Lago Atitlán: A Highland Lake of Many Quaint Towns

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 around naturally and culturally stunning Lake Atitlán, Guatemala.

When someone writes about or shoots photos of Lake Atitlán, they’re objective to an extent. Nevertheless, 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. Women have culturally appropriate attire. The colors of the female huipiles (cotton dresses) identify which village a woman is from. These unique subcultures have survived for centuries.

Even if there were only one village to report on, 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 don’t have the fortitude or 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 would have been plenty. I managed six of the 13. So please read my individual take on Lake Atitlán with an open mind. 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 almost half of the towns and villages around the colossal water mass.

An idyllic spot on Lago de Atitlán in the Guatamalan highlands.
One of endless dyllic spots on Lake Atitlán, Guatemala.

During the boat passages from town 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. I quickly developed an admiration for the southern Guatemalan highlands, el altiplano, and its representation of our enthralling earth.

Lago Atitlán is a spectacular remnant of nature with 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 discount for staying an extra week, the decision to make San Pedro La Laguna my home for what would be close to two weeks, was an easy one.

The weekly rate was 500 Q ($64.22). The room had a private bathroom with a hot (not the hottest) water shower. The Wi-Fi worked great most of the time. That’s a good value in 2022.

Being based in one of the towns and taking day trips on la lancha (ferry) is easier than packing and unpacking and finding new places of accommodation. I had been thinking of spending 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 abas (dried fava beans). After the purchases, some of the vendors seemed to want nothing to do with me. Their aloofness felt odd.

An official guide mildly pestered me for business even after I politely told him I wasn’t interested. This is rare in Latin America, but the inviting lake has been touristy for half a century. Thus, many people have relied on its intake of vagabonds for putting food on their tables.

Ironically, San Pedro was considerably more touristy than Santiago, yet anyone who pushed their business in San Pedro stepped away instantly when I politely declined.

Later I told locals in San Pedro of the personal Santiago aloofness phenomenon. They wholeheartedly agreed and mentioned that the people of Santiago Atitlán are known to be distant.

Still, this multiple-hour experience in Santiago doesn’t qualify me to judge thousands of people in a community, even if two or three locals in San Pedro felt the same way.

I don't have the right to judge anyone.

I only saw a handful of foreign tourists. A couple of tuk tuk drivers offered guided tours. But I had no interest in this three-wheel mode of transport. I preferred to value and pay gratitude to my legs as my primary mode of transport.

I had already taken a scenic boat ride from San Pedro and would get a similar lancha back , so I didn’t want more transportation. Also, I don’t know why, but I felt zero interest in seeing the famous Maximón.

As a person who’s drifting indefinitely, I’m not out to see everything, especially when it comes at an inflated tourist cost.

A picturesque diverse earth view above Lago Atitlan from Santiago de Atitlan in the Guatemalan highlands.
Stunning sub tropical highland vista, Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala.

Santiago has interesting architecture. Walking and gazing is aesthetically pleasing. There are nice views.

At one point, a boy repeatedly asked for my camera. There were a few other people around.

While I didn’t feel threatened, I instinctively put the device in my pocket as I moved on quickly towards what I hoped would be a more crowded area.

While that situation was safe, I’m not in the habit of calling a potential bluff. I’d rather carry the habit of vigilance.

NOTE: During six weeks in Guatemala, including a few days in Guatemala City, I didn't feel unsafe once. 

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 few hours in Santiago Atitlán. I’m happy I did. I’m sure if I had given it time, I would have connected with warmer people. All in all, this town has its own charm, natural beauty and unique history.


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, that I immediately unplugged and a table, plastic chair and solid Wi-Fi. I wouldn’t need to change accommodation during my few days in Pana.

The 13 dollar room I stayed in in Panajachel, on Lake Atitlán in the Tuatemalan highlands.
The room I rented at the family-owned and run Hotel Nisbo, COST 100 Q ($12.88), Panajachel, Guatemala.

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

Street scene Panajachel.  A biker, graffiti, pavement and Super Tacos that provide excellent street food.
Guatemalan taco stand on a corner, Panajachel, Guatemala.

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 its mass tourism, I found San Pedro more quaint.

