Lago Atitlán: A Highland Lake of Many Quaint Towns

View from the path from Jaibalito to Santa Cruz, one of the world’s great earth walks.

Lake Atitlán is a magically wondrous body of water that Mayans have surrounded for millennia. The following anecdotes are based on the subjective and spontaneous choices I made while spending two plus weeks in naturally and culturally stunning Sololá, Guatemala. Thus, like much of the info we come across, it ought to be inspected with an open approach.

When someone writes about or shoots depictions of Lake Atitlán, they are objective to an extent, but the content comes out opinionated. Different expectations add to varying perceptions. On top of that, there are 13 distinctly different towns along this fantastic freak of divine essence. There are three different languages spoken and different culturally appropriate attire especially for women. The colors of the female huipiles or cotton dresses identify which village they are from. These unique subcultures have survived for countless generations.

Even if there were only one village to report about, every digital print aficionado would present it in their own way. Each individual’s unique view produces a report. And with so many towns or villages, most content creators do not have the fortitude or proper time to visit all of them. I was considering the very idea until it became daunting. A different village every day would have been overwhelming. Taking in one village or town might have been plenty and I managed six, a good amount, never mind 13. So please read my individual take on Lake Atitlán with an open mind, and feel free to create your own opinions and imagination.

Over a two-and-a-half-week period, I lived in two of the towns and visited four more, so I can attest to putting my presence in slightly under half of the towns and villages around the colossal water mass.

During the boat passages along the lake from village to town, I noticed myself breathing in and visually absorbing the natural illustration and its extreme creation. I was taking in its endless curves and shapes jutting up along the lush green landscape. This nature gazing gave me super admiration for the southern Guatemalan highlands, el altiplano, and its representation of our incredible earth.

View of the village of Tzununá from la lancha or the passenger boat.

Lago Atitlán is a spectacular remnant of nature that offers astounding views, sounds, and vibrations, making it an extra special part of our beloved earth space.

At first I entertained the idea of bouncing around with my big red backpack and staying in different settlements, while getting a varied feel for parts of the lake. But when my temporary landlord Domingo, the owner of Posada Casa Domingo, offered me a good discount for staying an extra week, the decision to make San Pedro La Laguna my home for what would be a bit over a week and a half, was an easy one. The weekly rate was 500 Q or $64.22. The room had a private bathroom with a hot (not the hottest) water shower and the wifi worked great most of the time. That’s a great deal in 2022.

Basing oneself in one of the towns and taking day trips on la lancha is easier than packing and unpacking and finding and checking into new places. I had been thinking of spending some time in Santiago Atitlán before deciding on fully basing myself in San Pedro.

Santiago Atitlán

From San Pedro, I took a one day trip to the town of Santiago Atitlán. There, for comparison, I inquired in a couple of hospedajes, only to find the price to be double what I was paying at Casa Domingo, yet in worse shape.

Santiago has a nice market and some good views; but seemed a little bit rough around the edges. Hawkers were friendly until I purchased some ready-to-eat fruit or nuts, local macadamias, almonds, roasted cashews and dried fava beans or abas. After the purchases, some of the vendors seemed to want nothing to do with me. This was normal to an extent, but it still felt oddly aloof.

I came across an official guide who was mildly pestering me for business even after I politely told him that I did not have time. This I find rare in Latin America, but the inviting lake has been touristy for well over half a century and many people have needed to rely on its intake of drifters to put food on their tables. The funny thing was, San Pedro was considerably more touristy than Santiago, yet anyone who pushed their business on me there stepped away instantly when I politely declined.

Later I told locals in San Pedro of my personal Santiago aloofness phenomenon. They wholeheartedly agreed and mentioned that the people of Santiago Atitlán are known to be a bit distant. But this multiple-hour experience in Santiago does not qualify me to judge thousands of people in an establishment, even if two or three locals in San Pedro seemed to have felt the same way. Actually, I do not want to judge anyone.

