The magnificent Lake Atitlan is Guatemala’s largest lake and is located in the Highlands of western Guatemala. 12 Mayan villages surround the lake and due to its altitude of 1,560 meters the average daily temperature is around 22-25 degrees.
The area around the lake is known as ‘the land of eternal spring’ as it retains a fairly constant temperature throughout the year. We visited during August which is the rainy season although we saw little rain while we were there. Other than a couple of heavy downpours, most days were clear and sunny in the mornings and became cloudy most afternoons.
Lake Atitlan is set in a stunning location surrounded by 3 majestic volcanos and is often considered one of the most beautiful lakes in the world.
Each of the 12 Atitlan villages are different even to the extent they speak different languages… Many villagers cannot communicate with each other even though they live a short distance across the lake! Traditional dress is still worn and the women from the individual villages can be identified by unique colourful patterns woven into their blouses.
Tragically the villages surrounding Lake Atitlan suffered immensely in 2005 when, as a result of Hurricane Stan, torrential rains caused mudslides where hundreds of people lost their lives and many more lost their homes and businesses.
Getting to Lake Atitlan
From Guatemala City the Inter-americana Highway, part of the Pan American Highway wound its way like a ribbon of grey through dark mysterious emerald mountains. After turning off onto Highway 1 towards Solola this culminated in a splendid view of the entire lake before descending down to Panajachel. The mini bus driver stopped and allowed us to take photographs (top picture).
We based ourselves in Panajachel for 8 nights staying in the comfortable Jenna’s B & B. Panajachel is commonly known as ‘Pana’ and is the main tourist village of Lake Atitlan. As mentioned above Pana is easily reached from Guatemala City, Antigua or many other Guatemala locations by either bus or private shuttle. Most tourists use shuttles (mini buses) which collect you from either the airport or your existing hotel and drop you at your required Pana accommodation.
While Pana is considered the ‘tourist’ town of Atitlan, there are many hotels and hostels tucked away in quiet streets. Pana also has a number of good restaurants with reasonable prices. We tried Vietnamese, Italian and local Guatemalan food each time for around £15 per meal for two people including drinks.
From Pana we took local boats (called ‘lanchas’) to visit several of the Mayan villages dotted around the lake. While in Pana we also visited the spectacular botanical gardens at the Hotel Atitlan and the famous market at the nearby town of Chichicastenango.
Santiago, the largest town of Lake Atitlan is a 250 quetzal (£2.50) 15 minute bumpy boat trip across the lake from Panajachel. It has a spectacular location right between the San Pedro and Tolimán volcanos. For a modest fee of 100 quetzals we were shown around Santiago by a local called David.
Guatemala has a turbulent recent history with the destruction of civil war from 1960 to 1996. Santiago suffered a great deal during this time with murders and assassinations and memorial plaques are on display in the church. The church dates back to 1571.
Santiago is famous for Maximon, a cult figure with origins from local Mayan cultures. Legend has it that Maximom was an alcoholic, chain smoking womaniser who apparently slept with the wives of the local farmers while they were busy working in the fields!
Each year the Maximon statue is moved to a different house where a shrine is set up and people offer money, alcohol and cigars. David took us to the current house where he sits in the middle of the floor along with empty bottles and cigar butts. Right next to him lay a life size statue of Jesus encased by multi coloured flashing disco lights! We were charged 2 quetzals each (20 p) to visit the house and an extra 10 quetzals to take photos!
Apparently the concept of Maximon has become more touristy over the last 20 years or so. We found it a little bizarre, particularly with the Christian mix…
San Pedro La Laguna
San Pedro is one of the most popular Atitlan villages where often people come to attend Spanish classes. San Pedro is also considered to be one of the cheapest villages. We had two drinks and a bagel in one of the lakeside coffee shops for under £4.
With its low key atmosphere and colourful artisan shops San Juan was one of our favourite villages. San Juan is a 10 minute tuk-tuk ride from San Pedro although this is a bumpy ride along mostly unpaved tracks.
San Marcos La Laguna
Known as the ‘hippy’ town, San Marcos did indeed have a hippy and spiritual vibe with its colourful street art, hand-made signs, pathways instead of roads and yoga retreats. Nestling amidst banana trees, avocado trees and coffee plantations San Marcos is also thought of as being the prettiest of the Atitlan villages.
We spent a relaxing couple of hours visiting the beautiful botanical gardens at the Hotel Atitlan just outside of Panajachel. You pay 55 quetzals (£5.50) each to enter the gardens (above) but you are then credited this against lunch, which was delicious.
Chichicastenango, often referred to as simply ‘Chi-chi’, is home to one of Central America’s largest street markets which takes place every Thursday and Sunday. While staying in Pana, we took a 100 quetzal (£10) each return shuttle bus to take a look.
This was by far one of the most colourful markets we’ve ever seen! All manner of handicrafts, textiles and pottery were available as well as live pigs and chickens being randomly carried around. Many locals come from villages near and far to buy produce from the market and on the day we visited (Sunday) there were not many tourists.
While it is busy and chaotic we felt comfortable walking around the market without too much high pressure sales from the vendors.
Adjacent to the market there are also a couple of great traditional style hotels where you can pop into for a drink or lunch. Sitting in the airy courtyard of the Santo Tomas felt like a calm little oasis oblivious to the frenzy of the market outside!
Jenna’s River B & B
As mentioned above we spent 8 nights staying in Jenna’s River B & B. Each morning Jenna prepared a wonderful breakfast with fresh tropical fruit, delicious warm home made bread, home made jams and amazing mango chutney. Jenna also made something different each day… scrambled eggs, omelette, French toast, Guatemalan breakfast and home made granola washed down with freshly squeezed orange juice and huge mugs of Guatemalan coffee.
We enjoyed these leisurely breakfasts while sitting around around a large table and chatting with Jenna and the other guests. Jenna, a Canadian who has lived in Panajachel for over 20 years entertained us with her hilarious stories and also gave us a great deal of tips which helped make our stay even more fabulous.
Jenna’s B & B is in a quiet location with a relaxing garden complete with a hammock and a cute roof terrace from where you can see the lake and surrounding volcanos. It was a lovely pleasant place to sit with a glass of home made strawberry and cardamom wine!
Jenna is currently building a new property consisting of 7 Mongolian yurts which will each have an amazing view over Lake Atitlan. The yurts will be fully insulated with ensuite bathrooms each to contain large open windows so you can sit in the bath and admire the view above.
We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Panajachel and the beautiful Lake Atitlan, partly thanks to Jenna’s wonderful hospitality and also thanks to the laid back easy-going Guatemalan way of life. The local people are warm and friendly, the restaurants are great and Pana is an ideal base from which to explore the lake and other villages.
Guatemala has now become one of our favourite destinations of our 2016 travels!