Lake Atitlan is the eternal spring of Guatemala and is a place for relaxation, beauty, bliss and party (if you know where to go).
It’s got something for everyone, and shouldn’t be left out of any Guatemala backpacking itinerary.
This place is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, and the amazing volcanoes that act as a backdrop are a big reason for this.
There's also a large population of Mayan people here, as most of the towns in this area are around 98% indigenous populated.
This means that there's plenty of culture so you're in for the experience of a lifetime.
Not only that, but there are lots of activities in Lake Atitlan for you to get involved with so what are you waiting for?
Keep reading for my guide on the best things to do in Lake Atitlan and some advice on where to stay at the Lake!
Let's start with ...
When you go to Lake Atitlan you will likely get transported to Panajachel which is the main town of the area. It’s from here that you can catch various boats to the other towns, but we will discuss that later on...
You can get buses to San Pedro too (if that’s the town you choose), but the majority of people just get a boat! Most people travel to the lake from Antigua or Guatemala City and you've got a couple of options:
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 or Guatemala City. The tours usually include stops at all the different areas on the lake (such as San Marcos, San Pedro etc).
However, this won't allow you to fully explore Lake Atitlan so I recommend you stay a few nights if you can!
The main way to get around Lake Atitlan is by boat!
You won't find roads alongside the North of the lake, so hopping on a boat is the easiest way to get from place to place. Nearly all the towns are connected by boat too so it's easy to get around.
The local boats are extremely cheap, but just make sure you don't hop on a private boat by accident as these are very pricey!
Generally, the local boats range in price from 10-25Q depending on the route so this is roughly what you should expect to pay.
Here are some other ways to get around Lake Atitlan:
Okay, now one of the bigger decisions - Where to stay in Lake Atitlan?
Honestly, there is a lot of choice, and the different areas all offer something unique.
If you don’t fancy staying at each one then you can choose one as your base and then book a day tour of the rest of the towns. This way, you will still get to experience them all.
Below I will discuss the different towns/villages 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 here!)
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 also lots of parties happening in San Pedro, so if you need some excitement then this is the place to 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, as 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.
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. There are also plenty of things to do in Panahachel especially when it comes to tours.
If you stay here, you'll also have more choice when it comes to booking onward transportation (say to, El Salvador, Nicaragua etc).
I wouldn't recommend spending all your time here though, but I would stay here the night before you are leaving the lake. Most of the 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 transport options 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 with those who want 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, but don’t expect much more!
However, it’s beautiful so definitely a great choice 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 town. You could also walk right into Santa Cruz along the front of the lake which was lovely.
I would highly recommend it!
The one thing to keep in mind is that Santa Cruz is essentially vertical so you'll either have to 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.
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!
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 San Pedro Volcano!
At an impressive height of 3,020m it's no easy feat and it will take around 3 hours to hike to the top and then back down again. However, if you do attempt this hike then you'll be greeted with spectacular views of Lake Atitlan and the surrounding Mayan villages.
If you can time your visit with sunrise or sunset - even better as the colours are often breathtaking!
Entrance to the trail is 100Q and this includes an optional guide, which I'd definitely recommend. The trails not easy, and it's always best to have someone experienced with you.
You can always ask them questions about the local area too!
Here's some more information about hiking up San Pedro Volcano...
If you're looking for adventurous things to do in Lake Atitlan then this activity is a must!
You'll find plenty of awesome experiences waiting for you here, but paddle boarding has to be one of the best.
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, so as you can see the views are pretty epic in this area.
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.
You can't visit Lake Atitlan and not go for a swim, it would be a crime!
However, you'll want to keep in mind that some parts of the lake are cleaner than others.
For example, I wouldn’t recommend swimming in Panajachel or San Pedro as it’s pretty dirty (although that doesn’t stop some people). However, the likes of San Juan and Santa Cruz are perfect for swimming as the water is so clean.
You won't have to worry about the water temperature being too chilly either, as it stays at around 21°C (70°F) due to the geology of the area.
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 researched climbing Volcano Atitlan and I’ve reiterated the information here so that you can add this place to your itinerary!
Volcano Atitlan can be climbed from two sides: Santiago and Sun Lucas so it's up to you which route you take.
