Lake Atitlan is the eternal spring of Guatemala and a place for relaxation, beauty, bliss and party (if you know where to go). It’s got something for everyone, and it shouldn’t be left out of a Guatemala backpacking itinerary. So, keep reading for my guide on things to do in Lake Atitlan and some advice on where to stay at the Lake!
Lake Atitlan is one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, and the amazing volcanoes that act as a backdrop are a big reason for this.
If you’ve ever wondered where the Mayan people are, they are at the lake.
Most of the towns at the lake are around 98% indigenous populated, which is amazing and brings about an interesting experience for visitors.
When you go to Lake Atitlan, you will get transport to Panajachel, the main town of the area. It’s from here you can get various boats to the other islands, but we will discuss that later.
You can get buses to San Pedro (if that’s the island you choose), but most people just get a boat!
Most people go from Lake Atitlan from Antigua, or Guatemala city. There are a few different options.
Uber: You can arrange for an uber from either Antigua or Guatemala city. According to the Uber website, it should cost you approximately $42-50. This isn’t a bad price if you’re sharing with 3 other people. That price is based on the airport.
If you are going from Antigua it will cost around $30-40.
So if you want a fuss-free way of getting there then get Uber!
Bus: You can get a chicken bus. People often say the chicken buses are dangerous, but they aren’t from my own experience. Bradley and I have never had any issues, but it’s up to you.
They are slower and cheaper, and of course a little more cramped. I don’t know the specific number of bus you need to take, so your best bet is to ask a local. But it won’t cost more than $2.
Shuttle: If you are in Antigua, then you can easily get a shuttle to Lake Atitlan for around $10, sometimes slightly less.
This is what Brad and I did. They leave at various times, such as 7 am, 9 am, 12 p, 3pm so you can choose a time that suits you!
The journey takes about 2.5 hours with traffic and most shuttles will pick you up from your accommodation in Antigua.
If you don’t want to stay overnight in Lake Atitlan or you’re very short on time, then you can take a day trip to the lake from Antigua. The tour usually includes a stop at all the different areas on the lake (such as San Marcos, San Pedro etc). It’s around $30 for the day trip.
But, I recommend you stay a few nights if you can!
Before you decide where to stay in Lake Atitlan, you should probably work out how long you want to be there.
It depends on what you want. You could easily stay a couple of nights on each of the different areas, or stick to one place. I’d say all-in-all 4-5 nights at the lake is good.
If you want to hike volcanoes and relax, then you may want to stay a little longer. We stayed 3 nights!
The weather in Lake Atitlan is known for its eternal spring. This means it contains a lovely temperature of around 24 degrees Celsius throughout the year.
Also, because of the high altitude, it’s naturally warmer too, so you’ll find the lake is a pleasant temperature to swim in if you wish!
The amazing temperature means you don’t need air conditioning or heating, it’s a constant comfortable state.
Don’t forget your sunscreen.
Okay, now one of the bigger decisions when you go the lake. Where should you stay in Lake Atitlan?
Honestly, there is a lot of choice, and the different areas offer something different.
If you don’t fancy visiting them all to stay on, you can choose one as your base then book a day tour of the rest of the towns and that will you will get to experience them all.
But below I will discuss the different areas and why that area might be the right one for you!
San Pedro is the backpacker town of the lakes. If you want to meet fellow backpackers (especially when travelling solo, then make your way to San Pedro!)
It’s got the cheapest prices on food and drink, so if you want to stick to a budget, then this is a good choice too.
There are lots of parties happening on San Pedro, so if you need some excitement then visit!
I think this is a pretty good place to stay in Lake Atitlan for a couple of nights. It’s not all backpackers though, you can experience the Mayan culture here too, which is why it’s a good choice.
There are lots of hotels in San Pedro to choose from, and you can find them all here.
How to get to San Pedro: Just head to the pier in Panajachel and get on a boat. You can also get a bus direct to San Pedro from Antigua too.
If Lake Atitlan had a capital, it would be Panajachel. It’s the tourist hub and the central hub from getting to and from the towns of the lake.
There is cheap accommodation, lots of souvenir shops, lots of restaurants serving cheap cocktails and a really cool chocolate museum.
This is where you will find the most choice when it comes to tours and booking onward transportation (say to, El Salvador, Nicaragua etc)
I wouldn't recommend spending all your time here. But I would stay here the night before you are leaving the lake.
Most transport leaves super early and you don't’ want to fork out for a private boat shuttle.
So stay in Panjacenel for a night and that gives you a chance to pick up some souvenirs and try the food places!
We stayed in a hotel called Hotel El Sol It was a little way from the “tourist” hub, but we enjoyed the walk. Plus the hotel was super clean, offered breakfast and the WiFi was great!