I only saw a handful of foreign tourists. A couple of tuk tuk drivers offered to take me to a few tourist places. But I had no interest in this three-wheel mode of transport as I preferred to value and pay gratitude to my legs for being my primary source of getting around, when possible. I had already taken a scenic boat ride from San Pedro and would get a similar boat back later that day, so I did not feel the need for superfluous transportation. Also, I do not know why, but I felt zero interest in going slightly out of my way to see the famous Maximón. As a person who is traveling indefinitely, I am not out to see everything, especially when it comes at an inflated cost thanks to the tourism it is promoting. I cannot imagine that Maximón would have put more than an unnoticeable microscopic dent in my drifting digits, nevertheless, my intuition did not provide any signs of interest.

Stunning sub tropical highland vista after drifting above Santiago Atitlán.

Santiago has interesting architecture. Walking and gazing is aesthetically pleasing and there are some nice views if you care to venture upward, where it seemed safe on a Sunday morning. At one point, a boy repeatedly asked me for my camera. There were a few others around. I put it in my pocket, and moved on quickly towards more crowded areas. I do not think it was a dangerous situation, though. The above photo was quickly taken after getting away from the camera comments in the street. Right where that scenic shot was snapped, a random man told me not to worry about anything, that all was safe up there.

I only spent a bunch of hours in Santiago Atitlán and I am happy I did. All in all, it has its own charm and unique history, and look at its natural beauty. A person could never regret paying Santiago a visit. And I am sure that if I had given it time, I would have connected with some warmer people.

Panajachel

After arriving at my gateway to the lake, and having taken four different buses to get there, I walked into the first posada I saw, the family-run Hotel Nisbo. I was able to negotiate a comfy room for $13. There was a hot water shower in the private bath, a comfortable bed, space, a TV which I immediately unplugged and a table, plastic chair and good wifi. I would not need to move during my few days in Pana.

My comfy enough room at the family owned and run Hotel Nisbo in Panajachel: 100 Quetzales or $12.88 per night.

Panajachel has lots of accommodation and food options. I was able to mostly live on street food. On Calle Santander different, good value stalls appear in the late afternoon to early evening. Depending on rainfall, hours of operation can vary.

A very good Guatemalan taco stand that I hit up almost every night when I was in Panajachel.

In hindsight, I would not have spent more than a night in Pana. However, because I liked my place of lodging and its value, it was difficult to pack up and go right away. Even with the mass tourism, I found San Pedro to be more quaint.

San Marcos La Laguna

While in Panajachel, I took a day trip to San Marcos la Laguna. After taking in the mesmerizing scenery, I debarked and handed the kid 20 Q or $2.58. Less than a minute thereafter I was making my way along a narrow walkway, right into the small touristy area of town. It was right then that I felt incredibly peaceful vibes. Before this I had only been in Panajachel and the city of Antigua. The feeling of super calm reminded me of how I had felt a decade prior after randomly walking into a mosque in Granada, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The stroll into San Marcos caused me to recall how tranquilized I had felt while smelling frankincense and being kindly greeted in that place of worship.

I spent a few hours walking around San Marcos and talking to a few people. I noticed spots where foreigners were doing intense Yoga with a super-serious instructor. I also noticed a few younger travelers who seemed completely absorbed in their own aura and feelings of intense, exponential growth, as if an extra awareness had been recently acquired. It was as if they had learned how to utilize their third eye, and felt to be coming of age, having multiple epiphanies including the realization that the world is a playground for manifestation, all in their own free, subjective and powerful way.

San Juan La Laguna

One morning I power walked from San Pedro to San Juan La Laguna in about half an hour. Like all the towns, San Juan has its own charm. I noticed tourist workers, for example, in a coffee shop and in the chocolateria, were more pleasant or less jaded from being over toiled, than in Panajachel or San Pedro. For better or worse, I cannot help but notice these things. I feel more content when people are genuinely pleasant, or at least making an effort, as opposed to showing me clearly that the job is completely meaningless and I am just another foreign face in a sea of of never-ending wealthy heathens, or something likely not so harsh.

