The Towns of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
One thing I’ve noticed about Guatemala guidebooks and tours is that they tend to label Lake Atitlan as a singular destination. “Spend a few days exploring Antigua before a few days on Lake Atitlan, then move on to Semuc Champey…”
By the sound of that, you’d think that Lake Atitlan is tiny, maybe with one town and a public beach or two. Not in the least! It’s huge and there is so much to see!
I feel like these guidebooks and tours really do travelers a disservice — they convince people that the lake is only worth a few days at most. I couldn’t disagree more.
First of all, Atitlan is one of the most beautiful lakes I’ve ever seen. Imagine an immense lake, sparkling in the sunlight, surrounded by mountains and volcanoes covered with blooming wildflowers.
The weather is absolutely perfect — temperatures hover around 70s-80s (21-27 C) during the day and 50s-60s (10-20 C) at night. No need for heating or air conditioning. The clearest weather is from December to February; dry season runs from November to April.
Second, it’s home to a primarily indigenous community. If you’ve ever wondered what happened to the Mayans, it’s not that they disappeared — come to Lake Atitlan and you will be surrounded by them! And each town has its own signature style of clothing.
Third, it’s home to more than a dozen different towns. Tiny villages, big cities, Gringo heavens, indigenous villages. Each place is so different than the last and it’s worth exploring as many as possible.
Our Central America tour spent a full week on Lake Atitlan with stays in Panajachel, Jaibalito, and San Pedro, plus visits to surrounding towns. I feel like a full week on the lake is enough time to get a good sense of the many different communities that call it home.
Here are the top towns to visit, located counterclockwise from the lake’s main hub of Panajachel. Which Lake Atitlan town is best for you? Read on!
Known as: the tourist town.
Panajachel, a.k.a. Pana, is the most popular town for tourists to visit, and if you’re going to visit only one town in Lake Atitlan, it will probably be here. You’ll find a well-developed town with a lot of resources for both locals and expats.
Panajachel’s main drag is Calle Santander and it’s here that you’ll find the best shopping in Guatemala. There are plenty of tour agencies offering day trips and tours around the entire lake.
If I were to live anywhere in Central America, it would be Panajachel — but that doesn’t mean it’s my favorite place in Central America! Pana has the perfect mix of natural beauty, resources, good prices, easy travel connections, and an expat community. All important things in choosing a place to live.
Best Things to Do in Panajachel
Shop for EVERYTHING! Pana has the best selection and prices in Guatemala. If you’re looking to buy souvenirs, I recommend waiting until you get here. Jewelry, textiles, leather goods, artwork — they’ve got it all!
Visit Crossroads Coffee. This is more than just a coffee shop. The beans are obviously amazing (it’s Guatemala, after all!), but the true highlight of this place is Mike, the owner. He is the kindest, friendliest, most interesting man, he will talk your ear off in the best way, and I promise that you will feel so happy and light after having a conversation with him.
Take a sunset cruise. Of all the towns on Lake Atitlan, Panajachel has the best views of the sunset. There are regular weekend cruises (ask when in town); if you’re adventurous and speak a bit of Spanish, bargain with a captain at one of the docks! You’ll find the best sunsets from December to February; other months of the year, it’s rainy or it gets cloudy by late afternoon.
Where to Stay in Panajachel
Hotel Playa Linda is a find: super-cheap, adorable, and very Mayan. You might be the only non-Guatemalan staying in the neighborhood! Doubles from 300q ($39), triples from 450q ($58).
Where to Eat in Panajachel
Chez Alex is the fanciest and most expensive place in town — but let me tell you that at low Guatemalan prices, it’s so worth it. I had a fantastic steak with green peppercorn sauce along with plenty of red wine.
If you’ve been craving sushi after weeks on the road, Restaurant Hana has nice Japanese food.
Circus Bar has great pizza and live music on the weekends. We ordered from them for our pizza booze cruise!
Street tacos are abundant on Calle Santander and elsewhere. You’ll also find GFC (Guatemalan fried chicken) if you’re up for an indulgence.
And if you’re looking to drink, Gringos Locos has a very colorful cast of regulars. They serve food as well.
Known as: the nearly-vertical town.
Want to develop huge muscles in your calves? Come to Santa Cruz! I say this in jest, but seriously. Most of the villages in Lake Atitlan are built onto hills, but Santa Cruz is the steepest one of all.
Santa Cruz is a traditional Mayan town and though there are several expats living here, there’s hardly any influence. Most of the Gringo-oriented businesses are right down at the lake’s edge; once you climb into town, it’s purely local.
I liked Santa Cruz for a day trip; anything longer than that would be a bit excessive. Make sure you don’t miss the area down by the docks as well as the town itself.
Best Things to do in Santa Cruz
Go diving! Lake Atitlan’s one dive shop, ATI Divers, is located in Santa Cruz. It might not seem like a conventional diving destination, but with Atitlan’s rising waters, you’ll find lots of buildings that have been swallowed by the lake.
Walk to the top of the village. My friends were grumbling by the end, but it was an accomplishment to walk to the tippity top of the very vertical town!
Where to Stay in Santa Cruz
La Iguana Perdida. While I personally haven’t stayed here, it comes highly recommended by several of my friends.
Where to Eat in Santa Cruz
Cafe Sabor Cruceno is a culinary school creating Guatemalan and fusion dishes. If you’re coming for a day trip, this is where you want to eat for lunch! It’s located on the main plaza in town. The building also has the best views of the town and I took the first Santa Cruz photo from there.
Known as: the town people don’t want you to know about.
I have so much affection for Jaibalito — it’s a tiny town only accessible by water or by hiking, it’s home to three great establishments, the local community is very friendly, and the views of the lake are wonderful. It’s also conveniently located for day trips to other towns on the lake.
At night, noise swells — competing churches play incredibly loud and boisterous music, while in the middle of the night, all of the dogs on the lake seem to be barking at each other.
There’s not much to do in Jaibalito, but that’s where I think the charm lies. It feels like stumbling upon a secret that nobody knows about.
Best Things to Do in Jaibalito
Spend a day at Club Ven Aca. Club Ven Aca is a day club with a hot tub and an infinity pool overlooking Lake Atitlan. Chill out with music and cocktails. They do amazing pink mojitos!
Just hang out and relax. If you’ve come to Jaibalito with an agenda, you’re doing it wrong. This is a place for doing nothing.
Where to Stay in Jaibalito
I adore Vulcano Lodge — the rooms are beautiful, the food is delicious, and the grounds are spectacular, including a cactus garden. Thanks to Jaibalito prices, it’s luxury on a budget. Doubles from $45.
Where to Eat in Jaibalito
Posada Jaibalito (a.k.a. Hans’s place). This hostel is home to a restaurant with super-delicious and super-cheap food, including German dishes like schnitzel and goulash. Their salads are basic but ridiculously good — I can’t figure out why! This is also where Jaibalito’s expat community gathers each night.
Vulcano Lodge also serves excellent three-course meals for guests. Be sure to arrange earlier in the day. Club Ven Aca does a great burger.
San Marcos La Laguna
Known as: the hippie town.
Lake Atitlan is known for its mystical pull, and the pull is strongest in San Marcos, attracting a hippie community. You can pretty much figure out who in the boat is going to San Marcos based on what they’re wearing!
San Marcos is one of the most beautiful villages on the lake, but it’s tiny. After all the praises I had heard sung about San Marcos, I was stunned to see how small it actually was! I wouldn’t want to base in San Marcos, but it’s a great spot for a day trip.
Come here to get into your mystical side, or come here for the beautiful scenery. It’s worth a visit on both accounts.
Best Things to Do in San Marcos
Get your hippie on. Want your chakras balanced? Want a birth chart done? This is where to do it. There are several salons, too, if you’re in need of a manicure or a wax.
Jump into the water. San Marcos is home to Reserva Natural del Cerro Tzankujil, a beautiful trail that leads to a platform where you can jump into the lake! If you’re not up for a jump, you can climb into the water for a swim.
Do a retreat. Las Piramides hosts yoga and meditation retreats, as well as classes and short-term sessions. For a challenge, do one of their many silent retreats.
Where to Stay in San Marcos
While I haven’t stayed overnight in San Marcos, Hotel Paco Real comes highly recommended for budget travelers.
Where to Eat in San Marcos
Restaurant Fe. So good, I never ate anywhere else. The curries and the Indian soups are fabulous.
Cafe Shambhala is a nice place to hang out and sip a tea or kombucha.
For more on living in San Marcos, Never Ending Voyage wrote an excellent guide.
San Pedro La Laguna
Known as: the backpacker town.
San Pedro is home to the lowest prices on Lake Atitlan, making this a popular spot for backpackers and long-term travelers. With good accommodation, excellent food, and a wild nightlife scene, it’s not surprising that plenty of backpackers end up stuck in San Pedro for weeks or months!
It might seem like Gringo-land, but walk up the steep hill and you’ll be in an entirely Mayan part of the town. I loved taking long walks around here, photographing the colorful buildings.
If you’ve been spending a bit too much money on a long-term trip, this is a great place to spend time without breaking the bank.
Best Things to Do in San Pedro:
Climb San Pedro Volcano. You should have a good level of fitness, as it’s a tough climb, but if you do it, you’ll be rewarded with sensational views all over the lake.
Learn Spanish. San Pedro is home to several Spanish schools and they’re quite cheap — two of my friends took a weeklong course for just $40!
Party. This is the place. I’m usually at Sublime every evening, and they do fun theme nights like funk night, Disney night, and a black light party. Zoola is a fun for day drinking in the pool (and it’s the cleanest pool I experienced in Central America).
Where to Stay in San Pedro:
Hotel Mikaso is the nicest place in town with a gorgeous deck with purple flowers and hot and cold tubs. The beds are hand-carved and there’s a grand piano upstairs. Dorms from 60q ($8), private doubles from 180q ($24).
Pinocchio is a cheap alternative. Prices seem to be negotiated on the spot; for a room with one double bed, one single bed, and (doorless) private bathroom, we paid 200q ($26) when it was three people and 100q ($13) when it was just me. For rooms with a shared bathroom, a triple and a double, each person paid 50q ($6).
Where to Eat in San Pedro
I swear the food at Blue Parrot must laced with crack cocaine, it’s so good. I got a grilled cheese with avocado and tomato every morning! Everything on the menu is outstanding and they do a killer (and cheap) vodka sunrise.
Idea Connection. I can’t believe I found legitimate, Italian-quality pasta in Guatemala. Probably the best wifi I found in town, too.
Hotel Mikaso has the best pizza on Lake Atitlan. Thin-crust, gooey cheese, lightly charred. Dinner only.
Zoola is one of the many good Israeli restaurants in town.
Street tacos. Available everywhere on the main drag and always delicious. You’ll also find Japanese street food like yakitori and okonomiyaki, and plenty of street barbecue!
I haven’t visited the next towns on Lake Atitlan, but I thought they were worth including in the list for informational purposes:
The largest town on Lake Atitlan, Santiago is famous for its church (people make its saints handmade clothes!), its market, and the saint Maximon, whose home is in Santiago. Views of the lake are gorgeous from here and while you can climb San Pedro Volcano from here, it’s a longer and more dangerous route.
Santiago is a bit isolated from the major towns on the lake, but you can find direct lanchas from Panajachel and San Pedro.
San Juan La Laguna
Several women on my first tour visited San Juan and were captivated by it, describing it as a perfect small Atitlan town with colorful buildings, friendly people, and hardly any tourists. Their highlight was learning how to weave from a group of Mayan women at Lema, a collective in town.
The weaving costs $35 for five hours and everyone who went came back raving — if this is your kind of thing, I recommend you go!
San Juan is the next town over from San Pedro.
Santa Catarina Palopo
Santa Catarina Palopo is a pretty town just past Panajachel and if you’re up for a (non-volcanic) hike, this is an easy and fun way to enjoy the coastline! Santa Catarina is also home to hot springs (aguas termales) that appear to be built right into the lake. This was one of the stops on the motorcycle trip on our tour.
Santa Catarina is most easily accessed from Panajachel, by road, hiking, or boat.
Lake Atitlan Tips
To get from town to town, take a lancha (boat) from the town’s dock. Generally boats run in either direction from town to town from Panajachel-Santa Cruz-Jaibalito-Tzununa-San Marcos-San Juan-San Pedro, plus stops in between at other towns and private docks where people need to be picked up.
Other lines run direct between Panajachel and San Pedro, Panajachel and Santiago, and Santiago and San Pedro.
Prices vary and can be negotiated. Generally, ask someone nearby what you should pay, or negotiate down when the driver tells the price. Short distances are usually 15-25q ($2-3). You pay the driver when you arrive.
Lake Atitlan is generally an extremely safe place for travelers, due in part to the Mayan laws of conduct, but some travelers have been robbed while crossing to other towns on foot. Many of these paths are safe, like between Santa Cruz and Jaibalito, and the situation can change frequently, so ask locals whether it’s safe for you to do so.
Keep in mind that many Mayans don’t like being photographed. Some are happy to pose for photos, but always ask permission before you take a photo of a Mayan.
Child trafficking is an issue in Guatemala, so please don’t take close-up photos of children without permission from their parents.
Do not flirt with Mayans. It’s forbidden for Mayans to entertain romance with non-Mayans.
If you want to swim in Lake Atitlan, Panajachel and San Marcos are good places to do so. The lake is dirtier around San Pedro, though it didn’t stop a few of my friends from jumping in…
Not all towns have ATMs! Make sure to stock up on cash in Panajachel or San Pedro before visiting the other towns.
If you’re staying long-term, look into an Airbnb rental. There are plenty of options all over the lake. (Get $25 off your first Airbnb stay here!)
Prepare for crazy dreams. Some say it’s due the altitude (Atitlan is a mile-high lake!); others blame the lake’s mystical powers. I don’t know what it is, but several of my friends and I had crazy dreams the whole time we were on the lake, especially in Jaibalito.
Where to Go After Lake Atitlan
Both Panajachel and San Pedro are well-connected for onward transportation; if you’re staying in any of the other towns, I recommend getting yourself to either of these hubs by boat first.
Antigua is a beautiful colonial city about 2.5 hours from Panajachel (and you’ve probably already visited it en route to the lake).
Chichicastenango has an enormous and enormously popular market on Sundays and Thursdays. (Keep in mind that Panajachel has many of the same items for cheaper.) It’s about two hours from either Panajachel or San Pedro.
Quetzaltenango (Xela) is a medium-sized city about 3 hours from San Pedro and a popular hotspot for dirt-cheap Spanish courses.
You can get to pretty much any major tourist destination in Guatemala from San Pedro or Panajachel. Our journey from San Pedro to Lanquin for Semuc Champey was supposed to take around eight hours but took twelve. Godspeed if you want to go all the way to Flores or Rio Dulce in a single trip.
If you want to cross into Mexico next, San Cristobal de las Casas is an overnight journey from either Panajachel or San Pedro. Some agencies have direct buses to San Salvador and El Tunco in El Salvador; others have direct buses to Copan Ruinas in Honduras.
And if you need to go to Guatemala City Airport, you can find direct connections from both Panajachel (three hours) and San Pedro (four and a half hours).
(These times are all by direct shuttle, and keep in mind that “Latin time” means they might take longer. Local chicken buses are much cheaper but will invariably take much longer and possibly require you to change buses once or more.)
For more on the towns and villages of Lake Atitlan, check out Atitlan Living.