How to get to Panajachel: the transports we spoke about earlier will take you to here.
The original hippy town!
A tiny but beautiful town on the lake, this area is popular for those who wants to relax, practice yoga and so on.
There is the opportunity to take a yoga retreat, do some medication, or get a treatment done at the salon. It’s truly a place to come and relax, don’t expect much more.
But it’s beautiful so definitely a great choice on where to stay in Lake Atitlan for those seeking inner peace.
How to get to San Marcos: Head to the pier in Panajachel and ask for the public boat to San Marcos.
Santa Cruz was the closest town to us. We stayed in a beautiful lodge called the Sunset Lodge and it was tranquil and had its own space away from the towns.
But you could walk to Santa Cruz along the front of the lake which was lovely.
Santa Cruz is vertical. Which means you either exercise your calf muscles or use a tuk tuk. It’s the smaller of the towns, but it’s cheap and has some really nice lakefront restaurants.
This is a very authentic town with mostly traditional Mayans. There is little tourist infrastructure unless you’re at the lakefront, but that’s what is nice about it.
There are hotels in Santa Cruz to stay, but I recommend the Sunset Lodge which is close and makes you feel like you’ve got the whole lake to yourself. Plus, the sunsets are unbelievable.
How to get to Santa Cruz: Go to the pier at Panajachel and simply ask for a public boat to Santa Cruz. It’s about $1.
Colorful buildings, little tourists and authentic culture, San Juan is located next to San Pedro, so it’s a welcome escape from the tourists and madness.
If you want some “me time” and to be surrounded by beauty and locals, then this is a good place to stay in Lake Atitlan.
You can get to San Juan via boat and you can find hotels in San Juan here.
Now that you’ve chosen where to stay in Lake Atitlan, it’s now time to discover what to do in Lake Atitlan.
I’ve rounded up what I think are the best things to do in Lake Atitlan. There is truly something to suit every individual, so just take your pick!
If you’ve got a decent fitness level, then you can take on Volcan San Pedro. If you do hike it, you can be greeted with stunning sunsets and sunrises (depending on when you go).
It takes about 3 hours to hike up and down and you will be reaching a height of 3,020-meters. You’ll be greeted with views of the iconic lake and the Mayan villages below.
It’s best to do this on a tour, and this is a pretty good one! But entrance is 100Q and includes an optional guide, so up to you.
Bradley did this from our stay at the Sunset Lodge near Santa Cruz and it looked amazing. He went out and I managed to get this cool shot of him between the volcanoes.
The paddle boarding was included in our stay, but you can rent paddles boards from lots of different towns for either a couple of hours or a day.
Some parts of the lake are cleaner than others.
For example, I wouldn’t recommend swimming in Panajachel or San Pedro as it’s dirty (although that doesn’t stop some people), but the likes of San Juan and Santa Cruz, the water is clean and perfect for swimming!
But if you love water this is definitely one of the great things to do in Lake Atitlan.
Some reports say this isn’t possible, but it is! I found information from this post, and I’ve reiterated it here. It can be climbed from two sides: Santiago and Sun Lucas, and it’s more established from the San Lucas side.
If you’re slow it will take around 6 hours to summit, but half the time if you're quick and super fit. Read the article I attached for finding a guide to take you!
Volcano Tolman isn’t an active volcano, but the hike isn’t for the faint hearted.
You need to be physically fit to take this volcano on and it typically take about 12 hours with breaks to climb. Make sure you bring a guide with you who knows the area to guide you on your climb.
Also remember that you are climbing in an already high altitude, which believe it or not, makes the air thinner and makes it harder to climb, so seriously be careful, take your time and bring plenty of water to stay hydrated. (Altitude dehydrates you quicker too).
Take plenty of food and snacks, bug spray and you need to start the hike early, around 3am. There are some really good tips from people who hiked the volcano here!
On the town of San Juan you can learn the art of traditional Mayan weaving. For around a 4 hour course it’s about $40.
This is a pretty cool new skill to learn and something you’ll remember for a lifetime. Plus you can weave your own souvenir.
I'd say this is a unique thing to do in Lake Atitlan that will create an everlasting memory!
If you like to Kayak then what better way than to explore nearby towns than kayaking between them on the lakes. Various lakefront properties will let you rent kayaks for a half day or full day.
You can get double kayaks if you’d like to go with a friend or partner!
This is one of the great things to do in Lake Atitlan that I only discovered when I left as I seen people paragliding in the distance.
I paraglided in Bolivia and it was an amazing experience, so I would happily do it again!
It’s about $80 per person which is expensive. I paid about $45 dollars in Bolivia, but the views from the Lake do look amazing, so it’s probably worth it!
Want to party? Then this should be on your list of things to do in Lake Atitlan.