Selfie on the road leading to the docks and the lake in San Juan La Laguna

Perhaps it is human nature for poor local workers in tourist towns to feel envy for the care-free tourists they see daily, flaunting fun, money and leisure time, something otherwise foreign to those in the mostly-impoverished local community.

While walking down the main strip towards the docks, you know you have found another surreal enclave of the lake. There are cute facades, cafés, restaurants, and a thriving street market where you can purchase fun, unique gifts before departing for home.

The decorated docks of San Juan La Laguna.

There is also coffee and cacao knowledge to be acquired in San Juan. I thoroughly recommend San Juan as a place to pass a morning, a day or more. You can either stay in San Juan, walk or take a tuk tuk from San Pedro, or take the passenger boat over from wherever you are staying.

Santa Cruz and Jaibalito

The best part of my experience on Atitlan was walking from Santa Cruz to Jaibalito and vice versa. You can stay in either of these tranquil villages or take the passenger boat for a day trip. I enjoyed the walk so much, that instead of visiting a different village on my last day, I went back and took the stroll for a second time. This is a nature walk to be experienced.

A piece of the path from Santa Cruz to Jaibalito, one of the world’s great earth walks.

San Pedro La Laguna

San Pedro, like Panajachel, has the most competition and probably better value for lodging options. I recommend San Pedro for the abundance of living choices.

The woman who wakes up at 2 am to bake light, fresh, banana, pineapple and carrot bread for tourists. A huge portion costs 10 Q, or $1.29.

There are many eating and drinking possibilities in San Pedro. The town design is quaint. Off the main drags there are little roads that are more like idyllic paths weaving up, down and around.

San Pedro La Laguna – Photo shot from the walk back from San Juan La Laguna.

Like all over Guatemala and Latin America, there are Spanish language enrollment opportunities. Also, there are Mayan cooking classes and the daily option to hike to Indian Nose and volcanoes that are said to provide incredible views.

I did not do anything extra while on Atitlán. I paid for cheap but good value accommodation and spent money on moderately priced food, much of what is geared mostly to foreign tourists. Food is not cheap in my opinion, even if a meal ranging from mediocre to very good tends to cost half of what it might in North America. For Guatemala, this feels expensive, and certainly adds up. The walking or wandering I did was all free. I did not pay a guide or agency for anything. This was my unique way that was not planned. It just happened that way.

Heading back to San Pedro under afternoon cloud cover.

I paid for boat rides, which were a great value and a wonderful way to nature gaze. The cost of the rides are tough to understand as the price can vary depending on whether you are local, national, central American, a gringo who lives there, or a foreigner who is visiting. The price could also vary depending on your Spanish ability. The cost for gringos is said to be 25 Quetzales or $3.22. Pay the local conductor or driver after stepping off the boat. I recommend not saying a word and paying him 15 and walking away. If you only have a 20 Q bill, pay that. If you only have a 50 Q note, expect to get 25 back, and 75 if all you have is 100. Do your best to make it a point to have small bills for these situations. You may not get all the change back that you are supposed to. I paid 20 Quetzales my first seven or eight times. The last two times I decided to pay 15 Quetzales, and it worked. To get this price you must remain silent and look like you are a pro at taking these boats. Appear confident and know this is your price.

I wholeheartedly recommend Lake Atitlán as a drifting destination because it is one of the world’s great visually pleasing nature spaces. Whatever you choose to do, wherever you opt to live, how much you decide to spend, and what you eat and drink will be your unique prerogative. Regardless of what you do or do not do, think or do not think, Atitlán’s nature will remind you that our planet is miraculous.

Have you been to Lake Atitlán. Is there a village or town there which you wholeheartedly recommend staying in? Leave a comment below.

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