Many first time visitors to Guatemala are drawn to Lake Atitlan. What they may never suspect is how the vortex of magic that surrounds this place will draw them in, possibly forever. We came for six weeks that turned into eight weeks, that turned into eleven. As we prepare to be forced away by the date on our visa stamp, we share with you our five favorite villages around the lake.
Lake Atitlan is misunderstood, often listed in guidebooks as a singular destination rather than multiple diverse villages. The truth? Lake Atitlan is truly one of the most stunning places on the planet. Sitting at around 5200ft elevation, the weather is nearly perfect, with temperatures hovering in the 60’s-80’s requiring no heat or air conditioning.
Imagine an immense lake, offering an ideal climate year-round, surrounded by volcanoes, lined with villages inhabited by various indigenous tribes where coffee plants grow wild and the steep hilllsides are covered in flowers, banana and lime trees, and free growing avocado trees. Truly, avocados literally fall at your feet!
This heaven on earth is a favorite with the backpackers, yogis, and overlanders. With an active ex-pat community, it is obvious many who visit choose never to leave.
It all starts with Pana. The majority of travelers arrive and depart from Pana, by far the most cosmopolitan of the villages on the lake. Santander street is THE hub of the town, but there is much more to Pana than simply shopping for Guatemala handicrafts. We originally headed to Pana in search of a wire brush for Matty & Ingrid, and a chain and plastic bin for us. This “short” trip evolved into a full day of coffee drinking, exploring, shopping, and a bit of lunch. A dramatic switch from our sleepy home base of San Marcos, Pana seemed a bustling metropolis, while in reality there are fewer than 15,000 residents. The streets are lined with colorful Quatemalan handicrafts, vegetarian restaurants, and hardware stores. With a large variety of accommodations and restaurants, Pana is, above all, easy! For some amazing coffee and expat humor, make sure to head to Crossroads Cafe to chat up the gregarious owner, Mike, and drink some of his fantastic coffee
The exact opposite of Panajachel! For one month of our time we were in between San Marcos and Tzununa and walked there often. Very small, with almost no tourism, Tzununa nevertheless drew us in several times. Why, you ask? Two words- Atitlan Organics. Shad and his crew have created a fantastic, organic, sustainable farm out of a hilllside jungle. Their mixed greens are amazing, they offer the freshest herbs we’ve had in many a month, and the farm tour was just a whole lot of fun combined with some newfound knowledge. In cooperation with the Bambu Guest House they offer up delicious farm to table fare and amazing banana avocado smoothies. The climb from the lake to the lodge is a push, but with such rewards it proves so worth it that we did it more than once!
San Pedro la Laguna
San Pedro is the backpacker hub of the lake. Offering up seemingly endless coffee shops, bars, and restaurants, San Pedro has the cheapest prices around the lake and numerous Spanish schools. An active market town with TWO ATM machines, San Pedro is continually bustling. We have spent many a Sunday hanging with friends at Smokin’ Joes BBQ downing spicy bloody marys and southern style BBQ. There is no shortage of hotels and guest houses, although many backpackers choose the home stay option with their language classes which are especially reasonable.
San Juan la Laguna
We came to love San Juan. Two villages over from San Marcos, San Juan is all about two things for us: Textiles and Food. Multiple weaving co-ops call San Juan home and feature extraordinary, colorful, mind blowingly beautiuful huichols, table runners, scarves, aprons, purses… really just everything anyone could be looking for. A few delightful coffee shops dot the city, and Fe has some great curries. Another excellent lunch spot is the colorful Alma de Colores, featuring just a couple of items each day, but all delicious. This organization is a labor and social inclusion program for people with disabilities and offers handicraft opportunities along with gardening knowledge and the restaurant.
But the cheese, oh the CHEESE, is where my heart lies. Cafe el Artesano offers up something that most travelers crave over time~ a taste of home. We have always adored a good “carpet picnic” of assorted charcuterie, cheeses, nuts, fruit, bread and a bottle of wine. Although such a treat can be found in some cities we have explored this year, the price to acquire such a picnic is easily a full weeks eating budget. Imagine our delight to find a locally sourced restaurant offering up just that. Swiss owned, Cafe el Artesano is by reservation only and offers up meat, cheese and antipasti plates, liters of wine, fondue, and pates. A little bit of foodie heaven. Although not inexpensive, when shared with friends it also doesn’t break the bank and is so delightful we went there twice.
San Marcos la Laguna
For us, San Marcos was home. We originally decided on this village for the same reason many overlanders do~ Casa Pierre at Pasajcap. For several reasons, we ended up spending one month of our time at the lake in a cottage at Pierres, getting to know many overlander friends, sharing a festive Thanksgiving feast, and never tiring of the out of this world views of the lake from every inch of our cottage, including the bathroom!
For the rest of our time in town we were happily embedded at 7 Volcanoes. Set in lush gardens in town, we began and ended our time here, happily spending hours wandering the endless foot paths crisscrossing the hillside.The owner, Carlos, also owns Blind Lemon restaurant in town and is a very talented blues singer and guitarist. Many a happy evening was spent hanging out there before wandering those dark paths back home.
San Marcos easily drew us in. The most mystical of the villages the narrow paths are lined with bright murals, vegetable stands, and artisan jewelry and textiles. Coffee shops and restaurants are in abundance, and the Hostal del Lago was the site for Sunday farmers markets, live music, and movie nights.
Much of our time was spent at Il Giardino. This delightful secret garden restaurant serves up friendly service, delicious food, live music and guest chefs. Owner Mark produces homemade bread and pasta daily and we loved every single thing we ate, and doggie resident Alaska was always there to meet & greet.
One final favorite was Konojel Community Center, an NGO that offers up excellent daily plates for great prices with the proceeds going to the nutrition vulnerable of the community. Friendly, local, giving. Exactly our sort of place.
We delighted in the amazing coffee and bread supplied daily by Tim and his crew at Shangri-La Roasters. We sipped honey wine and hard cider from Love Probiotics, just a five minute walk down the path from us. We made friends around town, and were greeted daily by dozens and dozens of local Mayan families as we wandered the meandering paths.
Each village has a very distinct vibe. Pana is bustling and commercial. San Pedro is backpacker heaven. Tzununa is non-touristy and focuses on sustainable permaculture. San Juan is focused on textiles. For many, San Marcos is too sleepy. And yet, we are not 20’something backpackers anymore. We were looking for a great vibe, good wi-fi, and easy living, which is exactly what we got.
There are more villages around the lake, many favorites of others. Santa Cruz and Jaibalito, in particular seem to have a popular following. Somehow, in nearly three months, we made it to neither. San Pablo has little to offer the tourist, and yet we spent quite a bit of time there volunteering for the Guatemala Housing Alliance.
In the end, there is a town to fit anyone wishing to visit Guatemala and this remarkable little piece of the planet. While our restless souls are calling for the road, we know we leave a little bit of our hearts at Lake Atitlan.