San Marcos La Laguna

While in Panajachel, I took a day trip to San Marcos la Laguna. After taking in the mesmerizing lake scenery on the passenger boat, I debarked and handed the kid 20 Q ($2.58). Less than a minute thereafter I made my way along a narrow walkway, right into the small touristy area.

In San Marcos, I felt incredibly peaceful vibes. Before that, I had only been in Panajachel and Antigua. The extra-calm feeling reminded me of how I had felt a decade prior after randomly walking into a mosque in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The stroll into San Marcos caused me to recall how tranquil 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 younger travelers absorbed in their own aura and feelings of intense, exponential growth. I sensed that revelations had been acquired. It was as if they had learned how to utilize their third eye, feeling a coming of age, having multiple epiphanies including the realization that the world is a playground for manifestation.

San Juan La Laguna

One morning I power walked from San Pedro to San Juan La Laguna in half an hour. Like all the towns, San Juan has its unique charm.

Compared to in Panajachel or San Pedro, I noticed tourist workers in a coffee shop and in the chocolateria were more pleasant (less jaded) from being overworked. For better or worse, I can’t help but notice these things.

I feel more content when people are genuinely pleasant, or at least making an effort. This beats conveying the mentality that the job is completely meaningless and I am just another foreign face in a sea of of never-ending wealthy heathens.

Selfie on a quaint road in San Juan la Laguna on Lago Atitlán, Guatemala.
Selfie on a quaint road, San Juan La Laguna, Guatemala.

It’s human nature for poor local workers in tourist towns to feel envy for the care-free foreigners they see daily. As these visitors flaunt their fun, money and free time, the mostly-impoverished local community can’t help but notice.

While walking along the main strip towards the docks, you know you’ve found another surreal enclave of the lake. There are cute façades, cafés, restaurants, and a thriving street market where you can buy fun, unique gifts.

The decorated docks of San Juan La Laguna on Lago Atitlán in Guatemala.
Decorated docks, San Juan La Laguna, Guatemala.

There’s 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 stay in San Juan, walk, or take a tuk tuk from San Pedro. You can also get the passenger boat over from wherever you’re staying on the lake.

Santa Cruz and Jaibalito

The best part of my experience on Atitlán 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 one of the world’s great short nature walks.

A beautiful mountain-lake trail in Santa Cruz on Lago Atitlán, Guatemala
On one of the world’s great earth walks, Santa Cruz La Lagnua, Guatemala.

San Pedro La Laguna

San Pedro, like Panajachel, has the most competition, thus best lodging values. I recommend San Pedro for the abundance of living choices.

A hawker sells freshly baked breads in San Pedro la Laguna on Lago Atitlán, Guatemala.
The woman who wakes up at 2 am to prepare delicious bread for tourists. A huge portion costs 10 Q ($1.29), San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala.

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

View of San Pedro la Laguna on Lago Atitlán in Guatemala.
Town peninsula, San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala.

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

I didn’t 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 towards foreign tourists.

Food is not cheap in my opinion, even if a meal ranging from mediocre to great tends to cost half of what it might in North America. For Guatemala it feels expensive. Daily food costs certainly add up.

The walking (wandering) I did was all free. I didn’t pay a guide or agency for anything. This was my unique unplanned way that just happened.

People on a passenger boat on Lago Atitlán in Guatemala.
Passenger ferry, Lake Atitlán, Guatemala.

I paid for boat rides. They were a good value and a wonderful way to nature gaze. The cost of the rides are tough to understand as they vary depending on whether you’re a local national, central American, a gringo who lives there, or a foreigner who is visiting.

The cost can also depend on your Spanish ability. The cost for visiting gringos is said to be 25 Quetzales ($3.22). Pay the local conductor or driver after stepping off the boat. I recommend not saying a word and paying him 15 and hardly stopping as you’re walking past him. 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 have small bills for these situations. You may not get all the change back that you’re supposed to. I paid 20 Quetzales my first seven or eight times. The last two times I decided to try 15 Quetzales, and it worked. To get this price you must remain silent and pretend you’re a pro at taking these boats. Look 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 don’t do, think or don’t think, Atitlán’s nature will remind you that our planet is miraculous.

Have you been to Lake Atitlán? Is there a village or town that you wholeheartedly recommend staying in? Feel free to leave a comment below.

Here is the full photo collection from San Pedro la Laguna on Lago Atitlán.

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