We are in paradise. Granted, we’ve been to quite a few “bits of paradise” in our years of travel, but Lake Atitlan is pure magic. We came for a couple of weeks, and just extended our stay so it will equal nearly the entire length of our 90 day visa. Other friends came for four days, and just hit their four week mark. Like I said, this place is magic. Having said that, the road into the lake is shit. And I mean total shit, the sort of road that gives you nightmares for a couple of days after arrival. Here is what you need to know if you, too, are planning on visiting Guatemala.
After an uneventful border crossing at La Mesilla, the colorful villages and smooth road ahead created optimism. Carlos, soon to be our host in San Marcos, had warned of bad roads and suggested we plan on five or six hours from the border to the lake. Surely he was nuts. Here we were, comfortably cruising along, winding our way through stunning scenery. Soon enough the warnings became clear as potholes increased in dimension, a tropical downpour reduced roads to rivers, and we went up and up, winding our way to nearly 10,000ft elevation at our highest spot.
Five hours later we finally reached Santa Clara, the town sitting high above Lake Atitlan, we encountered a lovely, well paved, albeit VERY steep road. How bad could this be? Yes, Jim was sick and barely hanging in there. Yes, I was tired after dealing with the border and driving all day. But it was only around 13 more miles to San Marcos. The road was beautiful. This was a piece of cake.
What came next was a travel day from hell. Who knew that travel to Guatemala would be such a challenge? As I inched down the ever increasingly steep road I suddenly realized I was losing my brakes. Foot on the floor but not stopping losing my brakes! After pulling as far to the side as possible, the smoke billowing from our back brakes enforced this opinion. Panic, and darkness, were approaching, but after a brief rest we continued on. In low 4WD and 1st gear, I inched even slower down the hill commenting that, at least, the pavement was great.
I should have known better. Suddenly the pavement turned to a dirt road of pot holes the size of VW bugs, large boulders, and 180degree blind corners with chicken buses heading up the hill. Jim became fully alert for the first time all day, helping to see ahead as much as possible for oncoming traffic, and practically shouting “start honking now” as we came upon the next blind curve.
Aspen, already bored and restless with a long day in the truck, sensed the tension and started inching her way into the front seat.
I kept focusing on breathing, assuming the road really couldn’t get any worse….until it did. Suddenly, the road that had been cement, then dirt, turned to a one lane of pavement heading UP the hill, while the downhill lane became even bumpier. When vision was allowed I hugged the left, having to drop off to the jolting mess of dirt on the right when faced with oncoming traffic.
Luckily for my now fragile nerves, this portion of the road soon went back to “simply” being a narrow, rutted, muddy dirt road. A scary detour through the tiny streets of San Pablo only added to the tension, but by this time we were getting close.
Whew, we were finally approaching San Marcos. The end of this day of driving hell was in sight as we were stopped by the municipal police due to an enormous boulder taking up half of the road. Exhausted, I clipped the traffic cone, sending it tumbling. As the officer started at screaming at me, I was near tears so ready for this day to be over.
Sadly, the challenging day attempting to visit Guatemala was not over. San Marcos consists of exactly two streets, one of which is one lane and surely not meant for our truck camper. Jim went on foot to meet Carlos at his restaurant, Blind Lemons, while I slowly made my way, a dozen young boys hanging off of my running boards. We got parked at Lucas’s house, a random location Carlos had arranged, and paid the boys to carry our goods up the foot paths to the house.
Heaven. 7 Volcanoes was to become our home for over six weeks. Lovingly hand-built by Carlos and his crew, the tropical garden and secure compound is a dream come true. Sadly for me, Jim had fully wilted by this time, his head cold in full force. We had no quetzales and no food. Carlos, bless his heart, was heading back to Lemons and said he’d front me dinner for the night so I leashed up Aspen and off we went back down the paths. An hour later, it was dark. And it was raining. Hard. And I was terrified. Now, I am not one to get nervous, but a million stories swirled through my head. Mostly stories of being robbed at machete point.
Aspen and I stumbled up the path, soaking wet, peering through the darkness and acting confident as we passed numerous men carrying machetes. I took a wrong turn and got momentarily lost. I was quickly feeling like a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
In the end, quite obviously, I made it back to 7 Volcanoes. Jim recovered. We learned our way around the labyrinth of paths that make up this village. We quickly learned that everyone carries a machete most of the time. And only a short day or two later we came to fully embrace the magic of this place.
Our story aside, there are actually easier options for travel to Lake Atitlan.
For those driving in, whether as overlanders or through a van hire, just know it’s a strain. The fact of the matter is, the road is total shit, an opinion shared by all who drive it. When our friends Matty & Ingrid arrived last month he declared it took him two full days to even appreciate the view after driving in. One running joke is that everyone lingers so long just to avoid the drive out. Simply… it’s crap. However, by planning properly, it can be a little bit less stressful.
The first tip is simply to spend the previous night in Quetzaltenango (most often referred to as Xela) or Antigua or any number of other locations that are nearby. Choosing to tackle a border into a new country and driving 5 hours to the road to the lake is foolhardy at best. Arrive in Santa Clara with plenty of daylight and plenty of energy, and while it won’t be smooth going, it will less nerve racking.
One alternative, if coming from Antigua or Guatemala City, is to take the longer route along the southern half of the lake. Referred to as Robbers Road, it isn’t a safe undertaking on your own, but for a mere 70Q (around $10 USD) you can arrange for several police to come along on the ride to San Pedro from the highway.
The reality is, most travelers to the lake arrive by shuttle bus or chicken bus. Most travelers arrive in Panajachel ( AKA Pana). Flights into Guatemala are almost exclusively into the capital, Guatemala City. From there, shuttles run regularly from 6am to early afternoon to Pana, taking around 4 1/2 hours and going via Antigua. Prices run around $25pp. For a private transfer, plan on around $100 or, for those who enjoy the lifestyles of the rich and famous, you can come into the lake by helicopter for between $1000-1400!
For travelers already in Antigua life is even easier. For a mere $12pp and a couple of hours, the ride to Pana is painless.
Of course, for the truly adventurous, there are the famous chicken buses, those former US school buses transformed into rolling pieces of artwork. Crowded? Yes. Sharing transport with chickens? Quite possibly! While more of authentic than the shuttles, the chicken buses are slower and cheaper, but will surely create memories.
Once in at the lake, Tuk Tuks rule the roads, but life is really lived on the water, and most travel time is spent on the lanchas that run at regular intervals to nearly every village around the lake.
The villages of Lake Atitlan are varied and fascinating. Offering up near perfect weather, stunning scenery, and a fascinating culture, regardless of how you arrive you will never want to leave.