Get yourself on a sunset boat cruise with a bring your own booze moto.
I’ve done my fair share of boat parties over the years, most of them when I was younger, but I LOVED them, and if you love to dance, drink and have fun, then this is a great way to do it!
Just be careful with drowning and water….
Or jumping into the water with your phone in your pocket..I’ve done that.
There are lots of places to learn Spanish on all the different towns.
You could stay and take a 4 week course for a couple of hundred, which typically includes accommodation and food, or you can do a week course for $40 on some towns which is a good taster session!
It’s a cheap, and beautiful location to learn the wonderful Spanish language.
Santa Catarina Palopo is a cute town located just past Panajachel and it’s home to some lovely hot springs which seem built into the lake.
Hot springs are a result of volcanoes and I chase hot springs, I love them. Nowhere has quite beat the hot springs of Chile, but still worth it all the same!
There are countless places to practice yoga, and San Marcos is one of the most popular spots. You can opt for a yoga retreat, or even meditation classes.
If you already know yoga and like to practice yourself, then you’ll find many peaceful spots around the town's to do so too.
So when it comes to deciding where to stay in Lake Atitlan for yoga, pretty much anywhere works!
When I went to Lake Atitlan I went for one reason, to relax by the lake. To hear the sounds of water (yes it has a sound), birds, and just nature in general, and that’s what I got.
It was serene, peaceful, beautiful and I could have stayed there for weeks.
Many people do end up staying for weeks, and that does not surprise me!
What better way than to get to know the local culture than by eating their food and learning how to make it! I’m very fond of cooking classes, and it’s possible to take them from Panajachel.
It will probably be in the region of $30-50 dollars and there is a good tour here I recommend.
You can cook traditional Mayan cuisine for your friends and family back home!
There is one dive place located in all of Lake Atitlan and it’s on Santa Cruz.
You might not think of the lake as a hot stop for diving, but actually there are a lot of buildings that have sunk by the lake that are now underwater and ready to explore. Pretty cool!
One of the more unique things to do in Lake Atitlan!
The last time I did horseback riding I was 10 years old and I panicked when the horse began to trot, so it’s not for me, but if you want to try it, it’s a pretty common activity in San Pedro!
You’ll see the locals on their horses and you can arrange a trip too.
I'd say this is a pretty romantic thing to do in Lake Atitlan!
Wherever you are in Lake Atitlan, you'll always have the chance to catch the amazing sunsets on offer. This is without doubt one of the number one things to do in Lake Atitlan. Bring your camera, it's super beautiful and super romantic.
Be aware of the altitude: I’ll just mention this again. People often underestimate the power of high altitude, it can make you feel sick and tired, so keep hydrated. If you’ve got type 1 diabetes (like me) then check out my guide on managing altitude here.
Don’t take pictures of people without permission: You should always ask permission anyway, but there is an increasing child trafficking problem in Guatemala, so don’t take pictures of children without their parents permission, or people in general without their permission!
ATMs: the main ATMs are in Panjacnel, so I recommend you get all the money you need there before you head off to the other towns. (San Pedro will probably be fine). Also, use a Revolut card for the best exchange rate and no ATM fees or charges.
Boats: Public boats tend to run like this Panajachel-Santa Cruz-Jaibalito-Tzununa-San Marcos-San Juan-San Pedro and vice versa. If you have another spot in between, just tell the driver and they’ll stop no problem.
You can opt for private transfers too if you don’t mind the extra cost!
Below I’ve highlighted my top 5 hotels in Lake Atitlan. These are based on my research when I was looking and it includes the lodge I stayed in too!
After Lake Atitlan you can spend a few days in Antigua (if you haven’t already been), although you may find you love Antigua too much and don’t want to leave!
Lake Atitlan is often the final destination for people on the typical Guatemalan itinerary and we headed off to the beaches of El Salvador, El Tunco for some sunshine, surf and cocktails!
It only cost us 250 Q for our transfer, so be wary of people charging 300-400 for it. They are ripping you off. Either way you head back to Antigua and join a shuttle bus there onto the beaches.
BTW, I just want to note there is NO EXIT OR ENTRY FEE for Guatemala, so if someone tries to charge you, they are lying.
I get this question a lot and the answer is yes. If you treat it like any other country and take normal precautions such as not flashing the cash and expensive items, not walking around alone at night, or putting yourself in a vulnerable drunk position, then you will be fine.
So there you have it, my guide on where to stay in Lake Atitlan, alongside what to do in Lake Atitlan.
I hope after reading this you’ve come to a better decision on where to base yourself and gathered some exciting things to do in Lake Atitlan and add to your Lake Atitlan itinerary.
If you’ve visited and you’ve got other recommendations to add to the list, then please comment below.