The trail is more established from the San Lucas side so many people choose to hike from here!
Now, it's important to note that the hike up to Volcano Atitlan is far from easy. It's actually one of the most strenuous walks in the area so isn't for the faint hearted.
If you’re relatively unfit then it can take up to 6 hours just to reach the summit, and then you have to consider the time to descend too. Luckily, if you're fit then you can complete the hike in half the time.
You can also check out this Atitlan volcano guided hike which includes a professional guide, pick-up and drop-off.
Volcano Tolman isn’t an active volcano, but like the previous hike, it's not for the faint of heart.
You need to be physically fit to take this volcano on as it typically takes about 12 hours to climb. This includes plenty of breaks as trust me, you'll need them!
You'll also want to take a guide with you who knows the area.
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 lots 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!
You'll find plenty of things to do in the town of San Juan, but this isn't an activity that you want to miss.
If you're looking to embrace yourself in the local culture, then why not learn the art of traditional weaving? It's around $40 for a 4-hour course and you'll get to learn a new skill along the way.
This experience is something that you'll remember for a lifetime, and you can also weave your own souvenir which is always a bonus!
I'd say this is one of the more unique things to do in Lake Atitlan and it will create an everlasting memory!
Many people love this activity so take a look at this first-hand account of learning traditional Mayan weaving and see if it's for you.
If you're planning to travel between the different towns on Lake Atitlan (which I definitely recommend), then the most popular transport option is via public boat.
However, I've got a better option for you if you love the water...
We've huge fans or kayaking and we even have our own inflatable kayak that we've took around Canada but that's another story!
In my opinion, there's no better way to get around Lake Atitlan than by kayaking as you get to take your time and appreciate the epic views all around you.
There are various lakefront properties that will let you rent kayaks for a half day or full day, so it's up to you how long to hire them for.
You can even get double kayaks if you’d like to go with a friend or partner!
If you'd prefer to explore with an experienced guided then why not check out this Lake Atitlan kayaking tour?
You'll find plenty of awesome things to do in Lake Atitlan, but this place is famous for its adventure sports.
One of these is paragliding, which I only discovered as we left as I could spot people paragliding in the distance. I paraglided in Bolivia and it was an amazing experience - one that I would happily do again!
The only thing about doing it here is that it's expensive, especially for budget backpackers.
If I remember correctly it's around $80 per person, whereas I paid about $45 dollars in Bolivia. However, I can imagine the views you get whilst paragliding over the lake are insane 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 when you've had a few to many...
Or jumping into the water with your phone in your pocket...I’ve done that.
Not only that, but some of them offer the chance for you to see an epic sunset whilst you party away!
There are lots of places to learn Spanish in Guatemala but Lake Atitlan has to be one of the best options.
Aside from the fact that there are plenty of options, I can't think of anywhere more beautiful to relax and spend some time learning the language.
If you've got the time then you can take a 4 week course for a couple of hundred collars, which typically includes accommodation and food. However, if you're travelling then it's likely you won't be staying for this length of time.
However, many of the towns in Lake Atitlan also offer a weeks course that you can do for around $40. This is a great taster session, and still allows you plenty of time to learn the basics.
Santa Catarina Palopo is a cute town located just past Panajachel and it’s home to some lovely hot springs which seem to be built into the lake.
Hot springs are generally a result of volcanoes and the geothermal energy in the area, and I absolutely love them! In fact, I chase them wherever I go but nowhere will quite beat the hot springs of Chile...
However, these are definitely worth the visit too!
Sitting in the hot springs along Lake Atitlan can be compared to sitting in a toasty bath, but you've got the views to admire too.
These springs are often a favourite with the locals too, so you'll get to people watch and appreciate the culture!
Here's some more information on how to find the hot springs in Santa Catarina Palopo.
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 wish and there are plenty of opportunities for this. Just make sure you look around for the best deals and see what's included, especially if you'd prefer to do a retreat.
If you already know yoga and like to practice yourself, then you’ll find lots of peaceful spots around the town's to do so too. Many of them also offer epic views of Lake Atitlan and its surrounding volcanoes, so you can really get in touch with your inner peace!
Here's a yoga class that you can check out if you're looking for the views.
