of music each night, and often throw themed parties.
Relax/Swin in the lake
This is what I spent most of the time in San Pedro doing, relaxing and enjoying the beautiful surrounding scenery. There are mixed reviews about the safety swimming in the lake, but a beautiful lake glistening in the sun is just too much for me to resist. I had to jump in. Honestly, I was fine after swimming in the lake, but I have heard tales of people getting sick. The government is making efforts to clean up the pollution in the lake, use your discretion and ask around what the current situation is.
Eat and Drink
San Pedro has a number of charming restaurants and cafes right on the lake. I stumbled across a restaurant named Zababa, which I loved. Zababa has a beautiful interior with swings overlooking the water while you eat. The sunset was great to watch from there. Plus they sell fried avocadoes, YUM.
Where to go after Lake Atitlan
If you didn’t come from Antigua, I recommend spending at least a day there exploring the gorgeous colonial towns and the hike up Acatenango Volcano. Another option after Lake Atitlan is to head to the town of Xela, where you can explore some beautiful natural hot springs. It is also possible to visit Semuc Champey from Lake Atitlan, but this will be a LONG journey, around 12 hours.
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