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), listen to the birds, and just enjoy nature in general.
I can honestly say that that’s exactly what I got!
If you've ever travelled for a relatively long period of time then you know how tiring it can get sometimes, even though you're having the time of your life!
After spending a couple of weeks exploring Central America, we were both in need of a rest and we couldn't have picked anywhere better.
From kayaking to paddle boarding, there are still plenty of ways you can explore the area too but in a relaxed way!
Honestly, I could have stayed there for weeks and it doesn't surprise me that some people do...
During your visit you'll want to spend some time exploring Atitlan Nature Reserve!
This place is undoubtedly one of the best nature reserves in Guatemala and it's situated right by the lakeside.
One of the best things to do here is to tackle some of the hiking trails as you'll get to appreciate the area's beauty.
However, there are plenty of other attractions at Atitlan Nature Reserve including the Butterfly Preserve, the Butterfly Geodome, and the hanging bridges.
There are also ziplines here if you're looking for an exhilarating experience, and a unique way to admire the views.
You'll want to keep your eyes peeled during your trip too as you might get to spot monkeys!
What better way 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 in the town of Panajachel.
You're looking to pay in the region of $30-60 dollars depending on which tour operator you choose and how long the classes are.
This 3-hour cooking class is a fantastic option that will show you how to prepare three authentic Guatemalan dishes. Not only will you get to learn how to make these dishes, but you'll also be given the recipe cards at the end to take home with you.
Then once you get back to your country, you can cook traditional Mayan cuisine for your friends and family!
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. These buildings are now fully underwater and ready to explore. Pretty cool right?
This is one of the more unique things to do in Lake Atitlan and is the perfect activity if you're looking for a bit of adventure.
The last time I did horseback riding I was 10 years old and I panicked when the horse began to trot, so unfortunately it’s not for me.
However, if you want to try it out for yourself then it’s a pretty common activity in San Pedro!
During your stay here, you'll also see many of the locals on horseback as it's a common way to get around.
There are plenty of tours that offer this experience so make sure you shop around to find the best deal. Or, you can check out this fantastic horseback riding tour which also includes a visit to a local coffee plantation so you'll have the best of both worlds.
I'd say this is a pretty romantic thing to do in Lake Atitlan and you'll create lasting memories together.
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 best things to do in Lake Atitlan, as the colours are insane. Not only that, but you'll get to see the volcanoes in a totally different light so this isn't an experience you want to miss.
There are plenty of awesome viewpoints along Lake Atitlan and many of the cafes and restaurants also offer striking views. This means you can appreciate the area's sunsets whilst you tuck in to some local food.
Just make sure you've got your camera on hand as you'll want to take photographs!
During your time in Lake Atitlan you'll want to do this if you're looking to get involved with the local culture.
Getting to see a traditional Mayan ceremony is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and is something truly special.
This incredible tour offers the opportunity to experience one of these ancient ceremonies at the Sacred Caves of Lake Atitlan.
During this tour, you'll get to learn the importance of the Mayan calendar, admire the panoramic views from Eagle Rock, and hike to a 200 ft waterfall.
However, the highlight of this experience is getting to witness the shamans perform the 'Fire Cleansing and Protection' ceremony.
Trust me, this isn't an experience you want to miss!
Although we highly recommend that you spend at least a couple of days in Antigua, some people are very limited on time!
For this reason, some travellers tend to base themselves in Lake Atitlan and simply take a day trip out to Antigua.
The journey is around 3 hours by chicken bus or you can pay for a private car, or hire a scooter for more flexibility. The latter option will also be the quickest!
Some of the places you'll want to visit in this charming colonial city include San Francisco Church, the Santa Catalina Arch, Cerro de la Cruz, and Parque Central.
If you've got time then I'd also recommend heading to one of the rooftop cafes or bars so you can admire the epic views of the surrounding volcanoes.
You'll find plenty of awesome things to do in Antigua and honestly, a day trip isn't nearly enough to experience all of them. However, it's better than not seeing this incredible city at all!
There are plenty of awesome things to do in Lake Atitlan but if you're heading there to relax then it's likely you won't get around to doing many.
However, hiking up to the 'Indian Nose' viewpoint is a MUST!
Guatemala and more specifically, Lake Atitlan aren't short of spectacular landscapes and scenic viewpoints. However, this one will take your breath away!
There are two routes; the short and long option and it all depends on how long you want to hike for. The short hike takes around 45 minutes and requires a shuttle, whereas the long hike leaves from San Juan La Laguna and takes around 2.5 hours.
As the trail is located on private land you'll need to pay donations to the people who live here which can get pretty confusing.
For this reason, many people choose to hire a guide who will take them up to the viewpoint! If you'd prefer not to search for a guide, then you can take a look at this Indian Nose Hike sunrise tour!
Once your at the top you'll get spectacular views over Lake Atitlan and its surrounding volcanoes so don't forget your camera.
The Iximche Ruins are just a 1.5 hour drive from Lake Atitlan and are definitely worth a visit.
Although it's only a small archaeological site, there's still plenty to see and it holds an important place in Guatemala's history!
Between the late 1400s and the early 1500s, Iximche Ruins was actually the capital of the Kaqchikel Mayan people.
You'll only need a couple of hours to explore as there's not tons to see, but if you're lucky you'll get to witness traditional Mayan Rituals that often take place here.
During your visit, you'll also get to the see the remnants of palaces, ball courts, ceremonial areas, and temples!
This awesome tour runs from Panajachel so is a great option.
One of the best things to do in Lake Atitlan is to wander around the Tzunun' Ya' Museum.
Although this museum is only small compared to others in Central America it's still worth a visit.
It focuses on the geology of the region, the history of the local people, and the formation of Lake Atitlan so there's plenty to learn about. You'll also get to admire rare colour photographs of San Pedro in its former days.
Not only that but if the staff are free, they'll happily tell you your animal counterpart based on the Mayan calendar and your date of birth.
As the museum is only small, you'll only need an hour maximum to explore. However, there's also a short film that you can watch which details what life was like here in the 1940s.
Chichicastenango is just a 1.5-2 hour drive from Lake Atitlan and is home to one of the largest markets in not just Guatemala, but Central America.
It's also one of the most well-known markets in this area and you'll find plenty of quirky items here.
Thursday and Sunday are the market days, and this is where you'll find endless vendors selling handicrafts, food, pottery, flowers, and more!
If you'd prefer not to take the trip out to Chichicastenango then why not head to Solola Market instead?
It's more of a local market so you won't see many tourists around but it's still a great place to visit. It's located on the other side of the lake and offers a more authentic experience.
Here's an experience of what a typical market day in Chichicastenango looks like!
You'll find no shortage of churches in Guatemala, as religion plays an important role in the country's culture.
Lake Atitlan is no different, so you'll want to visit Iglesia católica de San Pedro La Laguna (the Catholic Church of San Pedro La Laguna) during your visit.
With its striking white colour, it won't be hard to find as it stands out against the rest of the town.
Although this catholic church as been damaged over the years by fires and earthquakes, it's been re-built and now sits proudly in the centre of town.
The exterior of the church is pretty impressive, but make sure you head inside to explore too. It's free to enter and you should also explore the courtyard during your visit.
The best time to visit Lake Atitlan is between November and May. This is when temperatures are at their best with plenty of sunshine and hot temperatures.
You'll also benefit from clear skies so you can enjoy the epic views that this stunning place has to offer!
The months of June, July, and August tend to offer the most rainfall so try to avoid visiting during this time.
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!
You'll find plenty of FREE things to do in Lake Atitlan making it the perfect place for budget backpackers. Both accommodation and meals are cheap here too, you'll just need to take into account the transport needed to get around.
Many travellers can get by on $20-25 per day here, although I'd factor in a bit more as there are plenty of awesome attractions to visit in this area.
You can 100% book a Lake Atitlan tour, especially if you're staying in Antigua or Guatemala City!
However, for the best experience you should definitely stay here for a day or two as there's so much to do.
Lake Atitlan tends to maintain 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, as it’s a constant comfortable state.
Just don’t forget your sunscreen!
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.
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 the altitude.
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 Panajacel, 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!
After Lake Atitlan you can spend a few days in Antigua (if you haven’t already been or don't visit as a day trip), 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.
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 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!
Here are some other guides that you may find useful: